Achilles tendonitis: Early self-treatment and when it's gone too far, Part 1

I was running with a friend a few weeks ago, and he told me that he was recently trying to get back into running because he had been having trouble with his Achilles tendon for multiple years. I just kept thinking how that would be super frustrating yet could have been prevented.

News flash: it’s hard to stop a runner from running. Runners are too good at tolerating pain, to the point that it can be detrimental. And it usually is. There’s a good chance that over half of us are going to have a running injury in the next year (if you are a data nerd, a good systematic review of studies can be found here), and for older runners particularly it’s quite possibly going to be at the Achilles tendon.

The Achilles tendon undergoes an enormous amount of force with running. Something to the tune of 8-10 times your bodyweight. Couple that huge force with thousands of repetitions, poor muscle elasticity (because you keep skipping the foam roller), aging tissue, your 10-mile jump in weekly mileage 2 weeks ago and some unstable foot mechanics and you have a recipe for overuse injury. It’s one thing to have an overuse injury and take care of it correctly. It’s another entirely to let it linger for months that become years. At that point it’s actually becoming “tendinosis” and no longer has the same inflammatory response your initial injury had, making it less likely to heal.

Swollen left Achilles tendon

Swollen left Achilles tendon

The best thing to do is take care of it correctly as soon as you feel symptoms. Do not ignore it. With a new injury try the classics: ice, rest, over-the-counter anti-inflammatories, foam rolling the calf (better late than never), a change of footwear and mileage reduction. I prefer the ice-water-in-a-bucket method for any foot and ankle tendonitis. Try dunking your foot and heel in a gallon of water with two to three trays of ice for 10 minutes. Do this three to five times a day. Rolling could be with a foam roller, tennis ball, massage stick or baker's rolling pin for 2-3 minutes on the calf muscle only

Rest and decreased mileage for a runner is ROUGH. It can be relative rest, like going for a swim or water running. Cycling is questionable because it is still demanding to the calf and Achilles depending on your setup and technique. You don't want to be pedaling with your foot pointed in a downward direction or having the heel drop below pedal level at the bottom of the pedal stroke. If you have fancy cycling shoes the clipless pedal cleats need to be moved rearward a couple millimeters temporarily. Maybe get in a workout by lifting weights. (You better not be saying “oh heck no, I’m a real runner and runners don’t lift weights!”) 

If you have a good level of ankle range of motion that allows you to fully squat and keep your feet flat like in the picture below, I wouldn’t focus on stretching the calf as a primary remedy. Directly working on the calf muscle to break up any trigger points or adhesions in the fascia is a better way to go. Hence the importance of regular foam rolling when you aren't hurt. Why is this? Certainly in the clinic I have people with Achilles tendonitis stretch if their total motion availability is poor. But stretching probably will not fix the problem. Stretching gradually lengthens the tendon and muscle, but the problem is not usually with length. Rather, the tendon has not tolerated the loads you put on it, and it became inflamed as a result. Stretching is not going to do much to make the tendon tolerate loads better. By rolling and making the muscle more supple it can help take load from the tendon. 

Full squat, feet flat

Full squat, feet flat

Next week we will get into some of rolling techniques, Physical Therapy treatment and when you should seek a professional's help. 

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