We all take ankle mobility for granted in our youth. Ankles are joints made up of a complex, interconnected network of bones, cartilage, ligaments, tendons, and muscles.
After so many years of bearing weight and keeping you mobile, however, strain takes its toll. You lose flexibility in your ankles and end up with stiffness, inflammation and knotted tissue fibres that restrict blood flow .
This not only causes pain, but also affects the way you walk. If you aren’t actively improving your ankle mobility, you could be losing it.
In this post, we are going to focus on improving ankle dorsiflexion which is the ability to flex your feet up towards you. We’ll also look at specific exercises and stretches you can do to improve ankle flexibility and range of motion.
Mobility: Ankle Dorsiflexion
Ankle dorsiflexion is the ability to flex your foot by pulling your feet and toes up towards you. This is the opposite of plantar flexion which is when you point your toes downwards and away from you.
Having a good range of dorsiflexion is a vital part of maintaining overall ankle mobility and function since it’s involved in almost everything we do from walking, running and day to day movement.
If you are an athlete having good dorsiflexion is vital for optimum performance and movement. Similarly, if you are someone who does a lot of squat exercises, you need adequate ankle dorsiflexion to perform the move with proper form.
There’s more to ankle mobility than being able to flex and point your toes. Here are some of the major ways it impacts your health and well-being:
- Improves your overall mobility. Your ankles are at the foundation of every movement you make on your feet, and better ankle flexibility means better stability and range of movement. After all, your ankles don’t just flex when your feet move, but also when you bend your knees to lunge or squat. Maintaining ankle mobility as you age lets you continue to walk to the beach, ride a bicycle and do other activities into your later years.
- Prevents ankle injuries that can occur during exercise or everyday tasks. Improving the mobility and alignment of your ankles is key to postural health. When your ankles are tight and strained, they’re more prone to injury.
- Improves ankle alignment and foot mechanics. Your body moves with less effort when you don’t have restricted mobility, muscle imbalances and misaligned foot mechanics. Limited ankle dorsiflexion can even lead to duck footed posture.
- Prevents tightness in your calves. When your ankles can’t flex enough to give your calf muscles a good stretch, you’re prone to tightness in your calves, especially if you wear high heels or engage in activity that utilizes your calves, like jumping or running.
Testing Your Ankle Flexibility
If you’re wondering whether your ankle flexibility level is normal or needs work, the ‘Wall Test’ is the best way to test the mobility of your ankle joints.
Here’s how to perform the ‘Wall Test.’
- Stand about 5 inches from a wall, facing it, with your shoes removed.
- Take one step backwards as you bend both knees into a lunge.
- Place your back knee on the floor.
- Lean forward in your lunge without letting your front heel come off the floor.
- Try to touch the wall if your front knee. If your front ankle has enough flexibility, your knee should be able to touch. If not, your ankle’s dorsiflexion is limited.
You can do this test again and again to measure the progress you make with ankle flexibility over time.
If you didn’t pass the wall test you’ll want to read on!
What Causes Limited Ankle Dorsiflexion?
One of the main contributors to poor ankle dorsiflexion is having tight Achilles tendon and calf muscles. When these muscles are chronically tight they keep your foot in a plantarflexed position and make it more difficult for you to pull your foot into a dorsiflexed position.
Another reason is that you may have tight ankle joints where they are not used to being pulled into a dorsiflexed position.
In a combined effort, massaging, stretching and strengthening your ankles can improve their mobility.
In the next sections we’ll cover the following steps:
- Self-massage and trigger point release – By targeting tightness in the calves and Achilles, you can help loosen them up and gain more range when trying to dorsiflex your foot. We do this by releasing trigger points or massaging these muscles. This can be achieved by using a foam roller or a massage ball.
- Stretching – After utilising self-massage techniques the next step is to regularly stretch tight muscles that prevent the feet from moving into a dorsiflexed position.
- Ankle Mobilisation – This step involves simply moving your ankle into a dorsiflexed position to help improve mobility.
If your ankle mobility is severely limited or impaired be sure to see a medical professional. A doctor can determine the root cause of your ankle movement restriction and suggest the best treatment route.
Nonetheless, if you’re ready to go, these are some ways that you can get started with from home.
1. Self-Massage and Trigger Point Release of Tight Restrictive Muscles
A study published in Pain Science looked at the effects of trigger point therapy on ankle mobility in 22 male and female runners. The results found that massage and trigger point release reduced pain and improved mobility after just a single intervention.
Massaging and trigger point release is the first step to increasing ankle dorsiflexion because the pressure breaks up tension and causes new blood to enter the area and flush toxins out.
Points that hurt more when massaged or pressed on are known as trigger points, and they’re a sign that knotted fibres are restricting blood flow in the tissue.
These taut, inflamed fibres are what limit your ankle dorsiflexion, so by healing them, you improve ankle mobility.
There are many tools you can use at home for self-massage of the calves. For this section, you’ll need one of the following tools.
- Massage balls – are tennis ball-like tools you can use to roll over or press into trigger points and release them. An actual tennis ball could work, but different massage balls on the market come in different sizes and have different textures and densities designed for trigger point release.
- Foam roller – is great for massaging tight calf muscles and your Achilles tendon. It compresses the tissue, including the layer of fascia on your muscles.
- Massage stick rollers – are similar to foam rollers, but it’s thinner and firmer, and instead of rolling on it, you hold it in your hands and then roll it across your body. Sliding a massage roller against your calves should help release its fascia. This tool is great for runners who want to relieve tight calves.
Using a self-massage tool, you can start to regain mobility in your ankles. Here are some exercises with these various tools:
– Massage Ball Plantar Fascia Release
Using a massage ball (or golf ball), you can release the plantar fascia connective tissue that runs from the ball to the heel of your foot.
When this connective tissue under the arch of your foot is excessively tight, it limits your ankle’s dorsiflexion. The smaller the massage ball you use, the more intense your myofascial release will be.
- Roll the massage ball against the floor under the sole of your foot.
- Massage the inside of your arches and the bottoms of your heels.
- As your plantar fascia releases, you should gain some flexibility in your ankle.
- This release helps prevent plantar fasciitis, which also limits ankle mobility.
– Foam Roller Calf Muscle Release
Using a foam roller, you can loosen up your calf muscles so that they allow your ankles more range of motion.
- Sit on the ground with your legs in front of you.
- Place a foam roller under one of your lower legs and cross your other leg on top for added pressure.
- Place your hands next to your hips on the floor and use them to lift your hips just enough so that your weight shifts onto the foam roller.
- Slowly roll the foam roller back and forth under your calf muscle, going all the way from your ankle to knee.
– Massage Ball Calf Release
If a foam roller wasn’t intense enough, try using a massage ball. A massage ball may help you release trigger points on the sides of your calf muscles better than a foam roller because it’s smaller.
- Sit on the floor place your calf on top of the massage ball.
- Slowly roll around until you find a tender spot.
- Once on the tender spot hold onto that position until the pain subsides. If you require more pressure you can rest your other leg onto the other.
- Repeat on the other calf.
– 4. Foam Roller Achilles Tendon Release
This foam roller technique releases your Achilles tendon, which extends from your heel up through your lower leg to help with ankle dorsiflexion. This is much the same as the techniques above, the only difference is that you are targeting areas closer to the ankle.
- Sit with one leg bent in front of you and a foam roller under the outside of your lower leg.
- Roll it in small movements going one zone at a time along your outer calf, from just above your ankle to right below your knee.
2. Stretches & Mobilisation for Ankle Flexibility
The ankle joint is capable of great flexibility. However, your daily activities probably don’t require much ankle flexibility, which is why calf and Achilles tightness are both so common. Especially if you’re sitting at work all day or wearing high heels, your ankle movement is fairly limited.
This makes it impossible to maintain flexibility in your ankles—if you don’t use it, you lose it.
Stretching your ankle not only makes it more flexible, but also promotes the healing of connective tissue by releasing tension and restoring circulation.
When you stretch your ankles before and after exercise, you can prevent stiffness, strain and injury. Stretching in the morning and before bed can help increase your ankle movement by keeping the tissues soft and promoting flexibility.
The next step after releasing trigger points affecting ankle mobility is to stretch your ankles and calf muscles.
Stretches should be held for at least 30 seconds for best results, and you can repeat the same stretch several times with tests in between.
Holding a stretch should feel slightly uncomfortable but not excessively painful. Stretching your ankles beyond their capacity to stretch does more harm than good, so stretch with care.
– Achilles Stretch
This stretch targets your Achilles tendon at the back of your ankle to promote better dorsiflexion.
- Get a sturdy chair and stand in front of it.
- Place one foot on the seat of the chair.
- Lean into the lunge position to stretch the back of your ankle. Keeping your foot and knee pointing squarely at the chair, hold the stretch for at least 30 seconds.
- You can also improve all-round dorsiflexion by pointing your knees in different directions. To do this rotate your heel so that your front foot is turned outwards 30 degrees. Lean into the stretch and hold for 30 seconds or longer.
- Rotate your heel the opposite way to turn your foot inwards 30 degrees, and hold 30 seconds or more.
- Switch sides to stretch your other ankle.
– Knee-to-Wall Calf Stretch
This calf stretch also helps stretch out your Achilles tendon to increase dorsiflexion. This stretch is almost identical to the ankle flexibility test.
- Stand in front of a wall in a forward lunge position, with your front foot about 5 inches from a wall.
- Bend into the lunge to feel the stretch in your back calf and ankle.
- Switch to stretch the other leg.
– Banded Dorsiflexion Stretch
To perform this stretch you will need a resistant band or towel.
- Sit on the floor with both feet out in front of you.
- Place the towel around one foot and pull the towel toward you bringing your foot into ankle dorsiflexion.
- Hold on to this position.
- Repeat on the other foot.
3. Ankle Mobilization
Ballistic stretches, as opposed to static stretches you hold, involve small pulses or bounces. This ballistic stretch effectively increases your dorsiflexion.
Because it’s so advanced and challenging, you should only do it once you’ve started to improve your ankle mobility with massage and static stretching.
- Get into a forward lunge position with your back knee on the ground.
- Lean forward as much as your front ankle will flex, allowing the heel to come an inch or so off the ground.
- Bounce up and down with small movements over your flexed ankle for 50 repetitions.
The video above takes the previous move up a notch and adds 3-way movement. So instead of just moving back and forth in a straight line, you also train your ankle joint to move from side to side.
Other Tips for Improving Ankle Dorsiflexion and Mobility
Strengthening your ankles and lower leg muscles is the final step to improving and maintaining ankle mobility. When your muscles are strong, you can prevent strain, muscle imbalance and injury. Resistance training will also stimulate blood flow and promote tissue repair in the area.
Strong calf muscles are also important because they help protect your ankles by absorbing shock and sharing the weight and strain put on them.
Strengthening your ankles helps bring healing and repair to their connective tissues. Plus, lower leg strength helps your ankles do their job to stabilize you and facilitate movements.
Strengthening your tibia, the long muscle next to your shinbone, helps you flex your foot (dorsiflexion) and stretch your Achilles tendon because it contracts to lift your toes.
Your tibialis anterior is the muscle that runs along the length of your shin bone, or tibia. Strengthening this muscle helps provide stability for your ankles and promote proper foot mechanics.
The video above shows one exercise you can do to achieve this.
- Tie a resistance band onto something secure.
- Get down on the floor and loop your ankle around the resistant band.
- Once everything is secure pull your toes up towards you. After holding for a few seconds release.
- Repeat this for several repetitions.
- If done successfully you should feel the muscles on the front shin area fatiguing after enough reps.
- After one leg is done, repeat on the other.
Tools that Help Maintain Calf Flexibility
Once you’ve increased the flexibility of your ankles, it’s important you continue to work on ankle flexibility and strength.
You can maintain your ankle mobility and prevent mobility loss from recurring by doing the self-massage techniques, stretches and exercises routinely.
There are also tools that make stretching your ankles and calves easier and more convenient:
A slant board is a tool for increasing dorsiflexion and calf flexibility. You choose an inclination setting and then stand on the board while it’s slanted at that angle.
Standing with your toes higher than your heels, you’re forced to flex your ankle and tighten your tibia, which is the muscle at your shinbone that contracts when you flex your foot. In this way, a slant board helps you improve dorsiflexion both in through flexibility and strength training.
A foot rocker helps you stretch your plantar fascia and your calf muscles, which need to be flexible for your ankle joints to flex. It’s proven to provide a deeper stretch than using a wall, curb or the floor to stretch your calves.
If you regularly use a foot rocker to perform each stretch it’s designed for, you’ll end up increasing flexibility in all the soft tissues important for ankle mobility.
If you prefer to not use tools and want some additional stretches for your calves, see our page on the best stretches for tight calves.
Ankle flexibility matters as you age. Maintaining it helps prevent pain, injury and muscle imbalances caused by stiffness and limited range of motion. It also helps you perform better through the increased bend at your ankle joints.
A sedentary lifestyle doesn’t give your ankles the opportunity to achieve their full range of movement. Stretching, strengthening and massaging your ankles, lower legs and feet can help you regain lost mobility and maintain it going forward.