School of Medical and Health Sciences / Centre for Human Performance
Open access publishing facilitated by Edith Cowan University, as part of the Wiley - Edith Cowan University agreement via the Council of Australian University Librarians.
Elastic strain energy that is stored and released from long, distal tendons such as the Achilles during locomotion allows for muscle power amplification as well as for reduction of the locomotor energy cost: as distal tendons perform mechanical work during recoil, plantar flexor muscle fibres can work over smaller length ranges, at slower shortening speeds, and at lower activation levels. Scant evidence exists that long distal tendons evolved in humans (or were retained from our more distant Hominoidea ancestors) primarily to allow high muscle–tendon power outputs, and indeed we remain relatively powerless compared to many other species. Instead, the majority of evidence suggests that such tendons evolved to reduce total locomotor energy cost. However, numerous additional, often unrecognised, advantages of long tendons may speculatively be of greater evolutionary advantage, including the reduced limb inertia afforded by shorter and lighter muscles (reducing proximal muscle force requirement), reduced energy dissipation during the foot–ground collisions, capacity to store and reuse the muscle work done to dampen the vibrations triggered by foot–ground collisions, reduced muscle heat production (and thus core temperature), and attenuation of work-induced muscle damage. Cumulatively, these effects should reduce both neuromotor fatigue and sense of locomotor effort, allowing humans to choose to move at faster speeds for longer. As these benefits are greater at faster locomotor speeds, they are consistent with the hypothesis that running gaits used by our ancestors may have exerted substantial evolutionary pressure on Achilles tendon length. The long Achilles tendon may therefore be a singular adaptation that provided numerous physiological, biomechanical, and psychological benefits and thus influenced behaviour across multiple tasks, both including and additional to locomotion. While energy cost may be a variable of interest in locomotor studies, future research should consider the broader range of factors influencing our movement capacity, including our decision to move over given distances at specific speeds, in order to understand more fully the effects of Achilles tendon function as well as changes in this function in response to physical activity, inactivity, disuse and disease, on movement performance.
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