You might not see it as much in a standard recreational gym, but in the sports setting wrapping the ankles is a common practice. It’s a typical practice for athletes who spend a lot of time running, such as basketball players, but I even know freestyle and submission wrestlers who wrap their ankles religiously. Their usual list of necessary sports gear might include shorts, maybe a shirt, and ankle tape – and that’s not an exaggeration. Many even avoid cups, although they usually wear underwear.
Although there are a few reasons people tape their ankles, the most common is to restrict the range of motion. The idea is that if we limit the extremes of the ankle’s range of motion we can help prevent ankle injuries. Indeed, lateral ankle sprains account for most leg injuries. Some athletes and coaches have questioned how ankle wrapping affects an athlete’s ability to move. A study published this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning addressed this topic.
Let’s get to the bottom of the researchers’ conclusions, because there’s a fair bit to discuss here and not everything is as it seems. The researchers examined the role of taping in various joints, not just the ankle itself. They found that the ankle tape did not affect the motion of the ankle or knee on a treadmill running test, but it did reduce hyperextension of the hip. Since hip flexor tightness is an extremely common problem, this should be duly noted by all athletes and coaches who favor tape. There was no change in economy either, meaning it didn’t take more energy to overcome the stiffness of the tape while running.
Now, let’s get deeper into the results. There was a lot of individual variation in both of the above points. Some of the athletes did indeed experience increased energy demands and various alterations to their joint motions, although reduced hip mobility seemed to be pretty much universal.
I think for anyone involved in athletics, it’s important that we go beyond this particular study’s results. As mentioned earlier, lateral ankle sprains are the most common leg injury, but no one is getting a lateral ankle sprain on a treadmill, which is what the researchers used in their tests. Lateral ankle sprains come from more dynamic activities we find in the field, on the court, or on the mat, where the answer isn’t so clear-cut.
For an ankle wrap to be effective, it must limit the ankle’s range of motion. However, when dynamic demands are high, that motion needs to come from somewhere, and it may move up the chain. The researchers noted that some athletes feel more confident with their ankles taped, knowing they won’t roll an ankle, but the force required for dynamic movement might just move on up to the knee. It’s a bit of rhetoric, but I can comfortably say I’d rather sprain an ankle and be out for a game than pop a knee ligament if I had to choose between the two.
It’s clear that in fairly static activities, ankle wrapping doesn’t have much negative effect, except on hip mobility. But this isn’t really where we need ankle protection anyway. As the researchers note, more information is needed on the effects of ankle wrapping in a more dynamic setting. In the meantime, I’m going to keep my ankle strong through exercise and leave it unwrapped.
1. Sally Paulson, et. al., “Prophylactic ankle taping: Influence on treadmill running kinematics and running economy Running,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182a1fe6f.
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