Updated: May 5, 2020
If you look at any team of gymnasts practicing or competing, it looks like they are going to war with their ankles. At almost any level, you'd be hard pressed to see an entire team of gymnasts and zero taped or braced ankles.
What often goes unrealized though, is that gymnasts have a secret weapon in the war against ankle sprains, they just need to know how to operate it - their toes.
The Barefoot Battalion
Gymnastics being a barefoot sport has its pros and its cons, but for foot stability it is definitely a pro. The lack of footwear allows the athlete to use all of their toes and intrinsic foot muscles to create a stable but flexible base to hold up the rest of the body.
Take soccer players, for example. If they begin to roll to the outside of their foot, the whole cleat begins to roll and no matter how hard they may push with their big toe, they will likely not upright their foot again. But for a gymnast, if they have the kinesthetic awareness and motor control, they may be able to use their big toe to ground themselves in the fight against a sprained ankle and a few weeks sidelined.
Something I always tell athletes I work with is that if your big toe, your pinky toe and your heel are on the ground at the same time, you will *likely* never roll your ankle. (Yes, yes, I understand in gymnastics mats slide and equipment moves and an exception to this rule is possible, but not likely.)
Achieving this "tripod stance" is much easier when you have control over all parts of your feet individually, and they aren't just flopping around like this lady's. (Imagine trying to do gymnastics in flippers?!
So if I have strong, well controlled feet I'll never sprain my ankle?
I'd love to say yes, but that is not exactly the case. There are a few factors that go into ankle stability, but in my experience the forefoot and toes are the most overlooked. We need to also look at strength and coordination of the actual ankle muscles, as well as look up the chain at the hips. Nothing in the body works on its own!
When are ankles most often sprained? In my experience it is typically on landings of skills. So, while foot and ankle stability is important it can only take so much force coming down from the whole body. If the force coming down from the hips is pushing the ankles out, our feet stand little chance in this battle. We want that force to be coming down as straight as possible to allow the feet to evenly distribute it between the big toe, little toe, and heel. Remember that "tripod stance?".
Even athletes who "came down wrong" or "landed funny" and end up with a traumatic ankle sprain, likely had some underlying limitations in foot stability or poor landing positions. So it isn't usually a "freak accident" but more like a leaky pipe that eventually completely broke down.
How do we fix this?
While gymnastics helps to develop foot and toe control, most of the rest of modern live works to destroy it. We are constantly wearing shoes with thicker and thicker soles that limit our need/ability to work and develop those intrinsic foot muscles.
Landing positions also are something that need to be worked on and constantly reinforced. As bodies develop and grow and skills get harder, perfecting those landing positions is a must to maintain healthy joints. To get my FREE guide to preventing ankle sprains click here, or to get started right away with my 4 week program aimed at working on developing those feet, ankles and landing positions click here.