Obstacle Race Magazine – How to reduce your risk of an ankle injury

Obstacle Race Magazine Interview with Michael Cohen
Obstacle Racing Magazine

How to reduce your risk of an ankle injury

by Michael Cohen

Issue 3
May 2014

Probably the most common injury in OCR racing, trail running and mud running is an ankle sprain. We are sure most if not all readers have experienced it. We once again look to our Training Expert Coach Michael of Wild Forest Gym, who assures me he has not only a solution, but techniques that can reduce your risk of injury.

Lateral inversion ankle sprains are the most common injury when running. This is when the foot is inverted and you go over on the outside of the foot and damage the lateral ligaments, most commonly the anterior talofibular ligament. In most cases once you have had a sprained ankle you are left with weaknesses in that area and an increased vulnerability that it will happen again.

I know it myself as I have been there 3 weeks before my XT Triathlon, for which I was training 12-14 hours a week. In fact I remember the exact circumstance, I was out trail running through the forest, I was tired from training and working hard. Then my ankle just went over. In absolute agony I tried to run through it, and eventually gave in and called my wife Joanne to pick me up.

Listening to the body, or not!

I immediately realised that it wasn’t the terrain that was the problem. It was me I was tired and I knew in retrospect that I shouldn’t have been running. But I had a training plan and I wanted to stick to it. So the first point I want to make is we need to listen to our body and rest where we need to. Remember training plans have to have flexibility, otherwise you do become a victim of over training. Not listening to your body in most cases leads to injuries or accidents. I am sure most of you know what I am talking about.

What is an injury?

Spraining your ankle:

Is not the fault of a tree root or rutted ground and neither is it the fault of the council if you trip over a dodgy paving stone. It is down to you and your ability to navigate/orienteer around, over, past the natural obstacles of the terrain. So we are talking about your awareness of where and what you are running on and similarly your brain being synched with your body and the terrain.

Is your body’s way of telling you that you have an underlying weakness in that region of the body, and this is your opportunity to deal with it. However, just like unlearnt lessons if you do not take the right course of action to strengthen this weakness, then just like unlearnt lesson they repeat themselves until you do.

Now this I really understand because although I took 3 weeks off running to rest my ankle in the lead up to my Triathlon, on the morning of the race in fact 30 minutes before the start I went to use the portaloo and no guesses what happened next, I went over on my ankle, because there was still an underlying weakness. Just to say I still raced and got a PB. But I was left with an underlying injury thereafter.

Remedial & Preventative Action

With re-occurring injuries and the worry of injuring myself left me even more susceptible and deeply affected me running let alone racing. So it was time to take action.

The following techniques are the beginning steps for injury recovery as well as injury prevention for sprained ankles. Plus it will improve your trail running skills.

First thing you need to understand is that in order for your ankle, foot and toes to support the rest of your body you need to develop your stability muscles. Unfortunately as you live in western society you have become ever reliant on shoes and these are like plates that disconnect you from the ground you touch and cause instability issues due to underdevelopment of your ankle, feet and toe muscles.

Obstacle Race Magazine How to reduce your risk of an ankle injury


The leg-raise

To experience these muscles for yourself take your shoes and socks off. Stand tall elongating your spine by lifting yourself from the crown of your head. Check that your body weight is evenly spread between both feet. Transfer your body weight over your right foot and raise your left knee lifting your foot off the ground as high as feels comfortable. Keep your eyes on a stable point in front of you or down on the ground. If you are very unsteady either lower the leg slightly, stand close to a wall or just support your body just using one or more fingers as is necessary.

Before long you are going to start to experience lots of twitching and muscles turning on in your feet, toes and ankles. Not only that, you will also feel it in your legs hip, core and oblique muscles to the side of your ribs. It is these stability muscles that are being activated that we are interested in developing.

Now try this on your other leg. I would not be surprised if it feels different on your left foot compared to your right, as you along with most other runners are one-sided dominant.

Not only is this a test to experience your stability muscles this is a basic exercise that you can do to start to develop them, whilst also improving your balance and overall agility. You can do it at home or at work, whilst brushing your teeth, cooking, ironing, and naturally when you are training.

Advanced Leg Raise Techniques

Level 2 – Continue the above exercise but instead of just raising your knee, extend your leg to the front, to the left side and to the rear. This will be more testing as your will have to counterbalance using your upper body, arms and head.

Level 3 – Stand on a wobble ball, narrow piece of wood, brick, log, stone. Whatever surface you use make sure it is steady and it can take your body weight. Similarly make sure the space around you is clear of objects and hazards in case you fall over.

Remember the slower you go the harder it is, and the more you develop the muscles and your mind. So we want slomo all the way. Remember to stand tall and smooth rather than jolted movements. If you felt the burn i.e. lactic acid in your muscles just give them a quick slap to disperse the lactic acid and then shake out the leg.

The Clock

If you genuinely didn’t find that too challenging then you are probably ready to move onto the next level.

  1. Using the elongating spine technique stand tall and relax the rest of the body.
  2. Make sure that you feel your body weight evenly distributed between your left and right feet.
  3. Now imagine you are in the centre of a clock i.e. in front to you is 12 o’clock to your right is 3 o’clock, directly behind you is 6 o’clock and to your left is 9 o’clock.
  4. Keep your eyes on a stable point in front of you or down on the ground.
  5. Body weight transfer all of your weight onto your right foot. Your left foot should be light enough to easily lift off the ground and you should feel fully balanced on your right.
  6. Staying tall with your body, raise your left foot off the ground and with your leg fully outstretched in front at 12 o’clock touch the ground with just the tip of your toe. DO NOT transfer your body weight into the left foot or to the ground. Only your toe for a second touches the ground. Be aware of the need to counterbalance with your upper body, head and arms.
  7. Bring back your left foot so it is under your body but NOT touching the ground.
  8. Now fully outstretch your left leg to 11 o’clock in the same way as instruction 5 above.
  9. Continue going anticlockwise around the clock.
  10. 6 o’clock is quite a stretch back with your toe.
  11. Things get tougher when you go trough, 5 & 4 o’clock
  12. 3 o’clock is quite a twist. It is possible with your leg still twisting round the back.
  13. 2 & 1 o’clock your foot is back round the front.
  14. Finish at 12 o’clock.
  15. Feel the muscles you have activated. Every twitching throbbing muscle you can feel are your stability muscles in your foot, ankle, knee, legs, hips and side ribs.
  16. If your feel the burn slap out any lactic acid.
  17. Now shake out your legs.
  18. Take a moment to relax.
  19. Well done.
  20. Now do all the same on your left support leg. However, this time you will go clockwise i.e. 12 o’clock, 1 o’clock, 2 o’clock………….
  21. The art of this exercise is to go around the clock as slowly as possible, then you get to develop the individual muscles more effectively. Plus you learn how to transition with due care. Remember stay tall, relaxed and breathe, it always help.

In part 2 we move onto more advanced stability and balance techniques. Meanwhile, let me know how you are doing by posting your comments and questions to http://facebook.com/wildforestgym.

Keep balancing until the next edition.

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