Ankle braces are great for preventing injuries in athletes who participate in sports with high risk of ankle injury. The question remains; should athletes wear ankle braces even during the off-season?
A study recently released by the Journal of Performance Health suggests that performing neuromuscular ankle training during the off-season without wearing an ankle brace significantly improves functional performance.
This study provides interesting information for all practitioners, physical therapists, coaches and athletes because it suggests that ankle strength can be improved upon safely during the off–season and that leaving the ankle brace on year round could have unintended effects.
The persistent ankle injury
Ankle injuries, sprains in particular, are one of the most common athletic injuries, accounting for up to 30% of all sport-related injuries. The problem with ankle sprains is that they frequently result in the weakening of tendons and ligaments, which can lead to chronic re-injury. Ankle injuries are notoriously persistent and can result in decreased functional performance.
Ankle braces are helpful in preventing injury and reinjury of an athlete, however using ankle braces throughout the year has been shown to have deleterious effects on the ankle over time. It appears ankle braces shift from being helpful to harmful in the absence of training and when the brace is worn too frequently.
To strengthen and improve functional performance of the ankle, various neuromuscular training programs have been developed. Research has found neuromuscular training programs can improve ankle stability and reduce the chance of future ankle sprains.
What the study tells us about ankle training
This study compared athletes who were considered brace-reliant or wore ankle braces during their competitive sport season, and athletes who were considered brace-naïve or who had never worn an ankle brace. Both sets of athletes completed a six-week neuromuscular ankle training program during their off-season.
Ankle functionality was measured objectively and subjectively through a series of tests and questionnaires. Interestingly, the brace-naïve athletes did not experience any change in functional performance over the six-week training program. However, the brace-reliant group had significant gains in the single-leg hop and single-leg stand with closed eyes.
The brace-reliant athletes also experienced a 30% improvement in their performance. Though these findings were not statistically significant, they could have real-world implications.
The findings of this study suggest ankle braces could limit the strength and ability of the ankle but neuromuscular training without a brace is a practical method for offsetting the negative impacts of ankle braces.
Off-season ankle training has its benefits
Both ankle braces and neuromuscular training have been linked to a ~50% reduction in recurrent ankle sprains. However, the key is to use each tool appropriately so they only improve functional ankle performance. Wearing an ankle brace too frequently prevents the ankle from strengthening. Practitioners should recommend athletes participate in neuromuscular training in the off-season carefully and without their ankle braces.