When you’re dealing with restricted movement, there’s often more to the story than what’s going on at the site of limitation, pain, or injury…
This is because functional movement is hardly ever exclusive to just one part of the body. Biomechanical or physiological processes connect all your tissues and structures, so when an issue presents itself in one area, it can have a rippling effect on many other areas, too.
Your legs are a prime example.
The joints in your lower extremities (i.e., the hip, knee, and ankle) are all important to everyday mechanics. But, almost more importantly, they have a major impact on each other thanks to a little thing called the “kinetic chain” in your legs.
This chain is why so many people who experience hip or knee limitations struggle to get rid of the problem: when just ONE leg joint is restricted, it can quickly impact the functionality of the other leg joints, too.
Enter ankle tightness.
When active individuals experience ankle tightness or stiffness, they don’t usually realize how much that slight limitation affects the rest of their movement…
Let’s dive into the reasons why you might be dealing with restricted ankle range of motion, plus what you can try to fix it (and fix it for good!).
What is Ankle Mobility?
Okay, before we get into the details, we need to make one thing clear…
Mobility is NOT the same as flexibility!
A lot of people treat them as one and the same — and while they are similar (and interconnected), they’re distinct terms for a reason.
Both have to do with your joint range of motion (ROM). But, flexibility is specific to how well your muscles stretch through your ROM, whereas mobility focuses on how your joints and ligaments achieve full ROM.
That, and flexibility is more passive ROM, like when you prop your leg onto a bar to hold a static stretch. Compare that to mobility, which requires more active ROM to control the directional movement of your joints, like when you’re deliberately lifting your leg to place it on the bar.
When we’re talking about ankle mobility, you do need a certain level of flexibility. However, your primary focus should dial into how well you can actively move your ankle (and foot, by association) through its complete ROM.
How Does the Ankle Work?
Now, in order to understand what “complete ROM” looks like, it’s important to review the anatomy and functionality of your ankle joint.
Just because it’s a relatively small structure doesn’t mean it’s easy to understand! The ankle is an intricate joint: they’re actually made up of 7 bones each. And although we refer to it as a singular joint, it’s actually a set of complex joint structures that work together.
For the sake of simplicity, we’re just going to focus on a couple of the major ankle bones and their associated joints, talocrural and subtalar.
The talocrural joint is what most people think of when they think of the ankle — that is, where your leg (roughly) connects to the foot. More specifically though, it’s where the talus bone meets the distal ends of your tibia and fibula.
This is the joint primarily responsible for dorsiflexion and plantarflexion (i.e., when you lift your toes up versus when you push them down/forward, like you do with the gas pedal of your car).
Meanwhile, the subtalar joint is the part of the ankle where your calcaneus — or heel bone — meets the bottom of the talus.
Your subtalar joint is what allows for inversion and eversion. In different contexts, this can be referred to as pronation and supination, or medial to lateral tilting in the base of the foot.
Together, these two joints allow your ankle to move through a larger ROM in both the sagittal and frontal planes of movement. This combination of dorsiflexion, plantarflexion, and lateral movement is what lets you draw a circle with your foot, rather than just moving up and down or side to side. (And while we aren’t using our feet to draw circles all the time, these mechanics are essential for a wide variety of our everyday activities.)
Why is Ankle Mobility Important?
As you can imagine, without proper mobility, either joint (or both) will have restricted movement, thus impacting how well your whole ankle moves through its ROM.
Maintaining sufficient ROM is necessary for safely loading your tissues during activity. If you don’t have enough mobility, your foot, ankle, and calf are unable to properly tolerate load.
Insufficient mobility will end up placing higher amounts of pressure on a smaller surface area in your ankle. And because your foot and ankle are primarily built of bone, cartilage, and ligaments, this sudden increase in pinpoint pressure is what can cause tightness and potential injury in these tissues over time.
Plus, because your foot and ankle work so intimately together, you HAVE to have a certain level of mobility in order to perform functional activities — anywhere from walking or climbing stairs to running and squatting.
Otherwise, your ankle will have to compensate to manage those loading forces, usually by manipulating the angle of your foot or destabilizing the foot with a “pseudo” ROM.
This brings us to the next question…
What Causes Limited Ankle Mobility?
There are LOTS of causes for restricted ankle movement.
Most commonly, ankle mobility is affected by tight tissues in the lower leg, whether it be the Achilles tendon or the calf muscles responsible for moving your ankle around.
General tightness typically just suggests that your tissues are inflexible. Depending on how long you’ve been experiencing it, though, it may be a sign of overuse or overtraining that inhibits your muscles’ ability to contract or elongate properly.
Probably the largest aspect of limited mobility comes from insufficient dorsiflexion. We use this mechanic constantly throughout our days without realizing — not just to lift our toes up and back, but also when we need to bring the knee out over the foot (e.g., when squatting down, walking down stairs, walking, running, etc.).
Limited dorsiflexion affects how your knees and hips function. Though it may not seem as important as other aspects of functional movement, if you leave your limited ankle mobility unchecked, it can lead to much larger problems down the line.
But enough about the problem, right? Let’s dive into how to fix and prevent it.
How to Improve Your Ankle Mobility
Tackling restricted mobility requires a combination of alleviating tightness and regaining full ROM. There are quite a few options on how to approach this, but choosing which method depends on how your movement is restricted.
Before diving into specific stretches or drills, it’s helpful to perform some quick self-assessments…
To check for limited dorsiflexion, you can perform the knee-to-wall test. Place your foot 4 inches away from the wall and slowly push your knee towards the wall. (You can perform this test standing up, but we typically suggest performing it in a kneeling position, as it provides more stability and prevents your knee from moving to the side.)
Ideally, you should be able to touch your knee to the wall. If you’re unable to do so, you have restricted mobility in that dorsiflexion ROM.
Conversely, to test for plantarflexion, kneel down on your knees with the tops of your feet on the floor, leaving your toes untucked. Try to sit back on your heels. If you’re unable to sit all the way back, you have limited plantarflexion mobility — it’s as simple as that.
Now that you’ve done a quick mobility check, you can identify where your predominant limitations are. Apply this knowledge to the following techniques to make sure that you’re targeting the right tissues for your specific mobility needs.
Mobilize the Soft Tissue
To focus on alleviating stiffness, we often start with soft tissue mobilization. This technique applies pressure to target trigger points, knots in the muscles, or specific restricted areas in the ankle, calf, or foot.
Your main goal with tissue mobilization is to get rid of focal areas of restriction. When you apply pressure against these tight areas, you release a lot of the tension within the tissue and allow it to regain its typical functionality (thus, helping you regain a wider ROM).
When mobilizing the tissue, you’ll be using manual pressure to create movement in the tissue. In physical therapy clinics, this tends to look like some variation of manual hand massage, but you can also use supplemental tools to apply more pinpointed pressure.
Stretch Your Calves and Ankle Muscles
Another way to get rid of that stiff, tight feeling is to stretch your muscles (to no one’s surprise)!
Muscles are incredibly pliable tissues that have the ability to stretch and elongate — but, your nervous system has to be trained to allow the stretching.
Your muscles and tendons have receptors that regulate the tension your body allows within the tissue. These receptors tell your body when it’s okay to continue stretching, and they also signal when it’s time to stop stretching before it ends up damaging your tissues.
Regularly stretching your calf/ankle muscles and tendons helps train your nervous system to relax and settle into a safe range of lengthening the muscle. The more your muscles can elongate, the deeper the stretch — and the more pliable your tissues become for achieving full ROM.
Here are a couple of simple, go-to stretches that can add to your mobility work:
Practice Active Mobility Exercises
Okay, this is the TRUE key to achieving proper ankle mobility…
Most people who deal with tight or stiff ankles automatically default to practicing the first two suggestions. (It’s almost a natural instinct to apply pressure to a tight spot or to try and stretch it out.)
Yet, we’ve had so many clients come to us saying, “I’ve done a lot of massaging and stretching, and it feels like it helps… but the next day, it starts feeling tight again.”
This typically happens because you’ve mobilized the tissues, but you haven’t practiced active mobility. That is, just because your tissues are capable of movement doesn’t mean your body knows how to functionally use that new pliability.
The solution: practice consistent, active mobility drills.
Once you’ve achieved passive mobilization, it’s important to take advantage of that pliability and directly apply it to active movement. Practice exercises (or just everyday activities) that deliberately move your ankle through its new ROM — this can include anything from walking uphill or walking backwards, all the way to knee-dominant lunges or squats.
Focus on changing your movement mechanics to build functional mobility. Actively working through that ROM allows your body to hold onto its mobility and maintain it throughout your activities, not just during your massage or stretching sessions.
It’s Time to Mobilize!
Though the ankles are a small part of our anatomy, they’re a large part of functional movement.
Achieving and maintaining ankle ROM, both passively and actively, is essential for everyday movement. Even if that general tightness doesn’t register as a detriment to your movement, you can still feel the restriction it creates, and that’s a big sign that your functional movement is in need of some attention.
Your ankles are surprisingly complex joints, so don’t let their preventative care fall to the wayside! If you’re dealing with ankle tightness, take some time to assess where you feel the most restriction, then implement the most effective mobility routine to get rid of that limitation.