Ask Stew: Ankle Sprains and Mobility


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 both 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 was a constant ankle sprainer when I played football and rugby in high school / college. I sprained my ankle so many times in fact, I had surgery when my ankle ligaments were detached and my ankle would dislocate when I took weight off of it (lay or sit down). This was mainly due to taping it up and playing in the game a few days after a sprain. And we all experience ankle pain when swimming with fins, but you do not want to swim (thinking it is non-impact option), because a sprained ankle and trying to swim 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. In fact, mix the two together. Do a 5 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 5 minutes. Repeat this cycle for 4-5 sets. Once the swelling is down, do a variety of bike -- 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 will eventually need surgery.

Building Up Ankle Mobility / Tolerance for Fins:

For swimming with 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 400-500m. Take the fins off and do another 400-500m without fins. Place the fins back on and try again until the ankle / foot pain is felt again. Repeat the swim with and without fins for 2000-2500m total workout (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.


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