How to screen, train, and maintain Ankle Mobility

From propelling you forward to absorbing shock, your ankles are the cornerstone of running efficiency and injury prevention. With injury rates as high as 80% per year among endurance runners, and a quarter of these injuries affecting the feet and ankles, "an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” rings especially true.

In this blog, we’ll focus primarily on the role of Dorsiflexion and Plantarflexion in running mechanics and how to assess and maintain ankle mobility in both directions.


Understanding Ankle Mobility

Ankle injuries such as sprains and inflammatory tendonitis, along with many other common running injuries can be traced back to stiff ankles and weak ones. Limited Dorsiflexion is an intrinsic risk factor for bony stress fractures in runners, while reduced plantar flexion strength can contribute to the development of Achilles Tendon issues such as tendinopathy.

Assessing for limited ankle mobility can also highlight how other body parts, like your knees and hips, compensate, potentially leading to a higher risk of running-related injuries, especially as training volume increases.

“Mobility” represents passive flexibility and active strength across a joint’s range of motion. It's more than "tight calves" or "poor posture." For your ankle joints, mobility can be summarized by the degree of movement in four main directions:

  • Dorsiflexion: moving your foot upwards
  • Plantarflexion: pointing your foot downwards
  • Inversion: turning your foot inward
  • Eversion: turning your foot outward


Ankle Mobility and Running Mechanics

Having adequate Ankle joint dorsiflexion range helps by distributing stress throughout your lower leg while running, and when trained accordingly, ensures mechanics stay on point even when running through fatigue.

Examples include having enough Dorsiflexion for your foot to clear the ground during the swing phase of running and establishing proper foot placement during the stance phase before pushing off. Poor Dorsiflexion can also lead to increased ankle pronation, a common compensation in runners with a history of ankle sprains.

Ankle plantarflexion propels the body forward during the push-off phase, allowing for a more efficient stride. If you have limited plantarflexion, this can lead to compensations such as reduced stride length or decreased push-off power in your back leg, which can negatively impact running performance. Previous foot injuries can also limit your ankle's range, ultimately limiting how much you can express your true speed.


How to Screen Your Ankle Mobility

Before jumping into advanced ankle mobility exercises, consider getting an individualized running assessment to determine where to focus your time and efforts, or ask your physical therapist how to implement ankle mobility into your program.

If you can’t wait that long, let’s explore options to screen your ankles at home and what to implement if you are dealing with stiff and weak ankles.



To quickly screen for ankle dorsiflexion mobility, try using the knee-to-wall test.

  1. Stand barefoot with your foot flat and about a thumb's width away from a wall.
  2. Drive your knee forward and try to touch your knee to the wall without lifting your heel or turning your foot outwards.
  3. Move your foot closer if you can't touch the wall. If you can, move your foot back.

Your ankle dorsiflexion range is the distance between your big toe and the wall. Less than about 4 inches (10 centimeters) may indicate limited ankle dorsiflexion mobility.

Take note if you notice any pain or discomfort during this screen and bring it up to your Physical Therapist, especially if you have had a previous injury they you never fully rehabbed.



To quickly screen for Ankle Plantarflexion mobility, perform a Seated Heel Sit.

  1. Initiate the movement by going on all fours with your knees together and ankles points
  2. Begin to sit back on your heels with your hands still on the ground while keeping your heels together
  3. Try to sit back with your torso vertical over your hips, attempting to close off any space between your ankles and the floor
  4. If you can't sit back all the way, use your hands for more support. If you can sit upright, perform with your heels closer together


If you can't close the distance between your ankles and the floor, this may be indicative of limited Ankle Plantar Flexion. You should be able to sit with your torso vertical and your glutes sitting on your heels with minimal discomfort.

One thing to consider about this ankle mobility test is whether your knees have enough range of motion to access this position. If you find your knees feeling stiff as you sit back, try to sit back with a pillow tucked into the crease of your knee. This will create some cushion while still moving your ankle through its full available flexibility.


Training and Maintaining Ankle Mobility

Once you're done assessing ankle mobility and identified your specific limitations, it's time to improve your sports performance and incorporate some targeted ankle mobility exercises into your routine. Here are two easy entry points to get started.


Foot Elevated Plantar Flexion Calf Raise

Stand upright with one foot on a bench or any elevated surface, and perform single-leg calf raises with your bottom leg. Slowly lower yourself and repeat, ensuring you squeeze at the top of the motion, attempting to achieve maximum height on each repetition.



Compared to standing heel lifts, which are less effective if you're not strong enough to move your body weight, this variation is especially helpful if you have ankle mobility restrictions.

The stride stance position offloads some of your body weight onto your front leg, allowing you to achieve a full range of motion and a stronger contraction in your plantar flexion muscles.


Resisted Ankle Dorsiflexion with Miniband Resistance

Tie a miniband around a heavy kettlebell and position it before a bench with your foot inside the loop. This exercise is great because you can perform active Dorsiflexion against the resistance or execute long-duration isometric holds. Make sure you toy around with the ankle of plantarflexion to increase how much range of motion you’re moving through.



Maintaining Ankle Mobility

Enhancing ankle mobility is not a one-time deal. Consistency and frequency are the keys to maintaining good ankle mobility, but if you want to keep the flexibility and strength in your ankles, don’t neglect intensity.

Although it’s great to incorporate ankle mobility exercises into your warm-up routine, or use them as a cool-down after your runs, dedicate time to really push yourself. Your ankles take a beating, so make sure you train them hard enough so they adapt and become resilient.

As a reminder, all your work is also preventive maintenance: a small investment of time and effort for a substantial return in pain-free and efficient running. If you’re unsure where to start or how to address ankle mobility deficits, invest in a personalized assessment and consider consulting a Physical Therapist.

Every step toward optimal ankle mobility brings you one stride closer to your running goals.