With our foundation for stability and balance originating in our feet, keeping our feet and ankles mobile and stable is the first step in correcting imbalances further up the kinetic chain.
There are lots of different techniques for working with the feet and ankles — but without care, injury can occur during well-intentioned exercises.
What I want to share with you are safer ways to achieve the same or maybe better results if we pay attention to positioning, physiological laws, and what our bodies are telling us. This article addresses what I have found to be a safe and successful approach to creating both flexibility and stability in the feet, based on Aaron Mattes’ system of Active Isolated Stretching and Strengthening.
Good Exercise Gone Bad
When it comes to exercise, the main reason I see for failure is simply stress. The stress I am referring to is not associated with your job or everyday life, but rather the extra force you apply to your body by pushing though exercises even if they are uncomfortable or painful. Over and over again, I’ve seen good intentions for creating stronger and more supple bodies lead to the opposite result of more restriction, weaker muscles and pain.
The old adage “It hurts so good” can cause injury, which in turn creates an inflammatory and neurological response. On top of this, when torn tissues heal, scar tissue develops, which further restricts joint movement. Pushing and pulling too far can be counterproductive, especially during the initial stages of recovery from an injury or surgery when the nervous system is very sensitive and tissues fragile.
Pay Attention to Pain
Pain is an important signal that lets us know what we are doing is not safe. It is something to avoid, and it is imperative to pay attention to what you feel when you exercise. That is not to say that you should avoid certain movements if they have caused pain in the past, but rather to find ways to move in such a manner that allows you to avoid pain altogether.
It is essential to remember that when you feel pain, your nervous system sends a signal to the muscles to protect you from that perceived threat of injury. Spindle cells are one of the primary proprioceptive organs in soft tissues that elicit this protective mechanism (referred to as the myotatic, or “stretch,” reflex). When they sense stress or tension from a stretch that cannot be dealt with in a positive manner, the myotatic reflex activates muscle contraction to avoid injury — in this case to prevent the overstretching and resulting tear of a muscle and tendon.
Let’s take an example of experiencing pain upon turning your torso to one side. If you are faced with this sort of predicament, respect this warning sign and modify your movements accordingly.
In this case, rotate gently, with excellent control, to the point just before you feel pain and then return to the starting point. With each repetition nudge into the barrier, never eliciting pain. As your nerves become less sensitive, the pain will diminish and your natural ROM will begin to return. Following this simple idea will help get you moving again even if you have experienced or are experiencing pain.
How to Stretch with Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)
AI Stretching avoids triggering the myotatic stretch reflex by using gentle, active-assisted movements. Move into the stretch until the first sign of tension and release; it’s that simple. The rhythmic, relaxed repetitions increase blood and lymphatic flow and sedate the nerves. Use a strap or your hand to assist. Repeat the set several times on the tighter side.
Gastrocnemius and the Posterior Compartment
The conventional method for stretching the calves in a standing position is one example of an approach that creates the potential for injury. The tissues being stretched are also bearing weight. This can be a difficult challenge for compromised joints and tissues. Consider this especially if you have an injury.
To make the stretch as safe and effective as possible I recommend doing this stretch supine, with your leg in the air and using a strap to assist yourself. (See photos 1 and 2.)
Dorsal Stretches of the Ankle
These stretches are usually done while sitting with one leg crossed over the other and plantar flexing your foot while pushing on the dorsal side of the foot with one of your hands to assist. For the most part, these stretches are safe as long as you remember to be gentle enough not to cause pain. These stretches can be very helpful for strained or sprained ankles.
There is often a huge imbalance between the power and strength of the posterior vs. the anterior musculature, similar to the disparity between the flexors and extensors of the wrist. In most cases the anterior muscles such as the tibialis anterior need to be strengthened to achieve balance in your foot and ankle.
With that in mind, the hand you are using to assist the stretch can create resistance on the return phase of the movement, building strength. The resistance should be firm but gentle without impeding movement. This simple addition helps with stability and delivers increased blood and lymphatic flow, reducing inflammation.
Inversion and Eversion Stretches of the Ankle
Stretching the invertors and evertors of the ankle is usually straightforward. In most cases you are sitting with one leg crossed over the other, using your hands to assist. As long as you practice without causing pain you should experience a successful outcome.
To get the most out of this stretch try this: Before you invert or evert your ankle, use your hands to hold your ankle at a 90-degree angle. This modification directs the stretch deeper into the joint, gently tweezing scarred ligaments and joint capsules. Be careful when you modify your stretch in this manner; it can be quite intense. As with dorsal flexion you can create strength with each repetition by using the hand that is assisting the stretch to resist the returning movement.
Usually these are approached much like stretching the anterior of the calf in a seated position. The patient crosses one leg over the other and stretches their toes. A small tweak of the usual method will result in a deeper stretch to the toe flexors. (See photos 3 thru 8.)
Be Gentle with Yourself While You Stretch Your Feet and Ankles
As you practice these suggestions, remember, most importantly, to not push yourself into any painful stretches and perhaps even avoid any discomfort, especially in the beginning phases of trying something new and different.
Keeping the movements gentle will relax your nervous system and allow for greater flexibility and stability more quickly. You don’t want your nervous system to push back, so be nice to yourself.
The repeated exchange of blood and lymph also creates a circulatory pump, bringing the vital nutrients needed for healing while removing metabolic waste. The numerous repetitions soothe the nerves, bringing them back to life with blood.
In consideration of how gentle to be, the best guideline is to never push so hard that you find yourself holding your breath. When you do, every cell in your body becomes tense waiting for you to exhale. Keep your breathing calm and full.
Above all, pay close attention to how your body feels as you move; avoid pain and discomfort. These are among the first steps you can take in creating the strong foundation needed to enjoy all the activities your life has to offer.
About the Author
Joshua Morton, LMT, MAISS, MMLT, is a 1994 graduate of Seattle Massage School. In 2002 he met Aaron Mattes and has devoted his practice to Active Isolated Stretching since. Morton has been an international educator for 20 years and teaches at AIS Northwest. He has authored a guide to assisted stretching and self-stretching. His articles for MASSAGE Magazine include “Upper-Body Flexibility for Pain-Free Practice” and “Lower-Body Flexibility for Pain-Free Practice.”