The achilles tendon is what joins our calf muscles to our heel bone and it’s crucial to our ability to stand upright, walk and run. Not only does the achilles tendon transmit the forces produced by the calf muscles to enact on the ankle, it also stretches allowing it to store and release energy, much like a very thick, strong rubber band. This ability to store and release energy means we can produce large amounts of force very quickly allowing us to do powerful movements such as sprinting, hopping and jumping.
During running we’re usually taking a step every second or more. That’s at least 30 times per minute that the calf muscles and achilles tendon on each leg have to contract, stretch, store energy and then elastically spring back (and often it’s much more than this)! If you then equate that out by how many minutes you run for, it’s easy to see that the amount of work our lower legs do when we run is incredible.
Tendons in the human body adapt to load, that is, as you challenge them they improve and grow in strength and capacity. Where we get into trouble is when the amount we challenge them is too much either in a single instance of overload or through repeated bouts of movement over a short period of time. Often it can present when someone takes up an old sport after a break or tries to increase their running distance too quickly.
If you’re suffering from achilles tendinopathy, generally you’ll need to decrease the amount you’re running to some degree. Cutting it out entirely is not recommended though, except in the more extreme cases. From there you’ll need to dedicate yourself to some regular strength training for your calves. Strength training should be done in both straight knee and bent knee positions as pictured. You should move very slowly through the exercises with the aim of completing 4 sets of 6-8 repetitions. While you are building your strength, you shouldn’t experience worsening symptoms over time…that means you’re still overloading the tendon and more changes are required. We always recommend seeing a professional for an accurate diagnosis.
Once the strength capacity of your tendon has increased, it’s time to start reintroducing some speed to the movement. Some examples such as double leg and single leg leaning calf bounces are pictured. As you progress further, you can start to add in jumping and hopping drills to retrain the energy storage and release capability of your tendon.
Through-out this rehabilitation return to running should occur in small stages always with the balancing of the loads between running itself and the rehab strength and power programs. If you’d like some more individualised guidance on lower limb strengthening for running or someone to help with a return to running program, let us know!