If you’ve ever experienced Achilles pain while running, you already know how not fun it can feel. And if you haven’t, congrats! It’s still important to to tune into how you can keep avoiding the aches and sidestep a common Achilles tendon injury.
For starters, it’s important to know that the Achilles tendon is the large tendon connecting the two major calf muscles—the gastrocnemius and soleus—to the back of the heel bone. Under too much stress, the tendon tightens and is forced to work too hard. This causes irritation or inflammation, also known as Achilles tendinitis.
Over time, a layer of scar tissue, which is less flexible than the tendon, can cover the tendon. If the inflamed Achilles continues to be stressed, it can tear or rupture causing an Achilles heel injury.
If you’re experiencing a sore Achilles tendon or battling Achilles pain while running, we’ve got all the info you need on why that could be happening, how to treat it, and how to prevent it from coming back to derail your performance.
What to Do if You Experience Achilles Pain Running
If you start to feel Achilles pain while running, then the solution is simple: stop running. You want to take a break and chat with a professional in case something serious is going on in your lower leg.
“An irritated Achilles tendon can turn into a more serious tendinitis and partial or complete tear of the Achilles in very rapid succession,” says Jordan Metzl, M.D., a sports medicine physician at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York City and creator of Runner’s World’s IronStrength workout. “So if your Achilles hurts and that’s changing the way you run, it’s time to start cross-training. You don’t want to make a bad injury worse by running through it.”
To keep an eye out on Achilles tendinitis, here’s everything to know.
Symptoms of Achilles Tendinitis
Achilles tendinitis is characterized by dull or sharp pain anywhere along the back of the tendon but usually close to the heel. Other signs you might have Achilles tendinitis include: limited ankle flexibility, redness or a burning sensation in the Achilles area, a nodule (a lumpy buildup of scar tissue) that can be felt on the tendon, or a cracking sound (scar tissue rubbing against the tendon) when your ankle moves.
Pain in the lower portion of the Achilles region is more serious due to the limited blood flow to that region.
If any of these symptoms are left treated, you can develop Achilles tendinitis, which is chronic inflammation with fluid. Over time, this can result in a degenerative tear of the tendon that shows as a lump in the area. If you feel a lump, consult a physician immediately.
Common Causes of Achilles Tendinitis
Tight or fatigued calf muscles, which transfer too much of the burden of running to the Achilles, can be brought on by not stretching the calves properly, increasing mileage too quickly, or simply overtraining.
Stiff running shoes, which can force the Achilles to twist, can also cause some cases. Runners who overpronate (when the feet rotate too far inward on impact) are most susceptible to Achilles tendinitis.
How to Treat Achilles Tendinitis
If you feel a lump or a nodule in the Achilles area, go see a physician immediately.
Otherwise, to reduce swelling and ease irritation, Metzl suggests icing the area for 15 to 20 minutes several times a day until the inflammation subsides. You can also try anti-inflammatory medicines such as ibuprofen or anti-inflammatory creams. Self-massage may also help.
If the injury doesn’t respond to home treatment in two weeks, see a doctor, physical therapist, or orthopedic surgeon. Surgery to scrape scar tissue off the tendon is a last resort as it’s not very effective and often just stimulates more scar tissue.
What’s more important than just addressing the symptoms is treating the root of the problem. One common culprit is tightness in the calf muscles. Stretch your calves or roll them out with a foam roller. Be sure to roll the muscles and not the tendon area, Metzl adds.
Another treatment option is strengthening the calf muscles with eccentric strength exercises, which apply load to the calf muscle while it is lengthened. Try an eccentric calf raise.
How to do it: Find a stair or raised platform (having a railing or wall for support helps). Place toes on the stair and let heels hang off. Lift heels, raising onto toes, then lower your weight down very slowly so that your heels fall below the level of the stair. You can start with one leg at a time, using the other foot for balance. Then progress to both legs at the same time.
Don’t start running again until you can do toe raises without pain. Next, move on to jumping rope, then jumping jacks, and then gradually begin running again. You should be back to easy running in six to eight weeks.
Metzl suggests staying away from high-impact, weight-bearing exercises while your Achilles tendinitis is healing, and trying low-impact activities like swimming, pool running, or cycling in a low gear instead.
How to Prevent Achilles Tendinitis
To prevent the recurrence of Achilles tendinitis, it’s important to strengthen the muscles in your calves and feet. “The stronger the muscles, the less the loading force is on the tendon,” Metzl says.
Stretching your calves is also key for prevention. One of the best stretches for the Achilles is also the simplest. Stand on the balls of your feet on stairs, a curb, or a low rung of a ladder. Drop both heels down and hold for 10 seconds. To increase the intensity of the stretch, keep one foot flat and lower the other heel. Then switch legs.
Achilles tendinitis is also linked to overstriding or when your foot touches down in front of your body. Metzl suggests focusing on improving your running form by shortening your stride and quickening your cadence to avoid heel-striking too heavily.
Other prevention methods you can try are experimenting with include more supportive shoes or orthotics to help control foot pronation, avoiding running in worn-out shoes, easing into any running program, and incorporating more rest days into your training schedule.