How to Prevent Ankle Sprains While Running

ankle sprainSprained ankles from running differ markedly from practically every other injury sustained while running.

Most running injuries are often classified as overuse injuries.  They result from your body not being strong enough to withstand a certain repetitive stress or action which often occurs thousands of times during a run.  In contrast, sprained ankles result from a single trauma.  Often, a runner who sprains their ankle has suffered a previous non-running ankle sprain (Bennett is prone to sprained ankles in part due to previous sprains suffered as hockey-playing teen).

Why does spraining an ankle once increase the likelihood of a future sprain? Depending upon the severity, an ankle sprain can damage muscles, ligaments and proprioceptors (PRO-pri-o-CEP-tors) – specialized nerves that control your balance and sense of position.  Proprioceptors are present in muscles and tendons.   Proprioceptors in a properly functioning ankle sense when your ankle is about to roll and instruct your tendons and muscles to fire and take corrective action, i.e. prevent rolling over.  When these nerves are damaged during the initial sprain, they often do not regain their full functionality.  Their ability to control the necessary firing of muscles and tendons is compromised.  It is this phenomenon that is the major contributor to chronic ankle sprains.

Are your proprioceptors functioning properly? Dr Brian Fullem (podiatrist and 14:25 5K runner) suggests: “Try this: Stand up, balance on one foot and close your eyes.  If you must immediately put your foot down or hands out to prevent falling, then your proprioceptors are not functioning properly.  Balance training to improve proprioception is usually a part of the treatment plan when you sprain an ankle, but it really should be a part of every runner’s program.”

In addition, chronically weak ankle muscles lead to ankle instability and increase the likelihood of future sprains.

If you are a chronic ankle sprainer or want to avoid becoming one, it is necessary to both improve your proprioception and strengthen your ankle muscles.  Start off with one set of each exercise, building up to three sets.  Perform these exercises three times per week.  Don’t forget to exercise both legs, not just your injured one:

  1. Stand barefoot on one foot with your other knee bent as in a running pose.   Look straight ahead. At first, you may be able to keep your balance for only a few seconds.  Once you can balance for one minute, you graduate to balancing while standing on thick pillow or sofa cushion.  Once you can balance for a minute, try with your eyes closed while standing on the floor!
  1. Sitting in a chair, keep the heel of one foot stationary and try to pick up a towel or T-shirt by scrunching up your toes. Repeat 15 times.
  1. Perform one-legged standing calf raises on stairs.  One-legged is more effective than two-legged raises, where the stronger leg will compensate for the weaker one.  Equally as important, one-legged raises mimic running, when only one leg is in contact with the ground.  Slowly rise up on your toes and sink back slowly so that your heel is below the stair but not at the extreme end of its range of motion. Work up to 12 repetitions.
  1. Form an incline by taking two yoga blocks or aerobics platforms, about 4 inches in height. Position them in a T pattern; one end of the lengthwise block leaning on top of the transverse block, with the other end of the lengthwise block on the floor. Perform the one legged standing calf raises as in #3.
  1. Turn around and perform the same exercise as in #4. These last two exercises will strengthen the muscles on either side of your lower leg that stabilize the ankle joint.

Not only will these exercises help prevent ankle sprains, they will improve your running-specific foot strength, increase the propulsive force generated by your muscles when your foot is in contact with the ground and therefore result in faster running.

Have you ever suffered an ankle sprain while running? What did you do to recover from your injury or prevent future injury?

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