Explosiveness starts in the Achilles tendon. The ability to explode out of the gate, jump higher and cut faster starts at the ankle. And when we talk of the ankle, we’re talking about the Achilles, which connects your calf muscles to the heel bone. The role of the Achilles is to perform plantar flexion, which means pushing off with toes and foot.
We know strengthening muscle improves performance, but we often forget about the role of tendons – which are just as important, if not more.
Think of your Achilles tendon as a rubber band. A rubber band is stretched first before it’s snapped with explosive force. Before you jump or cut, you perform a countermovement– like dipping before jumping. That dip stretches the tendon and the resulting elasticity produces the necessary force for explosive movement. The goal of training your Achilles is to stiffen and harden the tendon. Go back to the rubber band analogy; the stiffer the rubber band, the more snap after it’s stretched. And the thicker the band, the less likely it will snap in half after it’s stretched to its limits.
Protect the Achilles – Stay in the Game
As most athletic trainers will tell you, the Achilles tendon is the most frequently injured tendon in sports. The tendon, which is about the size of your thumb, undergoes a tremendous amount of stress and abuse. And like we mentioned before, it plays a vital role in explosiveness; especially when you consider its size relative to other muscles in your body.
If it is injured, like with most tendons, treatment typically means surgery with a long recovery period to follow. A ruptured Achilles tendon usually you’re out for a year. One way to avoid the dreaded Achilles tendon rupture is to not play through an existing injury or tendonitis in the area. Experiencing discomfort while training is good, but playing through sharp pains in the ankle is not.
Another strategy is to properly strengthen and stiffen the Achilles, so you can avoid injuries altogether.
Training the Tendon Takes Patience
Training your Achilles tendon takes time and focus. Because blood flow is limited to your tendons, it can be difficult to cause enough stress to illicit a training response. It’s why it takes longer to affect your tendons compared to muscle.
The usual training methods like resistance training and plyometrics will not only help athletic performance but will also help stiffen the tendon. But, those methods are often not enough to train the tendon properly.
The key is to volume. It’s only through a high number of reps can enough blood flow occur to affect the tendon. The problem with plyometrics, for example, is high volume of those movements would be counterproductive and most likely result in injury.
But the use of elastic bands on the other hand is an excellent tool to perform high numbers of reps in a safe and effective manner. Do this and you can be tougher than even Achilles.
Slow Eccentric Movements: Heel Dips
- Stand on a raised surface (e.g step)
- Start lowering your heels slowly so they stretch
- Quickly push up to your toes
- Perform 3 sets of 15 reps
- You can progress by adding weight; such as, dumbbells and/or do dips on a single leg
Explosive Isometrics: Back Sled Pull
- Wearing a strap, try to pull a weighted sled backwards
- A partner will hold the other end of the sled so you cannot pull it
- Perform 3-4 sets, pulling the sled for 30 second each set
Plyometrics: Front Ankle Hops
- Set up 6-8 mini hurdles in a straight line, roughly a foot apart.
- Stand up tall and place your hands by your sides or behind your head.
- Keep your feet together and rise up on your toes while bending your knees as little as possible.
- Use your ankles to jump over each hurdle, keeping your heels off the ground.
- Spend as little time on the ground as possible.
- Progress by doing the hops on one leg.