In this episode, I discuss some simple strategies hikers and trekkers can apply to strengthen up their ankles and bulletproof them from injury and pain on the trail.
You will learn:
Hello, hello guys. Today's episode, we're talking all about ankles. Now, rolled and sprained ankles are such a common injury in the hiking and trekking world, and it's something that's ruined so many people's adventures over the years, and it is something that really doesn't get talked about enough. So, today we're going to be diving deep into why ankle sprains are so common while hiking and trekking, and then what you can be doing to prevent it.
Basically, your ankles, a very, very important joint, a lot going on in there. For many, many people, they just simply seem to accept the fact that they have weight ankles and they just say, "Hey, my ankles are awake. I roll it every couple of weeks or every months a month. It's just something I have to learn to deal with." And that's that. But in all honesty, I'm not a huge fan of this opinion, and just like anything in the training world, I don't think people should be accepting things for what they are if they're not working for them.
Sure, there's always going to be reasons if you've had some type of surgery or some type of major issues where this might not apply to you, but nine times out of 10 if you do have weak ankles, there are things you can be doing to try and strengthen them. And even if you do have good ankles already, there are things you can be doing to bulletproof them so you don't run the risk of having a sprained or rolled ankle when you're actually on the trail in the middle of nowhere and really put yourself in a bad situation.
But basically, ankle sprains while hiking are really, really common for a few reasons. Now to start with, they're always pretty straight forward, but basically the uneven nature of the trail. We all know it, walking along, suddenly there's a little pothole. Suddenly there's a bit of gravel that rolls. Suddenly there's a rock that isn't quite as solid as it could be, and it slips away from you and then first thing that goes is your ankle. Now, that's just really, really common. There's not much you can do about that in the avoiding sense, you just want to be preventing... You just want to be bulletproofing your ankles, so that isn't an issue when that comes around.
Then also of course there's the fatigue issue. Anytime we're fatigued, we're not thinking, our muscles aren't stabilizing as well enough, we get ourselves into bad situations and that just adds to the problem. And then finally, it's the lack of concentration. Again, it sort of plays into the first one: when we're walking for hours and hours, we might not be paying attention. All of a sudden we step in a pothole and that's game over. It's a really, really common thing in the hiking world.
And in all honesty, none of these would be a major issue if they were just one after the other. If you did have an uneven nature of the trail, but you weren't tired and you were paying attention, it's not going to be a big deal. But together they are really a perfect recipe for injury and pain. And it is a really, really common thing for those three things to go together.
Now, the single most important point I'm going to make today is this. Open up your ears, listen to this, and if you're zoning out, please, please don't. But basically, every single time you sprain your ankle, whether you roll it or you sprain it, no matter how bad it is, in the year after you spraining your ankle, you are at this incredibly high risk of doing it again. And then the more you sprain it again, the weaker your ankle gets and the more likely you are to do it again.
What that is from is when you sprain and roll your ankle, all the supporting structures in your ankle just gets a little bit stretched. They get a little bit worn, and then it just loses some of that support. And if you don't rehab it properly, and if you don't restrengthen it again, it's never going to get stronger by itself and you might be pain-free, you might be happy, but those structures are still not 100%. It's super, super, super important, anytime you sprain your ankle, you need to be doing some type of physical stabilization afterwards to make sure you get back to full strength.
Now, the usual solution in the hiking world to weak ankles is simply the high top boot and they say, "Look, I'm going to wear a higher boot. It's going to cut out that movement from the ankles. Give me a little bit extra support and I'll be happy days." And yes, that is a very, very easy option and it does make pretty much an immediate difference for many, many, many people. There is a bit of debate around this in the longterm, whether this is good or not. Sort of like the same as I've talked about in the past using knee braces and orthotics for different issues.
But basically, if you're using sort of a crutch or something that you're relying on to try and stabilize yourself externally, so your high boots to stabilize your ankles, and you're not doing something to fix it internally, you're going to be relying on it forever. And basically, if you do happen to go hit the trail and you don't have your boots on for whatever reason or you get a new pair of boots and you decide to go a little bit lower, that's going to substantially increase your risk of injury, and it's obviously not something you want to deal with. Yes, high boots do work, but I'm of the big opinion that you should be combining that with some other type of ankle stabilization as well.
How do you do that? Well, it is an incredibly complicated. It is relatively simple. It just takes time. It takes patience. It takes consistency, and unfortunately, consistency and patience is something a lot of people just don't have. And with many things in the training world, people looking for quick fixes, they do something for one, two, three weeks. They might work, it might not, and then they'll leave it there. But for us, for ankles, you really do need to string together a consistent manner training because it does take a while to strengthen this stuff up.
But basically there's three sort of steps or three different approaches you can take to straighten up the ankles if you are suffering from those weak ankles and those recurrent sprains and all of that. Now, step number one is simply called isolated ankle strengthening exercises. Now, these things are often prescribed by physios when you're coming back from rehab and they're really, really basic, you've probably seen before, but you're basically to grab some type of TheraBand.
It's just a a rubber band, a relatively thin rubber band, and you're going to be doing a few little toe points and toe pulls in few different directions. You're literally just going to be working that ankle joint directly with a tiny little bit of resistance from the band, and you're just going to be pointing your toes in different directions, using different points of resistance with the band.
Now, the idea behind this is it literally just works those stabilizing structures. Whether it's the muscles, whether it's the ligaments, whether it's the tendons or whatever is going on in there, and you're literally just directly working them. And it can be really, really beneficial.
Now this type of stuff, it is pretty low load. It won't get you huffed and puffed, and people tend to skip over this very, very often. I usually like to recommend to include these somewhere in your workout. Whether it's in your warmup routine or whether it's in your rest periods, in your strength workouts, or if you really can't fit it in somewhere there, just do in a separate session in front of the TV at home. But just making sure it's not something you're going to say, "Hey, I'm going to do a few times a week and just leave it at that."
But being very, very specific about when you're going to be doing it and how are you going to apply it, just so it doesn't get thrown out in the waste side and it turns into the random thing you do every once in a while. If you do it right and you're darn consistent with it, it can make some significant steps for your ankle stability.
Now, number two is something called proprioception exercises. Now, proprioception is your body's ability to realize where it's in space. Developing this has been shown to be pretty effective at preventing ankle sprains, but in really, really basic terms, this is just balanced training. So it's just how much balance you have when you're standing around, so your body actually knows what's going on, where it is and so it can stabilize when necessary.
Now, balance training is a funny thing in the training world. Some people get really, really complicated with this stuff. They do absolutely mental things, jumping on and off balls, juggling things, doing all this strange stuff. But in all honesty, it doesn't have to be complicated. Now, a really, really simple progression that I've taken most of my clients through who do have ankle issues simply involves: stage number one, you stand on one leg for 30 seconds and that's it. You literally stand on one leg and try to keep balanced.
Stage number two, you stand on one leg any closer eyes. Straight away, that takes away that visual feedback and it really gives you an extra challenge. That's step number two. Step number three, eyes opened and you'd be standing on a pillow or a little foam pad, so just a little bit of an instability and you literally just hang out there 30 seconds. That's a challenge. Step number four, standing on a pillow with your eyes closed. And again, that's really, really big challenge there.
Next is step number five. You're going to be standing on one leg next to a wall with a tennis ball or some type of small ball and you're literally just going to do little tosses into the wall and catch it while standing on one leg. Quite a bit of a challenge there so you've got external feedback coming in and you really do have to challenge yourself. And then number six is standing on a pillow, chucking a ball against a wall.
Now, that's described there, that's probably about 20 weeks of training, maybe 24 weeks of training. And that's literally as simple as that. You don't have to get mental, you don't have to get complicated, but literally doing step by step by step, little bit of extra challenge, a little bit extra challenge, little bit extra challenge. By the time you finish that, you will be unreal with your balance and that is really, really beneficial. That's step number two, or stage number two, proprioception.
And then number three is something called closed chain strength exercise. Now, closed chain lower body exercise is basically any type of movement where your foot is connected to the ground or a stable surface. Things like this in particular for balance, it'd be stuff like single leg, dead lifts, step downs, maybe a step up, anything where that foot is firmly on the ground.
Open chain exercise is where your foot's in the air, it would be things like leg extension, leg curl, and they're not very good for this situation. So we're not going to be talking about them. But basically, closed chain strength exercises can be really, really beneficial in strengthen up everything up and down the chain of the body.
What I mean by that is not only as it can be strengthening up how the ankles and the stability around the ankles, it's going to increase the stability of the knees and the hips, just so you can get the whole body all locked in place and working together. Now, this is important because quite often if there is an issue in the hips or in the knees, sometimes the body will compensate up and down the chain, and down the chain is your ankles and that can put an added risk there if you already have an issue.
By doing these movements, you teach the body to stabilize as a whole and it can be really, really beneficial. Now, the two ones I usually recommend here are single leg dead lifts and also step downs. If you don't know what they are, just simply plug them into YouTube. In all honesty, they should be part of any trekkers' preparation program anyway. Two of the best exercises you can be doing for a whole bunch of different reasons, and the added ankle stability is just an added bonus. But those are the three steps for an ankle stability program and to help prevent you having to suffer from these rolled ankles and sprained ankles once a month or once a week or whatever you may be.
Adding a little bit of targeted ankle work with a band, a little bit of proprioception or balance training, and a couple of those closed chain strength exercises. Do that consistent week to week, slowly progress exercises as with everything, have a little bit of structure behind it and it really, really can go a long way because you don't want to be dealing with weak ankles on the trail. You don't want to accept that it's just be you. You want to be taking proactive steps to deal with this.
Now as always, this is all general recommendations, so if you do want to dive a little bit deeper and you do struggle with this, go and see your local physiotherapist or your local podiatrist. They will be able to give you some very, very specific stuff for yourself. And then most important with that, just do what they say. So many people get their recommendations, do it for a few weeks and ignore it. But as I said before, this tough takes time, consistency, and you just need to plug away with it and stay on top of it.
But I hope you enjoyed today's episode, guys. If you do suffer from weak ankles and you do struggle with rolled ankles, I highly recommend you put this information into action because it might sound simple, but it does go a long, long way. As always, if you have enjoyed this episode and you are enjoying these podcasts, it really would mean the world to me if you can go on iTunes, leave me a review. I'd really, really appreciate it because it goes a long way to help grow this podcast. I hope you enjoyed today, and we'll talk to you very, very soon.
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Rowan is a personal trainer who specialises in training for hiking, trekkers and mountaineers for their bucket list adventures.
Summit Strength is a personal training for hiking service created specifically to help hikers have the best chance of a safe, enjoyable and successful adventure.