DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: A snapped Achilles ruined my run

DR MICHAEL MOSLEY: A weekend run, then the awful ‘gunshot’ sound of my Achilles tendon snapping…

I am a firm believer in the importance of keeping active and doing plenty of exercise. Being active not only keeps your body and brain in good shape, but actually extends your life.

If you are sedentary then adding in just 20 minutes a day of moderately intense physical activity could give you an extra four years. But there is also a downside. As I write this, my left leg is encased in bandages and a pair of crutches are propped against the desk.

A few days ago, while I was out running through the woods, I tripped, tried to correct myself and ‘bang’ – I felt an intense, crippling pain in the back of my leg.

I did wonder for a moment if I had been shot, or if someone had snuck up behind me with a hammer and given my calf a sharp whack. 

A few days ago, while I was out running through the woods, I tripped, tried to correct myself and ‘bang’ – I felt an intense, crippling pain in the back of my leg. I did wonder for a moment if I had been shot, or if someone had snuck up behind me with a hammer and given my calf a sharp whack

As I lay there on the ground, trying not to scream, I had a good idea what had happened. My calf muscles seemed to have turned to jelly – it was like squeezing a plastic bag full of water.

And when I reached down I couldn’t feel my left Achilles tendon, the thick band of tissue that connects your calf muscles to your heel bone.

You need two functioning Achilles to run, jump, stand on tiptoes and walk – as I discovered when I tried to stand and found I couldn’t even manage a few steps. Fortunately, someone soon came to my rescue and helped me hobble home. I applied a bag of frozen peas to the injury, swallowed some ibuprofen and then got a lift to the nearest casualty department.

Staff did an ultrasound which confirmed that I had suffered a major tear, but it also confirmed that there were a few strands of tendon still attached to the bone and muscle.

Because of this, I probably won’t need surgery, as there is a good chance it will begin to heal. The bad news is that I will need to wear a special boot for several weeks and use crutches – as footballer David Beckham did when he ruptured his Achilles – followed by many months of physiotherapy. It’s not something to look forward to.

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Downside of being an old warrior

WHY did it happen? Well, this sort of injury is much more common in men, particularly middle-aged men who are sedentary for much of the week and then start doing vigorous exercise at the weekend. We’re known as ‘weekend warriors’ and are prone to high rates of injury.

I do actually try to stay active right across the week. That said, most of my exercise comes in the form of either walking or cycling, neither of which puts anything like the sort of stress on the Achilles tendon as running does. And yes, this accident happened last Saturday, so I suppose I do fit the mould.

Ask Dr Mosley 

You often mention full-fat yogurt. Can you tell me where I can buy it? Supermarkets don’t seem to stock it.

Until recently we often had to rummage around supermarket shelves packed with low-fat yogurts (which are often also high in sugar) to find full-fat versions.

This is changing and most supermarkets now stock them. They’re labelled Greek yogurt, Greek-style yogurt (similar but made slightly differently), natural yogurt or plain yogurt.

Check there is no added sugar, and that the fat content is between four and ten per cent.

You can add fruit and some nuts to sweeten it.

A ruptured Achilles tendon can happen out of the blue, as it did with me, but it is more likely to happen if you already suffer from tendonitis, an inflammation of the tendon. Tendonitis is incredibly common, particularly as you get older.

The major risk factors for getting tendonitis are being male, over 50, and playing sports that put strain on the tendons – tennis is a good example. Oh, and wearing old, worn-out shoes.

Now, you can’t do anything about getting older or being male, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of developing tendonitis. These include stretching your calf muscles before and after exercising. It’s particularly important if you are about to play football or do anything that involves sudden changes of direction.

If you are going for a run, you might want to start with a gentle jog, then stop and stretch your Achilles tendon by standing with a straight leg, and leaning gently forward as you keep your heel on the ground. You can also do this at the start and end of the day if you are prone to tendonitis.

I am a fan of high-intensity interval training, or HIIT, which involves short bursts of intense exercise. However, you must ensure you are well warmed-up before attempting any sort of a sprint.

It is also important to wear good shoes, particularly if you like walking or running. They should have plenty of cushioning and provide decent arch support.

If yours are worn down, particularly at the heel, you should replace them – wobbly heels raise the risk of the foot suddenly tilting sideways, which can lead to ankle strains, sprains and also injuries like the one I have just suffered.

Why short bursts are as good as slow and steady

To those who are hugely busy during the week and enjoy a blast of activity at the weekend, please don’t feel discouraged. Yes, statistics show that weekend warriors are at greater risk of injury. But, as I have explained, these can be largely avoided. And there are lots of benefits to doing exercise, even if it is only at the weekend.

In a recent big study, researchers tracked the physical activity levels of more than 60,000 men and women from England and Scotland over a 12-year period.

During that time, 8,800 of those they were following died.

Once the researchers crunched the numbers, they showed that doing regular exercise cut the risk of dying, from any cause, by 30 per cent. This was impressive, but what was surprising was that there was no difference between those who spread their exercise over the whole week and those who exercised only at the weekend.

It was a surprising result because although we know that exercise improves blood pressure and blood-sugar levels, it was always assumed that the effects were short-lived. Apparently not.

So despite the fact that I am now nursing a serious leg injury brought on by exercising, I would still urge you to get out there and use those muscles. But a word of caution: if you haven’t exercised for some time, start gradually.

Does the type of exercise matter? Is it better to walk, run, cycle or swim? The simple truth is that any activity is better than none and it doesn’t seem to matter too much whether you spread it out or do it in one go. The important thing is that you do it.


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