As a runner, pain just seems to be given. I recovered from a serious illness last year and got right back into my running routine. It felt good after being shut-in for so long, but pain quickly got the better of me. My ankles were stiff and my arches were in pain. Was it my shoes? (always the runner’s first question). I bought new shoes that seemed to help a little bit, but my ankles were still stiff (crackingly stiff, if you know what I mean).
We’re so busy in the running world concentrating on knees, IT bands, and hamstrings. What about our feet and ankles? Let’s start by breaking down the movement of our feet and ankles during the running gait.
Picking the foot up, regardless of the height of your kick, requires plantar flexion. Plantar flexion puts the foot and ankle into a ballet point. The beginning of this flexion propels us to move. Plantar flexion engages gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis posterior, and peroneus. Yes, the beautiful calf muscles are getting quite a task here.
Dorsiflexion is a little less pronounced but gives stability to the foot striking the ground. Dorsiflexion moves the anterior part of the ankle and foot away from the ground. This movement creates some shock absorption and allows us to be ready to take the next step. Tibialis anterior and extensors are helping this motion. These muscles are ‘running’ down the front of the shin down into the toes.
The foot and ankle also move through inversion and eversion while the foot contacts the ground (for stability). Inversion and eversion are our lateral and medial stability without which we have no roll in the ankle and foot region. Many of the same muscles from flexion are required for this movement: tibialis, flexors, extensors, and peroneus.
Imagine now when the ankle is immobilized with limited or no movement. Who do you imagine might take the shock and force that our natural DOMs in our feet and ankles take? Yes, the upstairs and downstairs neighbors – gastrocnemius, soleus, tibialis, and flexors in the feet. Is this starting to sound like the problems above? After 2+ years of running (and Yoga Tune Up® teacher training), it’s now starting to dawn on me that it wasn’t just an achy arch causing pain, discomfort, and that decreased overall performance. I’ve also had some severe issue in the calf region when I first started running. All issues are symptomatic of the lack of ankle mobility.
The Yoga Tune Up® pose Ankle Churning has been my saving grace. Before we can strengthen and lengthen, mobility must be introduced. In Ankle Churning, the foot and ankle are manually moved through this full range of movement – plantar flexion, dorsiflexion, inversion, and eversion. We re-engage muscles like the tibialis, flexors, extensors, gastrocnemius, and soleus. Most of us might not know name and location of these muscles but we can feel them by touch or sense as we perform Ankle Churning (see video below for a demonstration!)
Even though this post is about running, everyone can benefit from using the Ankle Churning exercise. Hikers, Crossfitters, yogis or even office workers who sit all day need care for their feet and ankles to prevent injury. Don’t let shot shocks get the better of you!
Watch our videos about feet and ankles.
Discover leg stretches to help your hamstrings.
Learn more about the YTU pain relief solutions for feet and ankles.
Definitly a great exercice for runners! I agree with you that mobility is soooo important for injury prevention!!! I will integrate this exercice regularly for me as a runner and the people I will coach ! Tank you !!!!
A great reminder for this joint to warm up and work the ankle for these activities. Definitely an exercise for me to incorporate in my military fitness group class when they are running over different terrain all the time. Thank you!
thanks for your post, Amalea. I will add this practice to my pre running sequence. I´m running through the woods and Ankle Circles is the perfect movement to prepare my feet (an ankles!) for the uneven ground.
Great article, Amalea. I love the breakdown of what is (or should be) happening in the feet and ankles during the running gait. I especially appreciate the explanation of how the dorsiflexion (heel strike) phase provides shock absorption. Thank you for this thorough explanation of why mobility at the ankle joint is so important for runners and non-runners alike and pointing out where we might feel some ‘trouble’ if we have limited range of motion in the feet and ankles.
It might be good exercices for shin pain
Thank you for this article and the corresponding exercise video. I feel that in all lifestyles we generally do not offer TLC for the feet! It’s great that you highlighted this need and created the connection between foot and calf muscles!
Thanks for your post! I’ve found a lot more people are requesting foot work in my yoga classes which is great, but is also pointing to the damage that our lifestyles and footwear are doing to our feet! I have a lot of women in class and often share the stat that women are 4x as likely to have a foot issue. Why? Because our shoes! I love this sequence and have found that the more foot work people do the more inspired they are to change their daily walking habits and what they put on their feet.
Great article, and I agree everyone can use these stretches. Especially as people begin to transition to minimalist shoes or even barefoot. I wen too 100% minimalist shoes about four years ago, and continue to work on my mobility as well as the strengthening necessary for a safe transition.
Thank you for your post, I’m going to share it with my husband who is an avid runner. I appreciate you highlighting the fact that we must first introduce mobility before we can strengthen and lengthen.
Thanks for the reminder! I started using this technique a few weeks ago as a way to warm up before a run, and then got out of the habit. I’ve started getting tension in my shins again, and have been trying to figure out why. Like you said, a “duh” moment of the ankles needing just as much love and attention as the rest of the feet and legs when running. Now I can go back to preventing instead of repairing!
Ankle Circles are a godsend for runners who pound their feet on pavement for miles on end. Definitely important part of my healthy feet maintenance program. Thanks.
Thank you for your informative article! I will add this exercise to my collection of foot/ankle/calf health I’ve been researching on this site. I hope it will help improve my ankle mobility and “shock absorption” while running.
Would you say lack of dorsi flexion could cause shin splints? Your article was very interesting, it makes me want to stop wearing only sandals and flex and extend my toes more. The more articles I read the more I realize I need more movement in my body, otherwise we get stiff. Stretching out muscles like the toes are often overlooked or neglected, everything is connected, so if something hurts it might be coming from a different body part that isn’t working causing the other body part or muscles to work harder, resulting in pain.
Thank you for this post. Today in YTU Level I training we performed ankle inversion and eversion while in dandasana, and we also brought awareness to these movements of the ankle during standing apanasana. This experience made me consider how little attention I usually give to my ankles, and this post is another great reminder.
Great overview of the tissues and how they are engaged in running! As someone who runs regularly I have also learned that the key to an easier, pain free run is making sure my lower body is ready and activated. This includes rolling out the feet and calves so I can engage a full ROM in my run.
Yes! As a dancer, I am amazed at how often feet are ignored in so many other sports. This Ankle Churning sequence is just something a dancer does, almost as a reflex, while chatting before class, while talking on the phone etc..
However, I also like to run and I have found that adding just a minute of ball rolling under each foot BEFORE a run and then a few minutes on each foot AFTER a run helps the muscles of my feet and calves feel limber and pliable within the running action.
Thanks for bringing more attention to our glorious feet!
So informative! I am certainly not a runner (and never have been), but I do work as a waitress and spend countless hours pounding around on my feet and straining my ankles. Its great to get a better understanding of what might be causing my ankle, lower leg, and foot pain. Thanks!
This is a great post and this is one of favorite stretches. I love salsa dancing and spending hours dancing in heels makes my ankles so tight. This stretch helps loosen up the entire ankle in all directions after a night of dancing!
Thank you for totally enlightening me Amalea. Throughout years of running, hiking and a multitude of other activities I have definitely not given my ankles the TLC they deserve. I have never practiced ankle churning, but that is definitely something I am going to try to incorporate into my regular foot care routine.
I’m so happy to see a blog on the ankles and feet. I feel like we tend to ignore them often or maybe just not give them enough love as we do bigger muscles such as hamstrings and IT bands. I’ve sprained my right ankle 3 times and always feel pretty weak in my ankles, especially holding standing splits or warrior 3 or any standing balancing poses for that matter. I ran alot back in the day and tend to be very active with hiking/walking long distances. I will definitely be using this exercise! Thank you!
i am not a runner but a few of my clients are. now i have more helpful homework to give my runners. thanks.
I love the YTU Ankle Churning pose because it incorporates the toes flexing and extending in addition to the ankle movement and plantar / dorsi flexion. With so many closed shoes being worn, mobility of the toes is so helpful to practice and teach.
Oh my! I am doing this exercise in the mornings… my feet and ankles are super stiff after sleeping and I bet this would be just the thing to help with the aches and pains. I have been using the therapy balls on my feet each morning, but this routine would put the cherry on the sunday. Thanks!
I love the Sitting Seza with a Strap as a stretch because of the way it helps to regain flexibility in your ankles and Achilles tendon and get that deep stretch that is so needed in the plantar fascia. Does not matter if it is running, walking or standing they all take their tolls. I will definitely try to incorporate the balls for further relief.
The video was a great help for me with my calf and achilles tear. All these movements and the ball work hopefully I will be on a quicker road to recovery.. These movements do not take long and I can do them in bed at night!
Thanks for a great post! I had issues with running when I first started training for a marathon and the physical therapist had me do ankle and foot exercises and it worked!
Amalea, thanks for this great post AND your pin & spin post. I have been obsessed with feet and ankles for a while now. I often start teaching my classes with some sort of focus on the feet, ankles, and lower legs since in all standing poses the feet & ankles are critical. They are the little vehicles that carry us around in this world, support us taking a stand and standing up in this world. Taking care the feet is an essential part of practice and some yummy tune up ball work is like icing on the cake.
Great blog Amalea. I am just getting back to running and it’s great to have ankle churning and the ankle mobility video you posted as resources to help me with the new tightness in my calves and plantar fascia as you described.
I’m looking forward to incorporating these exercises at work – I’m a nurse and spend 12.5 hour shifts walking (running!) around the ice. I found that I have weak anterior tibilias after years of plantar flexion as a jumper and sprinter and ballet dancer. This looks like it could strengthen and assist my ankles and anterior tibias.
Excellent post Amalea! I’ve got my big toes in “thumbs up”!!! I love how clear and precisely you describe the function of our feet and ankles. So often we are aware of our foot foundations while standing in Tadasana only to go into auto pilot as soon as we have somewhere to go and our feet lift the ground! Thank you!
This is useful for everyone who has ankles. Especially is there is foot pain.
How about people who stand for work? It’s so important to have healthily functional feet and ankles when we depend on them so much. Yet they are literally the furthest thing from our minds.
The major muscles (the big guys) of ankle and foot actions live in the lower leg. We here all the time about heels being detrimental to foot health (and its effect on overall posture) however even wearing high boots restricts movement effecting proper toe-off. We forget that or fail to look at how we’re restricting ourselves for fashion’s sake.
I’m beginning to acknowledge now when there is an “issue” in the body looking upstream and downstream may provide crucial information.
I am struggling with a partial tear in my achilles and my calf (gastroc) is severely inflammed all because of running, sprinting and plyometrics. I am sure I am injured because I really never warmed my joints up the right way.
Fantastic post! I can’t wait to teach this to my boyfriend, an avid runner. I also LOVE this for dancing. I dance 2-4 nights a week and this is super helpful even to bring mindfulness to my feet and ankles, which is ultimately great for stability and joint health. Thanks!