by Andries Lodder for Modern Athlete Magazine December issue
I’m training for my first Ironman 70.3 and have recently developed a painful Achilles when swimming. The pain starts with a burning sensation in my lower calf and moves down towards my Achilles during the session. It only happens when I’m swimming and is usually worse after I’ve had a hard bike session. What causes this and how can I treat and prevent it? – SANDRI HOUGH, SUNNINGHILL
We all welcome you and commend you for starting this journey. Let’s get the medical jargon out of the way. The Achilles tendons connect the calf muscle to the heel and are used extensively during all three disciplines. Achilles tendonitis (inflammation of the Achilles tendons) is a chronic injury that occurs primarily from overuse. It tends to come on gradually over time until pain is constant and exercise too painful to continue.
Your problem probably originates from cycling more than swimming because the pain is worse after a hard bike session. Pain in the Achilles usually indicates a problem in pedaling technique, where the saddle is set too high and forces the cyclist to point the toes excessively to reach the bottom of the pedal swing. Having your cleats set too far forward, or otherwise pedaling with your toes can also cause it. The farther forward the contact between the foot and the pedal, the greater the stress on the Achilles tendons. The main reason why you’re feeling it mostly during swimming is because your feet are plantar flexed (toes pointed down) during swimming, causing the calf muscles to be under constant contraction and under tension the whole time.
As a guideline, more information or an assessment is needed, as many contributing factors still need to be taken into account for a more accurate diagnosis, but these are my recommendations:
- The body needs to work together in equilibrium, instead of through imbalances and overcompensations. Get your calves checked out to eliminate chances of muscle tears or any other damage – if there isn’t any damage you should follow a conditioning programme to strengthen weaker muscles, like your calves, to help take strain off your Achilles tendons.
- Instead of focusing on stretching your calves after cycling, stretch your quadriceps.
- Do a proper bike set-up and get a professional to analyse your pedaling stroke. Also focus on lighter gears and cycle at a higher cadence.
- Make sure you haven’t started training too much, too soon, and that you’re properly hydrated during training and events.