This article originally appeared in the March 2020 edition of Senior Scope.
By Cam Bergeron, CSCS
Cam’s Conditioning & Rehab
Every step we take, the ankle has to stabilize and help propel the body forward.
The way in which you walk is referred to as your walking pattern or your “gait.” Having an ankle with proper mobility is essential to keep the body’s gait in check.
Everyone should be using a “heel-to-toe” technique. When swinging your leg forward, strike the heel on the ground first, flatten the foot and push forward with the ball of the foot.
The “heel strike” portion of this movement pattern is often overlooked. Many people walk with a flat foot, or they don’t pick up their feet and shuffle-walk.
A common ankle joint exercise is the calf raise, where one lifts the heels off the ground as high as possible to stand on their tippy-toes (also known as plantar-flexion).
Then there is the opposite movement, which is called dorsi-flexion. This motion is completed when you lift your toes up as high as you can, so you are standing on your heels. Muscles in your shin, like the tibialis anterior, create this toe-up movement.
These muscles are extremely weak in a large portion of the population. Most people will only focus on calf raises and forget about dorsi-flexion. This will cause an imbalance of the ankle joint. If your shin muscles are weak and the calf muscles are tight, you will notice a decreased range of motion at the ankle joint.
This is a huge part of fall prevention. The imbalance between the plantar-flexion and dorsi-flexion makes walking more challenging. Some may find that when they try to strike their heel to take a proper step, they cannot fluidly flatten their feet. The foot just slaps down without control. This is known as “foot drop.”
It’s important to stay aware of your body while walking. Being mentally engaged and physically picking up your toes as you walk will help you strengthen your ankles. If you think about it every day, then eventually muscle memory will kick in and you will no longer have to think about it. It will just happen.
Here are some exercises that will strengthen the shin muscles and stretch the calf muscles.
- Stand with a slight bend in knees in front of a chair/wall/or any sturdy object and place your hands on the object for balance.
- Without bending forward at the hips, lift your toes up as high as possible.
- Hold for one second, then slowly return to starting position.
- Perform as many repetitions as possible, until toes barely lift off the ground.
- After one set, take a 30-second break, then complete another set.
- This exercise can be made tougher by placing a small object like a book under the heels. This exercise can be made easier by standing on two legs and only lifting up one toe at a time.
- Standing up tall alongside a wall, counter top or railing while NOT looking at it.
- Pick up your toes and start walking forward on your heels only.
- Stay safe by holding onto the wall the entire time, until you feel comfortable performing the motion without bracing yourself.
- If you cannot fully walk on your heels and the foot drops every time, it’s okay, just keep doing your best to keep the toes up as long as you can.
- Perform 10-20 repetitions. Take 30 second break and perform another 10-20 repetitions.
Wall Calf Stretch
- Stand facing the wall, with both hands on the wall at shoulder height, and place your right leg forward with a 45- to 90-degree bend in the knee.
- Place your left leg straight out behind you with your foot flat on the ground. The left knee has a slight bend so it’s not locked out.
- Push into the wall with your hands and push down into your left heel. A stretch will occur in the left calf muscle. Hold a little past mild discomfort for 30-45 seconds.
- Alternate sides and perform 3 sets on each side.