I recently returned from a weekend away standing around on cold concrete in wellies. I woke on the Monday with the inability to walk – I was diagnosed with tendonitis in the greatest tendon of all – The Achilles tendon (or the calcaneal tendon as we aren’t meant to name structures after people anymore).
So what does this tendon do and why is it named so.
In short, this tendon attaches the two muscles that make up the bulk of your calf to your foot, giving you the ability to walk. The two muscles in your leg are the Gastrocnemius; named from the Greek meaning the belly of the leg, and the Soleus; named not from the Latin for sole as the muscle does not attach to the sole of the foot but named after the latin Pleuronectes solea, a sort of flat fish that the muscle resembles in shape. These two muscles give your calf the shape that it is and both insert into the calcaneal tendon which attaches to the calcaneus, which most of you will know as your heel bone. It is arguably connected to the plantar fascia which runs into the sole of the foot but traditionally these have been viewed as two different structures.
Its possible to develop these muscles in the gym although the simple test as to their strength is somewhat easier to do – can you go up onto tip toe? You ought to be able to do it on each foot independently. On Monday I couldn’t get off of the ground on one side.
So- Why Achilles? Your opinion of Achilles will vary depending on whether your source of information is the original Iliad poem by Homer, the many myths that have developed afterwards or Hollywood blockbusters. The most common myth is that he was invincible, made so by his mother dipping him into the river Styx when he was a baby. She held onto him by his ankle and hence this part of his body was vulnerable. It was literally his Achilles heel, the term we now use for a weakness that makes someone vulnerable. Achilles died during the Trojan wars when Paris, one of the Trojan princes shot him in the heel with an arrow. (We need to gloss over the fact that many statues and paintings depict multiple arrows in Achilles at the time of his death and also the fact that Paris started the whole Trojan war when he took Helen of Troy away from her husband, the King of Sparta, after being promised her hand in marriage by Aphrodite after he judged the Godess the winner of a beauty competition between the Greek gods. Greek myths are never simple)
Tendonitis is inflammation of the tendon- anything ‘itis’ means inflamed. In this case the Achilles tendon which affected my ability to go up onto my tip toes and also my ability to bend my foot pact 90 degrees, which affects walking. A week of rest and anti inflammatories and it’s all back to normal.
So – what’s the pet peev?
You see people stretching their calf muscles all the time. There are two different stretches for the two different muscles. Pet peev number one – you need to do both of them to stretch out your calf.
The soleus stretch is the one people often miss out. Both legs are bent but you are stretching the back leg and that is the one the weight should be over. You bring the knee forward until you can feel a stretch in the back of the ankle and you hold it there. The heel needs to be down on the ground. The leg is bent because the two muscles differ as to where they insert. The soleus inserts into the leg below the knee joint and so you can stretch it with the knee bent.
The more common stretch that you see people doing is the gastroc stretch. This is the one where the back leg is straight. This is because the gastrocnemius actually inserts onto the femur above the knee joint. If you bend the leg then you release one end of the muscle.
Both stretches should be performed because if you just do the gastroc stretch it may not be stretching the soleus at all – it depends which of your muscles is the tighter. When you bend the leg for the soleus stretch you take the gastrocnemius out of the picture because you have release one end of the muscle by bending the knee. It should be impossible to feel a stretch in the gastrocnemius with a bent leg.
Pet peev number two – The thing is both of these stretches are for muscles that go down the back of your leg, straight down the back of your ankle and arguably into the sole of your foot. To do the stretches properly :- The Foot Must Be Facing Forwards!
Try it yourself, get up and do a gastrocnemius stretch with your foot facing forwards and then turn your foot outwards. The stretch completely goes. Do not go jogging around the park or do your hours exercise class and then stretch off with your foot to the side and think you have stretched out your muscles, because you haven’t!
If you want your calf muscle to help you be invincible then you need to take care of them. Make sure you put your back foot forwards!