Achilles TLC: Tendon-Loving Care
The Achilles tendon is more vulnerable in the first part of any activity when the tissue is cold and the tendon and calf are stiff; and at the end, when fatigue is setting in, and the muscles are not doing as good a job as shock absorbers. So the experts’ advice is to include warming up and cooling down in your workout.
“Warming up well includes toe raises, stretching of the calf and loosening up the ankle with rotations,” says Dean Kleinschmidt, Coordinator of Athletic Medicine at the Detroit Lions. “Sitting in a chair, take each ankle without a shoe on, work it around in a circle and take it to the extremes of its range of motion. You need to start by getting the blood boiling, gently.”
Achilles tendon care through stretching exercises should especially focus on the lower leg. Several times a day, stand facing a wall with one foot in place and the other foot all the way back. Keep the back heel on the floor, the back knee straight and the toes pointed to the wall. Lean forward, still with your back leg straight, until you feel a pull in the calf. Hold for 15 to 20 seconds. That stretches the calf. Do the same thing with the knee slightly bent, and that focuses the stretch on the Achilles.
Using the stairs is another key to Achilles tendon care. One study looked at 15 recreational athletes with Achilles pain so severe they could no longer run. After 12 weeks of stair stretches, all of them were back running. A control group with the same level of impairment went through rest and other kinds of physical therapy not including the stair stretches, and ultimately all had to go on to surgery.
A low section of stairs is a good place to perform this exercise, and it helps if you raise your arms to steady yourself. Facing upstairs, stand with the forefoot of the afflicted leg on the edge of a stair, the un-afflicted leg suspended. Lower the body, using the afflicted leg, with leg straight or with knee bent. Straight-legged, you stretch the calf. Bent-legged, you stretch more on the Achilles. To lift the body again, use the un-afflicted leg. The value of this exercise comes from stretching only on the decelerative (downward) part of the cycle. If both legs are afflicted, then do the exercise one leg at a time.
The Achilles tendon care program developed from this study recommended three sets of 15 repetitions, twice daily for 12 weeks. The subjects were told to expect muscle soreness during the first one or two weeks. When they could do the exercise without any minor pain or discomfort, participants were told to increase their load incrementally by adding weight in a backpack.