You may be familiar with the Greek myth of the hero Achilles who was taken down by his one weak point, a spot right on the back of his heel. So you probably can see how this myth morphed into the name of a common running injury, Achilles tendonitis. The Achilles tendon, stretching from the back of your heel up to the bottom of your calf, can plague a running career if you’re not careful. Research shows, Achilles tendon injuries account for 11% of all running injuries.
The Achilles tendon is the most powerful tendon in your body, capable of bearing loads of more than 900 kilograms during a run. “The Achilles is a ropey, fibrous structure at the back of your ankle, and tendons attach muscle to bone and help transfer force,” explains Dalton Laino, physiotherapist and co-founder of The Movement. “So it’s super important for running because every running stride is 6–8 times your bodyweight force on that Achilles tendon. It’s heavily used during running, transferring force from your calf to your foot so that you can push down. So it’s quite important — and it’s also quite prone to overuse injury.”
Here’s what you need to know to diagnose, treat and prevent Achilles issues:
RESPECT ACHES AND PAINS
Symptoms of an injury to your Achilles include irritation, pain and swelling along the tendon. Research has shown passionate runners often push through pain and end up with overuse injuries, while more casual runners avoid many of these common running issues.
Have you noticed a hitch in your stride lately? Or maybe you’re seeing different wear patterns on your shoe, or you’re feeling a dull ache in that Achilles area after every run? “If you’re noticing you’re changing your technique to try to continue to train, you should likely have that addressed,” says Laino. “That doesn’t mean that you can never adjust your technique, but if pain is the reason you’re [making adjustments], then it’s a red flag.” Depending on how it feels, you might take a few days off from running to see if it’ll go away, otherwise consider seeing a doctor.
GET IT CHECKED OUT
Before you do another run on a tender Achilles, book a doctor’s appointment. “Get to a doctor and have it assessed,” says Cari Setzler, an RRCA and USATF-certified running coach. “Understand [the extent of your injury], how severe it is and what you should and should not do. Achilles issues can be very difficult to heal: It’s fibrous tissue, it’s used everyday and you can really rupture your Achilles and cause some serious damage.” Once you keep running on an injury like that, and don’t let it heal, you create chronic scars, and it makes it much more likely for you to continue to get injured.
STRENGTHEN AND STRETCH YOUR CALVES
Tight calves can cause the Achilles to get pulled uncomfortably, so don’t focus your foam rolling solely on the tendon; make sure your calves and even hamstrings are getting some TLC in the form of gentle stretching.
Often, lower leg issues are caused further up the chain, so don’t ignore what’s going on above your ankle. “Calf raises are a great option for most runners to work on stretching and strengthening calf muscles,” Laino adds. They can be done on a flat surface or with heels hanging off of a step for a deeper stretch. (Bonus: Those will also help you on hills!)
READ MORE > 8 SIMPLE SOLUTIONS FOR RUNNERS WITH TIGHT CALVES
MAKE TIME FOR ACTIVE RECOVERY
“Rest doesn’t mean you stop everything,” says Setzler. “In this case, you’re going to need to have active recovery that includes physical therapy and prescribed exercises.” Additionally, once you have an injury diagnosis, you may still need to get to the root cause of why it happened if you ever want to return to running. Your running gait may be causing your Achilles to flare up, so, if this is an ongoing problem and not one brought on by an acute overuse, it might be time to seek professional help. Look for a physical therapist who can assess your run and help correct it for better lower leg movement patterns as well as providing strengthening and stretching exercises that address your exact issue. You don’t need to abandon cardio altogether: Laino adds that the bike is a great alternative to running while your Achilles recovers.
KEEP AN EYE ON IT
“Once you have an Achilles issue, it becomes a weak point,” says Setzler. So even once you’ve completed rehab and are cleared to run again, be cautious and pay close attention to any flare-ups. Continue those rehab stretching and strengthening exercises and consider them a permanent part of your running routine going forward. An Achilles injury doesn’t have to mean the end of your running career, but it is a signal to take better care of yourself.
Whether you want to run your first mile or set a PR, having a plan gets you there faster. Go to the MapMyRun app, tap “Training Plans” and set your next goal — you’ll get a schedule and coaching tips to help you crush it.