An Achilles tendon injury means major downtime and a long road to recovery. However, rehab programs have improved in recent years. If you diligently follow a good recovery program, it’s possible to fully recover and compete again.
The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body. It anchors the calf muscles (gastrocnemius and soleus) to the heel bone (calcaneus). Injuries to this tendon run the gamut, from tendinitis (inflammation of the tendon) to partial ruptures and acute or chronic full tendon ruptures.
Achilles tendon injuries often result from chronic or long-term injuries to the tendon microstructure through overuse or training. Often, the tendon undergoes structural damage—which may go undetected—and subsequently ruptures during activity or competition due to a large force such as a cut or jump. This is accompanied by a large, usually audible “pop.” Many athletes feel as if they were shot or kicked in the back of the ankle.
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Prevention of Achilles tendon injuries can be difficult if you do not display any symptoms. But you can be proactive and improve tendon health through eccentric or negative training, such as the lowering portion of a Calf Raise. Adequate hydration, protein intake, and most important, rest and recovery, can also help.
Early symptoms to look for include pain, swelling and redness around the tendon. Plyometrics of moderate or light duration can improve tendon health and structure if used cautiously. However, heavy, or high-load activities such as Depth Jumps from a large height or high volumes of plyometric exercises can lead to tendon damage and eventual rupture if done past the point of pain.
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Modified Calf Raise
- Stand on the edge of a step, as you would for standard Calf Raises.
- Execute a Calf Raise by rising up on your toes.
- Lift one leg into the air, keeping your knee bent in front of you to maintain balance.
- Lower yourself on your other leg until your heel is below the edge of the step. This is the key action of the exercise, the “negative” motion that builds strength in the Achilles. Try to take a full 10 seconds to complete this movement.
- Return your other foot to the step and repeat the exercise.
Immediately following injury, keep the ankle iced and immobilized—ideally with your toes pointed down to keep the tendon edges opposed—until you can obtain treatment from a qualified physician.
A defect in the tendon area and a large amount of swelling and bruising can be telltale signs of an Achilles tendon injury. Sometimes, though, you may need an MRI so the physician can see a full delineation of the tendon.
Cast vs. Surgery
Once you’ve been diagnosed, your doctor will recommend either surgical repair or casting of the injured area. Most doctors recommend acute surgical repair for young athletes.
Training and Recovery
Long and arduous, recovery from these injuries—whether they are treated surgically or non-surgically—can take up to a year or more. If you experience disuse atrophy of the calf musculature, you will need time to build back your muscle strength and explosiveness. Rehab occurs in stages. You must progress and allow your tendon to heal before you start the next stage of training.
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