The Achilles tendon is notorious for being a common source of stiffness, pain, and discomfort among runners. While some soreness is expected as runners push their limits, too much can translate to debilitating injuries that force them to take time off for recovery.
This is what makes Achilles stretches for runners important.
What is the Achilles Tendon?
The Achilles tendon is the largest and strongest tendon in the body, connecting your powerful calf muscles to your heel bone. It plays a vital role in walking, running, and jumping by helping propel your foot forward and providing power on the push-off phase of each stride.
With its pivotal role in daily activities and sports, like running, ensuring your Achilles tendon is in top condition is important.
Injury Prevention for the Achilles
To help prevent injuries to the Achilles and calf muscles, it is important to regularly engage in a balanced running program. This should include:
- Ensure a gradual increase in your training volume (this will differ for everyone), including time, intensity, cadence, and distance
- Cross-training activities such as biking or swimming to give the legs “rest” from running
- Complementary strength training exercises
- Dynamic stretching before and after a run
- Foam rolling for improved flexibility
- Wearing supportive and correctly fitting shoewear
- Other healthy lifestyle habits include good nutrition, adequate sleep, hydration, stress management, etc.
What is Causing My Achilles Tendon Pain?
If you’re experiencing pain in your Achilles tendon, it’s important to identify the cause. This could be a result of:
- Overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy or tendinitis – caused by repetitive strain on the tendon due to overtraining and not enough rest
- Poor biomechanics – incorrect running form or shoes that don’t fit properly
- Tight calf muscles – can lead to increased tension on the Achilles tendon
- Weak muscles and poor flexibility – can cause the foot to overpronate or roll inward when striking the ground
Ultimately, Achilles pain can lead to tenderness along the tendon or calf muscles, with standing (weight-bearing), running, or walking, and limited ankle and foot range of motion.
If you develop symptoms that are worsening, affecting your daily activities, or are concerned about, it’s best to talk to your physical therapist for personalized recovery and treatment recommendations.
Why Should Runners Stretch?
Runners should stretch to increase flexibility and reduce stiffness that can lead to injury. The benefit of regular stretching includes the following:
- Improved (or maintained) range of motion
- Reduced risk of injury due to stiffness
- Enhanced performance and recovery
- Improved postural alignment and balance
General Tips for Getting Started
How much a runner needs to stretch will vary depending on their needs. For example, a runner that struggles with general stiffness or has had a previous injury will need to stretch more often than someone with good flexibility or hypermobilty (who should focus more on strengthening).
Follow these guidelines to get started:
- Start slowly; if you’re extra stiff, you might warm up your legs first with a light jog or leg swings
- Hold each stretch for 60 seconds or longer per side (the longer, the better)
- Avoid bouncing into the stretch or forcing any painful stretches
- Perform a variety of stretches targeting the calf muscles and Achilles tendon- in addition to other key muscle groups in the lower body, such as the hamstrings and hip flexors
- Stretch regularly and consistently – from daily (before and/or after each run) to a few times per week.
Note: If you experience any discomfort or have knee or hip issues, it’s important to listen to your body and modify the pose accordingly. Consult a fitness professional or healthcare provider if you’re unsure about performing this exercise.
Static Achilles Stretches for Runners
A static stretch is the most common type of stretching and involves holding a stretch for longer periods of time- typically best after a run. The following exercises are essential stretches for runners to help reduce tightness in the Achilles tendon. Pick the ones that feel best for you.
1. Classic Standing Calf Stretch
This classic stretch only requires a wall or chair for balance while standing.
- Stand facing a wall or with your hands on the back of a chair
- Step one foot forward to assume a lunge position with both feet flat on the floor
- Start to bend your front knee and shift your weight forward while keeping your back knee straight and foot flat on the ground with the toes pointing forward
- Continue shifting forward until you feel a stretch in the back of the calf and Achilles
- Hold the stretch for 60 seconds and switch legs for 2 to 3 sets
2. Classic Standing Deep Calf Stretch
To stretch your calf and Achilles at a different angle, repeat this exercise again but with a slight bend in the back knee. You should feel the stretch deeper in the calf.
3. Seated Double Achilles Stretch
This exercise can be done on the floor, bench, or chair.
- Sit upright on a bench with your legs extended in front of you (knees straight)
- Put the balls of your feet on a towel, belt, or strong resistance band and use it to pull your toes toward you
- Continue pulling until you feel a stretch in the Achilles tendon
- Hold this position for 60 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times
4. Seated Single Achilles Stretch
Alternatively, you can do a single-leg version of the double Achilles stretch. The setup is exactly the same as the stretch above, except that you will focus on one leg at a time and alternate.
5. Standing Wall Stretch
For this variation of a standing stretch, you will prop your toes up on the wall, a step, or another stiff object.
- Stand near a wall or step
- Place your toes and the ball of your foot against the wall, with your heel on the ground
- Lean your body into the wall until you feel a strong but tolerable stretch in the Achilles tendon
- Hold this position for 60 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times on each leg
6. Step Stretch
This last static stretch is very similar to the wall stretch above, but you will use a step or other raised platform instead of the wall.
- Stand on top of a step or platform that’s about 6-8 inches tall
- Place your toes and the ball of your foot on the edge of the step with your heel hanging off the back
- Let your heel drop down toward the ground until a stretch is felt
- Hold this position for 60 seconds and repeat 2 to 3 times on each leg; alternatively, you can stretch both ankles at once
Complementing Stretches to Consider Adding
In addition to the stretches above, you can supplement your stretching routine with other basic calf and foot exercises. These include:
- Ankle circles and alphabet shapes: By the ankle moving through all planes of motion with control
- Toe range of motion: Alternating stretching the toes in a flexed and extended position
- Hamstring stretch to address other muscles and tendons in the back of the leg that are often tight together
Dynamic Achilles and Calf Stretches
Dynamic stretches promote blood flow to the area while actively moving the ankle into positions that stretch local tissues. Try one or more of the following for a warm-up or cool-down.
1. Heel Walks
This walk will get the lower legs warm and ready for running.
- Stand with your toes off the ground
- Walk back and forth across the room with only your heels touching the ground
- Continue for 1 to 2 minutes
- To counterbalance during your warm-up, you can reverse directions and walk on your toes to actively work the calf muscles
2. Walking Lunges
This exercise starts to work the ankles and hips in a more dynamic way.
- Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart
- Step one foot forward and bend the knee as you shift your body down toward the floor
- Keep your back foot flat on the floor as long as possible to promote a stretch.
- Then, lift your body and bring the back foot forward to meet the front foot
- Continue for 1 to 2 minutes.
3. Deep Squats
This exercise is the perfect way to end a dynamic warm-up or cool-down.
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart and toes pointing slightly outward
- Slowly press your hips back and lower into a squat position as deep as possible (if your knees allow), keeping your chest upright and knees behind the toes
- Hold here for 5 to 10 seconds before pushing back up
- Repeat for 10 reps or more
Yoga Stretches for the Achilles and Ankle
Finally, yoga is a great way to improve ankle mobility and strength. Here are a few poses that target specific areas of the ankles:
1. Downward Dog
This pose helps open the ankle and stretches the Achilles tendon and calf muscles.
- Begin in a tabletop position on your mat
- Lift up through your hands as you press your feet into the ground and extend your legs back
- Push your chest toward your thighs to deepen the stretch
- Hold for 60 seconds or more for 2 or 3 sets
2. Eagle Pose
This pose increases the turnout of the hips and stretches both the calves and ankles while also challenging the balance.
- Begin in a standing position with feet slightly wider than hip-width apart
- Shift your weight into your left foot
- Cross your right thigh over your left thigh as you bend the knees and shift your weight toward the floor (if possible, continue “wrapping” your right leg until the shin is behind the left calf).
- Reach forward with both arms across your chest with the elbows bent and cross the right arm under your left (if flexibility, continue “wrapping” your forearms together and touch your palms together)
- Keep your eyes focused on a static point and breath deeply while holding your balance
- Hold for 60 seconds or more for 2 or 3 sets; don’t forget to switch sides
3. Garland Pose
The Garland Pose, also known as Malasana, is a yoga posture that enhances hip flexibility, opens the hips and groin area, and stretches the lower back and ankles.
- Start in a standing position with the feet wider than hip width and toes pointing slightly outward
- Slowly lower your body into a deep squat by bending your knees
- Keep your heels grounded on the floor to feel a deep stretch in the Achilles. If your heels don’t reach the floor comfortably, you can place a folded mat or cushion under them for support.
- Bring your palms together at your heart center in a prayer position (Anjali Mudra)
- Use your elbows to press your knees outward gently. This helps to open the hips and create a deeper stretch
- Maintain an upright spine by lengthening through the crown of your head
- Take slow, deep breaths as you hold for 60+ seconds for 2 to 3 sets
Commonly Asked Questions About Achilles Stretches for Runners
1. Is it OK to run with a sore Achilles?
It depends on the cause (normal next-day soreness after a hard workout vs. a chronic issue). Ignoring the pain and continuing to run with a sore Achilles can potentially worsen the injury, lead to chronic problems, or cause further damage. Rest and proper recovery are essential to allow the tendon to heal. Consult a medical professional or a sports therapist for personalized advice based on the severity of your condition.
2. How do you loosen a tight Achilles tendon?
Loosening a tight Achilles tendon requires a combination of stretching, strengthening, and proper care. Here’s what you can do:
1. Stretching: Perform gentle calf stretches to alleviate tension in the Achilles tendon. Examples include the wall calf stretch and the stair stretch.
2. Foam Rolling: Gently roll a foam roller along your calf muscles to help release tension and increase blood flow.
3. Eccentric Exercises: Consult a physical therapist for guidance on eccentric exercises that specifically target the Achilles tendon.
4. Massage: Consider getting a professional massage to help relax and loosen tight muscles.
5. Footwear: Ensure you wear appropriate footwear that provides proper arch support and cushioning.
6. Rest: Avoid overuse and give your Achilles tendon adequate time to recover between workouts.
3. Should you stretch your Achilles tendon before running?
It’s generally beneficial to perform dynamic stretches that gently engage and warm up the Achilles tendon before running. Dynamic stretching helps increase blood flow, improve flexibility, and prepare the muscles and tendons for the activity. After you are done running, static stretching can help alleviate stiffness and prevent unnecessary soreness.
Making the Most of Your Stretching Routine
In the end, finding a stretching routine that fits well into your running regime will depend on your specific needs. Try one or all of the stretches listed above and see what works best. Happy stretching!