The ankles and lower legs should not be neglected when it comes to stretching before exercise, as they are a complex network of bones, joints, muscles, ligaments, tissues, and nerves that endures constant pressure, impact, and stress during exercise. Therefore, it is important to warm up and stretch the ankle and lower leg muscles, tendons, and joints regularly, as well as before and after exercise.
Attention should be given to the back of the lower leg, as well as the front. Tight calf muscles can lead to foot, ankle, and knee injuries and problems; the Achilles tendon that attaches the calf muscle to the back of the heel should also be stretched.
Here are a few appropriate ankle and lower leg stretches to do before exercising to avoid strain and injury. The pattern of stretching is to stretch, hold, and relax. For repetitive exercises, start with a set of 10 and do two to three sets. Remember to avoid bouncing or pulling, as this can tear muscles, ligaments, and tendons.
- Calf stretch: While sitting on the floor, extend both legs straight out. Loop a belt or rope around the ball of one foot, pull both ends of the belt or rope, and flex the toes and forefoot towards the knee. Switch legs and repeat.
- Achilles tendon stretch: Although there are several effective stretches for the Achilles tendon, this is an easy way to stretch the tendon while standing. Stand an arm’s length from a wall, then lean forward and place the hands, shoulder-width apart, on the wall; extend the leg to be stretched to the back, keeping the knee bent and heel firmly on the ground; with the other foot remaining near the wall, lean forward and keep bending the knee and planting the heel until a stretch is felt along the back of the lower leg; slowly lower down to feel the stretch; hold the stretch for 30 seconds, the switch sides and repeat.
- Step-drop stretch: Using a step (or curb), place the ball of the forefoot on the edge of the step, then slowly lower the heel only; maintain balance by holding a railing or a helping hand, if necessary at first; do not force the heel down, but gradually dip it lower over time; switch feet and repeat.
- Towel/ belt pull: Sit on the floor, legs stretched out straight in front; using a towel (or belt), loop it around the ball of one foot, then pull the towel ends as you slowly recline the back; keep the position and hold when you feel a pull in calf muscle; switch legs and repeat.
- Ankle range of motion: Sit in a chair so that the feet are not resting on the floor; using one foot, trace every letter of the alphabet with the big toe; switch feet and repeat.