The Achilles heel isn’t synonymous with a weak spot for nothing: Despite being the strongest and thickest tendon in your body, it’s also vulnerable to tendinitis.
Achilles tendinitis is the name for a common condition where your Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscles to your heel, becomes inflamed and irritated due to overuse and degeneration.
Inflammation of the Achilles leads to pain or aching at the back of the ankle and lower leg. This pain tends to be more troublesome after performing in sports, such as running. It often worsens during intense exercise or day-to-day activities like walking up a hill or climbing stairs.
If you have tendinitis, you may find that you have stiffness and soreness in your heel that’s at its worst when you get up in the morning, but it gradually improves through the day. You might have weakness in your leg and hear a crackling sound, known as crepitus, in your ankle upon moving it or pressing on your Achilles tendon.
Dr. Thomas Rambacher is a double-board-certified podiatrist specializing in foot and ankle problems and has many years’ experience diagnosing and treating Achilles tendinitis in his patients, including runners, in and around Mission Viejo, California.
Dr. Rambacher would much rather help his athletic patients prevent overuse injuries than help them recover from injury. So he wants to give you the low down on exercises you can do that help keep Achilles tendinitis at bay. You need strength and flexibility in your calf muscles to protect your Achilles from extra stress during high-impact sports, so he suggests this triple-phased approach to building up that strength and flexibility to prevent injury.
Phase 1 - Warm-up
Make it your policy never to skip a warm-up before a workout or taking part in sports. Tight, cold muscles mean your Achilles has to work harder to generate the power to help you push off. Do 5 minutes of gentle jogging, cycling, or dynamic stretching to warm up your muscles before any physical activity.
Phase 2 - Build strength
Building strength in your calf muscles means that your body can generate power using your muscles and rely less on your Achilles tendon. Exercises for building calf strength are as follows:
- Straight leg calf raises - Hold a dumbbell in each hand. Stand on the edge of a step on one straight leg with your heel over the edge, then raise yourself up on the ball of your foot, then lower. Do 3 sets of 15 reps on each leg.
- Bent-knee calf raises - Following the instructions above, bend the knee and raise up to the ball of your foot, then lower. Do 3 sets of 15 reps on each leg.
- Eccentric calf-raises - Standing on both legs with heels over the edge of the step, raise yourself up to the ball of your foot then drop slowly (count of 10) until your heel is below the level of the step. Do 3 sets of 15 reps again.
Phase 3 - Stretch it out
Strength alone isn’t enough to prevent injury. Your muscles and tendons also need to be supple and flexible. The following will gently stretch and lengthen your calf muscles and ensure your Achilles is strong and supple.
- Downward Dog - this classic yoga pose can give you a great calf stretch and build long, lean muscles. Start in a high plank and push through your hands to bring your rear end upwards and your body into an inverted V. Push your heels to the ground to feel the stretch in your calves and gently bend your knee to shift the stretch to the lower calves and Achilles.
- Stair Stretch - Standing with the balls of your feet on a step and heels over the edge, drop one heel down and alternate feet.
- Runner’s stretch - This classic runner’s stretch is there to protect the calves and Achilles tendon. Holding onto a wall or hips for balance, step one foot back into a mini-lunge. Keep the knee of your front leg bent and your back leg straight. This will provide a deep stretch in the gastrocnemius muscle.
To have Dr. Rambacher assess your gait and any mechanical issues or imbalances that may contribute to your risk of developing Achilles tendinitis in the future, arrange a consultation by calling his office or booking online.