Ask Stew: How to Keep Working Out Despite a Sprained Ankle

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Seabees ride stationary bikes in the gym at Camp Natasha, Afghanistan.
Seabees of Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74 ride stationary bikes for cardio exercise in the gym at Camp Natasha, Afghanistan, Sept. 1, 2009. (Chief Petty Officer Ryan Wilber/Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 74)

Ankle pain during swimming with fins is common and happens to everyone, especially if your ankle mobility is negligible. It takes time -- even several weeks -- to acclimate to swimming longer distances with fins. Also, if you have a history of ankle sprains, it could take longer.

Here is a question about recovering from ankle sprains and not losing cardio conditioning, as well as how to put on the fins again and swim without ankle pain.

Mr. Smith,

I have followed a lot of your tips and have seen a significant improvement in my fitness, but recently I twisted my ankle, and I have given it a good amount of rest for at least 3 weeks. Now I'm starting to work out again, but my ankle still hurts. I can't run for very long due to this. I have twisted my ankle a couple of times before as well. I cannot even swim. It hurts so bad and just flops around -- much less wear fins while swimming. What do you recommend for that, too? I will go to a doctor and see what he has to say, but I would really like to hear your opinion on this matter. Thank you 

Yes, I sprained my ankle so many times when I played football and rugby in high school/college that I had surgery because my ligaments were detached. My ankle would dislocate when I took weight off of it while lying or sitting down. This was mainly due to taping it up and playing in a game a few days after an injury. 

We all experience ankle pain when swimming with fins, but you do not want to swim (thinking it is a non-impact option), because trying to swim with a sprained ankle is very painful -- more so than running even. 

But here are some ideas for you to do when you cannot run or swim.

Get on the bike and ice. Mix the two together. Do a five-minute, hard bike ride at moderate to high resistance levels (as long as there is no pain pushing). Then hop off the bike and place your foot in a bucket of ice water for five minutes. Repeat this cycle for 4-5 sets. 

Once the swelling is down, do a variety of bike or Lifecycle/rowing workouts to get your cardio. I like pyramid workouts where the next minute is harder than the previous minute, either with resistance or speed. The next step is testing the ankle on the elliptical machine. That requires some more mobility. Do these events in place of running or swimming (unless swimming does not hurt), and within a week or two, you will be able to run without pain.

Once no pain is felt, try both running (straight lines, longer distance but no agility yet) and swimming. However, continuous ankle sprains may occur without good braces or wrappings, and if you continue to get these sprains, you eventually will need surgery.

Building Up Ankle Mobility and Tolerance for Fins

Build up your ankle tolerance and mobility over a few weeks by swimming as long as you can with your big SCUBA fins. This may be 400-500 meters. Take the fins off and do another 400-500 meters without fins. Place the fins back on and try again until the ankle and foot pain is felt again. Repeat the swim with and without fins for a total workout of 2,000-2,500 meters (or more if you are capable.) In about a month, you will notice very little pain even for longer fin swims of 1-2 miles.

Stew

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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