Specialty Program - Youth

How to Improve Ankle Mobility: A pre-exercise stretching routine

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stretch affect
October 1, 2020

To improve ankle mobility is to improve just about every exercise you will do. Our feet and ankles are big players in our ability to move.

Being limited in any capacity is never enjoyable, but when it impacts nearly every aspect of our existence, we really start to take note.

Lack of ankle mobility changes the way our body moves and creates compensatory patterns that overload certain structures and stop using others—leading to pain or injury.

What Does Mobility Mean?

Mobility is defined as the ability to move a limb through its full range of motion.

Mobility often gets confused with flexibility. Where mobility describes how your body moves through active motions, flexibility refers more to the length and condition of muscles, ligaments, and tendons.

Good mobility means your muscles are doing their assigned jobs correctly. With poor mobility, you’re likely relying on the wrong muscles to perform certain movements, an action that results in stress, tension, pain, and, ultimately, injury.

Why Do We Want to Improve Ankle Mobility?

There is a strong correlation between mobility, flexibility, and athleticism. Poor ankle mobility can affect even the most simple day-to-day activities such as going from sitting to standing, walking, or running. Without proper dorsiflexion, or range of motion, your body is forced to find workarounds in other areas leading to poor performance or injury.

Some reasons to improve ankle mobility:

Stretches to Improve Ankle Mobility

Improving mobility should involve different types of activities beyond the traditional static stretch. It is also important to not only focus on the troubled area, but also the surrounding muscles. So for the ankle, the calf and tibialis muscles will be main areas to focus on as well.

Mobility exercises should be the first thing you do before starting a workout. The reason why these should come first is mobility exercises prepare your muscles and joints, allowing for full range of motion.

Mobility addresses all the elements that limit movement: tight muscles, joint range of motion, and stiffness. When you have full range of motion, you reduce the need to compensate and move incorrectly avoiding injury.

Start where something is stiff. Mobilize that area. Work above, below, and around the problem area to address contributing areas.

Examples of mobility exercises are:

  1. Foam Rolling
  2. Traction
  3. PAILS and RAILS
  4. Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) stretching—after working out

Mobility Examples

Foam Rolling

Foam rolling warms up your body, increases muscle flexibility, loosens tight muscles, and allows you to workout with better, more efficient, and safer form.

Divide the muscle that you’re rolling into three segments—bottom, middle, and top. Give each section a few passes, move onto the next one, and then after having hit each of them, give the entire length of the muscle a pass.

Our preferred method of foam rolling is what we call pressure and move. Instead of just rolling your muscle back and forth over the roller, you will get more benefit from bending and straightening your limb and moving it back and forth over the problem area.

The following videos demonstrate foam rolling techniques for your calves:


Our clients use bands to create traction.  The benefits of traction, or resistance stretching, is that by having a band pulling on the joint you are trying to stretch, it creates more space in the joint itself. This allows the tissues to relax and release, which increases  your range of motion.

You can increase the tension you have pulling on the joint by using a higher resistance band.

PAILS and RAILS Dorsiflexion

PAILS and RAILS stands for progressive and regressive angular isometric loading. What does this mean?

When we’re working PAILS contraction, we’re recruiting or contracting the lengthening tissues or the progressive tissues and the opposite angle is regressing, or shortening.

This is important because we want to work both tissues at their end range, allowing you to recruit your nervous system and teach it that it is safe to extend past what it thinks is capable.

With static stretching, you are priming your cells and you might feel better for a time, but recruiting your nervous system allows for significant change to happen.

When performing PAILS and RAILS, time under tension matters—the longer the better. The amount of force you apply to the stretch also matters. In the videos below you will hear percentage call-outs—these represent the amount of force.

Proprioceptive Neuromuscular Facilitation (PNF) Stretching Post-Workout

PNF is effective if completed after exercise and done at least twice a week to ensure a lasting range of motion and sustained beneficial effects.

What is PNF?

PNF involves both the stretching and contracting of the muscle group being targeted. PNF stretching is one of the most effective forms of stretching for improving flexibility and increasing range of motion.

It involves the contraction and stretching of muscles. This is usually achieved with a partner, but you can also get the same benefit from using bands or an immovable object.

You know the feeling when you can’t go any further when stretching a muscle? At the end of your range of motion, it begins to feel extremely tight and maybe even painful. This is when PNF stretching allows you to go deeper.  

PNF stretching requires you to stretch a muscle and then contract that muscle before stretching it again. As you move into the stretch after the contraction, you will be able to stretch further than you did before. This allows you to create more length in the muscle and gain a greater flexibility benefit from the stretch.

How to Perform PNF Stretching

To perform PNF stretching, stretch a muscle as far as you can—remember, it should never be painful—and hold the stretch for 10 seconds. Next, contract that muscle as forcefully as possible against an immovable object, such as a band, partner, or wall. Hold this for 5-20 seconds. Now move into the stretch again, which should be deeper than what you achieved before.

The most effective version of PNF involves contracting the opposite muscles after the stretch to pull you into the stretch more. This means, if you are stretching the calves, you would contract the calves while stretching, then contract the anterior tibialis to pull deeper into the stretch. Repeat the stretch-contraction sequence three times for each muscle.

As you can see, there are many different techniques that exist and many schools of thought. Ultimately our job isn’t to dictate one particular way but to showcase a variety of researched methods to resolve your issues.

Ideally, all of these methods should be done as a part of a comprehensive strategy to improve ankle mobility. A full assessment by a qualified movement professional is always the best option to determine your individual needs.

Please contact Stretch Affect for a virtual or in-person assessment.


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