Ankle flexibility can be improved by regularly stretching the muscles in the back of the lower leg (calves). For my program, the motion we are working on is called ankle dorsiflexion. This is the motion of the ankle that brings the top of the foot closer to the shin.
An easy way to track progress is with the Lunge Test. This measures the distance the big toe can be away from the wall while still being able to touch the knee to the wall without the heel lifting up.
This Lunge Test is performed by standing with the heel in contact with the ground, the knee in line with the second toe, and the big toe about 10 cm away from the wall.
The knee is brought toward the wall by lunging forward without lifting the heel up. If the knee doesn’t reach the wall, the foot is moved closer in small increments until the knee can touch.
The goal I set was to be able to touch the knee to the wall with the foot 10 cm (4 inches) away.
Anything less than 9 cm is usually considered restricted. I started out well below this but was able to increase my flexibility to reach the goal over several months.
For an accurate measurement, it’s important to not let the arch collapse or allow the heel to lift up. It’s possible to cheat on this test by letting those things happen, but then it’s no longer testing ankle flexibility.
Ankle Stretching Exercises
There are two basic types of calf stretching:
- Knee straight
- Knee bent
Both types are important because they target different muscle groups. Stretching the calves with the knee straight works more on the gastrocnemius muscle, while stretching with the knee bent targets the soleus muscle.
There are many variations on these two basic types of stretches but they all perform the same function: applying a stretch to the tissues so that over time the ankle becomes more flexible.
I used a wide variety of stretches for my program that I’ll eventually cover in this guide, though I don’t think it’s necessary to do many different exercises for flexibility since the exercise all involve the same basic principles.
Just like with the flexibility test, it’s essential to hold an arch in the foot during these exercises.
How Much, How Often?
Studies generally say stretches should be held for anywhere between 15-60 seconds. I think 30 seconds is a nice middle ground, but sometimes I would hold the stretch for 2-3 minutes. I usually repeat stretches 2-5 times per side.
Generally, I like to perform some type of stretching at least 3 times a week. Just like with strengthening muscles, gaining flexibility takes time and typically requires a few months of consistent stretching to see results.
Standing Wall Stretches
The stretches I performed most frequently were done standing with hands against a wall.
Back Leg Straight Knee Stretch
With this exercise, it is the leg that is in back (left in the picture below) that is being stretched. The foot of the leg being stretched is moved 1-2 feet behind with the heel flat and toes pointed forward. Gently lean forward from the ankles while concentrating on keeping the heel pressed firmly to the ground and feeling a stretch in the back of the leg.
- Stand facing a wall and about 12 inches away from it with the hands on the wall for balance.
- Extend the leg to be stretched behind with the knee straight.
- Gently lean forward while bending the knee in front until a stretch is felt in the calf on the extended leg.
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
The body does a very good job of compensating for a lack of ankle flexibility, so when stretching it’s important to avoid these compensations. The common ones are:
- letting the foot turn out
- not keeping the heel pressed completely flat on the ground
- letting the foot roll in and arch collapse
Front Leg Bent Knee Stretch (Lunge)
This is a stretch for the ankle of the leg that’s in front. While keeping the foot pointed straight ahead and the heel flat on the ground, the knee is moved forward over the foot and towards the wall until a stretch is felt.
- Stand in a lunge position with the leg to be stretched in front
- Move the front knee forward in-line with the foot until a stretch is felt in the back of the lower leg
- Hold the stretch for 30 to 60 seconds.
This motion should look familiar because it’s the same one used in the Lunge Test mentioned earlier.
Strengthening for Ankle Flexibility
Just as it’s important to stretch the muscles behind the ankle to increase flexibility, it’s important to strengthen the muscles in the front of the ankle that actively move the foot into the dorsiflexion motion.
When talking about mobility, the muscles in the back can only lengthen as much as the muscles in the front can shorten.
One of the most basic ways to work on this is the seated dorsiflexion exercise.
- Sit in a chair with the foot flat on the ground.
- First lift just the toes up in the air, keeping the rest of the foot on the ground.
- Keeping the toes up (extended), raise the foot off the ground bringing the top of the foot closer to the front of the leg while keeping the heel down.
- Hold for 5 seconds. Lower the foot and repeat.
Try to maintain an arch in the foot throughout the movement.
When I first started this exercises, I couldn’t lift my foot off the ground at all when my heel was directly below my knee because my flexibility was not very good. So to start, I moved the foot about 6 inches forward for this movement.
Seated Calf Stretching
The seated calf stretch is in the Beginner Routine but it’s one of the stretches I did regularly throughout the whole program. I like this exercise for several reasons.
It’s easy to practice holding an arch in the foot stretching this way because you can see the foot.
It’s also easy to see how far behind the knee the heel can move which is a good way to track progress.
Since this is an easy position to maintain, I would sometimes hold this stretch for longer periods of time (up to 3 mins).
Consistency is the Key
Improving flexibility is a long term process. During a a single session of stretching it may appear that flexibility has increased, but this improvement usually reverts back to the baseline level of flexibility soon after.
It’s also very tempting to cheat on the stretching exercises, to make it seem like there has been progress, by either letting the foot collapse inward or allowing the heel to lift up.
So instead of worrying about immediate results, I tried to only track my progress weekly or bi-weekly. I knew that as long as I was doing some form of stretching regularly and was using the proper form, my flexibility would improve.
Early on, I also made the mistake at times of stretching too aggressively.
Normally I would feel the stretch in the back of the ankle or a little bit on the sides. Whenever I pushed to hard I would feel a sharp pain in the front of my ankle.
I knew this wasn’t a good thing and wanted to avoid doing it. I found the best way to avoid this was to press down into the floor slightly with the toes during the stretch, in addition to keeping the heel pressed into the floor.
There were a few other exercises I used to target ankle flexibility that I’ll eventually add to this guide. Some of these can already be found at various places on the site (like the downward dog stretch).
I think spending more time barefoot and wearing flat shoes can help improve flexibility as many shoes have at least slightly raised heels.
Walking up hills while paying attention to foot position (e.g. keeping them pointed straight) is a great flexibility exercise as well.