It is well known that women incur more injuries to their hamstrings than men do. But if you’ve ever wondered if men have an Achilles’ heel as well, then wonder no more. Men account for about 75% of all tendon ruptures, and, speaking of the Achilles, men account for about 80% of Achilles tendon ruptures. These numbers are disproportionately high. The reason for these high injury rates was investigated recently in a Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study.
The Achilles tendon can withstand dramatic forces. For example, the researchers noted that running places 9,000N (Newtons) of force on the Achilles tendon. To give you some idea of what that means, consider that the maximum force on a single Achilles tendon can exceed twelve times as much as you weigh. Compare that to the ACL, which on average cannot exceed 2,000N before snapping.
An Achilles rupture is typically preceded by Achilles tendinopathy. Tendinopathy is a more accurate term for what we otherwise already know as garden variety Achilles tendinitis. Achilles tendinopathy covers more ground and possible types of injury. Because men are more likely to have ruptures, they are probably also more susceptible to Achilles tendinopathy.
To find out why men are more prone to this condition, the researchers examined the biomechanical behaviors of the ankle and Achilles tendon in three conditions:
- At rest
- After light exercise
- After rigorous exercise
The study produced some interesting results. Statistically speaking, the force output between men and women was no different, which may come as a surprise. However, after exercise, the Achilles tendon of the women became more compliant, meaning it accepted changing states better. In doing so, it also stored more elastic energy, thus increasing the contribution of force after an eccentric action. The women’s tendons were also more flexible, and possessed less stiffness and rigidity.
The researchers provided recommendations for preventing and treating Achilles tendinopathy. Oddly enough, the recommended treatment for Achilles tendinopathy is eccentric exercise. This might strike you as odd, since eccentric exercise is known to be particularly potent at stimulating muscle soreness and damage, but it seems to be the best way to treat tendinopathy nevertheless.
As far as preventing tendon rupture, the researchers didn’t have much to recommend based on this study. While they noted that avoiding the degenerative effects of Achilles tendinopathy is the best way to stay away from ruptures, they didn’t expound on how to do that. Unfortunately, they noted that Achilles tendinopathy often presents no symptoms and thus may not be detected until the damage is done.
The Achilles tendon is slow to heal in general, but the regular old tricks like ice work on it if you’re patient. To prevent tendinopathy to begin with, men can take notes from the ladies’ playbook and keep the surrounding musculature flexible. Strengthening the calf muscles and staying well balanced and mobile in the lower and even upper leg is very important as well. Lastly, work on proper form in exercises that heavily use the ankle, especially running and jumping.
1. Michael Joseph, et. al., “Achilles tendon biomechanics in response to acute intense exercise,” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000361
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