Question: I've been training for a 10K run on Thanksgiving Day.
Recently, the area from the back of my left heel up to my calf has become extremely tight and hurts when I don't exercise. Do you know what this is, and what I can do to prevent any major injury before my race?
Answer: You may have developed tendinitis (inflammation or irritation) in your Achilles tendon. This is the largest tendon in the body, and it connects the calf muscle to the heel bone.
Injuries occur when the tendon is stretched excessively, causing severe inflammation or even a tear or rupture.
The warning signs of tendinitis are (as you've noticed) pain and swelling in the tendon area--sometimes during exercise but most likely after exercise. When I had Achilles tendinitis, for instance, the pain and stiffness were most noticeable upon getting out of bed in the morning.
Treatment includes rest, ice, elevating your legs and anti-inflammatory drugs. As always, if the pain persists, consult your physician.
After you've given your leg a rest for several days, begin daily stretches of the Achilles tendon and the calf muscles. Gently move your leg through a full range of motion four times a day to maintain joint flexibility. Example: Rotate your ankles, do a few calf stretches, stretch your hamstrings or take a short walk--preferably in new shoes.
A recent study by the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons shows that carefully selecting and replacing athletic shoes can help prevent tendon injuries. Excessive wear weakens shoes' mid-foot support, so be diligent about regularly replacing your worn-out shoes. Avoid athletic shoes that bend in the mid-foot area--they lack proper support and put more pressure on the heel and Achilles tendon. Rule of thumb: If you can bend a shoe in the middle, it shouldn't be worn for any sport that requires running or jumping.
Stephanie Oakes is the fitness correspondent for Discovery Health Channel and a health/fitness consultant. Send questions by firstname.lastname@example.org. She cannot respond to every query.