A lot of runners and even some cyclists come through the centre with issues pertaining to achilles tendinopathy. Strains from running hard uphill, training long runs in preparation for events, even just changing up the style of running that has been reinforced from years of casual running training. These 'achilles heels' injuries are very common and can be debilatating in pain and interrupt training regimes, especially in teh lead up to big events such as Half Marathons or Ironman competitions.
Whilst working on the large muscles that insert into the achilles tendon (namely Gastrocnemius and Soleus) as well as the achilles tendon itself, sometimes we have to delve a little deeper to get complete release or conditioning work done in order to be able to get an athlete back on track or over that finishing line.
The main issue with a lot of the achilles issues that come about can be assisted with particular release and attention to the deeper 'plantar flexion' muscles, namely the Flexor Hallucis Longus and the Flexor Digitorum Longus. These two smaller muscles are deep to the larger power flexors of the ankle but as always, the small stuff is where the magic is at. These two muscles act on the plantar flexion of the ankle (downward push of the toes and forefoot) and are very active in running and jumping. 'We leap from our feet' not from our quads contrary to some opinions of what it means to have a good jumper's physique. The power of the plantar flexor group is all important for that lovely loping look that high jumpers, basketballers and dancers can create with their 'hang time' in the air. The ability to harness the power of all the muscles associated with this action is what is necessary to create that power and grace in movement.
Flexor Hallucis Longus
This muscle is located on the posterior/lateral side of the fibula (to the back and the outside edge) and is a powerful muscle that runs on an angle to come behind the achilles tendon and wrap underneath the medial malleolus (bump on the inside of the ankle), then travel along the longititudinal arch of the foot and inserts on the 1st digit (big toe). It flexes the phalanges of the feet as well as assisting with plantar flexion and pronation of the foot and ankle.
Flexor DIgitorum Longus
This muscle runs a similar deep line to the its predecessor but begins on the medial aspect of the tibia (inside of the calf) and runs along the back of the medial calf, under the same medial malleolus and then spreads into 4 branches of muscle that each run along the 2nd - 5th phalanges of the foot, spreading out like 4 fingers across the underside of the foot. Again, this flexes the distal phalanges (end bones) of the foot and assists with plantarflexion and inversion of the foot.
When treating achilles issues or runners heel or any of the injuries that plague runners, jumpers and even cyclists (who use these muscles a lot when wearing cleats), these muscles can be powerful secondary muscles to address to help with full flexion and range of movement. When the larger muscles lock up due ot overuse, the body will seek and find other muscles that they can use in support of actions and this is primarily where secondary muscle groups in actions (the helpers) become important. These secondary active muscles bear the brunt of the tired power muscles. You can liken them to the 'understudy' or 'swing' of the main star. They are there, working hard and supporting and making sure that when the big glamour puss goes off, they are there ready to do the work and step up and take on the role.
Specific release and in particular active release work on these muscles is often where you can get complete release from once you have achieved a certain amount of treatment to the larger Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles. Getting a client to push their toes into your hand whilst you apply specific and determined upward pressure along the fibres of theses muscles, whilst not pleasurable, can usually result in instant range of motion and relief of painful movements that whilst not inhibitive of normal day to day function, really make a difference to those who are involved in running, jumping or cycling for long stretches or even short powerful performances.
Stretching these muscles is a matter of specific opening through the feet and resisted PNF stretching involving the toes themselves. The PISTOL GRIP is a great stretch as is the TOE CRUNCHER from yogic practices. I'll insert videos on these here. You can easily get into these stretches in front of the tv or at the beach after your exercise - best done with shoes OFF.
As always the secondary muscles that are the real keys to getting that openness and released feeling of being able to move without restriction when you are involved in a specific training or movement pattern. And for people who use their ankles a lot, not just in movement but particularly in landing or absorbing impact (such as runners/jumpers), these smaller muscles need the attention too to make sure they can be free, open and recovering quickly. So give them the attention they deserve.