How to Avoid Repeated Ankle Sprains and Get Back to Running

Woman tying shoelaces

Ankle sprains are often overlooked among runners. But they can become an ongoing problem, depending on injury severity and the quality of the rehab. It’s best to address them correctly to prevent future sprains.

Man running on street

What is an ankle sprain?

Ankle sprains are common among people of all ages. They occur when the ligaments supporting the ankle stretch beyond their limits and tear. Depending on the damage to the ligaments, a sprain can range from mild to severe.

What runners need to know about ankle sprains

Often runners will return to running after an ankle sprain without paying attention to subtle differences. The body reacts to protect the tissues, so your step on the affected foot might be different, even though you might not notice it. You may start to develop imbalances that can harm your running technique long term and make you more susceptible to future ankle sprains.

What to do after an ankle sprain

Ankle sprains can vary in degree – from a twisted ankle to a ligament tear. You should always let a professional assess your injury, especially if:

  • it hurts a lot
  • you can’t walk
  • you still experience swelling after 48 hours

The first line of treatment will involve waiting for the swelling and the pain to decrease.

As soon as the foot is pain free and not very swollen anymore, you should add some light exercises to speed up recovery. Don’t go running yet! Work on the exercises suggested below, take a walk, go swimming, cycling…any activity that doesn’t cause pain while moving!

Exercises to restore mobility, balance, strength, and flexibility

The following exercises are focused on 3 key aspects of recovery after an ankle sprain:

  • mobility exercises to release any tension
  • stability exercises that require controlled strength
  • stretching exercises that restore flexibility in the affected and surrounding area

Release tension, restore mobility

Exercise 1: Knee circles

How to do the exercise:

Stand with your feet together. Bend your knees and lower yourself down slowly to the side, moving around until your kneecaps “draw” a circle in the air. Repeat 10 times for each side.

Exercise 2: Pronation / Supination

How to do the exercise:

Stand with your feet hip width apart. Now simultaneously turn both of your feet outward (supination). And then inward (pronation). 1 repetition includes both pronation and supination. Repeat 10 times.

Increase flexibility

Exercise 1: Achilles tendon & calf stretch

How to do the exercise:

Stand on the edge of a step with your heels not touching the ground. Lower the heel of the injured foot towards the ground to stretch your calf, keeping your knee straight. Bend the knee to stretch the muscles closer to your ankle. Do both or choose the one that feels better for you. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 2-3 rounds.

Exercise 2: Heel sit

How to do the exercise:

Kneel down and sit back on your heels with your feet extended. You should feel the stretch along your ankles and shins. Hold for 30 seconds, repeat 2-3 rounds. If you want to increase the stretch, pull your knees up towards your body.

Restore balance & strength

Exercise: Single Leg Stand (versions)

How to do the exercise:

Stand on one leg and try to keep your balance. Once you can stand calmly for 30 seconds, try a more challenging variation: move your head sideways or close your eyes. You can also try touching the ground in front of you, at the back, or on the side with your hand, while standing on one leg.

Exercise 2: Single Leg Squat

Man doing Single Leg Squats

How to do the exercise:

Stand up straight. Lift the uninjured foot up from the ground in front of you, keeping the knee extended. Push your hips back and bend the knee of the standing leg to do a squat. Go only as low as you feel confident. Push the heel of the standing leg to the ground to get back up. Do 5-12 reps. Repeat 2-3 rounds.

Good to know:

If time allows, single leg exercises can be done on both sides, not only on the affected side. Make sure to always start with the injured side first.

When can you start running again after an ankle sprain

Once you are successfully moving the foot and walking without any pain, you can do a light test run. If the run doesn’t feel completely natural, take another 3-day break. It’s better to wait than get used to an imbalance.

If you still have pain while running or are not completely ready to start, you can focus on the above mentioned rehab exercises to restore your tissue capacity before taking up running again. If everything goes well, you can slowly increase the distance per day.

Remember: proper recovery pays off in the long run! Even if it means taking a long break, you can always slowly return to running after a break.



Sascha Wingenfeld Sascha, health trainer & active triathlete, has been coaching runners from beginners to professionals for over 10 years. "I love my job and I love running." View all posts by Sascha Wingenfeld »