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A Combination of Stretching and Strengthening Can Prevent Injuries

An Achilles tendon rupture is typically seen in the “weekend warrior” - an adult who has a sedentary job during the week, but who likes to participate in dynamic types of sports (soccer, basketball) on the weekend. A person susceptible to this type of injury is also someone who used to participate in sports regularly as a young adult, but who continues to participate as hard on the weekends as when he was younger.

Although the competitive spirit is the same, the body's tissues tend to change over the years. Muscles weaken and tissue becomes less elastic (able to stretch) over the years unless the individual maintains an active lifestyle.

 

Adding to the problem, sedentary jobs translate into hours of staying in one position. This means even less movement for the joints and muscles. For the individual who was used to being active on a daily basis, sitting for long hours takes its toll.

Mechanism of Injury

An Achilles tendon rupture tends to occur during an activity in which one foot is planted followed by a quick change in direction. This maneuver forces the foot into a deep dorsiflexed position. If the force exerted on the muscle/tendon is stronger than the muscle/tendon can withstand and the muscle is tight, a tear or rupture can occur.

Active adults need to spend more time than they used to prior to an activity to prepare the muscles for activity. Along with a longer and carefully planned warm-up, daily stretches can be done to gradually lengthen the gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon complex over time.

Warm-up Facilitates Stretching

 

A warm-up should precede stretching. A warm-up is designed to slowly increase the temperature of the muscle and tendon tissue. Warm tissue is more receptive to being stretched. A good warm-up should include light jogging until the body breaks a sweat (5-10 minutes).

Once the muscles and tendons are warm, a static stretch of the gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon should gradually be applied. A static stretch is one in which the muscle is placed on stretch up to the point of discomfort (not into discomfort) and held for 20 to 30 seconds. This is repeated three times on each leg.

Gastrocnemius/Achilles Tendon Complex Stretches

There are a number of stretches that will target the gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon complex including:

  • Stand in a position with the leg to be stretched about three feet behind the front leg. Gradually lean forward keeping the back knee straight until a stretch is felt in the Achilles tendon area. After holding the stretched position, slowly bend the back knee and hold the stretch again.
  • Stand in a position facing a wall with the leg to be stretched about three feet behind the front leg. Gradually lean into the wall placing a stretch on the back leg. After holding the position of stretch, slowly bend the back knee and hold the stretch again.
  • Stand in a position with the balls of both feet on a stair or bleacher step. Gradually lower the heel of the leg to be stretched until a stretch is felt.
  • Stand on an inclined surface. Step forward with one foot leaving the leg to be stretched about three feet behind the front leg. Lean into the front leg keeping the knee of the back leg straight until a stretch is felt. After holding the position of stretch, slowly bend the back knee and hold the stretch again.

Along with gradually stretching the gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon complex, strengthening exercises can be added to allow the muscle to withstand greater forces during activity. One good activity is single-leg toe-ups performed off the edge of a step or stair.

Stand with the ball of one foot at the edge of a stair or step. Gradually lower the heel of the foot until a stretch is felt. Then push up until the foot is fully plantarflexed (toe pointed). Perform this exercise for 3 sets of 10 repetitions and then repeat on the opposite leg.

A proactive stretching and strengthening program can help prevent injuries to the gastrocnemius/Achilles tendon complex. Taking the time to protect the muscle/tendon complex is a good investment compared to the long rehabilitation process (minimum of six months) of a ruptured Achilles tendon.


 

This article written by:
Dr. Terry A. Zeigler, EdD, ATC, Professor in Kinesiology at Vanguard University.
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