Achilles tendonitis is no joke. If you’ve been smart about it and taken some time off from running, you’re probably starting to miss your daily jog!
Wondering how to return to running after Achilles tendonitis in a way that doesn’t put you at risk of further injury?
The good news is that if you do it right, your Achilles tendon should stay safe, pain-free, and uninjured when you’re returning to your previous levels of running.
Here’s everything you should know if you’ve had Achilles tendonitis before, are recovering from it now, or want to be prepared for the future.
How Long Does Achilles Tendonitis Take To Heal?
Everybody heals from an injury differently. In general, Achilles tendonitis takes between 4 and 8 weeks to heal.
But it depends on the severity and the steps taken while recovering. If you catch it early, you can expect to be back on your feet in about four weeks.
How Do You Know If You Are Ready to Start Running Again?
You shouldn’t return to your normal activity level until the pain is gone. There should be no pain or stiffness when you wake in the morning, and your foot should feel pain-free when walking or standing throughout the day.
If you experience slight pain when walking, standing, bending, or placing any pressure on your feet, you should wait to begin running again.
Starting to run too early—before your pain is gone—can leave you open to reinjuring your foot and doing permanent damage.
Tips Before You Start Running
Once you are pain-free and ready to start running again, you should take the following steps to minimize your risk of developing Achilles tendonitis again.
Reconsider Your Shoes
Your running shoes could be part of the reason you developed Achilles tendonitis in the first place.
The first step is ensuring your shoes are right for your gait. If you’re an overpronator, you need a stability shoe, and if you’re a neutral foot, you can choose a neutral shoe or a light motion control shoe.
The best running shoes for Achilles tendonitis have excellent ankle support, a high heel-to-toe drop, and shock-absorbing cushioning. You may need to reevaluate and change your current shoes if they aren’t supporting your feet enough.
Improving your ankles and hips’ flexibility can help protect your Achilles tendon. We recommend doing Achilles tendon stretches as your warm-up and during the day to keep your lower legs loose and pain-free.
It’s also a good idea to work on your hip flexibility. If you have tight hips, you may find that you use the ankle more during push-off, which could aggravate your Achilles.
However, with loose hips and ankles, there should be no excess pressure placed on the ankles. This will help reduce the chance of developing Achilles tendonitis again.
Stretch Your Calves
Having tight calves may place extra strain on your Achilles tendon, leading to tendonitis. Regularly stretching your calf muscles can help prevent the tendon from inflaming again.
This should be part of your warm-up routine, but stretching your calves regularly throughout the day is also a good idea. You can do this by simply doing standing, or seated calf raises, which are easy to do even in the office.
Cross-training will help to strengthen your muscles in a non-running capacity. Weight training, cycling, swimming, rowing, aqua jogging, and the elliptical are a few examples of effective cross-training activities that aren’t hard on the Achilles.
Incorporating training other than running helps to build muscle in the legs and core, ensuring that your legs are primed for running. The stronger your calf muscles, the more they can support your Achilles tendon.
Also, the fewer muscle imbalances you have and the stronger your core, the better your form is likely to be. This can make a big difference in keeping the Achilles tendon safe while running.
While avoiding running to allow your tendon to heal, you should keep up with your cross-training to build muscle and maintain your fitness levels.
How to Return to Running After Achilles Tendonitis
Reduce Your Mileage
Although it’s tempting to get back into running at the same level you were before your Achilles tendonitis, it may put too much strain on your newly-healed ankle.
Reduce your mileage when you begin again so that you have no chance of overtraining and damaging your tendon again.
Begin at about 50 % of your previous mileage. You should carefully monitor your mobility and pain levels throughout each run to ensure your body can handle the distance.
If you feel no pain, you can increase slowly—by 5 to 10 percent—until you find the right mileage that’s challenging but not painful.
Reduce Your Frequency
We also recommend reducing your training frequency to allow your tendon enough time in between to recover from the activity.
Three times a week is a good frequency to start. This allows you at least one day of rest between every run. Focus on recovery and cross-training on your off days.
Run/Walk If Needed
If you’re in the middle of a run and you start to feel pain, slow down to a walk. If you continue to feel pain, you should stop and rest your foot.
However, if running is painful but walking isn’t, you can reduce your sessions to a walk instead of a run. Otherwise, you can alternate between running and walking to give your tendon a bit of a rest between runs.
When Should I Stop Running?
It’s important to know when to stop running. If you have pain during your run, you should stop. You can slow down to a walk, but if any activity causes pain to flare up again, you should stop immediately.
If you go for a run and you wake up the following day with a swollen or inflamed tendon, you should avoid running and wait until the tendon is healed.
You should also stop if you find that you have a reduced range of motion when you walk, run, or flex your feet.
Paying attention to your recovery will help prevent you from reinjuring the tendon. We recommend the following steps to improve your recovery:
Ice After Each Run
Applying ice will help to reduce inflammation and prevent swelling after a run. You can apply an ice pack covered in a cloth for 15 to 20 minutes while elevating your feet to help prevent fluid build-up.
Use KT Tape
Taping your Achilles tendon can help to provide a light layer of support. This reduces the load on the tendon and eases pressure so that the tendon can recover faster.
You can use athletic tape or kinesiology tape. KT tape—kinesiology tape—also helps increase circulation, improving recovery.
Cut two pieces of KT tape that are long enough to run from underneath your arch—the middle of your plantar fascia—to the middle of your calf muscle. Cut one of those strips in half.
Sit on a chair and cross the ankle you want to tape over your knee. Flex your foot as if you are trying to touch your toes to your shin—but not so hard that you hurt yourself.
Break the adhesive backing of one strip of KT tape about 2 inches away from the end. This will form the anchor, which you will stick underneath your foot in the middle of the arch. The excess tape will be facing your heel.
Lightly stretch the tape over your heel, sticking it down as you pull the backing off. The last 2 inches of the tape should have no stretch. Stick it down firmly and rub the tape to ensure it sticks well.
On one half-strip, break the adhesive backing in the middle and peel it back, leaving 1 inch for you to grip on either side. Apply a moderate stretch to the tape and place it over the back of your heel. Then stick the ends down with no stretch.
Do the same with the second half-strip, slightly above the first one.
Foam rolling your calves will prevent the muscles from tightening and placing pressure on the Achilles tendon. You can foam roll lightly after a workout, but it should become part of your everyday recovery routine.
Heel drops are an effective recovery exercise for Achilles tendonitis.
Begin by standing on the ball of your foot on a step or raised area. Next, place your heels protruding over the back of the step.
Engage your calf muscles and raise your heels. Bend one knee and lift your foot off the surface, so you are only standing on one leg.
Slowly and carefully, lower your raised heel back to the starting position. There is no need to drop the heel lower than the surface you’re standing on—just back to the horizontal position.
Switch legs and do the same on the opposite leg. You should also do this exercise with the knee slightly bent.
Repeat this on each leg for three sets of 15 reps, twice daily. It’s recommended to continue this for 12 weeks to strengthen the Achilles and the calf muscles.