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Exercises to help prevent knee and ankle injuries

Creating stability in your knees and mobility in your ankles is important to avoid pain or injury. These joints, specifically the knees, carry most of your weight and can absorb a great deal of impact when walking, running or jumping.

The British Journal of Sports Medicine found that as many as 50% of lower extremity injuries occur in the knees, while ankle injuries have a lower incidence rate at 16.6%. Frequent training and previous injuries increase the likelihood of getting hurt again. As we have seen at Precision Athletica, spraining or tearing knee ligaments is all too common in athletes. Likewise, the ankles are made up of soft and hard tissues that can get overstretched or broken— but these injuries can be avoided.

According to a study on knee pain in the Journal of Dynamic Medicine, there are two potential causes for weakness in these joints: tightness or lack of strength in the major muscle groups surrounding the knees and ankles. If the hips, glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves are either too stiff or too weak, then they won’t be able to provide maximum protection to the joints. However, there are dozens of exercises that can prevent this from happening.

Fire hydrant: Strengthens the hips, quads, and glutes

Get down on your hands and knees with your wrists aligned with your shoulders and knees aligned with your hips. Keeping your knee bent, raise one leg up and out to the side to the level of the hips. Gently bring the knee back down, repeat, and switch sides. 

Glute bridges: Strengthens the glutes and hamstrings; increases hip mobility

From a supine position, bend the knees and step the feet on the ground. Keep your hands to the sides. Press on your feet as you lift the hips up, squeezing the glutes tight. Hold or do some reps.

Clamshells: Strengthens the glutes; improves hip stability

Lie on your right side with your legs stacked together and your head resting on your right arm. Keeping the feet together, squeeze the glutes as you raise your left knee to the ceiling without rotating the hip or lifting the right knee from the floor. 

Ankle circles: Increases ankle mobility

Stand with your feet hip-width apart. Place your hands on your hips. Shift your weight to the right leg, lift your left foot up a few inches. Point the left toes and rotate the left foot, clockwise and counter clockwise. Repeat with the other foot. 

Squats: Strengthens entire lower body

Stand with your feet wider then shoulder-width apart. Extend your arms forward or upward. Push your hips back and bend your knees until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Keep your back straight and avoid rounding the shoulders. Press the feet strongly and slowly stand up. Hold or repeat. 

Looking at our body we can see that it is essentially a stack of joints that alternate between the need for mobility and the need for stability. 

This concept of layering was made famous by Functional Movement Systems (FMS) specialist Gray Cook. He explains how the lower body has 4 main joints each with its own role: The foot should be steady, while the ankle should be mobile; the knee requires stability as it is a hinge joint, while the hips require the ability to move around.

Cook notes that while mobility or stability for each joint is emphasised, the point is to have a systemic approach to help the joints above and below the one that may be suffering. The reason we want to improve stability and mobility in these joints is to ensure they don’t get injured but also to protect other parts of the body. For instance, jumping with poor ankle mobility transfers the stress to the knees. Therefore, it is important to be proactive and prevent injuries from happening by doing the right exercises and getting yourself assessed by a physician.

However, even with improved fitness and prevention, injuries can happen to anyone, sometimes just down to being unlucky. Cricketer Glenn McGrath suffered an ankle injury in 2005 while passing a ball around with his teammates. McGrath recounted how he and Brad Haddin were passing a rugby ball around when McGrath didn’t see the cricket balls being set up on the ground by his coach, causing him to fall over one of them. McGrath sustained a grade two tear to his ankle ligaments, right before the second Ashes Test game. Plagued by injury problems throughout, he was eventually forced to miss the second and fourth tests of that series.

Athletes who cover uneven terrain, such as trail runners, are vulnerable to similar risks to McGrath, which is why it’s important to protect the knees and ankles.

There are two things that you need to remember to avoid injury while playing sports: physical fitness and mental presence because even the smallest obstruction can be your undoing. 

Written by: Amanda Marshall

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