The achilles is an important structure of a boxer’s lower half due to the amount of time these athletes spend on the balls of their feet throughout training camp.
If we consider the amount of time spent shadow boxing, executing drills on the pads or bags and even sparring, a large percentage of these tasks involve repetitive recruitment of the achilles in order to maintain the boxer’s bounce and help him/her get in and out of range when necessary.
However, the repeated recruitment of this tendon can lead to irritation and can therefore significantly impair movement in the ring, reducing the capacity to move explosively and with fluidity.
Therefore the focus of this article will be to outline the methods we use at Boxing Science to prevent and combat achilles irritation.
The main points of this article to be discussed are:
A brief overview of the anatomy of the achilles tendon and how understanding this can help with prescribing prevention techniques.
An outline of the methods we use at Boxing Science to mobilise, stabilise and strengthen the achilles tendon among our athletes, allowing them to move freely and avoid tendon related issues during periods of high training loads.
How to incorporate these training methods into your boxing and strength and conditioning sessions.
ANATOMY OF THE ACHILLES
The function of any tendon is to attach or link muscle to bone.
This function is essentially facilitates, essentially, how we move as activation of the muscle leads to pulling on the tendon which leads to movement of the surrounding bony structures.
In the case of the Achilles tendon it is situated on the posterior lower leg and attaches the Gastrocnemius and Soleus muscles to the calcaneus bone, more commonly referred to as the heel.
The achilles is considered the thickest and strongest tendon of the musculoskeletal system and facilitates plantarflexion (toes pointed towards ground) of the foot and also stabilises the ankle joint during walking and running.
The fibres of the Achilles tendon do not descend completely vertically, instead these fibres exhibit a slight lateral trajectory, particularly at the point where the Soleus’ muscle fibres begin to interact with the tendon.
Inserting on to the Calcaneus or heel bone, the Achilles acts as an effective force transmitter to the foot during walking, running and jumping activities.
The tendon can facilitate the dampening of impact forces during landing phases of these actions and can also play a key role in the stretch shortening cycle of the lower leg during propulsion of phases of sprinting and jumping.
THE ACHILLES AND BOXING
We frequently see boxers adopt and maintain a bounce or rhythm during a bout.
This helps boxers to react to their opponents quicker and move in and out of range when necessary.
This bounce is typically characterised by boxer’s being on the balls of their feet with heels slightly off the ground.
This can be considered a plantar flexed position and therefore the achilles is highly activated. Furthermore, bouncing whilst in this position is ultimately controlled by the repetitive contraction and relaxation of the calf complex and therefore the achilles is exposed to repeated bouts of tension.
From a punching perspective the achilles can also be heavily involved. This is due to the achilles tendon’s function in the storage of elastic energy when the muscles of the lower leg are put on stretch before recoiling and transmitting force to the upper limbs.
This function is particularly prevalent during counter punches where the back leg is often loaded following a defensive manoeuvre or quick step back out of range. This ultimately places the muscles of the rear lower leg on stretch prior to recoiling and transmitting force through to the kinetic chain via the stretch reflex, the storage of elastic energy in the Achilles tendon or a combination of both.
Perhaps an overlooked aspect of how the Achilles tendon translates to boxing performance is the extent of the tendon’s involvement in running.
The Achilles of a runner takes a lot of hammer, due to high impact forces and training load. This creates tight calf muscles and tension of the Achilles’ tendon. Furthermore, tight calves can affect running technique creating more loading through the Achilles’ tendon during conditioning sessions.
From this we can assume that the repetitive traumas imposed on the achilles tendon during boxing training are compounded by running practices of boxers and therefore the likelihood of injury/irritation is high.
Avoiding irritation or injury to the achilles is important for boxers in order reduces the development of taut bands in the calf complex and to maintain movement fluidity, spring and bounce in the ring.
Considering the influence of the Achilles tendon on punching action, particularly counter punches, we need to ensure that we are implementing training methods aimed at developing strength, stability and endurance within and around the Achilles tendon.
PROTECTING THE ACHILLES
At Boxing Science we focus on three areas in order to develop robust and strong achilles tendons with our athletes.
These three areas are: mobility, stability and strength.
There are two main ways we can improve the mobility of the structures surrounding the achilles tendon, including myofascial release using a massage gun or massage ball and targeted dynamic stretches that emphasise mobility of the gastrocnemius and soleus.
It’s important to consider the mobility of these two muscles as what can often seem as Achilles pain or Achilles tendinitis may be radiating pain generated from a tight Soleus or Gastrocnemius.
Targeting the Soleus can often be quite difficult and requires flexing the knee and stretching the Gastrocnemius simultaneously. This ultimately means a training partner or coach is required to adequately mobilise the Soleus muscle, particularly when using myofascial release techniques.
We prefer these implements to a foam roller when looking to target the Soleus, as having the leg fully extended fully extended when using the foam roller creates tension on the gastrocnemius, making it more difficult target the Soleus.
Using dynamic stretching techniques we can improve both Gastrocnemius and Soleus mobility.
Making slight adjustments to the technique of these exercises, we can dictate which muscle is targeted.
An example of this is the Yoga Press Up which is one of our favourite mobility exercises as it targets multiple muscle groups simultaneously and in a dynamic manner.
To target the lower leg during a Yoga Press Up, simply perform a calf pump at the top position when bringing your head to your feet and hiking your hips up.
This will predominantly target the Gastrocnemius muscle.
To increase the stretch on the Soleus, bring the back knee toward the ground and try to press the heel of the back foot into the ground using the toe of the opposite foot.
Another dynamic stretch that we frequently incorporate at Boxing Science, to develop overall lower leg mobility, involves adopting a half-kneeling positioning, placing a plate on the lead knee and attempting to push your knee forward whilst keeping your heel on the ground.
Along with alleviating tension in the Gastrocnemius and Soleus, this can help with overall ankle mobility which can improve running technique by enabling the athlete to get the ankle in the most optimal position to strike the ground with the each stride.
STABILITY AND STRENGTH
To improve stability and strength of the Achilles and its associated structures we use fast stretch shortening cycle plyometrics.
These exercises promote bounce and spring through the lower leg and ultimately prepare the boxer for the demands of the subsequent training session.
Performing these plyometric exercises makes the muscles surrounding the Achilles more efficient at absorbing and re-producing force which can be of huge benefit to boxers considering the frequency at which these muscles contract and relax.
A great example of a fast stretch shortening cycle activity is the pogo jump which can be progressed appropriately to really overload the eccentric or landing component and thus further challenge the ability of the achilles to recoil during the concentric portion.
Pogos are a fantastic exercise for promoting rapid absorption and productions of force through the calf muscles and the achilles.
With the short ground contacts we are looking to produce as much force as possible, in as little time as possible and therefore replicates the force-time demands in a boxing ring.
The key coaching points for Pogo jumps and its variations are:
Feet should be close together. Hands should be on hips to start off with before progressing to more challenging variations.
Keep toes up when pointed towards the shin as this allows us to take full advantage of the elastic energy storage capabilities of the Achilles’ tendon which ultimately benefits propulsion into the air.
Keep ground contact time short. Each contact should sound like a clap.
Whilst these exercises don’t necessarily replicate the rhythmic bouncing commonly seen when in the boxing stance, we can raise the ceiling of the Achilles’ potential to produce maximal levels of force in short periods of time which will improve efficiency of the posterior lower leg during sub maximal movements in the ring i.e moving in and out of range, feinting and cutting off the ring.
To challenge the stability of the Achilles complex and comprehensively develop strength within this region we can incorporate single-leg pogo variations.
These exercises can help address any imbalances between legs in terms of stability and strength around the achilles.
Imbalances tend to be common among boxers as many will bias one leg more than the other due to the nature of the boxing stance.
Footwork drills are also are an important of our strategy to develop robustness in the Achilles and its surrounding structures and therefore prevent irritation.
These drills are fantastic for improving speed, co-ordination, reactive strength, ankle stiffness and calf conditioning.
This can help with moving in and out of range efficiently and effectively, throwing sharp shots while moving, landing powerful counter punches and avoiding irritation of the Achilles during periods of high training loads.
Mobilisation techniques using myofascial release and dynamic stretches can be performed on a daily basis if necessary as part of a mobility routine.
This is something we encourage our athletes to take ownership of in their own time.
That said, on a given day if they are feeling restricted around the calf we will incorporate some of these mobilisation techniques into the warm up, particularly before high intensity interval training sessions.
The plyometric exercises outlined above can be easily performed before boxing and strength and conditioning sessions.
Prior to our strength sessions we tend to include a pogo variation as part of the extended warm-up. This can help fire up the nervous system and provide a potentiation effect prior to our main strength work. We will commonly perform pogo variations for 10-15 Reps X 3-4 Sets.
Short stretch shortening cycle plyometrics are also a great option prior to conditioning sessions as they can induce acute improvements in ankle stiffness which can help with running technique and the efficient storage of energy during the landing phase as well as redirection of this stored energy during the propulsion phase of each stride.
Footwork drills may also be programmed as part of an extended warm-up and can be combined with punch specific exercises or a long stretch shortening cycle activity such as a vertical jump or a broad jump.
These can be performed using a ladder with the target repetitions being based on completions of the ladder. 3-5 completions of the ladder on each leg X 3-4 Sets is usually performed.
Along with improving measures of performance and reducing the chances of Achilles/Calf irritation, these drills can really get the athlete switched on from the outset of any boxing or strength and conditioning session, allowing them to get the most out of each session.
For more information on how to integrate plyometric activities and footwork drills into your sessions, see our membership options which will give you access to specific workshops on these topics and to your coaching/training tool box: https://boxingscience.co.uk/online-membership/
The Achilles tendon is an important structure for maintaining a boxer’s rhythm and bounce during a bout. Due to its high level of activity, the Achilles is susceptible to irritation which can significantly impair a boxer’;s movement in the ring.
At Boxing Science we put strategies in place to prevent there occurrence of Achilles tendon pain by focusing on developing mobility, stability and strength in this area.
To develop these qualities we use a combination of myo-fascial release techniques, dynamic stretching, short stretch shortening cycle plyometric activities and footwork drills in the extended warm up segments of our sessions at Boxing Science.