Calf Strength Goals for Runners Part 4: Ankle Mobility
Updated: Feb 23
Your calf complex is the number one centre of propulsion and tolerates 6-8 x body weight of force each and every step. Check out part 1, part 2, and part 3 in this series for specific strength, length, and function goals to suit your current level of training. The next element of happy healthy calvies is ankle mobility. Let's get stuck into it.
What is Mobility?
Mobility is the combination of flexibility and strength, your own ability to control your movement with your muscles. Without flexibility you won't be able to access more movement, but without strength you won't be able have control over your flexibility. Still with me? The point here is that mobility differs from both flexibility and strength with the focus instead being on how well you can control the movement of your joints with your muscles.
Why is Mobility Important for Runners?
This is an easy one. Each time you plant a foot on the ground, your foot creates a stable platform for your body to travel over and propel you forwards to your next step. This is a beautifully orchestrated dance between the foot (stable foundation) and shin, which moves forwards into dorsiflexion and back into plantarflexion as you push off the ground. All this takes places around the ankle, requiring a healthy balance of strength and length.
Is Flexibility Important?
Flexibility is highly individual, so unfortunately there is no clear answer to this one. I prefer to encourage measurement of each side (lefty vs righty) for comparison and like runners to be somewhere between 8cm and 14cm in the knee to wall test (part 3). One of the major goals of strength training is to improve the stiffness in the Achilles tendon to help improve running economy. This does not necessarily mean that stretching is bad, but perhaps it is not the best use of your time.
Simple Ankle Mobility Test for Runners
The Star Excursion Balance Test is an excellent way to test and train your ankle mobility in different directions. Follow the instructions in the vid below and test yourself. Compare lefty to righty and aim to achieve a combined score within 95% of each other. Any scores outside that range need to be improved upon with the help and guidance of your local therapist. Be sure to go through 3 times each leg as there is a little learning as you go.
Part of the Puzzle
I am hoping that these articles help you to improve your awareness of your body and take accountability for your running health. As you can tell, there are many areas that we can all improve upon and life is busy, so to keep things simple I have broken down the mobility strategies into different categories such as strength and flexibility. If you performed poorly on the flexibility test (part 3) and need to improve your mobility, I have combined flexibility and mobility into one super exercise. If your strength and mobility are lacking, then again there is one exercise you can focus on to achieve both goals. You're welcome.
Improving Calf Mobility for Runners. Strength Focus
As mentioned right at the start, strength plays a big role in mobility and runners need calf strength in spades, so I like to make sure mobility exercises include a healthy dose of strength. My number one favourite ankle mobility exercise is using an incline ramp, some weights and performing slow lowering (eccentric) heel lowers on one leg, then returning on two legs. 2 up 1 down allows you to slowly move further through range over about 6 seconds, then returning to the top with the help of both legs.
Improving Calf Mobility for Runners. Flexibility Focus
Grab a band, any band, the stronger the better, and tie it around something sturdy. Follow the instructions in the vid below and be sure to work into various angles (this little piggy went to market seems to work for me). I also enjoy rolling around on the roller and picking on any 'points of interest' with a spiky ball or similar.
Improving Calf Mobility for Runners. Function Focus
I don't like to encourage training specifically for the test, however the SEBT stands alone as a great exercise, so you can certainly use it to improve your mobility. See below vid for a variation on the SEBT using a compass pattern to develop control over every direction.
By increasing your tissue tolerance, you are protecting against risk of injury. Strength is not likely to change running mechanics but instead serves to raise the the tissue capacity ceiling. This allows you to run at a lower % of your total capacity for longer. Check out the full range of strength training programs for runners right here. Please get in touch with any questions.
Full reference lists in parts 1 and 2