Foot & Ankle Exercises

Author: Chloe Wilson - BSc(Hons) Physiotherapy

Foot and ankle exercises help to improve the strength, stability and mobility of the whole foot.  Any weakness, stiffness or tightness in the foot and calf can lead to a whole range of foot problems which can cause pain not only in the foot, but also the knee, hips and back.  Foot exercises are one of the simplest yet most effective ways to relieve most causes of foot pain.

There is a complex network of muscles and tendons that control the feet and toes arising from the knee right down to the little toe.  They work together to maintain the correct position of the foot by supporting the foot arches and controlling how forces are transmitted through the leg.

Here you will find a whole range of foot and ankle exercises to choose from, depending on what you are trying to achieve.  We will start by looking at my top tips for exercising and how to get the best results from foot and ankle exercises. We will then look at strengthening exercises and stretches for each of the muscle groups, what exercises are best for specific foot problems e.g. plantar fasciitis and how working on the muscles further up the leg can really help too. 

Top Tips For Exercising

Here are some of my top tips to get the best results from your foot and ankle exercises:

Ankle exercises to improve the strength, flexibility and mobility of the foot.  Approved use by

1)  Working at the Right Level: Ankle exercises should leave you feeling like you have worked hard, but shouldn’t cause any pain.  Too easy and there won’t be much benefit, too difficult and you risk injuring yourself

2)  Where to Start: With any exercises, start slow and gradually increase.  Sometimes, particularly when we first start exercising, it feels ok at the time but a few hours later, you notice pain and stiffness.  Next time, do a bit less.  Decrease the number of ankle exercises or the number of repetitions until you find the right level for you

3)  How To Progress: Once you’ve found the level that is right for you, stick at that for three days.  Then, gradually increase how much you are doing, either increasing the number of repetitions, adding in another exercise or using weights.  Only change one thing at a time

4)  Follow the 10% Rule: You shouldn’t increase training by more than 10% each week else you risk injuring yourself. The muscles need time to get used to the extra work

5)  Safety: Always consult your doctor before starting a new exercise programme, particularly if you have sustained a foot injury or are recovering from surgery.  Exercising too much or too soon could cause further damage

6)  Technique: Make sure you are doing the exercises correctly.  Keep reading back over the instructions to check – it is so easy to do them slightly wrong which can stop you getting the best results.  And remember, it is much better to do a lower number of exercises and do them correctly, than to cheat a little bit if they feel difficult.

A. Strengthening Ankle Exercises

Strengthening the ankle and foot is helpful with virtually every cause of foot pain.  Whether it is following an injury such as an ankle sprain or with a longer term foot problem, strengthening ankle exercises can make a big difference.

1)  Foot and Ankle Strengthening

Here you will find a whole range of ankle exercises to improve the strength around the different parts of the foot.  They work through three different types of strengthening exercise:

1) Static Ankle Strengthening: Static ankle exercises are a great way to strength the foot without having to move it i.e. the foot stays in a neutral position and doesn’t have to move.  This makes it the perfect place to start after an injury or if you are getting pain when you move your foot without the risk of further damage

Theraband resitance band is a great tool for improving strength of the foot and ankle.  Approved use by

2)  Resistance Exercises: These ankle exercises give the foot something to push against to help build up the strength around the foot and ankle without putting too much force through it. 

They tend to use theraband – a sort of big elastic band to push against.  It is available in different colours depending on how much resistance you want

3)  Dynamic Exercises: These ankle exercises use simple activities such as picking up marbles with your toes to increase the strength of the foot, particularly the muscles under the foot that support the foot arches

2) Calf Strengthening

Calf strengthening exercises.  Approved use by

The calf muscles start behind the knee and travel down the back of lower leg where they form the Achilles tendon and attach to the back of the heel.  Weakness in the calf muscles affects both foot and knee movements as well as how the forces travel up the leg which can result in foot, ankle, knee, hip and back pain. 

Here you will find a whole range of calf strengthening exercises.  You can choose from beginners, intermediate and advanced exercises.

B. Foot & Ankle Stretches

Tightness in the muscles and stiffness in the joints around the foot can cause subtle changes to the position of the foot which can again not only cause foot problems but also have a knock-on effect further up the leg.  Ankle stiffness is a common problem after injuries such as an ankle sprain and failure to regain full range of movement in the foot is the most common reason why symptoms persist for a long time after the injury has healed.  Here you will find:

Foot and ankle exercises to stretch the foot and improve flexibility.  Approved use by

1)  Ankle and Toe Stretches
Exercises to improve the flexibility of the ankle joint and the toes.  Targets tightness in the muscles and stiffness in the joints.

2)  Heel Stretches
Exercises to stretch the heel region targeting both the Achilles tendon at the back of the heel and the plantar fascia underneath the heel.

 3)  Calf Stretches
A whole range of different ways to stretch both of the calf muscles, gastrocnemius and soleus.  Useful with both foot and knee problems.

C. Exercises For Specific Conditions

The ankle exercises above will be useful for most causes of foot pain, but some conditions benefit from more specific exercises.

Plantar fasciitis ankle exercises.  Approved use by

1)  Plantar Fasciitis Exercises

Plantar fasciitis is a common foot problem and is caused by tightness, weakness and inflammation of the tissues underneath the foot. 

Exercises are one of the most effective treatments for it, not only to treat the condition but to stop it from coming back as so often happens.  Here you will find both strengthening and stretching exercises for plantar fasciitis.

 D. Leg Exercises

Leg exercises can often help to improve foot and ankle problems.  Approved use by

Foot and ankle problems can also result from weakness and tightness in muscles further up the leg and in the buttocks. It may be hamstring tightness, particularly common in men, or glutes weakness, which can cause the foot arches to drop. 

With any type of foot pain, the foot should not be looked at in isolation, it is important to look at the whole leg and even the lower back to see if problems further up are to blame.

You can find a whole range of leg strengthening and stretching exercises in the exercises section on our sister site.

What Next?

Choose from the different sections above to find the right ankle exercises for you.  But do remember, you should always check with your doctor before starting these exercises, particularly if you have suffered an injury or have any foot pain.

If you want some help working out what is causing your pain, visit the foot pain diagnosis section.

Go to Foot Pain Guide

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