Hearing your body pop unexpectedly is an athlete’s worst nightmare. It happened to me once when I was 15 years old. I went to toss a front flip during gymnastics practice, and as soon as I punched the ground, my leg popped like a mini thunderclap. After crashing on the spring floor, I looked down to see a tiny teepee of skin and bone cresting below my knee. It was a freak accident, related to Osgood Schlatter’s disease, but it taught me a lesson: Fear the pop.
Twenty years later, I’m a stronger and more mature athlete, yet I still get goosebumps remembering that noise. However, instead of worrying about another random fracture, I’m mainly conscious of not snapping my Achilles tendon.
You see, if you’ve been doing parkour for a number of years, then there is a fair chance you’ve heard of someone who has popped an Achilles while training. While it’s not an epidemic, it’s definitely a noteworthy occurrence. I’m aware of least three high-level parkour coaches have succumbed to the injury. A competitor tore his Achilles while running the Warped Wall on American Ninja Warrior. And although it’s not directly parkour-related, the CrossFit scene has had a rash of Achilles tears in their community.
An Achilles rupture is debilitating injury. Whether or not it is treated surgically or with splinting, you are looking at multiple weeks of immobility. If your goal is to have an uninterrupted, lifelong training career, protecting your Achilles must be a priority.
Every sport has its unique traumatic injuries. Skateboarders fracture their ankles and wrists. Cyclists break their collarbones. And soccer players tear their ACLs in an unfortunate sacrifice to their sport.
To prevent Achilles ruptures from becoming a right of passage for parkour athletes, this is the critical information you need to know:
WHAT IS THE ACHILLES?
Your Achilles tendon is the thick bundle of tissue that connects your calf muscle to your heel bone, the calcaneous. When you fire your calf, the Achilles tendon pulls on your calcaneous to plantarflex your foot, i.e. point it away from your torso. Conversely, when your ankle dorsiflexes—bringing your foot toward your face—the Achilles tendon and the calf muscle become stretched.
Most injuries to the Achilles occur with an eccentric load or an explosive plyometric contraction.1 This means that you need to be careful when your calf counteracts the dorsiflexion of your foot or when the ankle rebounds into plantarflexion. When does this occur? Imagine dropping onto the balls of your feet and then letting your heels slap down. That represents an eccentric load to your Achilles. Now imagine doing box jumps for time, bouncing from the floor to the box as fast as possible. That represents an explosive plyometric contraction. Consider how those mechanics relate to the wide array of parkour movement. Precision jumps, wall runs, plyo broad jumps, tictacs, bounding—any activity that requires heavy loading of your forefoot places your Achilles at risk.
Vinny Fiacco is the general manager and one of the coaches at APEX Movement Denver. He tore his Achilles back in 2014 when doing a wall run. The injury happened on a Monday, but it’s important to note that he had participated in a force-measuring experiment the previous Thursday. He had done about 6 max effort wall runs during the study, and he remembers that his Achilles felt super sore on Friday. He took 3 days off and then returned to the gym on Monday. After warming-up and training without any difficulty, he took a break. Upon returning, this is what he recalls:
I went back into the gym, thinking I was still going to be warm, but I guess I was cold. And the second I tried this wall run I heard a loud snap and that was it. It was very loud. I even have a video of me, filming probably 30 feet away, and you hear the pop pretty loud. Someone thought I hit my knee into the wall.
I landed on my other leg, got to the ground, and I was like what happened? I looked at my Achilles, and saw that the skin was just jelly and the tension was all gone.
WHAT ARE THE RISK FACTORS?
It’s well known that sports with repetitive, abrupt jumping and sprinting have higher rates of Achilles ruptures.2 On a recent cross-Atlantic flight, I talked with a college-level track athlete with a 6-inch vertical scar ascending from his heel. He popped his Achilles running cone drills on his third day back after summer vacation. He ended up missing the entire season, but because it happened during a scheduled practice, the university paid for his surgery.
The injury can also happen from an unfortunate misstep or a fall. In physical therapy school, I worked with an older gentleman who blew his Achilles stepping off a boulder while hiking. Thank goodness he wasn’t too deep in the wilderness. He was able to hobble back to the trailhead, albeit much slower than he would have liked.
Many people will report that they felt a blow to their heel at the time of injury.2 The snapping of the tendon is so powerful that it can feel like someone kicked you in the back of your leg. The track athlete I spoke with said he thought a teammate had punted him from behind.
Besides the type of physical activity that you do, the literature identifies additional risk factors for an Achilles rupture. One of them is your age. People in their 30s and 40s have higher rates of heel cord injuries than younger athletes.1 Your connective tissues gradually become less elastic as you age. You also typically aren’t running wild outdoors, strengthening your joints as much as you did in your childhood and teen years.
The other main risk factor is a history of Achilles tendinopathy.1 A tendinopathy is a painful disorder of a tendon that is related to a failed healing response to an injury, traumatic or cumulative. Jumper’s knee is an example of a tendinopathy of your patellar tendon, but along with the Achilles, there are many body regions that can be involved.
When a tendinopathy is present, the involved tissue is restructured so that it becomes weaker and more likely to fail. The collagen fibers become less tightly bundled and less organized than in a healthy tendon. Additionally, tendons have 7.5 times less oxygen consumption than skeletal muscle, meaning that their healing and strength gains take longer than muscle tissue.3 Consequently, whenever you’re aware of some discomfort in a tendon, you need to put your brakes on and let it heal.
I’ve got some tendinopathy going on in my right Achilles after stepping in a pothole during a run last summer. I know that it places that leg at a higher risk for injury, thus I’m way more cautious about warming-up and calling it quits if the pain increases. Vinnie’s report of his Achilles being sore just a few days before his tear, is definitely in-line with what is known regarding the etiology of ruptures.
HOW CAN A TEAR BE PREVENTED?
The most important aspect to preventing an Achilles tear involves having a solid understanding of the mechanism of injury. Knowing how a tear happens, prepares you to avoid one. Here are the key points to remember:
- Use caution with heavy eccentric and plyometric movements. Besides sprinting, jumping, and dropping, many other lower body dominant parkour skills put you at-risk. The data for parkour-related Achilles tears are sparse, but I suspect that wall runs and similar forefoot-loaded movements are the worst offenders. Eccentric and plyometric contractions generate higher tension than concentric muscle action only. To protect your tendons, you need to be gentle in how you introduce this type of skill into your training. Add wall runs and other similar movements into your repertoire slowly, gradually increasing the height and speed involved. Whenever there is a major bump in the intensity or volume of your training load, know that your connective tissues might not have had time to catch-up, and an injury might not be too far behind. I know it’s hard, but you need to slow down and be methodical in your progressions.
- Pay attention to your technique. Striking the ball of your foot into a firm surface with a floppy ankle is a recipe for over-stretching and tearing your Achilles. Make it a practice to stay “active” in your ankle, meaning that your foot is plantarflexed and ready for impact. By actively expecting a specific load, you are better prepped to counteract the force. If you’ve ever done any trail running, recall how vigilant you become to avoid rolling your ankles on a root or a loose rock. The same thing applies to parkour. The more conscientious you become of your Achilles, the better you can protect it.
After understanding the mechanism of injury, the next step in prevention involves being aware of the relevant risk factors. The most important concepts are:
- The older you are, the greater the risk. People in their fourth and fifth decades of life experience higher rates of Achilles ruptures than younger athletes. As you approach middle age, or even your late 20s, be much more mindful of your training.
- Don’t ignore heel cord pain. The degenerative changes that are associated with a tendinopathy increase the risk of tissue failure during high loads. If you have discomfort in your Achilles tendon, consider it a warning sign that you need to be extra cautious. Seek medical attention and rehab the tendon back to full integrity.
When asked to identify what he might have done to prevent his injury, Vinnie put it succinctly:
More rest. I thought I was doing a good job of listening to my body, thinking 3 days off was enough rest. I know that the Achilles, and other tendons and ligaments, take way longer to heal. It’s not a muscle. So, I should have given it more rest, warmed-up more, and not gone into the gym cold. I was 29 at the time, and you can’t pull that anymore.
BUILDING BOMBPROOF ACHILLES
So far we’ve taken a defense approach to injury prevention. To complete our discussion about Achilles tears, let’s finish on a proactive note. Just as you hopefully already work on hanging shrugs as prehab for your shoulders, it’s time to strengthen the connective tissues of your calves.
Assuming that you already have good ankle mobility and strength, there is one main Achilles-targeted exercise that I recommend adding to your routine. As a descriptive term, I’ll call it an elevated calf raise. You might already know it as a heel drop. The idea is to stand on the edge of a stair, rise onto your tiptoes, and then let your heels lower below the lip of the stair. For the exercise to be safe you need to start slowly and ease into your full range of motion. Be respectful of your body. Don’t slam your heels downward and expect everything to be fine.
By emphasizing the eccentric component, heel drops strengthen your Achilles in the position where strength is most needed. Yet, the dose makes the poison. If you lower with too much force you are gambling with getting hurt. Start slowly!
Once you are comfortable doing heel drops while perched on two feet, transition to a single leg. Hold onto a rail or post for balance. Also try varying how you stand—between a bent knee and a fully extended knee—to work the different layers of your tissue. Add a greater descent velocity and a rebound back to the top position as the final elements.
Remember what I said about oxygen consumption and tendon health. For this exercise to have an effect on your tendon strength, you to need to think long term and accumulate a huge number of repetitions. As long as you are pain free, and muscle fatigue isn’t spilling over into your athletic performance, try squeezing in a few dozen reps throughout your day. Crank out a few sets on a curb while waiting for the bus. Pump out a couple more whenever you pass a flight of stairs. As always, be smart and build up to how many reps you do. Introducing a high volume of any exercise without a gradual ramping period is sure way to irritate your tissues.
Heel drops are my preferred method to strengthen the Achilles, but in the name of a well-rounded prehab program, consider these supplemental exercises:
- Ankle hops Bounce up and down on the balls of your feet, while keeping your knees essentially straight. Focus on your calves, and minimize any upper leg effort.
- Jump rope The repetitive loading of jumping rope is perfect for building bombproof Achilles. Try to be as silent as possible, and mix things up with single leg jumps, skipping, and alternating step patterns.
- Jogging If it isn’t already part of your fitness regimen, push yourself to take a couple of runs through your neighborhood each month. Like jumping rope, the cyclical nature of jogging is beneficial for Achilles health. Start with short distances, and be light on your feet, aiming for a mid to forefoot strike if possible.
I don’t mean to be an alarmist. Your Achilles tendon is a remarkable structure, and it’s built to withstand tremendous load cycles. Yet, like any other biological tissue, failure is always a possibility. As a parkour athlete, many of your regular movements put you at-risk for an Achilles injury. By being aware of the risk factors and understanding how an injury occurs, you can take measures to thwart an accident. Likewise, by adding a few prehab exercises into your routine, you’ll be better prepared to avoid disaster.
If you found this article useful, please help spread the word to other athletes. I’ve had my share of orthopedic mishaps over the years, and one of my top priorities is to help others stay injury-free. Finally, I encourage you to leave a comment below. The more we learn about parkour injuries, the more effective we become at prevention.
This article is not intended to diagnose or treat any medical condition. If you are injured, speak with a licensed health care professional for guidance.
1 Gregory William Hess, MS, ATC/L, CSCS, Achilles Tendon Rupture: A Review of Etiology, Population, Anatomy, Risk Factors, and Injury Prevention. Foot & Ankle Specialist, Feb 2010, vol 3, no 1 29-32
2 Dr Dishan Singh, Acute Achilles Tendon Rupture, British Medical Journal, 2015;351:h4722
3 Pankaj Sharma and Nicola Maffulli. Tendon Injury and Tendinopathy: Healing and Repair J. Bone Joint Surg. Am. 87:187-202, 2005.