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Exercises for Achilles pain – Three gentle moves to get your rehab going

Updated: May 24

You may think that I’m crazy to suggest you should do exercises when your Achilles tendon is still very painful. It’s only natural to think “Wait a second, should my pain not first calm down and then I can start rehab?”


Let me explain why keeping your Achilles tendon too still can actually make things feel worse and why these gentle movements – one can hardly call them “exercises” – can help to alleviate your Achilles pain and speed up your recovery. Remember, if you need help with an Achilles injury, you're welcome to consult one of our team via video call.


Use these 3 exercises to treat your Achilles pain

The terms tendinitis, tendonitis, tendinosis, and tendinopathy mean the same thing for all practical purposes, and we use these interchangeably in most of our articles.


Some of the links in this article are to pages where you can buy products discussed or mentioned here. We may earn a small commission on the sale of these at no extra cost to you.


In this article:

 

We’ve also made a video about this:



You can start these exercises even when your Achilles tendon is still very painful. As long as you pick the correct ones, they will help to reduce your pain and help your tendon to recover quicker.

How do these exercises help your Achilles pain?

 

So, why am I recommending that you do exercises for Achilles pain when your tendon is still very painful?

 

Improved circulation

Improved circulation helps with:

  • increasing the amount of nutrients and other stuff necessary for the healing process in your tendon

  • flushing away extra fluid produced by the injury and which makes your tendon feel stiff and uncomfortable

  • and flushing away chemicals produced by the injury which, if they’re allowed to accumulate, sensitise your nerve endings and makes your pain worse.



Overcoming fear of movement

There's strong evidence that the level of pain we experience with Achilles tendonitis is often disproportionate to how bad the injury is. Either we feel more pain than the amount of actual tissue damage suggests, or vice versa.

 

Fear of moving your tendon because it’s going to hurt has two detrimental effects for your recovery:

 

The good thing about the movements in this article is that you can do them in a way with which you feel comfortable and safe and that might make you just slightly worried, not terrified. You do not have to push into pain, and you do not have to do more repetitions than you feel comfortable with.


Seated calf raises

 

The first exercise that can be useful for painful Achilles tendons is calf raises while you’re sitting. It is the most gentle of the three exercises.



 

Instructions:

  1. Sit in a chair with both feet on the floor.

  2. Keep the balls of your feet on the floor and lift your heels up slowly and gently.

  3. Pause for a moment.

  4. Lower your heels back down slowly and gently.

 

Dosage:

  • As many as you feel comfortable with, once a day.

  • Aim to eventually get to three sets of 20 each with a minute’s rest between sets.

  • You can also spread it out so that you do 1 set of 20 in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

 

💡Top tips:

  • Don’t put your feet under the chair – this will stretch your tendon unnecessarily and may increase your pain. Rather have your knees at a 90-degree angle or have your feet even a bit further in front of you – wherever it is comfortable.


Pulling your feet back too far can irritate the Achilles tendon.
Pulling your feet back too far can irritate the Achilles tendon.


Double-leg calf raises


The second exercise I find good for a painful Achilles tendon is double-leg heel raises while holding on to something for support.

 

The double-leg calf raise exercise for Achilles pain.

📽️Play video demo (I am not wearing shoes here so that you can see the movement better. Please wear shoes if you’re doing this on a hard surface, otherwise it might injure the balls of your feet.)

 

Instructions:

  1. Stand with your feet about hip distance apart and hold on to something sturdy.

  2. Go up on your toes.

  3. Pause for a second.

  4. Come back down slowly.

  5. Don’t turn your feet to the outside or inside – your weight should be evenly distributed along the ball of each foot, from your big toe to your little toe.

 

Dosage:

  • As many as you feel comfortable with, once a day.

  • Aim to eventually get to three sets of 20 each with a minute’s rest between sets.

  • You can also spread it out so that you do 1 set of 20 in the morning, afternoon, and evening.

 

💡Top tips:

  • Don’t go all the way up if that feels uncomfortable.

  • Don’t go all the way down if that feels uncomfortable. Again, use a folded towel under your heels or shoes with somewhat of a heel. Or you could get some shoe inserts to raise your heels a bit.

 

Here are some examples of shoe inserts on Amazon:


Isometric calf raises


Isometrics is when you hold a position for a certain amount of time.


Isometric calf raise exercises for Achilles pain.

 

Instructions:

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart.

  2. Go up onto your toes, but only about halfway up.

  3. Then hold the position. Start with short holds (about 10 seconds) and slowly increase the time (up to 1 minute).

  4. Come back down slowly.

  5. Rest for at least 1 minute before doing another repetition.


Dosage:

  • Do between 3 and 5 repetitions, once a day.

  • Rest at least 1 minute between repetitions.

 

💡Top tips:

  • If/when double-leg isometric holds become too easy, you can switch to doing them on the injured side only.

  • You can also make these harder by adding weight (double leg or single leg), but please consult your physio first – it’s usually top athletes and people used to weight training who do this.



AVOID these exercises

 

The exercises you want to avoid when you have a really painful Achilles tendon is a calf stretch or an Achilles stretch – any stretch that takes the ankle into dorsiflexion.


Stretching an injured Achilles tendon often causes a pain flare-up several hours later.
Stretching an injured Achilles tendon often causes a pain flare-up several hours later.

This is a quite common type of exercise that people start doing when their Achilles tendon feels stiff, because naturally they think, “Ah, my tendon feels stiff and sore, I need to stretch it out.”

 

However, like I explained above, that feeling of stiffness is due to fluid accumulation, and no amount of stretching will get rid of it.

 

When your Achilles tendon is irritated, stretching it compresses it against your heel bone. Often it feels very good while you're doing it, but then it has a delayed pain response and several hours later it feels worse.

 

This will not be the case for everybody. Some people do find it useful, but especially if you've got insertional Achilles tendinopathy, stretching is not something we would advise you to do during the early stages of your recovery.


How we can help


Need help with your Achilles injury? You’re welcome to consult one of the team at TMA online via video call for an assessment of your injury and a tailored treatment plan.

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Maryke Louw

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 20 years' experience and a Master’s Degree in Sports Injury Management. Follow her on LinkedIn and ResearchGate.




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