Yoga for happy Achilles

Originally this post was going to be on ankles in general – but that’s too broad a scope! And generally, if you have pain in your ankles, inside or outside, it’s more often than not originating in weakness or imbalance in the hips, so taking your focus there would be a great place to start. So, I’m focus here on the Achilles tendon.

A common area of complaint for runners, but also within other sports, Achilles tendonosis is inflammation and micro-tearing in the tendon, causing pain, heat and sometimes swelling. Often in runners it’s felt a the start of a run, but then eases as the body warms and the pain comes back afterwards.

Achilles tendonitis only refers to the inflammation, whereas tendonosis refers to the micro tears, that are usually the cause the pain. It’s caused by over-use, in runners this can usually be attributed to ‘too much, too soon’, or suddenly changing terrains or to minimal shoes.

However, from my experience of seeing clients/ students with this complaint, it’s often alongside another attributing factor: weakness or tension. Weakness, or lack of prior conditioning in the feet and Achilles, mean that the tendon gets overwhelmed, when suddenly asked to do so much work. Weakness in the foot arch, or flat foot, can also contribute. Conversely, arches that are too tight (perhaps from wearing heels), and tight calves, can also be responsible.

As always, we need strength and flexibility.

We need healthy, strong and active feet, ankles and calves before we start to increase our activity, such as running mileage, to cope effectively with the repetitive action. We also need full range of movement and flexibility here, as in running, this allows proper, efficient dropping of the heel and push-off.

Here are 5 things that we can do to help keep the Achilles healthy and functioning properly. If you currently have pain in the Achilles tendon, then rest from exercise for a little while, and begin working on releasing foot and calf tension, then gradually incorporate Achilles tendon conditioning.  

1.Test the flexibility of your Achilles: sit on a chair with your feet flat on the floor and knees bent at 90 degrees, over your ankles. Slide forwards in the chair, so that the knees come past the ankles. If you cannot do this without the heels lifting, then the Achilles is too tight. Bear in mind that there may be a natural lack of mobility here that prevents a lot of ankle flexion, however the knees should still be able to pass the ankles in this exercise.

2. Increase/ maintain flexibility in the feet and ankles: using MFR balls, sitting over the heels with the toes tucked and releasing the toes and lifting the shins. Read the last blogpost on feet for the full description.

3. Strengthen the arches of the foot: In all the standing poses and balances this can be done by spreading your toes. Extra focus can be given here by standing on one foot, on a block, and repeatedly scrunching, or shortening the foot, and releasing.

4. Release tension in the calf muscles: Using a MFR ball on a block, roll it up and down the centre of the calf muscle, then along the lateral (outside) edge, then the medial (inside) edge for 3 -5 minutes on each leg. This can be done before your yoga practice. In your yoga practice, take extra time to lengthen the calves in Downward Facing Dog: keep lifting the hips, lift the heels, bend the knees, then keeping the knees bent start to drop the heels. Try the squat technique described in the previous blog post. Also, use a strap around the ball of the foot lying on your back, to bend the knee and push through the heel for 1-3 minutes.

5. How to help pre-condition the Achilles for greater use, ie. running or other activity?

Answer: a well-rounded dynamic Vinyasa yoga practice – there are so many ways in which the Achilles is gently used, strengthen and mobilised. Specifically though, standing Chair Lifts (which have many other benefits!) and a High Lunge: lift the back thigh and drop the heel. In my Yoga for Runners videos, I also teach a really effective knee-tap action that can be incorporated into a standing sequence – get them here :). 

You can watch a video tutorial explaining these points, that I recorded live in my Facebook group: Yoga Flow Runners, come and join!