Feet are an important part of running, so when they’re hurting, it’s going to be really uncomfortable for you.
If you’ve been especially dealing with pain in your heels, you might be wondering what is causing it and what you can do to help.
If that’s the case, this article is for you. We’re going to list why you might have heel pain, how you can treat heel pain, and when you should see a doctor.
By the end, you’ll know exactly how to handle any heel pain you have and what to do differently in the future.
How Do I Diagnose My Heel Pain?
Not all heel pain is the same. It can be caused by conditions as varied as a bone tumor and arthritis to stress fractures and bone infections. That being said, three conditions typically cause heel pain: plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and heel spurs.
Plantar fasciitis is pain in the bottom of the heel while Achilles tendinitis is pain in the back of your heel. Heel spurs are bony outgrowths from your heel that can cause pain but don’t necessarily. They are often connected to plantar fasciitis.
If you want to figure out what is causing your heel pain, you’ll need to isolate different factors. If your pain tends to be the worst in the morning, it’s likely that you’re dealing with plantar fasciitis.
If you’ve recently started running a lot more and didn’t have heel pain prior to now, then you’re probably dealing with an overuse injury.
Similarly, a pre-existing medical condition (like having arthritis or even your age) can cause heel pain.
What Are Causes of Heel Pain?
As we’ve hinted at above, there can be a lot of different causes for heel pain, so let’s go into detail about some of the common causes.
If you’re a runner, there’s a good possibility that your heel pain is due to overuse. This cause is pretty easy to figure out because it just means that you’re exercising much more than usual or at a greater intensity than usual.
If you’ve been skipping out on rest days or tried to cram a lot of training into a short period of time, you might be dealing with overuse.
Even if you’re not a runner, if you’re on your feet a lot, especially wearing high heels, you might be overusing your heels and feet.
The plantar fascia is the tissue that connects your heel bone to your toes. When you experience plantar fasciitis, this tissue is inflamed.
Although you can experience pain along the entire underside of your foot, typically you’ll deal with the most pain around the heel.
Although plantar fasciitis can occur for different reasons, it typically flares up when you are repeatedly completing an activity or are participating in particularly intense activities—both of which are common for runners.
It’s common for heel spurs and plantar fasciitis to go hand-in-hand, but they don’t have to.
Heel spurs are calcium deposits, or bony outgrowths, that protrude from your heel bone. They can extend as far as half an inch, but you’ll only be able to see them under an X-ray.
You’re a likely candidate for heel spurs if you have diabetes or you’re a runner who actively gets out there.
They are also more common if you’re overweight or if you wear shoes that are ill-fitting or have lost their support.
This condition occurs when your Achilles tendon that is on the backside of your leg becomes inflamed, often due to overuse or just getting old.
It can cause pain in your heel because the tendon is connected to your heel bone.
There’s a good chance that you have Achilles tendinitis if you experience pain in your Achilles tendon particularly in the morning or if your pain increases during and after exercising. Achilles tendonitis can sometimes be confused with plantar fasciitis so be sure to know which it is.
How Can I Treat Heel Pain?
No matter what is causing your heel pain, there are a couple of things that you can do that will make your feet and heels more comfortable.
Rest and Recover
It’s always helpful to take a break when things hurt. Sometimes all your body needs is just a little time off.
This is especially true for heel pain because a lot of it can be caused by overuse or running too much.
While it’s important to take the time to rest and recover, don’t forget to also include some gentle stretching and exercises into your routine. This will help you work the muscles and strengthen them and help to alleviate pain.
Yoga, swimming in the pool, and gentle massages are all great ways to take some time off while still making sure that you’re not allowing the muscles to atrophy.
Ask your significant other to give you a nice foot massage—ideally with lotion!
Remember that cross-training is okay as long as it is non-weight bearing. Resting and recovering definitely means being off your feet as much as possible.
Ice Your Feet and Use Anti-Inflammatory Medicine
If you’re dealing with inflammation, the best way to curb that is by icing your feet.
Try to ice the heel that’s causing you pain for 20 minutes a couple of times a day. Do it while you’re drinking your morning coffee and eating ice cream at night.
Although it can feel like a chore, try to make it a treat and something that you can look forward to. You also might consider using ibuprofen, aspirin, or another anti-inflammatory drug to help with inflammation as well.
If you would rather use a natural product for inflammation, try cloves, fish oil supplements, or turmeric to assist with your pain relief.
Make Sure You Have Cushioning
It might be that you’re experiencing heel pain because your feet just aren’t supported enough. If that’s the case, you need extra cushioning. You can get that from a new pair of shoes that are maximum cushioned like Hoka.
You can also purchase heel pads, over-the-counter inserts, or custom insoles to give yourself some more cushioning in the heel. Use these products in your running shoes and your street shoes.
You should also avoid shoes that don’t provide much cushioning like cheap flip-flops (flip flops specifically for plantar fasciitis are ok) or high heeled shoes.
It’s especially important that you wear shoes that do give you the support you need as you’re trying to recover from heel pain.
Use a Night Splint
If you want to do more, you might consider using a night splint when you’re sleeping. It will gently stretch your foot and help you ensure that your foot is in the proper position at night.
Heel pain is typically most uncomfortable in the mornings, but you should feel less discomfort if you’ve used a night splint.
These help to gently stretch your foot overnight and ensures that your muscles are in the right position.
When Should I See a Doctor for Heel Pain?
You’ll be able to recover from most heel pain based on at-home treatments, but sometimes it’s beyond your paygrade. In that case, it’s important to see a doctor if:
You Have Constant Acute Pain
If you have pain constantly that doesn’t go away, that’s a warning sign that you need to see a doctor.
Similarly, if you’re experiencing acute pain, then it’s likely that something more serious is going on, and you need to speak with a doctor.
Your At-Home Treatment Doesn’t Work
If your pain isn’t super uncomfortable, then you should try the at-home treatments we mentioned above.
But if you still aren’t getting relief after exhausting your options, then it’s time to talk to a professional. Most of the time, you’ll be able to correct the pain at home.
What to Expect If You See a Doctor
If you speak with your general practitioner about your heel pain, he or she will likely refer you to a specialist. There’s a chance that you may go to a physical therapist who will help strengthen your heels and feet.
It’s also possible that you might have to receive corticosteroid injections in your heel to relieve pain and inflammation. In rare cases, your doctor may refer you to a foot and ankle surgeon, but surgery isn’t typically needed.
How Can I Prevent Heel Pain While Running?
Now that you know how to deal with any heel pain that you might currently have, it’s good to discuss how you can prevent it in the future. Following these tips will help you stay pain-free from here on out.
Increase Mileage Slowly
First, you need to avoid overuse injuries. This means that you need to steadily increase your mileage rather than drastically increasing.
As a general rule, follow the 10% guideline and don’t increase your mileage by more than 10% above the previous week.
For example, if you typically run 30 miles a week, you can only jump up 3 extra miles whenever you start ramping up. Don’t jump to 40 miles all of the sudden. Your body needs time to grow into that mileage.
Run on Softer Surfaces
You might be dealing with heel pain because the surface is just too hard.
If you typically run on asphalt and concrete, you can do yourself a world of good by just changing things up. Try running on grass or the beach or consider hitting the trail or the track.
A side benefit is that you’ll get to experience new scenery and your body will have to adapt to the new environment.
This means that you’ll see more gains in your workouts. Plus, it’s also good mentally to add some variety.
Make Sure to Warm Up and Cool Down
The two things runners love to skip—warm-ups and cool-downs—are really essential to avoiding injury. And it should add 10-20 minutes max to your workout, but it will save you a lot of heartache.
It’s not good to all of a sudden start full out running or stop after a hard workout. Giving your body time to get going at the beginning of the run and time to slow down at the end of the run through a short walk or jog can make a world of difference for heel pain.
Keep an Eye on Your Running Shoes
Your running shoes need good cushioning to keep heel pain at bay. Make sure that your shoes are still in good enough condition for you to run in them. If you wear running shoes that are too worn, you’re asking for an injury or heel pain.
Make sure that you replace shoes that are worn out with new running shoes and then keep track of how long you use those new shoes. It’s a good estimate to run 300-500 miles in shoes before you replace them.
You might have a GPS watch that does the calculation for you, but you could always manually keep track as well with a spreadsheet or a notebook. If you run regularly, you might also know how many months it takes you to go through shoes.
Watch Your Form
Finally, it all comes down to form. Maintaining good running form will ensure that you don’t deal with heel pain. There’s a good chance you might be uncomfortable because you heel strike.
Try changing your form to strike with your mid- or forefoot instead and make sure that you’re doing everything else for good running form as well—keeping your head forward, your shoulders relaxed, and your back straight.
It’s difficult when you’re dealing with any pain as a runner, but heel and foot pain is particularly uncomfortable because feet are so important to running.
The good news is that heel pain is fairly easily treated and prevented if you know what to do.
Make sure that you aren’t skimping on warming up and cooling down, resting when you do experience heel pain, and not overdoing it on your mileage. Keeping these tips in mind should help keep heel pain at bay.