A stubbornly sore Achilles tendon can throw a major wrench into your running routine. Here’s some advice to put pain at bay and get back in the game.
Do you know the story of that famously fierce Greek mythological demigod? You know, the warrior who could never be defeated… except for in his one weak spot?
Not ringing any bells? This famed warrior was Achilles. His mother made him all but immortal except for where she held him at the heels when dunking him into the magical water that gave him his invincible strength. Achilles was an epic fighter, but he was finally pierced at his weakest spot. And that’s how the Achilles tendon got its name.
And it’s plenty of runners’ weak spot, too. The only difference (except for the mythical superpowers, of course)? It doesn’t take a Trojan War to make your Achilles tendon sore. Nope, just a little light jogging is enough to develop a sore Achilles from running… but why? And—more importantly—how do you make it go away?
If you’re fighting just to walk without wincing in pain, consider us the hero of your story. We can’t give you God-like powers, but we can explain why you might have a sore Achilles tendon. And we’re happy to share treatment methods to score you some much-needed pain relief. Click on a link below, and like Zeus with his lightning bolt, zap straight to your question at hand (or, in this case, at foot).
- Anatomy of the Achilles Tendon
- What causes a sore Achilles tendon?
- How to treat a sore Achilles tendon?
- How to prevent an Achilles tendon injury?
Anatomy of the Achilles Tendon
The Achilles tendon (formally known as the calcaneal tendon) is the super thick cord of fibrous tissue at the back of your heel right above your ankle. In fact, it’s so thick and strong that—as its mythical name suggests—it’s actually the most powerful tendon in your body.
And that’s a good thing, because your Achilles is tasked with some pretty big jobs. The tendon starts at the lower end of your calf, where it unites the gastrocnemius and soleus muscles into one band of tissue. It then inserts into your heel bone (the calcaneus), where it’s cushioned by pads called bursae. Still following?
We’ll spare you the deep dive and give you a brief rundown of the anatomy of the Achilles tendon: it connects your calf muscles to your foot, which is necessary for basically anything and everything related to movement.
It’s important for us to touch on the anatomy so you can understand how all of these systems work together to keep you moving. Your calf muscles contract, pulling on your Achilles tendon, which then raises your heel, lifts your foot, and facilitates everything from walking to running to jumping to simply standing upright.
Almost all of your force during your toe-off phase in running is transmitted by your Achilles, which can be as much as three times more than your body weight (!!!) depending on the surface and incline. If you’re a fast runner constantly trying to push the pace and shed seconds off your PR, then you strain it even more during your training.
Hopefully, we’ve stressed how incredibly important your Achilles is for movement.. But just like the figure it was named after, it’s not impervious. It receives limited blood supply and it’s constantly placed under high tension, making this spot particularly vulnerable to injury. Couple this with excessive usage and repetitive pavement pounding, and you’re looking at a recipe for disaster. It should come as little surprise that you might eventually experience Achilles pain when running
But if you’ve been running for a while and now, all of a sudden, you experience a sore Achilles tendon, it probably seems pretty random. If you’re new to running and feeling stifled by a sore Achilles, you’re probably thinking that your new commitment to fitness is way more difficult than it should be.
Don’t quit just yet. Let’s take a look at why your Achilles might be barking at you and what you can do to fix it.
What causes a sore Achilles tendon?
Just like all the rest of those sore muscles you get from working out, your Achilles also gets fatigued by intense exercise. But this isn’t the “hurts-in-a-good-way” type of pain that you feel deep in your obliques when you laugh the day after a killer ab workout or the burning sensation you experience when climbing a flight of stairs after leg day.
No, that kind of pain reminds you that you actually did something—it tells you that your body is undergoing changes, and it makes you feel pretty proud for putting in work… but the pain from a sore Achilles just sucks.
It’s flat-out annoying and probably one of the most infuriating running injuries. It’s caused by inflammation of the tendon from overworking this highly-active connective tissue. Tight calves? Unsupportive shoes? Aggressive training? These are all common culprits.
A severely sore Achilles from running is usually the symptom of one of two injuries: tendonitis or tendonosis.
Achilles tendonitis (inflammation of the tendon) is normally an acute injury from which you can bounce back pretty quickly. Tendonosis (a gradual thickening of the tendon without apparent inflammation) tends to linger around longer. It causes chronic, aching pain, and usually turns into one of those problems like runner’s knee that seems to never fully go away. Ugh.
The symptoms of Achilles tendonitis and tendonosis are usually the same: swelling, warmth, stiffness, dull throbbing or intense sensitivity to touch. You probably feel a sore Achilles tendon in the morning, since your ankle is relaxed when you sleep and your calf is in a shortened position. Standing up forces you to stretch those muscles, triggering pain in your stiff tendon as you get out of bed—it’s not the friendliest way to wake up, to say the least.
As the morning stiffness wears off, the pain usually picks back up when you put it to use—especially after a hard run or intense H.I.I.T session. Even the toughest athletes can be derailed by a sore Achilles, and the whole “walk it off” mentality is just going to make your injury worse.
You’re most likely in a world of hurt because you put it under excessive strain by training the wrong way or going too hard, too fast. When you rack up high mileage without pacing yourself or crush a hill repeat without a warm up run, a sore Achilles is usually one of the first signs that you’re overdoing it. Time to pump the breaks!
As you ease back into it, try running on softer surfaces and wearing more supportive shoes to reduce your risk of injury. There are probably several factors at play that are creating your painful problem—from overpronation to skeletal misalignment—and it’ll take some fine tuning to try to pinpoint the source of your woes.
How to treat a sore Achilles tendon
You’re not going to like this, but the first and best piece of advice to treat Achilles pain: rest! You need to get off that foot and give it a break! Usually, it’s either the right or the left tendon that gives you grief based on which side your body favors and puts a little more weight on. Go non-weight bearing on that leg as much as possible for a couple of days once you experience the first symptoms; the micro-fissures in the tissue need some time to repair themselves. Fire up Netflix while letting the inflammation cool down.
If you don’t, the problem will start building on itself—literally. Ice packs and cold compresses are your best friend (even if they don’t feel like it now!) because they constrict the blood vessels to reduce swelling. Bonus points if you can elevate your sore Achilles above your heart when icing it in increments of 20 minutes; gravity will draw all that nasty fluid down and away.
Pro tip: Get in the habit of regularly icing after intense activity to stop inflammation buildup in its tracks. No one enjoys an ice bath (if you do, you’re crazy), but they’re one of the best ways to prevent running injuries that always seem to strike at the most inopportune times.
Compression wraps and braces can also alleviate pain caused by a sore Achilles. When you reduce the tendon’s mobility with a compressive wrap, you restrict its range of motion, thereby limiting any further damage you could incur. Our favorites are:
- OS1ST FS6 PERFORMANCE FOOT SLEEVE PAIR
- PRO-TEC ATHLETICS ACHILLES TENDON STRAP
- HYPERICE UTILITY ICE COMPRESSION
Over-the-counter NSAIDs (non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs) are useful for pain management and swelling reduction, but you don’t want to overuse them—it can wreck your liver or lead to stomach ulcers, turning your sore Achilles into a much larger problem.
If you back off but the pain persists for over a week, it’s time to see your doctor and get it checked out. In severe cases, your foot pain from running might be caused by a tendon rupture or stress fracture, in which case you’ll definitely want some medical attention. It’s very rare, but extreme Achilles injuries might require surgery.
The moral of the story: give it a break and let your tendon heal before you keep aggravating it and making the problem worse. You might not be stoked about putting your training on a temporary pause, but if you don’t rest now, you could be looking at a lot longer recovery down the road.
How to prevent an Achilles tendon injury?
Instead of dealing with pesky and persistent pain, you should prevent sore Achilles tendonitis by following these tips:
- Wear running shoes that are thoroughly cushioned and catered to your feet’s exact needs. Come into a store to have your feet 3D scanned with our Perfect Fit Zone system or use our online shoe finder to get matched with the right pair.
- Never increase your weekly mileage by more than 10%.
- Perfect your running form and aim for a push rather than pull stride to reduce the impact placed on your Achilles.
- Be mindful when changing your running route and switching to a terrain that’s less-forgiving than what you’re used to.
- Always warm up with a light jog and cool down after a run, making sure to include runner’s stretches after your workout.
Don’t let your Achilles tendon be the one weak spot that leaves you defeated! Follow these tips, and in the case of an injury, give it the R&R it needs to heal. You’ll be back in no time, and you just might convince yourself that you really are invincible.