By Tim Bochnowski
“If one bell should ring, in celebration for a king
So fast the heart should beat, As proud the heart with heavy feet.”
— Led Zeppelin’s Achilles’ Last Stand
Feel pain near the bottom of your calf or the back of your ankle? Achilles pain is a common occurrence for professionals and amateurs. The Achilles tendons are the tendons at the back of the ankle, connecting the calf muscle to the heel. If your Achilles is sore during or after riding you may have Achilles tendinitis or tendinosis. Inflammation, micro-tears or comprised blood flow, often caused by overuse, could put a stop to the riding season. Paying attention to your Achilles could help prevent the injuries that are common to cyclist.
Aside from bike fit, there is a whole host of stretching, strengthening, recovery and maintenance options available to athletes who are encountering Achilles issues. There are many excellent websites that show how to correctly stretch and strengthen this muscle group area. As always, if issues arise, I recommend first seeking medical advice from your personal physician or medical professional. They can identify what sort of injury you have, making sure you get appropriate treatment for your condition.
Proper pedal/cleat setup can help eliminate lower leg pain and help you increase your power on the bike. Generally, the ball of your foot should be directly over the pedal axle. While some cyclists find positioning the center of their cleat behind the ball of their foot (the bump on the inside of your foot behind the big toe) comfortable, others like to place the center of the pedal spindle even closer to the bump (behind the pinky toe) on the outside of the foot. If you feel strain in your calf, try moving your cleat slightly rearward on your shoe. Please be aware that this may require additional saddle height adjustment afterwards.
Second, consider more support inside your shoe. Over pronation, knees moving inward toward the top tube of the bicycle during the down stroke while pedaling, may attribute to Achilles pain. Often inexpensive insoles or the use of wedges in the shoe or between the cleat and shoe can help align the knee and foot lessening ankle rotation and lower leg stress. Finally, check for lateral rock in your bike shoes. When clipped into your pedals, see if someone can rock your foot side to side (like a boat on rough water). Replace all loose or worn cleats. Pronation in the foot can fatigue the calf and Achilles area.
Could saddle height contribute to Achilles issues? Maybe…A saddle set too high may force a cyclist to point the toes to reach the bottom of the pedal stroke. “Ankling”, otherwise known as excessive ankle movement or range, is often considered a culprit in AT pain. Similarly a low seat, high torque, heel down pedaling technique, as associated with seated hill climbing, may also cause issues.
Finally, cleat rotation is another thing to consider. While knees sometime enjoy increased float in the pedal, your Achilles may not. Increased float in your cleat and pedal system could promote AT problems. Pay special attention to your calves, ankles and AT when changing to a new pedal system or replacing cleats.
In the end, cyclists will greatly benefit from having a good bicycle position.. While considering these aforementioned ideas utilized in bicycle fitting, keep in mind, nothing beats a good bike fit from a well-trained and experienced fitter. Comfort and efficiency breed performance. Keep working at improving your position and ride more bike.
Tim Bochnowski is a bicycle fitter and owner of Mountain Velo, a bicycle performance center, located in Park City, UT. Tim started fitting bicycles in 1985. He has been trained by BIKEFIT, Slowtwitch, Retul and several other fitting techniques. Reach Tim at 435-575-8356; [email protected] or http://www.mountainvelo.com.