Inflammation of the Achilles tendon, or Achilles tendonitis, is the bane of many a runner. This strong tendon attaches the calf muscles to the heel and is involved in the actions of the foot and leg when you walk, run and jump. To find your Achilles tendon, just feel on either foot for the cord, running from above your two ankle bones to the top back part of your heel, at the back of your ankle.
Symptoms of Achilles tendonitis include pain, swelling and tenderness in this area. Usually, you feel stiff and lose mobility.
Runners are perhaps the most susceptible to Achilles tendonitis, especially if they run significant mileage each week, have been running a number of years and run at a relatively fast pace. In other words, it is an overuse syndrome, so the more you run, the more likely you will develop Achilles tendonitis.
There are other important risk factors. The first involves strength and mobility of the calf muscle. The calf has normal strength if you can raise yourself up on the ball of your foot ten times while standing on one foot. When testing this, you can hold onto something for balance but you should not push down on your support to help raise your heel. Mobility of your calf muscle can be determined by how far you can flex your foot up while keeping your knee straight. A quick way to test this is to see if you can walk on your heels with your knees straight.
The other major risk factor is the amount of pronation or inward rotation of the back of the foot when it is on the ground as you walk or run. Looking at the back of a walker, you can see how much the inside ankle bone drops or rolls inward when weight is put on that side. Excessive pronation stresses the mechanics of the foot and causes increased motion in the Achilles tendon. This can lead to irritation and inflammation, opening the door to tendonitis.
Imbalances in the hips and pelvis or tightness in muscles like the hip flexor (muscles that lift the leg in a marching movement) can also lead to increased pronation of the foot. And people with a tendency to be “knock kneed” are more susceptible to excessive pronation.
Some steps to help in preventing Achilles tendonitis are:
Change your running shoes frequently; most sources recommend every six months or 300-400 miles. Never increase the distance you run by more than 5%-10% each week. Keep your calf muscles well stretched out by stretching your calf both with knee bent and knee straight. Keep your calf muscle strong by doing heel raises.
If you do develop Achilles tendonitis, cut back on your running, use ice and see a health professional trained in evaluation of the entire biomechanical situation. Be sure to check with a physician if you have any questions about your condition or to be sure you are taking preventive action in the right way.