Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 

 

I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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