What A Cheetah Can Teach You About Your Sprained Ankles. ! 

Cheetah Design & Ankle Sprains

You might have more in common with a cheetah cat than you might think. All predators must adapt or starve, and once upon a time you and I were no exception! The mechanisms by which our DNA is reprogrammed to suit the demands of our environment is up for debate, but there is no doubt that it can and it must adapt with the passage of time. Evolution is however a process fraught with compromise, it’s not easy to have your prey and eat it too!!!

Looking at a cheetah, it’s easy to see that this is an animal that could never have evolved in a dense jungle or on the side of a mountain, they are speed machines designed for open terrain. It should also be quite easy to get a sense that like ourselves the cheetah is highly susceptible to a sprained ankle or 3. The cheetah has traded off the muscularity and relative low centre of gravity common to all other large cats in favour of speed. In doing so it made itself far delicate and far more susceptible to injury. 

The cheetah is an animal that can teach you a lot about the cause of sprained ankles.

Both you and the cheetah are predatory mammals who are susceptible to sprained ankles.

Long delicate limbs are more predisposed to trauma for the same basic reasons that the long thin tree branches are susceptible to high winds, physics. Consider this basic fact, then add a daily dose of the highly explosive forces that a these cats unleash when they chase prey.  

Cheetah ask a lot of their delicate ankles as they accelerate from 0-110kmph in 3 seconds, not on a running track but on uneven ground. Then add in frequent changes of direction travelling at top speed. Pretty unbelievable. If all that isn’t a gourmet recipe for badly sprained ankles I don’t know what is .. and sure enough they are prone not only to ankle sprains but many other leg injuries. Unfortunately for the Cheetah these injuries are often life threatening, if they cannot run they live on time borrowed from starvation. For you ankle sprains are not life threatening, but they may be far more ‘quality of life threatening’ than you might think.

Evolutionary Trade-Offs

In essence the cheetah is prone to leg injuries like sprained ankles because of combined challenges they face. Long thin limbs + lifestyle/hunt-style + environment = sprained ankles. These basic challenges they have directly in common with you, even though you aren’t a speed machine… sorry but you’re just not.

Concessions are made by all predators in order to meet the challenges presented by their prey. Killer whales are perfectly adapted for dispatching very large prey items under water, but their size and strength is their weakness if they are beached. African wild dogs are mentally and physically adapted to be cooperative team players of the highest caliber. Left alone however their adaptations mean their environment will swallow them up, unlike a lone leopard who thrives in the exact same environment. All strength and all specialisation in hunters comes with great sacrifice. You are no exception!!!

Like a cheetah you are highly susceptible to a raft of injuries including the sprained ankle.

Like the cheetah have your own physical design + lifestyle + environment combination that predisposes you to the likes of back pain, plantar fasciitis and sprained ankles. These factors relate to your ancient genetic past and how it interacts with your modern environment and lifestyle. There are several key factors in this interaction that challenge you, so we best address them individually. 

Your Predisposition Towards Injury

You have Long Legs 

You can’t match the flamingo or the giraffe for long thin legs relative to overall body mass. On the other hand you are far less sedate than those animals both of whom have a preference to move very slowly and delicately due to their long limbs. Similarly to the giraffe and flamingo you have a very high centre of gravity. As discussed earlier, long thin legs are just more prone to breakages, both of bone & soft tissue ! It’s nothing personal, just physics. 

Image depicting how susceptible humans are to sprained ankles or ankle sprains.

Long limbs are less stable than short limbs.. it’s just physics.

Like the cheetah you are adapted to fit your largely predatory purpose. Your long limbs enable you to see better in open spaces and reach up to high places, they increased your stride length, and are great leverage for throwing stuff should you feel the urge. All this made you such a good hunter that you changed the game forever. The trade offs of standing so tall include loss of stability, predisposition towards injuries like back pain and sprained ankles and a tragic reduction in top speed (have you tried out sprinting a dog recently?). 

You Only Have 2 Legs 

When it comes to sports injuries like sprained ankles 4 legs are most definitely better than 2. When you shift the work  from 4 to 2 legs suddenly each leg doubles the amount of weight bearing it must do during the the course of a year. Twice the work means double the wear and tear and potentially double the risk of injuries like the sprained ankle. 

As a tie in with the long leg topic, shifting to 2 legs elevates your centre of gravity and completely de-stabilises your framework. Think probability of tall tee coming down in storm vs a bush coming down in storm. Once again the sprained ankle predisposition we have starts to look like straight forward physics. 

You Are an Endurance Athlete 

There is by and large a consensus about your evolutionary design blueprint being that of a distance runner. In reality it is probably one aspect of your adaption given that you are such a behaviourally flexible creature. One thing is for sure, pound for pound you are slow as hell compared to your predatory mammal cousins. I challenge you to name a large land based animal that weighs roughly what you do who you can outrun!? 

We are however as a species very good at plodding over long distances. One of the most ancient forms of hunting our ancestors developed was (and still is for some) the persistence hunt. The persistence hunt involves tracking a large animal on foot, relentlessly until it drops down from exhaustion.. humans can do that!!! 

In a slightly pathetic and low key way, when I look at my day it isn’t too dissimilar to that persistence hunt scenario. The act of leaving from my home, going out into the world, doing some exercise, seeing 25 patients and then walking home is in its own way that endurance plod. Consider the fact that other predators like lions engage in highly explosive hunting methods and then sleep for more than 20 hours a day. We are good at covering distance steadily. 

This endurance principle may have its own way of exposing us to injuries like back pain, shin splints, meniscus tear and sprained ankles. Extremely high mileage means repetitive strain for the bodies tissues, even if we are moving with perfect efficiency… which most modern humans are not. High mileage can pre-load and pre-weaken the tissues leaving them seriously open to injury events. Injury events that are then usually followed by yet more high mileage. While the cheetah is exposed to sprained ankles by virtue of being highly adapted to speed, we may be predisposed through being highly adapted to endurance. 

Obviously many of us are no longer subject to this factor given that our lifestyles often intensively sedentary.

You Live on Urban Terrain 

Those cheetahs we were talking about are presumably somewhat more at risk of ankle sprains through moving over unpredictable and uneven terrain covered in small obstacles.

You are placed at increased risk of injury and ankle sprain by virtue of your environment too, but for very different reasons from the cheetah. 

Your ancestors evolved and adapted biomechanically to live outdoors with their bare feet in the mud. When you walk outdoors the ground absorbs shock and also more often than not conforms to the shape of your foot .. that’s called a footprint. All that has changed now though.

Image of urban terrain which is a risk factor for sprained ankles.

Hard flat surfaces have a toxic effect on your ankles, like sugar has a toxic effect on your teeth.

If you live in the city and you aren’t a hopeless couch potato you take 3-5 millions steps per year on hard unnatural terrain. Every time your heel strikes concrete the force travels through the soft tissues of your ankle. So just to be clear.. that’s millions of steps per year on ground that’s much harder than nature intended for you. This exaggerated repetitive strain on the soft tissues may predispose them to injuries like sprained ankles and back pain over the course of a lifetime. 

So due to the delicate nature of your designs you and the cheetah are both susceptible to changes in terrain, the cheetah from moment to moment, you from one generation to the next.

Conclusion 

If you have issues with a sprained ankle or 3  you are not alone! Regardless of what your evolutionary past and the rest of nature has to say about ankle sprains, the important stuff is really around what you are going to do to heal and stop them from happening. 

Understanding the fact that we are heavily predisposed to sprained ankles by our genetics but also by our environment and lifestyle can be useful. Understanding can help you to get used to the idea that you may always need to do something to make sure your ankles are strong, healthy and not over stressed. Having the right tools and the right help from the right people can then make a whopper of a difference to the likelihood of you getting ankle sprains and all the unwanted crap that goes with them in the longer term.

 

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