Downhill skiing. Cross-country skiing. Backcountry skiing. Skate skiing. Even snowshoeing.
Whatever form of snow travel your legs engage in, the Achilles tendon inserting into your heel plays an enormous role.
The phrase “Achilles heel” commonly refers to any weak link. Achilles the warrior of Greek mythology was said to have been made nearly immortal while still an infant by having been dipped into the waters of the river Styx. Only his left heel remained vulnerable, where his mother had grasped him during that dipping.
Of course, that one vulnerable spot is where the enemy arrow struck and killed him outside the gates of the legendary city of Troy.
What if we can make ourselves a bit less vulnerable in our own Achilles heels?
Reach down and feel that cord-like structure just above and behind your heel. Now feel your calf at its widest aspect. The big difference in their diameters is striking.
Imagine the huge forces your calf muscles generate to propel you forward. All of those forces are concentrated into the Achilles tendon, less than an inch wide just before it attaches at your heel.
With all of the welcome heavy snowfalls this winter, many skiers understandably find it difficult to resist going skiing intensely for two days in a row (or more). This urge is strong, particularly because last winter was so mild and had such skimpy snowfall.
Such a desire creates a perfect scenario for developing overuse injury. Fortunately, the Achilles tendon can manage a spike in activity better in a skier than in a runner who increases his or her weekly mileage too suddenly.
Yet, that powerful tendon may become inflamed within its tendon sheath. Not suddenly but gradually, it may begin as a stiffness, and days or weeks later become an outright pain during activities.
Handled properly, the tendon can benefit from a ski season and actually be made stronger before the hard runs and hikes and bike rides of the coming spring burden it further. And that official first day of spring is now just two weeks away.
With an ability to withstand strains of more than 2000 pounds per square inch, this tendon when gradually built up is remarkably tough. One or two finger-breadths above its insertion into the heel, its blood supply is sometimes less than adequate for the increased loads of training.
This is the region which may benefit by soft tissue mobilization, stretches, and strengthening exercises.
A stop-and-drop exercise can promote both strength and flexibility. The only equipment it requires is a stair or step, one’s own body weight and gravity.
After warming up with activities, one can rise up onto the toes of both feet. Prior to letting the heels drop, a person can stop and cross one leg behind the other. Then using just the one stance leg, a slow lowering of the heel down beyond the edge of the step can be performed.
Repeating as three sets of fifteen repetitions each, the area can then be iced if needed afterward.
This act involves a lengthening of the fibers of the calf and of the Achilles tendon as the load of body weight is applied. That act makes it what is termed an eccentric (as opposed to a concentric) contraction of the calf muscles, which has some real benefits to both muscle and tendon. If it hurts to do it, though, relative rest and soft tissue work is likely needed first.
The arch of the foot functions much like a continuation of the calf and its Achilles tendon. This is why the effective treatment of a common arch pain and injury (known as plantar fasciitis) often includes this same calf strengthening and stretching.
In order to help reduce the load on its neighboring calf, the arch of the foot sometimes bears a greater load than it can manage, and becomes inflamed over time. The opposite situation can also develop as a tightness in the arch, which can lead to overloading of the calf above it.
Either way, the pain of such an injury may feel like an arrowhead from the Trojan War is buried deep in one’s arch or calf. Far better to prevent this overload and its associated pain.
An outdoors enthusiast with such an injury may benefit from a gradual increase of training, icing the areas after a too-heavy workout, and using the above stop-and-drop exercise.
Such benefits may keep an athlete from missing any of the fun of a long cross-country ski trail, an uphill ski tour on climbing skins, or a string of telemark turns now that the Rocky Mountains’ mid-season snow depths have become so inviting.
These benefits can occur without even a single dunk into the river Styx.
John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over twenty-five years of practice in Montrose. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.