If you want to ride faster, jump higher or simply smash through rock gardens, strong, flexible ankles are essential.
Dab your foot as the even the best mountain bike tyres wash out in a loose turn, or simply miss that step on the way to the toilet after one too many post-ride beers and it’s all too easy to roll your ankle. And if you like getting airborne, bailing a jump or even coming up short and casing the landing are two surefire ways to bruise your heels or blow your ankles up like balloons. So it’s sensible to work on your ankles as part of a wider mountain bike fitness regime.
Stronger feet and ankles are essential for riding, and not just injury prevention, as the power generated in your legs is ultimately delivered to the pedals through your feet and ankles.
And while sprains and strains are common, by improving ankle mobility and strengthening them through their range of motion, we can bulletproof our ankles to a degree. Sure there’s not a lot of musculature around the ankle but your achilles tendon – that tough band of fibrous tissue that connects the calf muscle to the heel bone – is the strongest tendon in your body, and as such responds well to strength training.
If you have a nagging ankle injury, there’s a good chance you’ll have large discrepancies between strength and stability in each ankle even if you’re no longer hobbling around. Your body has amazing compensatory mechanisms that allow you to function, even if not optimally, so single leg exercises can really pay dividends when it comes to improving ankle function.
Knee to wall test (dorsiflexion)
With bare feet (you can wear socks if you have toe issues), stand with the big toe of one foot to a wall with your other foot behind you for support. Now, push your front knee towards the wall keeping your heel in contact with the floor. If you reach the wall, great, you meet the minimum standard, but ideally you’d be able to get there with your toes 3-6 inches away from the wall.
Kneeling test (plantarflexion)
Simply kneel on the ground with your feet together and toes pointing behind you. The goal is to reach a flat-to-the-ground foot position so gently lower your bum to your heels to apply pressure if you need to. The amount of pressure you need to achieve this reflects
If you can’t get all the way to a flat position without pain, or at all, spend some time mobilising (simply spend 2+ minutes in this position daily).
Rehab for almost all ankle injuries involves stability training because of the huge benefits in ankle function. But injury or not, instability training will bulletproof your ankles by hitting all angles of movement in a controlled way. A mini balance board or inflatable cushion are great but if you want a simple version you can use at home, place a book or board on a small ball – a lacrosse ball is ideal.
Stand on one foot on the balance board for 2-5 minutes as many times per week as you feel is necessary. Make sure you have something to hold for support in your early sessions, but as your confidence and balance increase, try with less help with the ultimate goal of free-standing on the board.
As with any muscle, traditional strength training will build your calf muscles. However, your ankle is one of the most complex joints in your body so focusing your efforts on building your calves with weighted movements, like calf raises, may not be the best approach for healthy, balanced ankles. More functional movements, like pistol squats, skipping, ski jumps and sled pushes, are better at building strong, robust and bulletproof ankles.
Often an imbalance in strength or stability between ankles causes overcompensation and can result in issues throughout your lower limbs and into your pelvis and lower back. To avoid this, single-leg movements like pistol squats are great at high- lighting and addressing any underlying deficiencies. They are also great for testing stability and mobility, both of which are essential for building strong, robust ankles.
Perform your first pistol squats with support if you are uncertain of your ability. Keeping your heel on the ground, stand on one foot with the other foot off the ground and out to the front of you. Lower yourself as low as you can (ideally until your bum touches your calf muscle) and return to standing. Bear in mind that you are moving your entire body weight on just one leg, so don’t be surprised if you can’t stand all the way back up. Don’t be put off though, it is better to reduce the load by supporting some of your weight with your hands on a box/ chair/door handle and hitting full range of motion than to cut the rep short.
- BEGINNER Supported 3 x 8-12 reps each leg
- INTERMEDIATE Unsupported 10-15
- ADVANCED Weighted 6 per leg, on the minute every minute for 5 minutes.
The lateral nature of the ski jump is great at building strength and stability in your ankles. Anecdotally, sticking to forward and back (sagittal plane) exercises appears to be all you need for riding because that’s the direction your ankles move with feet on the pedals. As soon as you put your foot on the ground however, especially at speed, things change and we need to be prepared for dynamic lateral stresses.
Use something you can easily jump over, something narrow and low to start with. Jump with both feet together, land with both feet on the other side and then jump back. As you increase in confidence you can increase the height of the obstacle or even just the jump.
- Perform 3-5 sets of 20-30 reps with a short rest between them or add these to a conditioning workout circuit.
Jonny Thompson is head coach for Fit4Racing, an online fitness programme for mtb riders. Once a forensic scientist, Jonny has devoted the last 10 years to coaching athletes from Paralympians to world number one enduro racers. His main focus with the Fit4Racing team is developing and delivering fitness programmes to pro and amateur riders.
Training the likes of Adam Brayton, Jonny also sends digital programmes to riders all over the world, many of whom ride professionally.