Recently sprained your ankle? It can be frustrating waiting for it to heal. Jump back into the action too soon, and you could reinjure it.
Learning how to strengthen your ankle after a sprain can help to prevent it from happening again, but make sure it’s properly healed before you start.
The good news is that it’s easy to stretch and strengthen it from your home. As long as you incorporate the four important types of exercises, you should be able to strengthen your ankles and reduce your chances of spraining them again.
Here’s what to do and when to do it!
When Can You Start to Strengthen Your Ankle?
When you first sprain your ankle, your doctor will likely prescribe treatment with RICE for a few days—rest, ice, elevation, and compression. Depending on the severity of your sprain, it can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks for it to heal.
In most cases—grade 1 sprains—you can begin light stretching and strengthening exercises about 4 to 5 days after the sprain, as long as you’ve taken those days to rest and treat the ankle.
Even if you’ve had a grade 2 or 3 ankle sprain, the recovery period may be longer. Still, it’s in your best interest to start gentle stretches and strengthening exercises as early as possible.
A good rule of thumb is to start gentle stretching and strengthening exercises when you no longer feel pain moving your ankle through its range of motion and you can bear weight lightly.
You should take your doctor’s advice and make sure not to push yourself too hard. Rather go too light initially than push too hard and reinjure your ankle.
What Types of Exercises Should You Do?
There are four different types of exercises you should do to stretch and strengthen your ankle properly. Try to incorporate all these exercise types to recover as fast as possible.
1. Range-Of-Motion Exercises
These exercises will slowly bring your range of motion back to normal. Starting these early will help to maintain mobility in your ankle and prevent stiffness from setting in. You can do them up to 5 times a day, sitting on the sofa or at your desk at work.
2. Stretching Exercises
A tight Achilles tendon can cause pain and limited mobility in the ankle as it passes behind the ankle bone and affects the tissues in the vicinity. Stretching exercises will help to loosen up the Achilles and reduce tightness in the ankle joint.
3. Strengthening Exercises
These should be undertaken once your range of motion returns to normal and you can bear weight on your affected foot without pain. The goal is to gently strengthen the joint and the surrounding ligaments to prevent future ankle sprains.
4. Balance and Control Exercises
These exercises will help improve your stability and your control of the joint again. An imbalance in your ankles can lead to more injuries, so it’s important to regain your balance and control as your ankle heals.
Exercises to Improve Your Range of Motion
These are the first exercises you want to begin after your injury, 3 to 4 days after your sprain. You can work on these to maintain full mobility as long as you can move your ankle through its range of motion without pain.
1. Trace the Alphabet
You can do this exercise seated with your legs bent at the knee—like on a chair or sofa—or seated with your leg extended out in front of you, like on the floor.
Whichever way you sit, the key is to keep your hip and knee joints completely still. Using only your ankle joint, trace the alphabet letter by letter with your toes.
You can trace the letters in the air or on the floor, but make sure your ankle is the only moving joint. This exercise helps the ankle to get used to moving in all directions again.
2. Towel Curls
For this one, you must be seated in a chair on a smooth floor, like tiles or wood. You can do it on a carpet, but it may be less effective. You should be barefoot.
Place a small hand towel on the floor. Place your toes on the towel. Then, scrunch up your toes so that you’re holding the towel with your toes. Hold this position for 5 seconds, then release it gently.
Do 8 to 10 reps of this exercise on the sprained side. If you feel pain, then stop and do another exercise instead.
3. Side-To-Side Knee Swing
Sit on a chair with your feet on the ground. Keep your foot flat against the ground and swing your knee—gently and in a controlled manner—from side to side for about 2 to 3 minutes.
Although this may seem more like a knee exercise, it helps to loosen up and relieve tension in the ligaments that run down the ankle.
These will help to stretch the tissues, muscles, and ligaments that support the ankle, especially the Achilles.
1. Standing Calf Stretch
Stand facing a wall and place your hands against it to stabilize yourself. Take a small step back with your injured foot. Keep your back heel flat on the floor, and bend your front knee.
You should feel a stretch in the calf of your injured leg. Hold it for up to 30 seconds, and repeat it three times.
If you don’t feel enough of a stretch before your front knee hits the wall, try standing further away from the wall.
2. Towel Stretch
You can do this exercise seated, but you need enough space to stretch your leg out in front of you, resting on the floor or sofa.
Holding each end of a towel, hook the middle of the towel over the ball of your extended foot. Keeping your leg straight, pull gently on the towel to pull your toes towards you.
You should feel a mild stretch in your calf muscle. Hold this for 15 to 30 seconds and then relax it. Repeat three times.
You can also use a strong resistance band if you have one, a belt, a blanket, or any other kind of strap that could work.
3. Heel Raises
Make sure you can do these without pain. If you feel pain, stop and choose a different exercise and return to this one later.
Stand in front of a wall, countertop, or even the back of a chair. Place your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart.
Slowly raise yourself onto your toes—both feet together—and you should feel a mild stretch in your calves. You can hold for a second at the top and then lower yourself down again in a controlled movement.
Aim for 10 reps at first and work up to 20 reps or more. Remember each rep should be slow and controlled.
4. Supine Ankle Dorsiflexion Stretch
The word “supine” means to be lying on your back. Lie with your legs extended in front of you, on a bed, sofa, or the floor. Flex your foot so your toes are pointing at the ceiling.
Hold this stretch for 30 seconds at a time. You can do 2 to 3 reps twice a day. Make sure you aren’t tensing up your calves during this exercise—only your ankle and foot muscles should be activated.
5. Supine Plantar Flexion Stretch
This stretch is similar to the one above, except you’ll point your toes forward instead of flexing your foot upward. Hold for 30 seconds and do 2 to 3 reps twice a day. If your foot begins to cramp up, release the stretch.
Ankle Strengthening Exercises
These can be incorporated when your range of motion returns to normal, and you can bear lightweight on your foot. You may need a resistance band for some of these.
1. Ankle Eversion Exercise
This exercise can be done lying on the floor. Eversion is the ankle joint’s movement to the foot’s outer side.
Lie on your back with your legs extended, and your feet pointed to the ceiling. One foot at a time, turn your ankle outward so that your foot dips towards the floor.
Don’t push your range of motion. Stop where you need to and hold it for 15 to 20 seconds before slowly returning the ankle to a neutral position—with the toes pointed upwards.
2. Resisted Ankle Eversion
This exercise uses a resistance band. Sitting in a chair, extend your leg out in front of you. Loop the resistance band around your foot, just below the ball of the foot.
Flex your toes upwards, so they’re pointing towards the ceiling. Pull the band, so your foot is actively working against it.
From this position, turn your foot outwards as you did in the previous exercise. You can hold it for 2 seconds before returning to a neutral position. Do 5 to 10 reps, depending on how your foot feels.
3. Isometric Opposition Exercises
You should be seated in a chair for this exercise. Place your feet right next to each other, touching. Press the foot with the injured ankle against the uninjured foot, especially with the forefoot, hold for 5 to 6 seconds, and release. Do 8 to 10 reps.
For the second part of this exercise, place the heel of your uninjured foot on the top of your injured foot’s toes. Gently push down with your heel while pushing up against that force with the toes of your injured foot. Hold for 5 to 6 seconds, release, and repeat 8 to 10 times.
4. Resisted Ankle Dorsiflexion
You’ll need a resistance band and somewhere to anchor it. Anchor it at around knee height, then sit in a chair in front of it. You should be sitting far away enough to hook your foot into the loop of the band while it remains slightly slack.
Keeping your leg straight, flex your ankle upwards so your toes point to the ceiling. You will feel a stretch as your foot works against the resistance band. Hold for 2 to 3 seconds before slowly returning to the starting point. Repeat 15 to 15 times.
5. Resisted Ankle Inversion
Inversion means to turn your foot inwards, towards your other foot. Sit in a chair and extend your leg with the injured foot out in front of you. Loop a resistance band just underneath the ball of the foot.
Flex your toes upwards, so they’re pointing towards the ceiling. Pull the band so your foot is actively working against it.
From there, turn your foot inwards. Your ankle joint should be the only part that moves—don’t twist your knee or hip joint.
Hold it for 2 to 3 seconds before returning to a neutral position. Do 5 to 10 reps, depending on how your foot feels.
6. Ankle Pump-Ups and Pump-Downs
With your ankle hanging—not against the floor or resting on anything—lift your toes as if you’re trying to touch them to your shin. Hold this position for up to 30 seconds, feeling the stretch in your calf muscle.
Then, point your toes downwards and do the same. Hold each stretch for 20 to 30 seconds and repeat 5 times.
Balance and Control Exercises
Do these when you can comfortably bear weight on the injured ankle without pain or feeling too unstable.
1. Single-Leg Balance
This is just as it sounds. Stand on one foot, with a slight bend in your knee. Try to maintain this position for up to 30 seconds without wobbling too much. You can do this just once a day, three reps for each leg.
To increase the challenge and the strength-building properties of this exercise, you can do it barefoot, standing on a folded-up towel or a pillow.
2. Forward Single-Leg Balance
This is a modification of the above exercise. Do the single-leg balance, but bring your other leg forward and stretch it out in front of you. It doesn’t have to be straight, but it should be off the ground and slightly raised. You can also do this once a day for 3 reps.
3. Toe-To-Heel Walking
You’ll need a small space to walk, preferably with a flat, smooth floor. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and rock your weight back onto your heels. Lift your toes off the floor and stand on your heels.
Balancing like this, walk a few steps. Aim for 15 to 20 seconds of walking, with short breaks. Go for 8 reps.
You can then do the same, except transfer your weight to the ball of your feet and walk on your toes for the same timing and reps.
4. Single-Leg Step Downs
Begin by standing on a slightly elevated surface—a step, box, or short bench. Hang your non-injured foot over the edge with your injured foot firmly planted on the surface.
Slowly bend the knee of your injured leg and lower your hanging foot. Go as far as you can, then stand up again, driving through your heel.
If you need to, you can bring the foot back up onto the surface and drive through both heels to stand up. Repeat 15 times.
5. Tandem Walk
Find a wall that you can walk alongside for this one. This is also known as tightrope walking. Starting on one end of the wall, walk forward, placing each step right in front of your foot—heel to toe.
Use the wall to stabilize yourself if necessary, but don’t lean on it. You can also do this exercise backward if you’re able to. One rep is the length of the wall, and you should do 3 for one full set.
6. Lateral Jump
Use a rolled-up towel, resistance band, or something else to create a divide. Place it on the floor between your feet—they should be slightly wider than shoulder-width apart.
Lean your weight fully onto one foot and lift the other off the floor. From there, hop over the object and land on your other foot. You can do this as often as you feel, provided you have no pain.