A few seconds ago you were in the air performing your favourite Cekongfan 侧空翻 (Aerial), Tengkong Feijiao 腾空飞脚 (Flying front kick), landing from a Sanda take-down or maybe just doing some hard conditioning after an exhausting training.
Anyways, now you’re lying on the ground in pain. Welcome to the sprained ankles club !
Ankle sprain, together with ACL injuries are with no doubt the most frequent injuries in Wushu, especially for high level athletes. In Wushu we mostly torn the outer edge of the ankle, but the advices you will find below are for any kind of sprained ankles.
I myself was a pro at spraining my ankles ! I have very flexible ankles (though its not a muscle) and I would get them sprained every 6 months to once a year. For a few years…
Until I finally found one miraculous solution : PROPRIOCEPTION
Prevent yourself from risks of injury
Before going through the proprioception exercises, it is important you start taking good habits and prevent the risks of stupid injuries. Most injuries happen when we train by ourselves, as instructors should prevent and now how to avoid injuries. But accidents can happen.
1) Control your diet
Some people sprain their ankles more often than others, while training exactly the same way. It can come from different reasons such as extra ankle flexibility. Being “overweight” can increase the risks. First, extra fat makes your body balance … unbalanced. Second, extra weight adds pressure on your joints so you’re making them very tired, not mentioning that when you do sprain your ankle, the pain and recovery time are increased when 80kg crash on to your ankle instead of 60kg. When you do barbell squats, you feel the pain of supporting extra weight right ? Now imagine your ankles.
Controlling one’s diet is not only for fighters but also for Taolu guys, especially if your style has a lot of jumps.
2) Warm up
You’d be surprised but lot of people don’t warm up before training. Beside the classic muscles warm-up, you HAVE to do joints warm up, from head to toes. Regarding ankles, below is ankle warm up 101 :
Turn them 360° in both directions with toes touching the ground
Turn them 360° in the air
Walk / Stand on inner and outer edges of your ankles
Sit down and use your hands to turn you ankles 360° in both directions
Massage your tendons and ligaments – This one is rarely done, but remember that Wushu is very demanding in general and especially for your lower body part (ankles, knees, legs, waist). You can’t warm up a bone, but note that your tendons and ligaments stabilize the foot and ankle and connect your sore muscles to you cute little bones. Be nice to them and give them a gentle massage with you thumb, index and middle finger by making them “roll” left to right.
The same massage can be applied when you are in the recovery phase after a sprain. Massage also the tendons close to your fibula (in red – Peroneus longus tendon & Peroneus brevis tendon) up to mid-level of your fibula, as most people will feel pain in this part after a sprain. When spraining the outer edge of ankle the main affected ligaments are generally the ATFL and the CFL (there are much more ligaments in the ankle but these are the 3 generally involved in sprains).
3) Avoid jumping when you’re super tired
Basically this is called overtraining, and it is never good. Do your jumps as part of your basics (jibengong) training and Taolu forms. BUT, if you are feeling especially tired or have done very exhausting training and already can’t really impulse power in your legs for jumps, just avoid jumping or just mimic the jumps.
You can do plyometrics to improve your jumps or other basic jumping conditioning but don’t do a hundred Xuanfengjiao 旋风脚 (tornado kick) at the end of a hard training or someday you will get injured.
4) Focus on your landing too
When we jump, we tend to focus more on the jump itself and the form we describe with our body in the air (staight legs, body, etc), and usually don’t put much attention on the landing as long as we land on our feet. This also leads to injury. When you are in the momentum where your whole body is in the air and you have done your rotations if needed, think of putting your body and feet in the correct position for landing. Imagine a pilot not thinking about getting the undercarriage out and stabilizing the plane before landing … Be a pilot of your body.
Your coach should be able to help with that.
Strengthen your ankles
Here we are. Proprioception.
If, like me, you are a spraining king or queen, you already know by heart physiotherapists exercises. However, cut through this vicious circle for good. It will add more training to your usual training plan but the good thing is I helped you select exercises that can easily be incorporate to your usual training, and will also improve your Wushu. You’re welcome.
1) Jump Rope
My favorite. Not only it strengthens your ligaments and tendons, increases your stamina, improves your overall rhythm and spring, but it is also a great warm up, more fun than running around the carpet / gym.
No wonder it’s a basic exercise in most fighting sports. That is also why Sanda athletes usually have way less ankle sprains than Taolu athletes.
You don’t have to do super fancy moves, just to basic front leg switch and side jumps at first. If you getting better and bored then watch boxing jump rope techniques and add them to your routine.
Add one set of 3 to 5 minutes jump rope to your daily warm ups for a start then you can increase the number of sets.
2) Agility ladder
A very helpful tool for Sanda and Taolu athletes too ! Besides working your entire legs up to the abs, it improves your coordination, explosive power, and also your stamina when done properly. A lot of exercises can be found online and they are all good for your ankles and all of the above. Look at the drills done by boxers, and include it to your warm up, this is fun.
3) Balance training
If you went to a physiotherapist after an ankle injury, which you should, then you must have used a stability plank, ball or cushion. Taijiquan athletes use stability tools a lot ! Besides strengthening your ankles, it will improve your overall balance and core and also strengthen your knees. These balance trainings are not only made for recovery but can also be used as part of your Wushu training. Add it to your after training recovery or conditioning or do it from home while watching TV or reading a book.
Stand on one foot, the other one in the air, and try to keep your balance. If it’s too easy, grab a dumbbell (4~8kgs) or a medicine ball (or any weight) and pass it from one hand to another by doing circles all around your waist to disturb your center of gravity. Do 10 circles to the right then 10 to the left, 4 sets. If you have a partner or a wall you can also throw the ball to your partner and catch when he throws it back to you without falling. Ask your partner to increase difficulty by throwing the ball at different levels and in different directions.
Another great exercise that will train your overall core, strengthen your ankles and knees and muscle up your legs is pistols (see below) ! Do 3 sets of 8~12 reps per leg with 2 minutes rest between sets.
Increase difficulty again by changing your stability tool. Usually “Bosu balls” (see above picture) are the easiest because it has a flat half – even though you can flip it over to increase difficulty.
If it is too easy, try a standing disk, then a round stability board, and if still too easy, then go for the stability ball also called Swiss ball. What I love with the stability ball is that it can also be used for many very effective core and abs workouts.
Standing disk (with Taijiquan champion Wu Yanan on it ! – shot in Shichahai) :
Round stability board VS stability ball / Swiss ball
A typical ankle reinforcement and jump training in China. stand on your feet, shoulder-level wide apart or closer. Raise your heels with speed, with the toes still touching the ground then slowly get your heels back. Add difficulty by getting them back to ground level without touching the ground, or put your toes on a stair / box to leave your heels in the air. You can touch a wall / grab a barre if needed for balance, but try not to rely on it for your balance. Keep your legs and spine straight all the way and engage your core. Do 3~4 sets of 20~40 reps.
Many other exercises exist but these are the most effective for Wushu. Tested and approved in China and Taiwan by myself. I didn’t sprain my ankles again since I started this 7 years ago.
Always ask a physiotherapist and your coach before doing these exercises !