How to Foam Roll for Achilles Tendonitis
Written by Nic Bartolotta
Despite being the largest and strongest tendon in your body, your Achilles tendon is easily prone to damage. The most common tendon-related issue is tendonitis, a common overuse injury that affects thousands of runners and jumpers around the world.
Tendonitis presents with inflammation, meaning the most effective treatment options are those that reduce pain and swelling and enable athletes to regain strength and mobility. Fortunately, the most effective way to treat Achilles tendonitis is with a deep tissue roller.
But exactly how do you foam roll the Achilles tendon? Is there a certain type of roller you should use? And once you’ve treated this case of tendonitis, how do you prevent future issues? We’ll cover all that and more in our foam rolling guide to Achilles tendonitis.
What is Achilles tendonitis?
The Achilles tendon connects the two main calf muscles to the heel of the foot and helps transfer force from the calf to the foot. So every time you walk, run, or jump, your Achilles tendon pulls on the heel to make that movement possible. Conversely, it pushes the heel away in plantar flexion motions like letting your foot off the gas pedal when driving a car.
And since it’s involved in every lower leg movement, it’s constantly under the stress of your body weight. And over time, the strain causes it to weaken and become inflamed. It’s most common in athletes who run and jump often, like distance runners and track & field athletes. It almost always occurs after a sudden increase in weekly mileage or a change in training, like incorporating hills or speed work. It’s also prevalent in soccer, basketball, and volleyball players, where the constant jumping and change of direction place excessive stress on the tendon.
Symptoms vary from person to person, but these are the most common:
- Pain in the heel when walking or running.
- Stiffness as soon as you wake up, often accompanied by cracking as you take your first steps out of bed
- Sensitive to the touch
- Swelling in the heel and around the tendon
- Difficulty standing on your toes
- Presence of a bump or nodule on the tendon (in severe cases)
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may have Achilles tendonitis. But what caused it? And where do you go from here?
What causes Achilles tendonitis?
Achilles tendonitis can be caused by a number of factors including weak or fatigued calves, muscle tightness in the lower leg, unnatural running form, and poor running shoes.
The most common cause is weak or fatigued calf muscles. Weak calves reduce your ability to push off the ground when running or jumping, forcing the Achilles tendon to pick up the slack. But the tendon isn’t meant to bear this consistent load. And over time, the added stress causes it to break down.
This same process can also occur from a lack of mobility in the calves. Tight muscles are unable to fully extend, once again displacing force onto the Achilles tendon. Poor mobility is often attributed to a lack of stretching, foam rolling, and/or proper muscle recovery. It can also occur after a significant ankle or foot injury that immobilizes the injured area in a cast or boot for a long period of time.
Even with strong, flexible calf & shin muscles, runners are not immune to Achilles tendinopathy. Poor running form that involves forefoot or heel striking places athletes at a greater risk of injury. A consistent forefoot or heel strike places more strain on the tendon, causing pain and inflammation.
And just like all running injuries, your shoes can play a major role in your performance and recovery. Shoes that are too stiff will cause the tendon to rotate or prevent it from fully extending during your strides. Soon enough, these issues will cause sharp pain and inflammation in your Achilles, common indicators of tendonitis.
How to treat Achilles tendonitis with a foam roller
If left untreated, an inflamed tendon can easily tear under stress. A torn Achilles takes 6-12 months to heal (plus surgery) whereas tendonitis often heals in just 6-12 weeks. To prevent worse injuries and more time off from running or jumping, it’s important to treat the tendon as soon as possible.
So to help you treat your Achilles tendonitis with a foam roller, I'm going to show you a 5-minute technique that you can do anywhere.
1. Foam roll the back & sides of your calf muscle
Tighten the Rolflex to the second or third position, depending on the size of your leg. Set your foot up on a chair or bench in front of you so that you can comfortably reach your ankle. If you’re sitting on the floor, bend your knee to a 90-degree angle to achieve the same effect.
Place the contoured foam roller on your lower calf, above the Achilles tendon. Squeeze the handles and massage the entire calf muscle by pushing & pulling the Rolflex between the middle and upper calf. After 10-15 seconds, slightly rotate the foam roller to the outside of your calf and continue massaging the muscle. Repeat for 10 seconds and then move to the inner calf.
As you slowly roll the calf muscle, you’ll notice that some areas have more tension than others. These are called trigger points, and we’ll use the Rolflex to release the tension in these areas.
Once you’ve massaged the entire calf muscle, return to the first trigger point and place the contoured roller directly over it. As you squeeze the handles, flex your foot up into dorsiflexion and down into plantar flexion for 5-10 repetitions. Repeat this process for each trigger point.
2. Massage the shin muscles
Tight shins are almost always a byproduct of Achilles injuries. So in order to effectively treat the Achilles tendon, you must first foam roll the primary muscles in your shin, the anterior and posterior tibialis.
Rotate the Rolflex around so that the contoured roller is positioned on the muscles, not the tibia itself. Slide the roller across the muscle for a few seconds, again identifying trigger points as you go along. Continue to push & pull the Rolflex between your ankle & knee for 5-10 complete repetitions.
Once you’ve rolled out the entire muscle, return to the first trigger point. Place the contoured foam roller directly over the point and hold it in place. Then, flex your foot up into dorsiflexion and down into plantar flexion. Perform 5-10 flexion repetitions before moving on. Repeat this process for each trigger point.
3. Foam roll the Achilles tendon
Now that you’ve released tension in the surrounding muscles, it’s time to isolate the Achilles tendon with the Rolflex.
Tighten up the Rolflex so that it fits comfortably around your leg and the tendon without applying too much pressure. Gently foam roll the Achilles tendon, stopping to flex your foot every few repetitions if your pain allows. The Rolflex will trigger myofascial release, relieving pain in the tendon and stimulating the healing process.
Repeat this entire process on both the left leg and right leg, even if your tendonitis and tight calf muscles are isolated to just one leg. Do it at least twice per day, ideally before and after your workout to prevent muscle imbalances and future injuries.
Frequently Asked Questions
Can foam rolling help Achilles tendonitis?
Yes, foam rolling can help treat Achilles tendonitis. The best way to do so is by foam rolling the surrounding shin & calf muscles before moving onto the tendon itself. This helps treat the root cause of the issue rather than just where it hurts.
Should you roll out your Achilles tendon?
Yes, it’s 100% safe to roll out your Achilles tendon in a gentle, controlled manner. In fact, it’s recommended to treat tendinopathy issues. But avoid applying too much pressure to the tendon as this will cause further damage.
What is the fastest way to heal an Achilles tendon?
The fastest way to heal an Achilles tendon is with RICE and massage therapy. RICE stands for rest, ice, compression, and elevation, and is the most common treatment plan for inflamed tendons. But to accelerate the healing process and prevent future injuries, supplement RICE with deep tissue massage therapy that releases tension in the surrounding muscles.