How to Strengthen and Prevent Injuries
The main objective in strengthening the Achilles tendon should be to improve the strength and composition of the collagen, the small fiber-like proteins that make up tendons.
When a tendon is damaged, collagen fibers are ruptured. The body lays down new fibers to replace the damaged ones, but it does so in a rather disorganized way. The new collagen fibers look much like a mess of spaghetti when viewed on a microscope, in contrast to the smooth, aligned appearance of healthy tendon fibers.
Exercises that help strengthen the existing collagen and allow new collagen to form in a smooth, aligned manner are critical to maintaining Achilles tendon health.
The exercise of choice is the eccentric heel drop, which has an impressive research pedigree backing its use.
You should also improve your ankles' range of motion, and ensure that your hips, hamstrings and glutes generate the proper power in order to take pressure off the Achilles tendon.
The same exercises outlined above are sufficient to improve hip, hamstring and glute strength; here's how to perform the eccentric heel drop and ankle range of motion exercises.
Straight-Knee Eccentric Heel Drop
Instructions: Stand on a ledge, step, curb or other stable surface with your left foot raised up so you're balancing on the ball of your foot; bend the right leg at the knee. Slowly lower the left foot downward until your left foot hangs slightly below the ledge. To complete the rep, switch legs and raise your right foot up, and then lower the right foot until it hangs slightly below the ledge. That's one rep.
In this picture, the injured side is the left leg. Note that the right leg is used to return to the "up" position. Perform 15 to 25 reps.
Once you can perform this exercise pain-free, add resistance—place weights in a backpack, and wear the backpack on both shoulders.
Bent-Knee Eccentric Heel Drop
Instructions: Complete this exercise in the same manner as the straight-knee eccentric heel drop exercise, but just bend both knees. As with the first exercise, the opposite leg is used to return to the "up" position. Perform 15 to 20 reps. Add weight when you can perform the exercise pain-free.
Think prehab as opposed to rehab.
If you add strength training to your weekly training program, you can reduce your risk of injury by 50 percent. Most runners only include strength work after they get hurt, and when they return to running, they sacrifice the strength work that got them healthy for adding more miles.
Consider the routines and information I've presented in this four-part series, and make running-specific strength training a part of your routine so you can stay healthy and train more consistently.
Check out the previous three articles in the Building a Better Runner series, which outline the importance and function of the core as well as how the hips, hamstrings and glutes work together to generate power from your running stride, and four ways to treat and prevent shin splints.race.