No matter how smooth your form is, no matter how many years of experience you have, running comes with a potential for injury. Ankle injuries in runners are among the most common because, well, it’s a sensitive area.
Hell, it’s even easier to sprain your ankle than it is to blink.
That’s why many people tend to wrap, tape, or even wear ankle braces to prevent injury. But are they really worth the money?
Let’s find out.
What Causes Ankle Injuries in Runners?
Your feet and ankles absorb the impact of walking or running more than any other part of your body. The fact that they’re the most used parts of our body also means that they’re always being worked. Walking or running on uneven surfaces (or constantly wearing high heels) can damage the ankle over time. The ligaments in our ankles connect bones and provide support for our feet. Along with tendons and muscles, these internal support structures create links throughout your foot, up to your calves, and into your hips, providing support, balance, and affecting your running form.
The ligaments specifically are strong, of course, but built to be flexible in order to give us a range of motion to move our feet. When consistently stretched too far out of their normal position, fibers in the ligaments can tear or even rupture, causing different types of damage to the ankle–ranging from strains to sprains to full-on fractures.
Unfortunately, due to the fact that we, you know, are constantly walking or running, ligaments can become too stretched out due to overuse, substantially increasing the likelihood of recurrent injuries.
While not as common in the ankle as they are in the legs or lower back, you can also damage the tendons in your ankles from traumatic impact or overuse, potentially leading to tendonitis–and if not given time to properly heal, the tendons can rupture, causing tendinosis.
What Types of Ankle Injuries are Common in Runners?
An ankle strain is different from a sprain. If you have an ankle strain, you’ve twisted or pulled a tendon (which are attached to muscles). While they are less common than sprains, strains can be incredibly painful, and potentially chronic if not properly treated and rested. Muscle spasms, weakness in the ankles, inflammation, swelling, and cramping are all common side effects of an ankle strain.
Of all the potential ankle injuries, sprains (also known as “rolled ankles”) are the most common, and occur when the ligaments are stretched too far out of their normal position. Depending on the severity of the sprain, the pain can be more acute than if you had fractured a bone. It can take five days to six weeks for a sprain to heal itself. If there was damage done to the ligaments (or if this is part of a recurrent set of injuries), recovery time could be up to 12 weeks.
There are three bones in the ankle: the tibia, the fibula, and the talus. The tibia is the largest of the bones, taking up most the ankle joint. The fibula run outside of the ankle and up through the calf. The talus is in the lower part of the ankle and allows for different types of movement in the foot. It doesn’t have much access to the body’s blood supply, so if broken, the talus can take on average eight to 12 weeks to heal. Depending on the severity, it can be much longer.
Can Ankle Braces Help Prevent Ankle Injuries in Runners?
Resting an injured ankle isn’t always enough. Due to the high level of wear and tear that your ankle goes through, recurrent injuries are a problem. Some people prefer to tape their ankles to prevent injury. However, they need to be applied to the ankle in very specific patterns depending on your support needs, meaning it isn’t like putting on one of Rockay’s smooth and useful socks. If you’re using ankle tape, you will probably need the assistance of a professional to help explain how to use them correctly.
Ankle braces are, generally, the better of the two options. Braces can fit comfortably in your shoes and provide increased support by locking the ankle joint. While it does limit the range of motion, it also makes it less likely that tendons and ligaments will be stretched beyond their limits, making injury less likely (or, if you’re still recovering from an injury, make it less likely to exacerbate it while walking or running).
But it’s a short-term solution; long-term use of ankle braces can weaken your ankle. While limiting movement is great for when you’re recovering, using the brace as a means of support to prevent injury can actually make injury more likely. The ankles need its full range of motions to improve its strength. Muscles unable to build themselves back up again will stagnate and allow for recurrent injuries in an area where recurrent injuries are already too likely.
In short, ankle braces are great when you’re recovering, but afterward, no. You have better options to prevent ankle injuries in runners.
Ankle-Strengthening and Flexibility Exercises (Basic)
There’s a pill for everything and there’s an exercise for everything too. The muscles in your ankles can be built up to make injury recurrences less likely, and limit the usage of braces. Here, we detail some of the more important exercises people should be doing regularly to prevent ankle injuries in runners. We also included some supplementary videos to help you get a better sense of what these exercises look like.
Cross Leg Ankle Stretch
- While sitting, cross your left leg over your right knee.
- Use your hand to bend the toes and ankle of your left foot down until you feel a stretch in the front of your foot and ankle.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Switch feet.
Toe Raises, Points, and Curls
- Sit in a chair, feet flat on the floor.
- Keeping your toes on the floor, raise your heels. Stop when only the balls of your feet are on the ground.
- Hold this position for second seconds before slowly lowering back down.
- Raise your heel and point your toes so that only your big toe is touching the floor.
- Hold for five seconds, then lower slowly.
- Raise your heels and curl your toes inward, so that only your toes are touching the floor.
- Hold the position for five seconds before slowly returning to your starting position.
- Do one set of ten reps.
- Sit back in your chair and lay a towel ahead of you. Place your toes at the edge of the towel.
- Curl your toes so that the towel gathers in their grasp, pulling it toward you until there’s no more left to pull. If this exercise is too easy, put a brick or a textbook at the far end of the towel to add resistance.
To the surprise of no one, the Achilles tendon can strain easily. The tendon itself is a long cord that runs from the heel up to the back of the calf. Injury to the Achilles tendon can cause pain in the ankle, foot, and leg. Keep it strong by doing this exercise.
- Face the wall, and flatten your palms against it.
- Pull your right knee behind you, keeping it straight. The left goes ahead of you, bent. The heels of both of your feet need to be flat on the floor, toes pointed directly ahead at the wall.
- Lean toward the wall with your bent knee. Go as far as you can until you feel a stretch in your Achilles and calf.
- Hold for 30 seconds.
- Do three sets of 30 seconds.
- Switch leg positions.
Ankle-Strengthening and Flexibility Exercises (Advanced)
Standing Calf Stretch
This exercise is a bit more advanced. Make sure you don’t have lingering ankle injuries and have been working steadily on the area for some time before attempting.
- Place your right foot on a supporting structure, like a wall or along the leg of a chair. For balance, keep your left foot behind you by about 12 inches.
- With your toes pointed up, slowly lean your right foot forward until you feel a stretch in your lower leg.
- Once you feel the stretch, hold the position for 30 seconds. Do three sets in total
- Repeat with the left foot.
Plantar Fascia Stretch
Like the Standing Calf Stretch, this stretch can be a bit advanced. Be careful. Plantar fascia muscles can easily become damaged during a run, alongside talus bone. They’re notoriously weak muscles that can cause a great deal of pain. Build them up so you don’t break down.
- While standing, extend your toes against the wall.
- Bring your knee toward the wall slowly until you feel a stretch from under your foot.
- Hold that position for 10 seconds.
- Switch feet and repeat.
- Do 2 sets of 10 reps.
This is excellent in treating and preventing injuries to your plantar fascia.
- Sit in a chair (man, this part of the exercise is really tough, isn’t it?).
- Place your right foot on your left thigh.
- With your hand, pull the toes up. You should feel a stretch along the bottom of your foot and cord of the heel.
- Hold the stretch for 10 seconds.
- Do one set of 10 reps
- Switch feet.
- If you feel pain on the arch of your feet, massage the pain away.
The ankle is an area of your body you always need to be careful with. While braces can help you when an injury occurs, it’s best not to rely on them. Try out these exercises, and you might be able to avoid ankle braces entirely.