The Achilles Tendon and Downhill Running

For runner’s, the Achilles tendon tends to be a pretty troublesome body part. Of course, we need it – it’s incredibly important to our balance and suspension – but it is also notoriously easy to injure. In fact, an estimated 52 percent of runners will hurt their Achilles tendon at some point in their career.

Out of fear of this, many runners tailor their training to avoid putting undo stress on their Achilles tendon. One of the most frequently touted techniques used to protect this tendon is to limit downhill running – something that can be very challenging for long-distance runners. Clearly, if you participate in marathons or other endurance events, you can’t totally avoid ups and downs in your course. And changes in grades also tend to focus on different muscles, which need to be trained.

So, runners are presented with a challenge: How do you train for downhill running without destroying your Achilles? As it turns out, the solution is pretty simple.


Don’t Overthink It

A recent study looked at this issue to try to see just how much the Achilles tendon can take. As it turns out, the tendon is much more adaptable and resilient then people give it credit for.

For the study, the researchers recruited 20 trained female runners who could all complete a 5K in under 24 minutes. The subjects were than asked to run three different running trials that were flat, inclined and declined, with 48 hours between runs. Before and after each trial, the researchers examined the thickness and stretch of each woman’s Achilles tendon – with the understanding that exercise typically makes the tissue thinner and more pliant. Other techniques were used to monitor the runners’ stride and strike-force.

While it is true that downhill running put a huge amount of stress of the Achilles tendon, it’s also true that there were no signs of damage to the tendon. These findings suggest that downhill running does not actually increase your risk of injury.

Even though this is great news for runners, the study’s authors did include a word of caution: Gradually transition to downhill running so that your tendons can adapt to the greater impact forces. One of the authors, Iain Hunter, went on to say that “The main cause of any running injury is a sudden change in training.”


In Application

Ultimately, then, it is safe – and important – for endurance runners to train for downhill runs. But this training needs to be done gradually, slowly increasing the severity of the decline and the time you spend running downhill.

Obviously, this is easier if you have access to a treadmill that will allow you to control and measure how steep the decline is. Otherwise, it might be tricky to find naturally occurring hills that can work for this type of training.

Be sure to listen to your body, as well, and pay attention for warning signs that you could be pushing yourself too hard. If your ankles feel stiff or swollen after the exercise, give them amble rest time. Stop your run immediately, though, if that pain sets in while you’re exercising.




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About jonathan.thompson

Jonathan Thompson is a Certified Personal Trainer and Running Coach with the American Council on Exercise, specializing in nutrition. In addition to his real-world experience working with clients, his articles and blogs on fitness advice have been published on many websites and magazines.