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Tips for Exercising with an Ankle Injury

For the first time in years I’m having trouble motivating myself to exercise. I’m not training for anything – all of my energy is focused on recovering and healing. While exercise is definitely an important part of that, my limited abilities are a total downer.

If you don’t mind me borrowing from Beyonce, “I’m not feeling like myself since the baby” ankle injury. My drive is muddled in feeling frustrated and trying to moving forward. My focus is on improving my ankle motion, depriving myself of sugar in the name of healing (AKA eating the best nutrients I can every day), managing inflammation, improving circulation, and trying to figure out how much pain is alright.

I don’t have a ton of mental energy to get creative with my workout. Especially since I can’t actually drive myself to the gym and crutching there may kill me. I have no experience working out at home, and so far I have to be honest, I hate it. Going to the gym is a reset. Even if I don’t feel like exercising, once I’m in the gym that feeling disappears 95 percent of the time.

How to Exercise With an Ankle or Foot Injury

Despite my whining, it’s fully possible to get a great workout without weight-bearing on an injured foot/ankle. Bonus, you’ll heal faster if you do.

Exercising with an ankle injury

1. Change Your Priorities

The last time I was off my ankle, my arms and core were solid. I returned to CrossFit being able to do things that were impossible for me before. Sure, you’ll have to build up your leg strength and balance again, but that doesn’t mean you can’t fine-tune something else. All is not lost.

Target your weaknesses and focus on setting yourself up for a quick, safe return. I’m focusing on hip strength and stability (yes, even without weight-bearing), core strength, and getting rid of imbalances between my arms.


2. Embrace a New Focus

I fight change like a boxer. I refuse to let it go, even when it’s clearly going to win anyways. Before I hurt my ankle I was working on running further faster and improving my leg strength. Weeks before surgery, I hit my previous squat PR.

After surgery I’ve had to let go of all of that. You can’t mourn the strength you are losing or the effort that was “wasted.”

Put all of that energy into something new. I’m all in on my recovery.


3. Track Your Progress

I write down what I’ve done each day to recover and heal, including how I felt and the quality of my sleep. Your workout journal is a great place for this. My phone is full of (nasty) pictures of my incisions so I can scroll through and remind myself how much as changed and how far I’ve come. (Pro tip: These are also great for freaking out your family and friends. You’re welcome.)

Same goes for my workouts. I write down what I did that day, if anything caused pain, and if anything was too easy/hard.


4. Drop the Comparison

You wouldn’t say any of the shit running through your head to someone else with a similar injury. Stop comparing yourself to what you used to be able to do. Yes, it’s disorienting and frustrating. Quit being an ass to yourself (talking to myself here).

An injury is a clean start. Stop looking back at what you used to do and explore what you can do now. I’ve stopped flipping through my workout log to decide on weights. Instead of failing at them and feeling less than, I’m listening to my body and getting a solid workout.


5. Plan

This is the most important. Go into your workout, whether at home or in the gym, with a general idea of what you are going to do. Leave room for making adjustments based on how you feel (and the availability of equipment). This will stop you from wasting time once you get going and will make exercising so much easier.


Exercises to Do When You Have an Ankle or Foot Injury

This is not an exhaustive list, but it’s what I’ve been working with so far. This list is for people who cannot weight-bear at all. These exercises are perfect if you are in a boot/cast or are on crutches.

  1. Russian Twists: use a plate, medicine ball, or dumbbell to make these more difficult
  2. Bird Dogs: put a balance pad beneath your knees for added difficulty
  3. Fire Hydrants on hands and knees
  4. Hamstring Curls with resistance band or machine. I’ve been doing it like this.
  5. Side Plank 
  6. Plank with injured leg raised out to the side or draped over other foot
  7. 1 Leg Pushup: Hello, core. Or pushups on both knees, increase reps or add weight to your back for a challenge
  8. Pull Ups: Play with grip, embrace the weight of your cast/boot/brace
  9. Dips
  10. Ab Roll Outs: AKA accidental faceplants if you are me.
  11. V-Ups & Boat Pose
  12. Supermans
  13. Kneeling/seated lat pull down with resistance band or cable machine
  14. Kneeling tricep rows on bench or floor
  15. Side Leg Raises
  16. Leg Raises
  17. L-sits & L-hangs
  18. Seated bicep curls or really any seated arm exercise


Exercising with an Ankle or Foot Injury

Ride a stationary bike. No, you probably can’t go to SoulCycle, although by all means ask your doctor. My doctor got me on the bike in my cast for five minutes at no resistance. I’ve slowly built up to 10-15 minutes in my boot, still with no resistance. 100 percent ask before trying this if you are not supposed to be weight-bearing.

Swim. Be sure to have proper support for your injury (tape or brace), no kicking, and don’t push off of the wall with your injured foot/ankle.

Arm cycle. No one wants to do it, but it will definitely get your heart rate up.

Row. Put your injured leg on a skate board and go for it. Personally I feel off-balance when I try this, but see how it feels to you.


What have you tried? Are there any other good non-weight bearing exercises?

4 Responses

  1. Anna says:

    You don’t do ALL these exercises during one sitting, do you? Can you give me an example or a couple example workouts that you do per sitting? I’m in the same situation as you and have been stumped at what I can do with an ankle injury and how to get back on track to some semblance of a regular workout schedule.

    • Mandy says:

      Hi Anna, Thanks for the comment. I’m sorry to hear about your ankle injury

      I definitely don’t do all of these on a single day! I try to do about 30 minutes of strength work and 15-30 minutes of cardio when I go to the gym. For the strength I try to balance my arm vs leg work throughout the week. Cardio has been a challenge. Right now I’m able to ride the bike and swim without kicking or pushing off with my injured foot. I’d highly recommend asking your doctor or physical therapist what kind of cardio you are cleared to do. Even if it’s just the hand bike, it’s something!

      Here are a couple of workouts I did this week:

      “leg day”
      1. 5 sets of 10 Kneeling “squats”: you can do these with or without weight, just be careful to not put any weight into your foot or on the front of your ankle. Like this. If you aren’t in a boot, do these on a box so your ankle can hang off the edge to prevent pressure or weight on it.

      2. 8 supine bar rows: cross bad ankle over good, hold foot up off the ground, or keep heel on the ground if light weight-bearing okay.

      3. 10 push ups

      Note: 1 cycled through exercises 1-3 as a set for a total of 5 rounds with about a minute rest or less between each set.

      4. Cardio: total of 30 minutes on a spin bike, 15min in boot, 15 min in ankle brace+shoe

      5. 3×15 side leg raises
      6. 3×15 glute bridge (I just got the go ahead on these this week as I am now weight-bearing). You can put your legs over a bench so your calves rest on the bench and your heels hang over the edge to do these without pressure on the ankle.
      7. Stretch out glutes and hamstrings on the ground.

      Arms and abs
      1. Bench press (I did 8 rounds of 3 heavy reps)
      2. Between each set of bench, tricep rows kneeling on the bench with good leg down for stability.
      3. 3×20 Russian twists with medicine ball or weight
      4. 3×10 V-ups
      5. Cardio of your choice (I did 15 minutes on the bike per doctor’s instructions)
      6. Stretch

      I hope that helps! Let me know if you think of something else that I can add to list.

      • Anna says:

        Thank you for the sample workouts. Those are definitely doable and definitely breaks it down into easy pieces. If you can think of any more sample workouts, I would totally appreciate it!

        How often are you working out? Every day? Every other day?

        Are you doing these at the gym or at home?

        • Mandy says:

          I still can’t drive, so I’ve been going to the gym three times a week when I can get a ride and working out at home on other days when I feel motivated. I also have physical therapy exercises that I do every day at home.

          How much you work out is really up to you. In the first few weeks after surgery I just didn’t have the energy to work out more than maybe twice a week if at all. Now I feel like I could do at least a little something every day. I’m trying to focus on healing right now, and I keep reminding myself that I can get back into my daily workouts when I’m able to do more.

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