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swollen achilles tendon, achilles tendon pain, achilles tendon injuries, achilles tendon excercises

Beating the pain of swollen Achilles

Swollen Achilles and tendon pain in the area can represent a serious setback in training and competition, as well as a tremendous inconvenience in day to day life. Achilles experts often recommend that you stay away from training for anywhere from two weeks to two months to allow proper healing from swelling in the area.

However, there's one major problem: all of your rest and therapy have merely returned you to the activity which caused your swollen Achilles problem in the first place. In essence, you're back to square one - ready to re-injure your Achilles. Since you haven't identified exactly what caused your Achilles to flare up in the first place, you're bound to repeat your previous patterns. And that lousy old Achilles is likely to get red-hot again very soon.

The truth is that what you really need is a nostrum that will make your Achilles tendons so fortress-like that they won't bother you again - even when you undertake very intensive training.

How the Achilles tendon works

If you're like most athletes, you probably think that the calf muscles and Achilles tendons provide the key propulsive force needed to stride forward when you run. That makes a certain amount of intuitive sense, since as you 'toe off' at the end of each contact with the ground, your heel rises as your foot rocks forward toward your toes. It's logical to think that the calf muscles are pulling actively on the Achilles tendon and heel at that point, lifting the heel right off the ground and helping you explode from one foot over to the other.

Except it just doesn't happen that way, there are many other aspects to consider:

  1. The calf muscles are most active just before footstrike, at initial footstrike, and just after footstrike occurs.
  2. During the stance phase, the calf muscles actually become progressively less active.
  3. Just before and at toe-off, the calf muscles are completely quiescent (in contrast to the popular belief that they are rocking the foot forward toward the toes).
  4. During the 'swing' phase (when the leg moves back and then forward while the foot is off the ground), the calves don't become active again until shortly before footstrike.

This tells us that the key function of the calf muscles and Achilles tendon is not to contract vigorously to provide a highly propulsive toe-off (they can't do that since they're not active at toe-off). It's true that the calves and Achilles do help with toe-off, but this help is provided by their natural elastic recoil from a stretched position, not by active work.

Four essential achilles tendon exercises

What you really need are exercises that force the calves and Achilles to work eccentrically and in concert with the other key muscles of the legs in a manner specific to running. These exertions mimic what actually happens to your Achilles and calves when you run - and will eventually make those tissues so tough and steely that injury will be a very, very remote possibility. Best of all, by giving you better control of ankle flexion during running, these exercises will prevent wasted energy.

You'll also be glad to know that you need just four achilles tendon exercises, not a full battery of drills and exertions. These fine four will take you just a few minutes each day, a small time investment considering the benefits to your overall athletic performance. The first exercise is called the Eccentric Knee Squat.

To complete the Eccentric Knee Squat, stand facing a wall with posture erect, feet shoulder-width apart, and your toes just a few inches from the wall. Then, simply bend your legs at the knees, while keeping your upper body upright, so that your knees lightly touch the wall. You may have to adjust the distance from your feet to the wall to accomplish this effectively. Return to the starting position, and then bend your legs at the knees again, but this time point your knees to the left as you move them toward the wall. Note that this produces a dandy 'eversion' (outward movement) of the right heel, which is exactly what happens to your heel when you pronate during the stance phase of running. What happens is that this motion replicates the twisting forces applied to the Achilles and calves during running, helping them to fortify themselves in a rotational as well as straight-ahead plane. Return to the starting position, and then bend your legs at the knees again, but this time move your knees toward the right, giving your left heel a nice eversion. Come back to the starting position to finish the cycle (straight-ahead, left, and right). Repeat several more times, and your first experience with the Eccentric Knee Squat is over.

Over time, the two-footed Eccentric Knee Squat will become a piece of cake for you. That will be the signal for you to abandon the two-footed version of this exercise and move on to the one-footed Eccentric Knee Squat. This squat is exactly like the two-footed exertion, except that now full body weight is on one foot, as it is when you run. You repeat the same pattern (straight-ahead, left, and right) which you used for two-footed eccentric squatting, carry out several reps on one foot, and then move over to the other one. The toe of the non-weight-bearing foot can be tucked neatly against the heel of the weight-bearing foot as you complete the drill. You'll soon find that the one-footed knee squat is an absolutely dynamite activity for boosting Achilles and calf strength - in the same planes of motion (front to back, side to side, and rotational) which are present during the stance phase of running!

Your second achilles tendon exercise is the Balance and Eccentric Reach with Toes. To carry this one out correctly, start by standing on your right foot only as you face a wall, with your right foot about 30 inches or so from the wall (you may need to adjust this distance slightly). Your left foot should be off the ground and positioned toward the front of your body, with your left leg relatively straight.

Then, bend your right leg at the knee while maintaining your upper body in a relatively vertical position and nearly directly over your right foot. As you bend your right leg, move your left toes toward the wall until they touch, keeping the left leg relatively straight. End the movement by returning to the starting position.

Then, conduct essentially the same motion, but move your left foot forward and to the left, again keeping your left leg straight and attempting to make contact with the wall. Your left foot may not quite reach the wall, since you are moving in a frontal plane (from right to left) in addition to the straight-ahead, sagittal plane.

Return to the starting position, and then carry out essentially the same motion, but with your left foot crossing over the front of your body and going to the right as you attempt to touch the wall. Then return to the starting position. Do a few (4-6) reps (the straight, left, and right motions make one rep) on your right foot, and then attempt the same exercise with your body weight supported only on the left foot. Like the Eccentric Knee Squat, the Balance and Eccentric Reach with Toes forces your calf muscles to work eccentrically and in a variety of planes of motion, as they do during the stance phase of running (you will really feel it!). Both exertions also do a nice job of strengthening your knee and hip muscles and coordinating their activities with what is happening down at the Achilles and calves.

The third Achilles fortifier is the Balance and Eccentric Reach with Knee. To complete this nifty exertion, simply stand on your right foot about an arm's length from the wall, with your left leg flexed at the knee and your left shin roughly parallel to the floor. You should be standing with erect posture, and you may place a finger from each hand on the wall for balance.

Then, simply bring your left knee forward until it touches the wall - while moving your upper body backward from the hips so that it remains roughly over the right foot. You will feel a very fine strain in your right calf and Achilles-tendon region. Finish the movement by returning to the starting position.

By now, you know what should come next. Again, thrust the left knee forward to the wall, but this time move the knee in a frontal plane (towards the left). Return to the starting position, and then move the knee well towards the right. Finish by going back to the starting position. Continue this pattern (straight, left, and right) a few more times, and then change over to the other foot. As you move your knee to the left and right and back to the starting posture, you'll notice that your activity is forcing the calf muscles and Achilles to withstand ankle-twisting rotational forces and side-to-side (frontal-plane) movements, not just straight-ahead pulling. That's what you want, because improved strength in all appropriate planes of movement will make you more stable and injury-resistant when you run.

The final achilles tendon exercise is the Dynamic Achilles Stretch. This will actually be the easiest movement to carry out, since it's somewhat similar to traditional stretching routines for the calf-Achilles complex. Begin this one by facing that familiar wall, about an arm's length away, with your weight supported on your right foot, your right knee slightly flexed (as it would be during the stance phase of running), your left leg imitating the swing phase of the gait cycle, and your hands against the wall for support. Then, simply rock forward toward the wall, so that you feel a nice stretch in your right calf and Achilles tendon. After 20 seconds or so, pronate your right foot (roll it toward the inside), and hold the stretch for 10 more seconds. Finally, supinate the right foot (roll it toward the outside), and hold for 10 seconds.

After you have stretched for a total of about 40 seconds, lean towards the left so that your right Achilles tendon and calf are now being pulled in a lateral-left direction. Hold for 20 to 30 seconds or so. Finally, lean towards the right, crossing your left leg over your right, so that the right Achilles and calf are being pulled in a lateral-right direction. Again, hold for 20 to 30 seconds. Repeat one more time, and then shift over to the left foot for the same pattern of stretching.

The bottom line

If you carry out the four exercises faithfully, you will have stronger, more functional, more injury-proof calf muscles and run less risk of swollen Achilles tendons. And it's nice to know that those changes will also make you more efficient, powerful, and speedy when you run.

Owen Anderson

swollen achilles tendon, achilles tendon pain, achilles tendon injuries, achilles tendon excercises