Outside magazine, July 1996
It's the ri-i-iping sound as the achilles tendon ruptures that's so gruesome," says Jim Allivato, athletic trainer of the sports medicine center at Chicago's tony East Bank Club, as he leans back in his office chair. He shakes his head over the fate of such unfortunate souls and sights down the gun barrel of his finger. "Pop!" he says, pulling the trigger. "It's like being shot in the ankle." The thought makes him brighten. "We'll get our hands on you then. It's the same every summer. They start coming to us in waves."
Early summer is hell on the bodies of ambitious athletes, most of whom have spent long months indoors while their muscles tighten and their joints stiffen, impatiently enduring a state of enforced sloth.
Yet even the worst of winters must end--at which point Allivato's work begins. "The first nice day of the year, everyone rushes outside and throws themselves into the same activities they were doing back in October," he says. "The day after that, they're all lined up at our doors, looking for help."
Sprains and Strains
In the unpleasant realm of sprains, ankles are popular candidates for injury. They're lousy with ligaments, and springtime athletes, in switching from smooth indoor surfaces to uncertain footing outdoors, have no trouble distressing them.
For lower-body sprains and strains, think "nonweight-bearing," meaning choose activities that don't put your full weight on the injured leg or foot. Runners can safely switch to cycling, but only on the road. Swimming is an excellent alternative--if you stay away from the breaststroke and take it easy on the freestyle kick. Or take out a sea kayak on calm waters.
With upper-body strains, gently move the injured area to keep it from tightening more, so long as you avoid directly loading the tender muscle. In other words, if you strain a shoulder, Frisbee golf is fine, but bow out of the Ultimate league. Or, if you want a more invigorating outing, finagle an invitation onto a sailboat--but don't offer to rig the sail. "Keeping active is good when you've strained a muscle," Allivato says. "Just make sure the affected muscle isn't used too directly. One suggestion is to walk through 18 holes of golf. You get a decent outdoor workout and you save on cart rental--so you can afford the services of a certified athletic trainer, such as myself."
A joint afflicted with tendinitis should be used directly but gently. Cycling is good for runners who develop Achilles tendon problems, since it stretches the calf muscles with each pedal stroke. It also helps those with tendinitis in the knee.
Or try rock climbing, which will work the joints without repeating a particular motion. "Any sport that stretches the muscles and uses the affected joints is good," Allivato says. Paddlers and tennis players with aching shoulders could adopt a more mellow pursuit: fly-fishing. "With tendinitis," Allivato says, "the closer the new activity recreates the range of movement of the old, the better--so long as they're not identical. Slightly different but similar movements can help to overcome the condition."
Shinsplints can often be remedied simply by ratcheting down from running to a gentler walking or hiking program. For a more adventuresome prescription, try boardsailing, which stretches calf muscles without pounding them. "But if it were me," Allivato says, "I'd opt for in-line skating: It's easy on the shins, it's fun, it's a good workout, and it gets you outside." And that, of course, is the point of finding a substitute sport: If you can't pursue the outdoor activity you love, learn to love whatever activity you can pursue. After all, winter returns in just five months.
Gretchen Reynolds, a frequent contributor to Outside, mountain bikes in Chicago, weather willing.