Saturday, May 28th I ran the Vulture’s Knob 15K trail race down in Wooster, Ohio with a bunch of friends. For anyone who is not familiar with the location, it is a mountain bike trail built in part, on top of an old landfill. The terrain is hilly, rocky, and on this particular day, due to recent storms, waterlogged and muddy. There were places where narrow single track hills were narrow creek beds running ankle deep. A shorter race means a faster pace and on this kind of terrain that means a certain amount of risk. For me, I took off from the starting line with the lead pack and was determined to stay as far toward the front as I could for the duration of the race and the strategy paid off, although there were a few scary moments.
From late summer last year, through several fall races and even through the late winter of 2011, I had chronic mild ankle sprains, especially of my left ankle. Nothing requiring crutches, but a whole lot of ice and a few skipped runs. Any time I stepped wrong, that ankle just seemed to want to turn over. How did it hold up during Vulture’s Knob? Great! Did I get super lucky? Well, I never want to totally discount chance but I did spend a few months trying very hard to get both ankles stronger and now they are. Want to know what I did?
I started with more standard ankle exercises that many of you have probably heard of already. I drew the alphabet in the air in front of me with my toe, I pointed my toes then pulled them up toward my head, I stood on one foot while brushing my teeth. My ankles felt better but I still had trouble if I stepped just wrong enough and over enough training miles that will happen from time to time. Switching to a trail shoe with less heel cushion so that the heel of my foot is closer to the ground did help but most of my improvement I attribute to one simple exercise. I began to do single foot raises every day. Any time I found myself with a little time, waiting for coffee to be done or waiting in line at a store, I would balance on one foot and pop up on my toes as high as I could go without holding onto anything for help. For the first week this meant getting halfway up and losing my balance and having to put my other foot down before trying again. Now I can do ten or more of these in a row. I can even hold my other leg out behind me or way off to the side and keep going. There are no weights involve, no equipment, I do these barefoot or in shoes. There is a bit of mental discipline in terms of remembering to do them but that’s really the hardest part.
During the Vulture’s knob race I did step wrong on that foot a little bit two times that I remember. I felt my ankle start to turn but my body seemed to make a decision to push up onto and then off of my forefoot. I say my body decided because I was already into my next stride as I noticed what had happened. Any motion that you repeat enough times will become reflex. People will look at you funny in the grocery store or where ever else you happen to be when you realize that really you need to keep practicing your ankle exercises. You will get very tired of doing this ankle exercise if you really take it seriously but then you’ll find that it gets to be a habit and you just do them all the time. Fifty or so a day spread across five or even ten sessions is a great number to do. Any number more than one is better than none. I don’t even really keep an exact count of them, but I do know that for three races in a row now I have been completely free the recurring sprained ankle.