Written by Dan Self
It wasn’t until 2018 when I started experiencing pain in my ankles from hiking. That was 6 years in to sailing the Laser, and 4 years in to sailing full time.
I wasn’t the only one.
In recent years, I have heard of more and more Laser sailors having ankle issues. They’re going upwind, and after 5 minutes of hiking, the pain becomes so unbearable that you have to go easy, and sacrifice upwind performance. By the time I would get to the top mark, my ankles would be so sore that I could barely tack to get on to the layline.
I tried so many methods to try and solve this issue - different hiking straps, different boots, different hiking strap lengths, foam rolling, taping, and a whole range of exercises.
This is my experience with solving this problem, and how I’ve transformed my body in to the most injury-proof and athletic its ever been (note that this is just my personal experience, this isn’t medical advice and I’m not a doctor, physio or medical professional).
When you’re hiking in a point-toe position, a lot of load is placed on the ankle and the front of the shin. If the muscle (Tibialis Anterior - AKA Tib Ant.) in the front of the shin is too weak, then the load from hiking will often be placed on the ankle joint and tendons (Tendon of tibialis anterior). This will be exacerbated if you have weak and/or tight calf muscles (Soleus and Gastrocnemius). The mobility of the calf muscle is a big driver in plantar flexion (foot pointing) ability. If you’re calves aren’t up to the task, you won’t be able to stretch well enough in to the point-toe position, and you will have to load up the ankle tendons.
Hiking Posture Weakness
Another big driver behind me overloading my ankles was weakness throughout my entire hiking posture. When my legs or core would begin to fail me while hiking, then my body would naturally resort to loading up my ankles.
This is one of the reasons why I begun using the hiking bench so routinely.
Another cause of overloading the ankles is poor hiking loading. When I wasn’t using a hiking bench, I might go for one week with zero hiking due to light winds, to hiking every day in a windy week.
This fluctuation in hiking load means that all of the soft tissue surrounding the ankle joint becomes unaccustomed to hiking, and easily injury prone.
Solutions to Ankle Pain for Laser Sailors
For a long time, one of the best solutions I had was strapping my ankles heavily before sailing. This would work well for some time, but eventually the tape would snap, and then I would be back to putting load on my ankles.
This is what my ankles used to look like before I would go sailing.
I would strap them like this every time before sailing. It simply wasn't sustainable.
I needed to improve myself physically.
I had to strengthen my Tibialis Anteriors and my calf muscles.
Thanks to my physio and strength coaches, I was able to start integrating some ankle work and calf strengthening in to my program, alongside my hiking bench routine.
Queue the ATG program.
I stumbled upon the ATG program online, and I consumed all of their content. It just made sense. The program advocates strengthening all of the structural muscles which are typically undertrained from the ground up.
These muscles also happen to be very important for Laser sailors. As Laser sailors, we typically have weak calves, imbalances in our quads, tight hip flexors, poor shin strength, and bad ankle mobility. These are some of the areas that the ATG program specifically focusses on, and I’m now regularly doing exercises to combat these like:
Tib Raise: This is probably the most important exercise for decreasing your ankle pain. It’s likely that you’ve never specifically trained the Tib Ant before, and starting to strengthen this muscle will do wonders for your ankles.
Calf Raises/Stretch: Getting a full range of motion in your calves, and being able to strengthen them in that range ensures that your feet will be able to point well enough to hike in a point-toe posture.
I have probably done 1000s of Calf Raises and Bent Knee Calf Raises by now. My ankles have never felt stronger.
Hip Flexor Mobility and Strengthening: Inadequate hip flexors are the reason that many Laser sailors suffer from back pain. But it’s also one of the reasons why your ankles might be getting sore. If your hip flexors are weak, you are going to begin putting more load through your legs while hiking, and this will filter down to more load through your ankles.
The Reverse Squat (hip flexor strengthening) is one of simplest, but most effective exercises you can do for strengthening your hip flexors.
When you get started with it, you will probably be surprised at how weak you are in this movement. I know I was.
To improve your hip flexor and quad mobility, the Couch Stretch (shown below) will help massively. It's painful, but if you do it consistently, you will improve. I do this exercise roughly twice per week, and have gone from barely getting my body above my knees, to having my back flat against the wall.
Since starting this program, I’ve never been stronger in my shins, or felt more stable through my ankles.
I’ve been using the program for over a year now, and I can honestly say it’s the best program I’ve ever done in terms of injury proofing. If you’re wanting to give the system a go, I would recommend starting with the ATG “Zero” program, then working up to Dense and finally Standards. If you're looking to try the program, comment below and I can hook you up with a sweet discount for your first month.
To strengthen my hiking posture and keep my hiking load consistent, there was only going to be one solution.
The solution is to consistently use the hiking bench, and the ensure that you have a baseline consistent hiking load throughout the season. I would recommend using the hiking bench at least 3 times per week. You should be doing this regardless of how windy it is on the water or how many times you're sailing.
The most important thing with using the hiking bench is to make sure you are using good technique.
Forget about how long you can hike for on the water. It will be much less on the hiking bench.
If you can only hike for 1 minute with your shoulders back, back straight, and your core, legs and glutes (butt) squeezed, great. Do that. And gradually increase that over time.