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Heel Pain When Running – Treatment and Prevention

Since feet are such an important component of running, it’s really uncomfortable, frustrating, and painful when you’re dealing with pain around your feet like heel pain. If you’re experiencing heel pain while running, this article will help you out!

We’ll cover causes, treatment, and prevention so you don’t have to deal with pesky heel pain anymore. We’ll also give you tips about when to see a doctor as well as how to figure out what is causing your specific heel pain.

Why You Might Have Heel Pain As a Runner

Before you’re able to treat and prevent your heel pain, you need to know what’s causing, which we’ll cover here. First, you should know that it can be somewhat challenging to figure out what’s causing your heel pain.

Overuse

It could just be from overuse or it might be due to something like arthritis or nerve irritation. So, start by asking yourself a simple question: Have I been running way more than usual or way harder than usual?

If you recently upped your running game and have been recently dealing with heel pain, the cause might be as simple as you’re using your feet too much. Try going back to a more normal routine and adding in some rest days and see if your heel feels better.

Medical Condition

If that doesn’t work, you might consider if you have a condition that makes you more prone to heel pain like arthritis, nerve irritation, or Sever’s disease (which is a common heel injury for adolescents). If you’re an older or a very young runner, you might be a candidate for one of these conditions.

Plantar Fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis is a common cause of heel pain. It occurs when the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes is inflamed. You may experience pain across the entire bottom of your foot, but typically the pain near your heel is particularly intense.

Runners are at a higher risk for plantar fasciitis because it typically occurs due to repetitive impact activity, which clearly describes running, as well as intense activity.

Even if you’ve been running for a while without injuries, if you suddenly up your mileage or intensity, you are at higher risk for plantar fasciitis.

You are at greater risk if you are overweight or if you have a very high arch in your foot. This is why it’s important to pay attention to genetics to avoid running injuries.

Heel Spurs

Heel spurs can occur at the same time as plantar fasciitis, but it’s not the same thing. Heel spurs instead are calcium deposits that protrude on the underside of a heel bone sometimes as far as half an inch. You’ll need an X-ray to confirm that they are there.

Heel spurs are more common for people with diabetes or gait abnormalities and people who are overweight or who wear shoes that don’t fit properly or are much too worn. But just being a runner puts you at a higher risk for heel spurs.

How to Diagnose

In order to figure out what is causing your heel pain, you’ll have to isolate factors. Is it just overuse, or are you dealing with plantar fasciitis? If the pain is worse in the morning, you might be dealing with plantar fasciitis, not just overuse.

And if you try resting and that doesn’t work, then you aren’t dealing with overuse. If you have a pre-existing condition, see if that is causing your heel pain. If it’s still uncomfortable even when you’re treating plantar fasciitis, then maybe you have a heel spur and should get your foot X-rayed.

Chances are that you’ll be able to address your heel pain by running less, but if not, that will key you into the fact that there’s another issue.

How Do I Treat Heel Pain?

Once you’ve determined what’s causing your heel pain, you can start to think about treatment. Fortunately, almost all heel pain you can treat from home and won’t need to go and see a doctor.

Rest and Recover

The first thing to do is to take a break. Much heel pain is due to overuse and running too much, so resting and recovering should do the trick. While you’re taking some time off, make sure to do some gentle stretching to keep everything in your foot loosened up.

While you definitely want to take time off of running, feel free to keep cross-training as long as it’s non-weight bearing. This could include swimming in the pool or even aqua jogging if you want to keep running.

You might also try something gentle like yoga or any strength training that doesn’t require you to put weight on your feet. This is also the time to pamper yourself and get a massage or try acupuncture.

If you have a significant other, you might be able to conceive him or her to use lotion and massage your feet to help the heel pain go away. Of course, you can always do it yourself if you live alone.

Ice and Use Anti-Inflammatory Meds

Next, you’ll want to ice your foot/feet to help reduce inflammation. This is a great excuse to cuddle up with a running book or catch up on some shows on Netflix as you’re icing your feet for 20 minutes several times a day.

If you’re dealing with uncomfortable pain, try using an anti-inflammatory drug like ibuprofen or aspirin. If you prefer to consume natural products, you can try cloves, fish oil supplements, and turmeric for pain relief.

Wear Shoes with More Cushioning in the Heel

After you’ve taken some time off and feel like you’re ready to return to running, you’ll want to make sure that your feet are more prepared. Doing a few foot stretches every day will help as will additional cushioning in the heel in your shoes.

You can either get completely new shoes. For example, Hoka One One is known for having maximum cushioned shoes and are used by many masters and ultrarunners. Or you can also use heel pads or insoles with cushioning in the heel.

You’ll want to also make sure that you have plenty of cushion in the heels in your non-running shoes as well. Cheap flip-flops or going barefoot is not going to be the best decision.

Use a Night Splint When Sleeping

Finally, if you want to be proactive and do as much as you can, try using a night splint. It will stretch your foot, making sure that it’s in the proper position while you sleep at night. When you wake up in the morning, you shouldn’t feel as much pain because your foot has been gently stretched overnight.

When Should I See a Doctor?

Although you probably can treat your heel pain from home, there are times when you should see a doctor.

If There is Constant Acute Pain

First, it’s fine to try at-home treatments to see how they go, but if you’re dealing with constant acute pain, this is probably beyond your paygrade and it’s time to see a doctor. Acute pain is an indication that something more serious could be going on.

If At-Home Treatment Doesn’t Work

If you’ve tried all of these suggestions for treating heel pain from resting to adding some extra cushioning to the heel in your shoes to using a night splint and the onset heel pain isn’t getting better, then it’s time to see a doctor.

What Will Happen if You See a Doctor

If you go to a physical therapist, he or she will work on making your feet and heels stronger. A medical doctor may also give you corticosteroid injections in your heel if you’re still experiencing pain and inflammation.

In rare cases, you may be sent to a foot and ankle surgeon, but this will almost certainly not happen to you as surgery isn’t often needed.

How Can I Prevent Heel Pain While Running?

Now that you’ve gotten your heel pain under control (whether or not you needed to see a doctor), it’s important to start thinking about the future. How can you prevent heel pain from here on out? If you follow these tips, you’ll be on your way to staying pain-free.

Increase Mileage Slowly

A good way to avoid heel pain is to make sure that you’re not putting yourself at a higher risk for overuse injuries. That’s why it’s important for you to slowly add the miles. Follow the 10% rule and don’t run more than 10% above the week before.

For example, if you typically run 20 miles a week, then when you decide to increase your mileage, you should bump up to 22 miles the next week rather than jumping to 30 miles. Slowly easing up will help you avoid overuse injuries.

Run On Softer Surfaces

Another common reason heel pain occurs is that the surface is just too hard. Asphalt and concrete can be really hard on your feet, especially if you’re older, so try to vary things up. Run on grass, a trail, the beach, or a track to give your feet some variety.

Requiring yourself to run on softer surfaces also gives you a chance to change up your scenery and requires your body to get used to a new area, which is good for you mentally and physically.

Warm-Up and Cool Down

You have to get your body prepared for running and then have a chance to cool down too, so don’t skip the 5-10 minutes of a warm-up and the 5-10 minutes of a cool down. Add some dynamic stretching like Frankensteins, high knees, butt kicks, leg swings, and so forth too.

Starting suddenly and stopping suddenly isn’t good for your body in many ways, but heel pain is one of them. You need to walk it out/jog it out before you start a run and after you finish.

Check Your Running Shoes

In order to prevent heel pain, your running shoes still need to have enough cushioning to be effective. In other words, if you’re trying to run with shoes that have seen better days, then you’re asking for an injury.

Check your running shoes to see if they are worn out anywhere. If they are, replace them. If finances are tight for you, try looking for a pair of running shoes on eBay. You can get many new shoes that are the version before the most recent version for under $50.

After you get new shoes, make it a habit to see how many miles you’re putting on the shoes. My GPS watch does this for me, but you could always log the miles you’ve run with them in a spreadsheet or even in a notebook.

Change Up Your Form

Finally, you might be dealing with heel pain because you’re someone who heel strikes. The easiest way to deal with this situation of course is to not heel strike. Instead, try changing your form to mid- or forefoot striking.

This is also a great opportunity to consider all of the aspects of good running form in general, which will make you a better runner. Go through the checklist—head forward, shoulders relaxed, standing straight, etc.—and be sure to focus on the midfoot landing.

Final Thoughts

As runners, we value our feet and anything that makes our feet uncomfortable and running challenging is annoying. Fortunately, heel pain is not something that you have to live with permanently.

By focusing on making sure that you’re taking the proper time to warm up and cool down, not running too much, adding some softer surfaces to your routine, and treating heel pain that you do have by icing and NSAIDs, you should be on your way to treating and preventing heel pain.

The Wired Runner