Accounting for about 10 percent of all running injuries, Achilles tendinitis is an acute inflammation of the Achilles tendon that runs along the back of the ankle, attaching the calf to the heel bone. It’s also the strongest tendon in the body—when healthy. When unhealthy, it can result in sharp pain that makes running impossible.
Pain along the Achilles tendon, at the back of the lower leg just above the heel. It is often accompanied by swelling close to the heel.
Achilles tendinitis can commonly be confused with other heel injuries. However, if you pinch the Achilles and it’s very sore, then the source of the problem is likely the tendon.
There are a number of things that can lead to Achilles tendinitis. Some of the most common causes are tight calves, foot instability or mechanical flaws such as over striding when you run.
“It’s almost always an overstriding problem,” says Joe Uhan, a physical therapist, coach and ultrarunner. When your foot lands in front of your body, especially if you land on the forefoot, you end up putting all the weight on your Achilles tendon. “That’s stress your body has to absorb.”
During the push-off phase of running, the Achilles is exposed to a force that is more than seven times your body weight. This means anything that puts repeated stress on the Achilles tendon can lead to Achilles tendinitis. It is also more likely to occur if a runner is prone to Achilles problems. Other contributors include too much mileage, too many hill repeats or too much speed work without a proper build-up. It’s particularly common after quick increases in training volume or intensity.
Once you have sharp pain along your Achilles tendon, the immediate treatment is obvious and simple: rest, ice and anti-inflammatories. You should avoid walking barefoot or in high heels in order to keep the tendon from over-stretching or shortening.
Mobilizing the tissue using a foam roller or other tool that helps with self-massage can be particularly helpful. Focus on finding specific trigger points and roll them with firm pressure to loosen the area.
After resolving the acute pain, studies have found some of the most successful Achilles tendinitis treatments involve some strengthening exercises. If your pain is severe, you may want to continue to rest before attempting strengthening work or workouts. Runners should ease back into exercise and avoid speed work for at least a couple of weeks.
Do this exercise – Gradually lower your heel from a raised position on a step and then use the healthy leg to raise it back to the starting position, being sure not to stress the tendon in the rising motion. Do 15 repetitions, twice a day.
If you find that Achilles pain is a recurring condition, consider consulting a professional who analyzes running mechanics to determine what might be causing stress to your Achilles.
One of the easiest ways to prevent Achilles tendinitis is simple stretching to keep the tendon strong and flexible. Stand with one foot behind the other as you push against the wall. Do this for a few minutes every day. However, be sure not to over stretch the tendon, since an over-flexible tendon is a leading predictor of Achilles tendinitis.
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