To begin learning about how we can adapt our tendons for performance, health, or both it is important that we first understand what a tendon is and what it does. A tendon is a small, flexible cord of fibrous collagen tissue that attaches a muscle to a bone. This attachment of muscle to bone is what allows us to move our bodies when we contract said muscle. These tendons are most well known for acting up and causing pain after we do a lot of physical activity. The one that most people are familiar with is the patella tendon, which is in the front of our knee directly below the knee cap. When these tendons become inflamed and irritated it is known as "tendonitis", which I'm sure many people unfortunately, know all too well.
The fact that tendons are flexible means that they are able to store and transfer elastic energy, making them a key part of sports and athletic performance. The fast loading of a tendon makes it more stiff and less flexible. The more stiff a tendon is, the more force a muscle is able to apply through it while jumping, cutting, or sprinting. This makes us perform better. Your first thought might be that we want our tendons to be as stiff as possible in order to perform to the best of our ability. This is not necessarily the case. While a stiff tendon aids performance, it also makes us more prone to injury. When the tendon is more stiff than the muscle is strong, the tendon isn't able to absorb the force that is should and instead the muscle is forced to lengthen very quickly. This rapid lengthening of the muscle causes tears also known as a strain in the muscle, leading to pain, which we all know is not good for performance. So how do we prevent this from happening? We have to focus on the health of the tendon as well.
To focus on tendon health, we must focus on the opposite of performance. This means decreasing the amount of tendon stiffness. But how do we accomplish this? The answer is slow loading of the tendon. This can be done by performing slow eccentrics (lengthening a muscle), slow concentrics (shortening a muscle), or isometrics (muscle contracting but with no movement at the joint). The emphasis here is SLOW. The slow loading allows the tendon being stressed to "creep" or slowly lengthen and become less stiff. As the tendon becomes less stiff it is able to effectively absorb and transfer more of the force accepted during fast loading (performance). This decreases the chance of injury to the associated muscle.
How do we put this all together? We need to train both aspects of the tendon. Continue doing fast loading of the tendon such as jumping and cutting but also add in slow eccentrics, concentrics, or isometrics as well. For example, if you do a lot of jumping then add in 3-4 sec eccentric squats to your training routine to it balance out. One important fact to remember about tendons is that they only respond and adapt to training for about 10 minutes of loading. After 10 minutes they will not adapt any more and need 6 hours of rest before they will begin adapting again. This means that in order to best balance your performance and health you will need two sessions per day. One session will be 10 minutes of sports specific, fast loading such as jumping rope or practicing quick cuts and the other session (6 hours later) will be 5-10 minutes total of slow tendon loading such as a split squat isometric holds.
The bottom line is that performing jumping, cutting, and sprinting will make the tendon more stiff and better for performance. Training with slow eccentrics, concentrics, or isometrics will make the tendon less stiff and improve it's health. I recommend the middle ground by focusing on both aspects and maintaining well rounded tendons. Remember, it doesn't matter how well you can jump, cut, or sprint if you are not healthy enough to stay on the field or in the gym. If you have an issue that is keeping you from performing the way you would like and want professional help to get you back to feeling your best you can contact me by pressing the button below.
I discovered these ideas from Jake Tuura. He is a Strength and Conditioning coach at Youngstown State University and you can find him over at jackedathlete.com for a bunch of great information on athletic performance. His direct article on tendon health and performance can be found here: http://jackedathlete.com/3-concepts-for-juicy-tendons/