There isn’t a runner alive who has not suffered at one time or another from a simple ankle sprain. It is—by far—the most common injury that puts runners on the injury list. According to the American Orthopedic Foot and Ankle Society, physicians see more than a million patients a year complaining of ankle sprains.
And a good portion of those visits come from runners who often return to the doctor’s office because they have re-sprained the same troublesome ankle over and over again.
Most of us have felt some sort of ankle pain during running either from tripping over a rock, tree root or something else or from a jolt of some kind.
Mild ankle discomfort is one thing, but a severe sprain is something entirely different. Medically speaking, a sprain ankle means one or more of the ligaments on the outside of the ankle have been stretched, strained or in worst case scenarios, torn.
Typically, runners sprain ankles on trails or uneven terrain, but it can also happen on the smoothest stretch of road or even a track. Most garden-variety ankle sprains occur with the toes on the ground and the heel up. This awkward position immediately places the ligaments of the ankle under tension. A sudden force, such as changing direction quickly, stepping off an unseen curb or tripping over a rock or sprinkler head, can turn the ankle farther than the muscles can support.
If you sprain an ankle while running, the first rule is to stop running immediately. Don’t try to run through it or finish the workout. If you’re on a long run and too far from your home or car, get someone to pick you up.
Once safely back at home, ice the sprained ankle as soon as possible to reduce the inflammation and discoloration that likely will follow. Elevate it as well and stay off it.
There are three types of ankle injuries that typically occur to runners: A mild tear or strain of the ligament, a large but incomplete tear of the ligament and in rare cases, a complete tear.
Symptoms range from mild soreness where easy running can be tolerated to pain which is so intense the ankle won’t support any weight. A complete tear is so painful, the ankle can’t be moved at all without pain.
As long as the ankle sprain isn’t that severe and there’s only mild soreness involved, recovery can usually be done without a doctor’s care. But, proper healing of a sprained ankle is always tricky because runners often go out and reinjure it again within a couple of days.
The key to rehabbing a sprained ankle is to allow the swelling to subside and then strengthen it again by doing a non-weight bearing activity such as deep-water running. Moving the ankle in such an activity, improves blood flow to the injured ligament and removes waste products from the injury site.
Deep-water running is key because of the movement of the ankle and the fact that it is just like running but without any of the weight bearing.
After the ankle begins to heal enough to bear weight again, another good alternative exercise to gain strength back in the ankle is using a wobble board. These boards safely exercise the ankles and strengthen the ligaments to the point where it’s usually safe to run again.
Some other ways to heal sprained ankles:
- One foot stands. Stand on the injured leg next to a wall. Hold onto the wall if you need it for balance. After you get your balance and feel comfortable, close your eyes and hold. Repeat several times.
- Stair steps. Face a stairway with the ball of your injured foot on the first stair. Rise up on the ball of the foot. Repeat 15-25 times. You can hold onto a rail for balance.
- Heel walking. Walk on your heels for a minute. Then on your toes for another minute.
- Hip hop. Hop up and down on both feet. Do side-to-side hops with both feet together and if you can, try hopping on one foot.
- Run. When you begin running again, run straight ahead with no sharp turns. Run on a smooth, flat surface. Avoid the track.
Unfortunately, ankle sprains heal slowly. Even after the ankle is healthy enough to run again, it will always be weaker and more susceptible to future ankle injuries because the ligaments have been stretched or torn.
Still, the stronger the ankle tissues become through the rehab work, the more likely the joint will be sturdy enough to ward off further injuries.