Cycling with a sprained ankle – should you do it?

It is always a difficult question when you get injured to know if you can keep cycling or not. Indeed, some people do not only cycle for sport but also for commuting. Today we are going to look at a specific injury: the sprained ankle; which is when one or more ligaments in your ankle get stretched or torn to some extent. So should you be cycling with a sprained ankle?

Cycling with a sprained ankle is possible for a mild injury once you can support your weight without pain. Cycling is recommended in many recovery programs. Avoid using clipless pedals and make sure to ride sitting down without putting too much force on the pedal.

Of course, it is always best to check with your doctor first. Let’s look a bit more in detail at what to do and not to do with regards to cycling with a sprained ankle.

Understanding your sprained ankle

There are different levels of sprained ankles from mild to severe. It depends on how you damaged your ligament: from overstretched to torn. In this article, we will focus on mild sprained ankles, as they generally tend to heal on their own as long as you do not keep straining the injured area. It needs to rest to heal. But resting is not necessarily a synonym for no cycling.

In all cases, it is always best to check with a medical practitioner for the best advice on how to treat your sprained ankle; especially if you have a severe condition where immobilization for a few weeks can be needed.

The most common sprained ankles come from a torsion of the foot (brutal movement). I had one in the past when I missed a step on the stairs for instance. This type of injury affects the external lateral ligaments of the ankle. It’s the most common type of injury (90% of sprained ankles).

The most common area injured when facing a sprained ankle

Before you do anything, the first steps of healing a sprained ankle are:

  • Rest – until you can support your own weight on the foot without pain
  • Ice – to reduce the inflammation
  • Compress – use KT tape or compression socks if you can to help the blood flow
  • Elevate – to use the help of gravity to drain the inflammation

Can you bike with a sprained ankle?

You can bike with a sprained ankle, it’s part of the recovery process. Give a few days of rest to your ankle first, then try a light 20min bike ride – smooth and easy on the pedaling, and see how it feels. If it goes well, you can repeat it every few days and slowly increase the duration.

Physiotherapists will recommend you start riding your bike, or do some aquabike to start the recovery process. Indeed the cycling movement does not involve the lateral ligaments so it’s not a problem. Be careful at first not to overdo it. Your body will only tell you later after the ride if that was too early by feeling pain again, or by having the ankle swollen again. So start riding gently for 20-30 minutes maximum, remain seated, and avoid putting high power on your ankle in the first few days. It is best to focus on keeping the cadence up and the power low: grinding your bike!

Injurymap, CC BY 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

How long should you wait before riding with a sprained ankle?

Before riding with a sprained ankle, you should wait until there is no more pain when you put your weight on your ankle. It can take a few days to a week for mild injuries. Then you can do a test ride and see how it feels. Your body will tell you if you need more rest.

I have asked my physiotherapist when it is best to start cycling with a mild sprained ankle and he replied “as soon as the pain of putting your feet on the floor goes away”. He also explained that cycling is generally part of the recovery period of sprained ankles.

Exercise bike or outdoor cycling after a sprained ankle?

Cycling after a sprained ankle is best done on a stationary bike. It will eliminate the risk of injuring yourself with a wrong movement when putting your foot down in the streets. Especially if you are riding clipped in.

So, it is best to ride indoors if you can. For instance, you can use an exercise bike at the gym or at home if you own one, or put your bike on the turbo trainer. If you are wondering if you could buy a cheap turbo trainer and use it with your bike, feel free to read this article I wrote about setting up a hybrid bike onto a turbo trainer. You can put any type of bike on a turbo trainer, especially on cheap ones (non-smart) which use a basic wheel-on system).

Road cycling after a sprained ankle?

Road cycling after a sprained ankle is possible. You need to avoid clipless pedals, make sure to ride gently (fast pedaling without much effort on the pedals) and reduce the duration of your rides. It’s not the time to do a 60mi ride.

Why should you avoid clipless pedals?

Clipless pedals should not be an issue to your ankle while cycling unless you got the injury while cycling due to a bad set-up leading to torsion on your ankle. But that’s unlikely to be the case. The reason clipless pedals are not ideal when recovering from a sprained ankle is the torsion movement you need to do to unclip. You need to move your heel sideways and this could stretch the ligaments injured.

What to remember about cycling after a sprained ankle?

  • Rest until you don’t feel pain when adding weight to your foot
  • Make a test ride – up to 30min long – low power and spinning easily the legs
  • Ride indoors when possible
  • Remain seated
  • Avoid clipless pedals if you ride outdoors
  • Listen to your body – if it hurts or gets swollen after riding, rest longer
  • Always check with your doctor if it doesn’t feel like it’s healing correctly

And don’t forget that this only applies to mild injuries. In the case of medium and severe injuries, please go see a doctor immediately. You will probably need much longer rest and some kind of support to keep your ankle in place.

Please find below another topic about recovery that may be of interest to you after reading this article:

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