TRAIN YOUR ANKLES
Exercises like these strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your ankles, giving your body a built-in defense against sprains and strains.
Trail running raises a problem that is a lot less common in road running: the dreaded twisted ankle. Obstacles like rocks, roots, twists and turns can catch your foot in the wrong position, and, down you go. "There are things runners can do for this," says Tim Hilden, physical therapist, specializing in running-specific injuries, at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine. While you may think wearing high-top running shoes is the answer and wonder why companies don't make them (hello, combat boots ... too heavy and inflexible!), think more about strengthening and providing support from the inside.
"Exercises should reflect the demand of trail running, which is to react quickly to obstacles and changing terrain," says Hilden. "The best approach is to combine strengthening with balance and proprioceptive activities."
Here are effective, efficient exercises that you can do on your own to strengthen those ankles, which will hopefully help you avoid straining or spraining your ankle on the trail.
1. Balancing Act. Spend some time balancing on a wobble board, BOSU Ball or other balancing toys used for physical therapy and fitness. These can be found at your local gym and online. Stand on one foot for 20 seconds at a time, building up to 1 to 2 minutes. Repeat on the other foot.
2. Strong Calves. Bent-knee calf raises strengthen your soleus and tibialis posterior muscles, which are major muscles in your calf that help stabilize your ankle with every foot strike. Start by doing these on a flat surface (with a slight bend in the standing leg), and advance to standing on a step with your heel dropping slightly below the step. Start with 10 on each leg and work up to three sets of 15-20.
3. Get Agile. The following exercises will help your overall agility and create proprioceptive muscle memory to help you negotiate trail terrain with precision. The goal here is less stumbling and fumbling while you run.
- Plyometrics: Utilizing a step (like the top of the step from step aerobics equipment, on its own), a low wooden box found at a physical therapists' office, or even a curb onto a sidewalk or low bench, jump up onto that step/box/curb with one leg. Work up to doing this forwards, backwards, and from each side.
- Grapevine: This classic exercise (think football, basketball practice and aerobics classes) has you crossing one foot in front of the other, then back out the side, then that foot crosses behind the other, then back out to the side as you move in one direction across the floor. Repeat in the other direction. You want to do this quickly and with precision.
- Box Step-Overs: This exercise builds both agility and strength, like plyometrics, but is done in a stepping motion rather than jumping. Use a box or step that's slightly higher than what you use for plyometrics, and step with one foot onto the box/step, then back down to starting position. Do the same from each side to work on lateral strength and agility.
- Sprint strides: Short bursts of speed in the form of striders strengthen your ankles. By doing striders, you're training them to react to quick changes in direction. Make sure you're properly warmed up with at least 10 minutes of easy jogging before beginning this exercise. Striders are different from straight sprints because with striders, you roll into a sprint speed by starting out with an easy jog and accelerating through it (as opposed to starting a sprint from a starting line). Stride out your pace for about 60-100 yards, then roll back into a jog. Repeat about five of these for starters, then build up to 10-12 once or twice a week.
By doing exercises like these that strengthen the muscles, tendons and ligaments around your ankles, you're giving your body a built-in defense against sprains and strains