Foot and Ankle Exercises for Athletes

by Amanda Garnett, PT, DPT, SCS

Foot and Ankle Exercises for Athletes

Your feet and ankles are made of dozens of bones, joints, ligaments and tendons, as well as the plantar fascia in the bottom of the foot. All of these have to work together to provide athletes with the mobility, stability, and strength to run, jump, and move safely during athletic activities. 

Evaluations and exercises 

You can evaluate your ankle mobility, stability and strength at home. 

Mobility 

Mobility is how well a joint moves or bends. 

Ankle mobility 

To see how well your ankle bends, stand in front of a wall with the big toe of one foot touching the wall. The other foot should be behind you. Glide your body forward to move your front knee to touch the wall. While you move your knee, try to keep your heel down. Do you have stiffness in the front of your ankle? Repeat on the other side. 

If you have stiffness in the front of your ankle, your ankle mobility isn’t as good as it could be. You can use this test as an exercise to increase your ankle mobility. Try to touch your knee to the wall 10 to 20 times. Repeat on the other leg. 

Big toe mobility 

To see how well your big toe bends, sit in a chair with bare feet. Allow your toes to rest naturally on the floor. Using your hand, lift up your big toe and see if you feel any tightness or if there are other toes also trying to come off the floor. Repeat on the other foot. 

If you have any tightness at the toe or underneath your foot, take a lacrosse ball, tennis ball, or frozen water bottle and place it on the floor under your foot. Roll your foot over the ball to gently roll out the stiffness for three to five minutes at a time. It should release tension but not be painful. Repeat on the other side. 

Stability 

One Leg Stand 

Standing on one leg is the easiest way to test foot and ankle stability. Standing in front of a mirror makes it easier to visualize what your body is doing in space. In front of the mirror, look at your ankle. Is your ankle wobbling back and forth or does it stay stable? Has the knee veered off to the side, or is it stable and pointing forward? Are your hips dipping on either side or are they even? Repeat with the other leg. 

Just like before, if anything isn’t stable you can use this test as an exercise. Stand tall in front of a mirror. Press through your heel to ensure good posture. Stand on one leg for 10 seconds at a time, repeating it three to four times.  

Strength 

Reach for Cup 

If your sport is more endurance-based, you’ll want to work on your single leg control. Place a cup on your kitchen counter. Stand on one leg a few inches back from the counter. Reach out in front of you to tap the cup, squeezing the back of the muscles in the leg to help come back up to standing slowly. Repeat on the other leg. This exercise helps strengthen the ankle, but it also helps strengthen some of the muscles up the back of the leg to help with endurance and help protect against injury. 

Heel Raises 

Another important strengthening exercise is the simple heel raise. Doing some heel raises with your knees more bent and others with your knees slightly straighter will work different muscles in the back of your legs.  

  1. Stand next to something sturdy you can hold on to for stability if needed. 
  2. Place your feet about hip width apart. 
  3. Slowly go up onto your tip toes so your heels are two to three inches off the floor. 
  4. Slowly lower your heels back down over two to three seconds. 

Going slowly and having control is more important than the height or the speed. Start with 15 to 20 repetitions, and as that gets easy you can progress to two to three sets at a time. 

Once you’ve mastered the simple heel raise, you can start the eccentric heel raise. Start in the same position as the simple heel raise. Once you’re up on your tip toes, shift your weight onto one leg and lower down slowly on one leg instead of two. Do an equal amount of heel raises on each leg. This type of heel raise is more tiring, but it helps the calf muscle and the Achilles tendon. 

If both types of heel raise become too easy, go to the lowest step of a flight of stairs. Place the balls of your foot on the step so your heels are in the air. Start the same way, going up, but as you go down let your heels sink so they’re lower than the step. Do a very slow and controlled motion, and don’t go down so far that you’re in pain. Start with 10 to 15 reps and work your way up to two to three sets at a time. Concentrate on control over speed. 

Frequently asked questions 

What exercises do you recommend for arthritis in my second toe? 

It sounds funny, but one of the ways to strengthen your foot is toe yoga. Sit with your bare foot on the floor, lift your toes up, spread them out, and lower them down very slowly. Keep the rest of your foot on the floor.  

For another exercise, place a towel on the floor and sit in a chair with your foot on the towel. Scrunch the towel repeatedly with your toes for two to three minutes at a time. You can move your foot and ankle around to different positions as you do this. You may be surprised at how tiring it is for your foot muscles.  

I think I have plantar fasciitis. What do you recommend? 

Roll something under your foot like a lacrosse ball or tennis ball. You can also take a frozen water bottle or frozen juice can and roll it; the cold can feel good. Roll for three to five minutes at a time morning and evening. 

You can also treat some of the causes. If you do the ankle mobility test mentioned above and the front of your ankle is stiff, you can do the exercise. If the back of your calf is tight you can use a tennis ball, foam roller or your hand to get the knots out. 

If nothing is helping, come see your orthopedic care team for more help. 

What are the best stretches and or exercises for peroneal tendonitis?  

The peroneal tendons are along the outside of your ankle and help provide stability. 

Working on single leg strengthening by standing on one foot, as described above, will help. If that’s too uncomfortable, stand with one foot directly in front of the other for 30 seconds at a time and then switch feet. 

If you’re a runner (or a walker), try not to run on the edge of the road where it can be very tilted. If you have to run on it, try to go out so it is tilted one way and come back so it is tilted the other way so your muscles have equal time being stressed. Try to avoid gravel as well. You can also place a towel or a belt around your foot and gently stretch. 

Using kinesio tape or athletic tape can provide good stability to those tendons when you’re on an uneven surface. Starting at the back of your leg at the bottom of your fibula (bone in the back of your calf), move the tape along the outside of your leg to the front of your leg, rotating it upwards at the same time. 

What do you suggest for preventing ankles from rolling when playing a sport?  

Working on ankle stability, as described above, will help a lot. 

Research shows that wearing an ASO, or an ankle brace that crosses in the front, greatly reduces rolling in people with chronic ankle sprains. Using kinesio tape or athletic tape on the outside of the ankle allows you to use your muscles more than an ASO brace. The tape provides some feedback to your body to remind your muscles to engage and stop the roll.  

What general ankle strengthening should I do if I have arthritis in my ankle?  

If it’s not too painful, you can do the ankle mobility test mentioned above. You can do gentle calf stretching by holding onto a counter or wall, placing one foot behind you, and gently bending the front knee. Hold the stretch 20 to 30 seconds at a time three to four times to work on the tissue lengthening. 

You can get a resistance band to help with general strengthening. Have someone else or a sturdy piece of furniture hold one end of the band, and loop the other end over the top of your foot. Bend your ankle up so your toes are going toward your body. Next, put the band underneath the ball of your foot and hold the other end, and press down with your foot like you’re pressing down on the gas pedal. Do each of those motions 10 to 20 times. These exercises both work on mobility and functional strength. 

If you can’t do the single leg exercises, again standing with one foot directly in front of the other can be helpful. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds and then switch your feet. Hold on to something if needed. 

If you need more assistance, don’t hesitate to check in with your orthopedic care team.