Healthy Ankle Strategies

 Ankle sprains are one of the most common injuries in volleyball, and no doubt a fair proportion of the readers out there have had this injury at some stage. We know that taping or ankle braces can be a good way to prevent or reduce the severity of ankle injuries (see To Brace Or Not To Brace). But what else can be done?

Not only do we want to keep our ankles injury free, we want them in good condition to ensure optimal performance. Here are a few strategies you can employ to help keep your ankles injury free and in good working order.

Ankle Mobility– All joints need either mobility or stability to ensure optimal function. For example the structure of the hips is such that it is a stable joint, and most people need to work on improving or maintaining their hip mobility. In contrast the structure of the knee makes it a much more mobile joint, and people spend a lot of time working the muscles that help stabilise this joint.

The ankle as a general rule requires mobility. A lack of mobility in a joint cause’s compensation from other joints and can put them at risk of injury. Many low back problems are actually related to poor hip mobility. Likewise with the ankle, poor ankle mobility can cause problems in the joints of the foot or the knee.

The ankle can either move up (dorsiflex) or down (plantarflex) (the sideways movements actually occur at the joints of the foot). A good way to mobilise the ankle joint is stand in front of a wall and bend your front knee forward to touch the wall. If you touch it, move your foot back slightly and try again. This is a great way to work on your ankle range.

Go Barefoot– The feet have a large number of sensory receptiors and a good way to keep them sharp is to stimulate them every now and then by going barefoot. This can train our feet to better know where they are in relation to the rest of us.

I don’t recommend playing volleyball without shoes, and if you see anyone doing it, tell them they’re crazy! But you can certainly get some benefit from perhaps walking a few cool down laps without shoes or doing some conditioning drills such as bridges and single leg squats before training without your shoes on. Even getting down to the beach and strolling around is a good way to strengthen up the intrinsic muscles of the feet, and stimulate some of the sensory receptors.

Landing Drills– Volleyball players will typically roll an ankle when landing from jumping or changing direction quickly. To reduce your chances of ankle trouble you need to be able to control your body. You need to be able to decelerate effectively and absorb force. Including some simple plyometric drills in your program can teach proper landing technique and improve the ability to absorb force, both of which will help keep your ankles healthy in the long run.

A good drill that emphasizes landing technique is a single leg quarter squat, with a jump, and sticking the landing on one foot. Basically you perform a normal single leg squat, exploding up out of the bottom position so you actually get off the ground. You then land on the same foot, landing toe first and flexing through the ankle, knee and hip to absorb the landing. Focus on sitting back when you land, and landing quietly.

Proprioception Training– If you have previously suffered an ankle sprain, then proprioception training is a must. There are a range of proprioception exercises for the the ankle and knee; balance boards, dura disks, unstable surfaces, specific balance exercises. The list here is endless.

Some basic principles when training balance and proprioception;

  • A narrow base is less stable and therefore a greater challenge to balance, 1 leg is less stable than 2.
  • You can overload proprioception by taking away visual feedback. Close your eyes whilst balancing and it forces you to rely on feedback from the body’s receptors i.e. proprioception.

This is an important area in volleyball conditioning. Keep an eye out for more on this topic.

Unilateral Training– One of the many benefits of unilateral training is that it challenges balance and proprioception, as you only have one foot in contact with the ground. Single leg squats, lunges, step ups are all examples of unilateral exercises. There are many reasons why volleyball players should have unilateral work in their programs, and ankle health is just one of them.

Soft Tissue Work– The peroneal muscles are the ones that run down the outside of the foot and help to evert the foot (roll it outwards). They have a protective effective on the ankle. When the ankle is rolling outwards the peroneals fire to perform the opposite movement and correct the ankle back to a neutral position. You want to ensure that these muscles are in good shape. A good way to do this is through soft tissue work. You can do this by yourself by running a hard implement (metal bar or something similar) along the outside of your leg focussing on any tight points. And while your there you may as well do your calves as these are tight in most people.

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Also rolling your plantar fascia (the bottom of your foot) on a tennis ball is a good way to keep this loose and functioning correctly. Combine all these together, it takes a couple of minutes and keeps everything firing well, which will help ensure a healthy ankle in the long run.

So that covers a few strategies for healthy ankles. This list is by no means comprehensive but it does give you some ideas to incorporate into your program. Ankles do impact performance. As a volleyballer you are also in a high risk group. Get proactive and keep your ankles strong and healthy for an improved performance.

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