Do you know what the most common injury among athletes is?
Yup, you got it, it’s ankle sprains!
Now, you want to know why?
Athletes are so focused on training the parts of their bodies that they see as the most important because it directly improves their skills, and they neglect everything else. For climbers that’s generally things like finger strength and core and we neglect arguably one of the most important parts of our bodies, our feet and ankles! They are literally the foundation for EVERYTHING! Without proper alignment and strength at our base then we set ourselves up for more problems in the future.
There are several yoga poses that you can incorporate into your practice that will both stretch and strengthen your feet and ankles and improve its stability. It’s important to incorporate a balance of strengthening postures, like standing and standing balances, with stretching postures because too much of one can actually create instability in the joint, which is the exact opposite of what we’re trying to do.
As you work to evenly develop strength and flexibility in your ankles, not only will you reduce your risk of injuring your ankles, but you’ll also begin to rely more on your feet during climbing and give your arms a much needed break.
Here are a couple poses to get you started. 🙂
** Please keep in mind: There is no room for ego in yoga. Always let the feel of the pose guide you more than the look of it. If you ever feel pain, back off and modify. Listen to the subtle messages from your body, don’t wait for it to scream.
This is a great pose I learned through my yin practice. It stretches the toes, the bottoms of the feet and strengthens the ankle.
I find that this pose is especially great for climbers! Since our feet are so used to being compressed in our climbing shoes, it’s important to counter that compression by taking the time to really stretch out the bottoms of the feet.
I’ll warn you though that this simple looking pose can actually be quite intense. 🙂
Start by bringing the knees and feet together in a table top position and tuck all the toes under. Don’t forget about the pinky toes! If you have to, reach back and physically tuck those little piggies under.
Begin to lean back, sit back on your heels, and bring your shoulders in line with your hips.
If the stretch becomes too intense, either come up onto your knees or place blocks (or books or something similar) by your sides and press the palms of your hands into the blocks to remove some of the weight off your heels.
Now, I’d like to challenge you here. As long as you feel no pain, try and hold this for 1 to 2 minutes. Make sure to listen to your body and understand the differences associated with pain versus the sensations that come with the pose.
This pose is easy to do daily.
Another great yin posture! It stretches the tops of the ankles.
If you’re prone to leaning forward when you stand, then this pose may feel intense, but is one your ankles desperately need. Leaning forward tends to tighten the tops of the ankles and the shins.
One of my favourite mantra’s that I learned through my yin practice is “If you’re feeling it, you’re doing it.” Essentially, you want to focus on what the pose feels like, not what it looks like.
If you already feel the stretch with your knees on the ground (Virasana/Hero Pose) then just stay there and tell your ego to take a hike.
If your body allows you to go deeper then begin to bring the weight back into your hands making sure to keep the chest lifted. Hold for at least five deep and long breaths.
If accessible, bring your hands by your sides and play with the feeling of balancing on the tops of your feet.
Finally, if you wish to go further (remember no ego, only if it’s available today), bring your hands to your knees, keep the chest lifting up, balance here and try to gently pull the knees in.
To come out, make your way into a tabletop position and roll out the ankles.
This pose is also easy to do daily.
Malasana (Squat Pose)
This pose stretches and strengthens the ankles, stretches the inner groins, and opens up the hips.
Come down into a squat. Your toes can point outward, just make sure that your knees are going in the same direction as your toes. If your heels are lifted then roll up your mat, a towel, or a blanket to support them so you can even out the weight on your feet. If squatting is difficult, use blocks or books to support your sitting bones.
Next bring your hands into prayer (Anjali Mudra) and press the elbows or tricepts into the inner knees and resist that motion by pressing back in with the knees. Try to avoid rounding forward by pressing the chest forward and up, feeling more length in the sides of your torso. Resist the urge to shrug the shoulders towards your ears.
If you have trouble pressing the chest forward and feel like you’re going to roll backwards, try holding onto something that is in front of you so that your arms reach upwards, which will promote length in your torso. Reaching for something low, like the legs of a chair will make you round in your back and compress into the front of your torso.
As you continue to practice this pose, try to shorten the stance of your squat by working the heels closer together.
Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward Facing Dog)
Gives a nice stretch along the calves and backs of the ankles. Tight calves can really limit the mobility of your ankle.
Start in table top with your shoulders squared over your wrist creases and scooch your knees back behind your hips. Tuck your toes under and press your hips up and back. Keep the knees bent to start, and feel length in your spine and the sides of your body.
Feel your upper back broaden as your shoulder blades hug around the side of your body. Then counter this external rotation you are creating in your shoulders and upper arms with an internal rotation in the lower arms as you press the thumb and pointer finger mounds into your mat. Don’t let the belly sag, keep your navel pulling towards your spine.
Pedal out the feet for a couple breaths by pressing one heel down at a time and bending the opposite leg. Then inhale both heels up and let them both sink down on the exhale as you straighten the legs. It doesn’t matter if your heels don’t reach the floor.
Pull your inner thighs up towards the ceiling and see if you feel your sitting bones widen and if that gives you more space to press your sitting bones up, maintaining the integrity of natural curve in your lumbar spine. Then balance this motion by pressing your tailbone down.
Yes, I know, so many things to think about! But, with practice it will become easier and more natural.
In addition to benefiting the lower half of the body, this pose also helps with developing strength and stamina in the upper body. A simple way to incorporate this pose into a daily practice is by performing several rounds of Sun Salutations.
Garudasana (Eagle Pose)
This pose helps to develop strength evenly across the ankle.
Start standing with your feet grounding into the floor, tail bone pressing down, core engaged, and shoulder blades sliding down your back.
Feel yourself really grounding into your right foot and slowly lift the left foot off the ground. Cross the left leg over top of the right and begin to bend the right leg. You can either let your left toes touch the ground to the right of your right foot, which will act as a kick-stand to help maintain balance, or you can lift the toes up and balance completely on the right foot.
If it’s available to you, try wrapping the left foot around the right calf to get a nice stretch on the left ankle as you strengthen the right one.
Then for the arms, lift them parallel to the ground, palms face up, cross the right arm over the left, bend at the elbows and bring the hands together by wrapping the left fingers around the thumb side of the right hand. If the hands don’t reach then place a strap or a belt in your hands to keep them drawing towards each other.
Once your arms are in position, press the elbows up and away from you to feel an amazing stretch across the upper back and shoulders and see if you can sink your hips a little bit deeper.
Make sure not to round forward in the back, keep the chest lifted. Feel yourself squeezing everything towards the centreline of your body, and feel your weight being distributed evenly into your foot.
If the toes are clenched you are leaning too far forward. Try lifting the toes and feel the weight pour into all four corners of your foot. Hold for at least 5 deep and long breaths and repeat for the other side.
Virabhadrasana III (Warrior III)
This is another standing balance pose that also helps to develop strength in the ankles.
Come to a high lunge with your right foot forward and your left heel pressing back. Feel strong in both your legs and feel strong in your core by pulling your belly button towards your spine.
Bring your arms out by your sides like wings with your palms facing down, or extend them forward with the palms facing each other. Keep both arms strong and active.
Begin to feel more weight come evenly into your right foot as you start to straighten the right leg and lift the left leg off the ground. Keep the left leg active with your toes pointing down and your heel and crown of head pressing in opposite directions. Notice if the left hip is lifted, and if it is, draw it down to bring it in line with the right hip.
Feel strong and even on your standing foot and find length in your torso as your body actively pulls in opposite directions.
To come out, begin to bend the right knee and come back to your high lunge. Make the movement controlled and deliberate, as opposed to just dropping back into it.
Hold Virabhadrasana III for at least 5 deep and long breaths and then repeat for the other side.
These are just a couple of poses to get you started. Most standing and standing balance poses work to strengthen your ankles, so if you have other poses in mind that you love, then by all means do them! Just make sure to avoid pain and have a dedicated practice! 🙂