By Robert Weil, DPM
Now, as a sports podiatrist, of course I’m prejudiced, but the fact is that strengthening your kid’s feet and ankles is one of the smartest things you can do as a sports parent. So is working on balance. It doesn’t matter what sport, what level or age. The 2 very important goals for all parents and coaches – especially for our youth – is to prevent injuries and, when appropriate, enhance performance. We’ve stressed before how youth sports injuries are at epidemic levels especially overuse and repetitive motion injuries!
One of the most common of injuries in sports, if not THE most common, remains injury to the ankle. That alone is good reason to pay big attention to strengthening them, but that is not the only one. Strengthening both feet and ankles can enhance speed, quickness, agility and balance, which is so important in all sports. In all my years seeing many great athletes, I’ve never seen anyone with “over developed ankles”– it’s usually a weak link and, as mentioned, a common area of problems.
The body’s base and foundation of support are the feet and ankles, but too often they are neglected unless it’s to rehabilitate a previous injury. It makes much more sense to strengthen and train these areas routinely and proactively.
Old routines typically involved tape or braces for ankles, which have a place, but usually for a previous injury or to deal with reoccurring problems. These can be helpful, but they do not replace proper strengthening which can be very beneficial for all the areas above – like shins, knees, and back. So often we’ll see young athletes totally concerned with how much they can bench press or work their arm and shoulder muscles – after all, these are the “show muscles.” But these same athletes might have difficulty balancing on one foot! Young athletes, their parents, and coaches need to be educated about including foot and ankle strength and stability exercises for functional strength – the ability that allows one to move with power and speed, change direction, or stop and start while maintaining balance.
These abilities can be trained successfully with simple, inexpensive equipment like rubber bands and elastic tubing, balance boards, mini trampolines and pieces like the innovative Sanddune Stepper™ (Indio, California). Balance work also enhances and improves knee, hip, core, and back stability and strength. Creating imbalance with unstable surfaces demands all our stabilizer muscles in our whole body to work to gain and retain stability and balance (you’re actually finetuning your proprioception – you body’s ability to sense where it is in space).
Have your athlete try these “Instability Training” exercises Try balancing on one foot, or standing on a trampoline or tilt board. It’s challenging, safe, and fun! The stabilizer muscles in the body’s core and small muscles help protect all the joints of the feet, ankles, knees, hips, and spine. Changing foot positions, such as rising up on the toes only, changes the balance demands to work different areas.
Rubber bands and elastic tubing have always been one of the most effective ways to strengthen all the ranges of motion of our ankles. Moving the ankles up and down, side to side, and in and out can strengthen all the lower leg muscles and tendons. Slow deliberate movements are best when using bands or tubing. They are available in different widths and resistance: have your athlete start light and move through a full range of motion, progress gradually. Getting some instruction on proper technique and progression from a physical therapist or athletic trainer is always helpful. These types of exercises are simple and safe for all ages and levels but don’t let their simplicity fool you – top athletes in all sports have benefited greatly!
Dr. Bob Weil is a sports podiatrist in private practice in Aurora, Illinois. He hosts “The Sports Doctor,” a live weekly radio show on bbsradio.com. For more information, go to sportsdoctorradio.com.