A Dancer’s Guide to Managing and Preventing Knee and Ankle Pain

Knee and ankle pain can be worrisome for dancers (or any athlete!) 

As dancers it’s important to know that we ask a lot of our knees and ankles. Giving them the attention they need will go a long way in preventing knee and ankle pain from starting. 

Now, listen. I want to stress that if you’re experiencing knee or ankle pain, you have not failed and you are not doomed!

But there are a few things you should know about managing and preventing knee and ankle pain as a dancer. 


When To See a Doc and When to Self-Manage

There are number of things that could cause knee and ankle pain in dancers. 

From sprains and strains to muscle imbalances and more, the reasons you might experience knee or ankle pain are numerous. 

But before we dive into how to prevent and manage pain when it arises, I want to stress that there are signs for when it’s time to see a doctor. 

Generally speaking, if you hear a pop at the time of injury, if your knee or ankle swells suddenly, or if they are red or warm, those are indicators that it’s time to see a doctor. 

If you heard a pop and you can’t bear weight, it’s a good idea to seek urgent medical attention

However, if you’re experiencing knee or ankle pain with mild swelling or none of the above symptoms, there are a few things you can do to manage the pain – or prevent it from happening in the first place. 

Please note that if any of these exercises increase your pain, stop doing them right away and talk to a physical therapist or your doctor. 


Strengthen the Hips

If you’ve ever been to the physical therapist, you might know that where the pain is isn’t always the place that needs to be worked on. 

Strengthening your hips (abductors, adductors, psoas, and range of motion) has been shown in clinical trials to quickly reduce knee pain. In fact, athletes who focused on hip strengthening saw a resolution in their pain faster than athletes who didn’t!

And this makes sense because more studies have shown that weak hips are strongly correlated with knee pain.

Exercises like clamshells, lateral band walks, single-leg hip bridges, and single-leg deadlifts are all great for strengthening your hips. 

And don’t forget to add in some hip mobility exercises like these,  or these, from Coach Amber to bullet proof your training!

Check this video from Coach Mel for more hip strengthening inspiration!


Strengthen the Posterior

A strong posterior chain (glutes, hamstrings, and calves) helps you perform activities like, running, jumping, and changing directions. 

Many knee injuries occur during these types of activities. So, having a strong posterior chain is a fantastic way to prevent and manage knee pain. 

Deadlifts, Romanian deadlifts, squats, glute bridges, hip thrusts, and roman chair extensions, are fantastic at kicking on those glutes and hammies!


Strengthen the Quads

Strengthening the quads has been shown to decrease knee pain. 

So get those quads working with heel elevated squats, leg extensions, lying leg lifts, and terminal knee extensions (TKEs). 

Check out this video of Coach Amber doing her favorite “Happy Knees” exercises for inspo!

Notice how she incorporates both strength and mobility for a well rounded approach to knee health. 



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Strengthen the Calves

As mentioned earlier, the calves are part of your posterior chain. But when discussing knee and ankle pain the calves pull double duty. 

Strong and flexible calves support both healthy knees and healthy ankles and are a fantastic way to prevent and manage knee and ankle pain.

Now, as a dancer, you likely have spent most of your life doing heel raises.

So, to increase the intensity and benefit to your ankles and knees, I recommend that you do these heel raises rom a negative position. 

What does this mean? It means you’ll set up the balls of your feet on the edge of a stair or yoga block, and let your heels hang down. 

Make sure you keep your knees straight throughout this entire exercise without pushing into your hyper extension. (Harder than it sounds!)

This should give you a nice calf stretch. Then, from this extended position, perform your heel raises. 

This extended range of motion will increase the intensity of your heel raises and help strengthen the entire range of motion of your ankles. 


Practice Perfectly

One of the best ways to prevent knee and ankle pain is to ensure that you practice perfect practice. 

Say what?

Just like when you are dancing, when you are lifting or exercising, it’s important to ensure that you are practicing perfect form. 

Now, I don’t mean you have to be perfect. You are allowed to be a beginner. 

What I mean is, honoring where your body is each day and ensuring that everything you’re doing is being done with proper form and appropriate weight. 

As dancers we love to excel at things right away. But sometimes, to excel at something means to be wise about how you progress. 

Practicing this level of intentionality – even during your HIIT training- will help protect you from injuries that could lead to knee and ankle pain.

So, make sure your knees are tracking in a straight line over your toes (not pushing outward or inward).

Keep your core engaged to support your spine.

Choose an appropriate weight. 

And for Heaven’s sake, WARM UP!


Give the Joints a Break (Low Impact is a Friend)

If you are experiencing knee or ankle pain, it might be a good idea to cut back on your high-impact activities. (Just until you get your pain under control!)

Swap your run for a cycling or swimming work out. Trade in your HIIT training for a lifting session. 

Or, and this is really a crazy thought, add another rest day to your week. You might be surprised at how your body responds. 


Don’t Forget

The most important thing to remember about knee and ankle pain is: if it persists despite rest, ice, and these suggestions, it’s time to see a doctor. 

Seeing a doctor is not something to be afraid of- especially if your doctor can refer you to a good physical therapist who can help you!

Ultimately, seeing a doctor or PT will help you resolve the issue faster and prevent you from possibly doing more damage by ignoring the pain. 

And I promise, DWL will be here for you as you recover!

Want more from the Dancers Who Lift Blog? Check out these reads selected just for you: 9 Things Physical Therapists Want Dance Athletes to Know, What Not to Do With Plantar Fasciitis: Expert Advice for Dancers, Oh My, Quad! A Quad Workout for Dancers

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