When we watched five-time NBA champion Kobe Bryant fall with an Achilles rupture, it wasn't that the injury itself seemed so surprising. More shocking was how it happened -- not by a jump shot or a leaping rebound, just a simple push-off step while dribbling past a defender.
Bryant said as much on his highly shared Facebook rant, apparently written from his hospital bed later that evening. "All the training and sacrifice just flew out the window with one step that I've done millions of times!" Bryant wrote.
The fact is, as a 34-year-old male professional athlete, Bryant is in the unfortunate sweet spot to suffer an Achilles rupture. Men are five times more likely to blow out their Achilles than women, according to the Mayo Clinic. You're also at your highest risk between the ages of 30 and 50, says orthopedic surgeon Brian Donley, M.D., president of the Cleveland Clinic's Lutheran Hospital. "At that point, your Achilles has seen a lot of wear and tear, but you’re still young enough to be participating in active, aggressive sports," Donley says.
Most ruptures occur in a 1 1/2-inch section of the Achilles where blood flow is the weakest and your body is least able to repair small tears to the collagen fibers inside the tendon, Donley says. "You still need sufficient force at the right place and the right time to blow out the biggest tendon in your body," says Bill Hartman, P.T., C.S.C.S, co-owner of Indianapolis Fitness and Sports Training. As we saw with Kobe, where he scored 34 points and played all 45 minutes of the game before the injury happened, you'll likely feel no pain or have any warning that it's about to blow.
(No matter if you're a pick-up ball player or a seasoned athlete, our Injury Prevention Workout Plan will keep you pain-free and in the game.)
But don't take that to mean an Achilles rupture is inevitable. "Unequivocally, it's completely preventable," says Kelly Starrett, D.P.T, the author of Becoming a Supple Leopard: The Ultimate Guide to Resolving Pain, Preventing Injury, and Optimizing Athletic Performance. Take these steps to help prevent a blowout:
Try this test: With your feet pointing straight ahead with your toes and heels a few inches apart, squat down as far as you can—try to lower your butt to the back of your heels. Any tightness you feel in the muscles in your shin and calf translates to extra tension on your Achilles. Work out the kinks by rolling your calf muscle over the bar of a plate-loaded barbell, and rolling your shins (focusing on the muscle next to the bone, not the bone itself) on a foam roller or rumble roller.
Boost your strength, size, and flexibility with these 5 Simple Foam Rolling Stretches.
While your leg muscles pull on your Achilles from above, the muscles and tendons along the bottom of your foot exert pressure from below. Loosen them by placing one foot on the ground, and rolling the bottom of your other over a lacrosse ball or similar ball. Don't be afraid to place a good amount of your weight on the ball, and be sure to work all the way from your heel up to your toes using small circular and back-and-forth motions.
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While barefoot-style running shoes have become increasingly popular, the brogues, oxfords, and chukkas you wear all day long at work likely have a significant heel lift. "That puts your heel cord in an artificially shortened state for long periods," says Starrett. Look for shoes with lower heels or little height distance between the heel and the toes. At home, cruise around barefoot as much as possible.
Buying the wrong kicks can lead to ankle and feet injuries -- BUT know the facts before you go shoeless. Read The Truth About Running Barefoot.
Aside from being an excellent cardio and warmup exercise, jumping rope can help prepare your Achilles for athletic movement and train your feet to land properly. "When your feet angle outward, the arch of your foot collapses and you put an off-axis force on your Achilles," says Starrett. Jump rope for up to 5 minutes at a time before your workouts, making sure that you keep your big toes touching as you jump so your feet stay parallel.
Once you build those ankle muscles, work on your agility with The Sports Move That Will Give You an Edge.