Achilles tendon rehabilitation protocols commonly recommend a gradual increase in walking speed to progressively intensify tendon loading. This study used transmission-mode ultrasound to evaluate the influence of walking speed on loading of the human Achilles tendon in vivo.Methods
Axial transmission speed of ultrasound was measured in the right Achilles tendon of 33 adults (mean ± SD: age, 29 ± 3 yr; height, 1.725 ± 0.069 m; weight, 71.4 ± 19.9 kg) during unshod, steady-state treadmill walking at three speeds (slow, 0.85 ± 0.12 ms; preferred, 1.10 ± 0.13 m·s−1; fast, 1.35 ± 0.20 m·s−1). Ankle kinematics, spatiotemporal gait parameters and vertical ground reaction force were simultaneously recorded. Statistical comparisons were made using repeated-measures ANOVA models.Results
Increasing walking speed was associated with higher cadence, longer step length, shorter stance duration, greater ankle plantarflexion, higher vertical ground reaction force peaks, and a greater loading rate (P < 0.05). Maximum (F1,38 = 7.38, P < 0.05) and minimum (F1,46 = 8.95, P < 0.05) ultrasound transmission velocities in the Achilles tendon were significantly lower (16–23 m·s−1) during the stance but not swing phase of gait, with each increase in walking speed.Conclusions
Despite higher vertical ground reaction forces and greater ankle plantarflexion, increasing walking speed resulted in a reduction in the axial transmission velocity of ultrasound in the Achilles tendon; indicating a speed-dependent reduction in tensile load within the triceps surae muscle–tendon unit during walking. These findings question the rationale for current progressive loading protocols involving the Achilles tendon, in which reduced walking speeds are advocated early in the course of treatment to lower Achilles tendon loads.