Experiencing ankle pain when running is almost always a sign that something is wrong. However, ankle issues vary greatly from one runner to the next. In some cases, ankle pain is a sign of serious injury; whereas in others, it’s simply indicating that you need to take a rest day.
What causes ankle pain when running?
Ankle pain while running could be caused by a number of different things – however, the most common causes are repetitive use, a drastic increase in mileage or intensity, or poor technique. Over time, these minor things can all add up to create a much more serious problem.
Some runners experience ankle pain after running, but not during, and in turn don’t always connect the two when trying to determine the source of the problem. In many cases, ankle pain is kept at bay during the run while the tendons and ligaments are active, but quickly escalates when the activity stops.
Should I stop running if my ankle hurts?
It might be tempting to run through pain, especially when it seems very minor. However, more often than not, running through even the smallest pain will cause it to escalate and develop into something much more serious.
It is always best to stop running if you’re experiencing ankle pain. Most causes of ankle pain can be addressed and fixed relatively quickly. Continuing to run with ankle pain will likely result in some sort of ankle injury that requires much more extensive treatment.
Ankle Pain During or After Running: Warning Signs
Ankle pain after running or on the run can presents itself in many different ways. It can happen on the front, back or sides of the ankle, begin as a dull ache or come on so suddenly that it causes swelling. Here are some of the red flags to look out for if you notice your ankles hurt during or after a run.
- Limited range of motion in the ankle
- Popping sensations
- Pinching feeling
- Constant aching
- Reduced ability to bear weight
- Hot to the touch
Any of these symptoms could be a sign that runner’s ankle is developing into something more serious. If you notice one or multiple of these symptoms, it’s important to stop running immediately, take time off until the pain subsides, and working on healing.
Causes of Ankle Pain After Running
Understanding what’s causing your ankles to hurt after running is perhaps the most important factor in a successful recovery. Runners need to understand exactly how their ankle pain started in order to get rid of it and prevent it from recurring. Here are the most common causes of ankle pain during or after running.
One of the most common causes of ankle pain after running is repetitive use. The simple practice of going out for a run on a regular basis is sometimes enough to aggravate the ankles and lead to pain. The act of running itself is incredibly repetitive – so if just one thing is slightly off in your form, gear or training, it can be enough to result in ankle pain.
If you discover that your ankle pain goes away when you take time off from running, repetitive use might be the culprit of your pain. In order to fully heal, you’ll like need to scale back your mileage and intensity – if not take a break completely.
Similar to repetitive use but usually resulting in even bigger issues is overtraining. Overtraining occurs when runners increase their mileage or intensity to a point at which their body is not able to fully recover before their next run.
Most runners who get caught overtraining find it especially hard to take time off, usually resulting in running through pain and making a small injury much worse. Time off is essential if overtraining is the cause of your running ankle pain.
Increase in Mileage or Intensity
Another common cause of ankle pain after running, and many other types of running pains as well, is increasing mileage and/or intensity too quickly. Runners who drastically increase their mileage in a short period of time usually find that the body does not respond in the way they had hoped.
Similarly, increasing intensity by upping the distance in your speed workouts, suddenly running much faster, or reducing recovery days and/or easy runs can often result in ankle pain.
Flat footedness is certainly not the fault of the runner, but if not cared for properly, it can sometimes lead to ankle pain during or after running. In some cases, flat feet can cause overpronation – which occurs when the foot rolls inwards after you land.
Getting fitted for running shoes designed specifically for flat feet, wearing orthotics, and addressing any form issues that result from flat footedness are key to avoiding ankle pain.
Sometimes, the cause of ankle pain after running is as simple as wearing the wrong shoes. Running shoes are designed to provide support to the most vulnerable areas, but this can backfire if you accidentally select the wrong kind.
Most running stores offer fittings and evaluations to ensure you find the perfect shoes for your foot type and running style. Taking the time to get properly fitted for running shoes will not only help prevent ankle pain from occurring, but can provide extra support for the ankles if they are already sore or hurting.
If you can’t pinpoint a specific cause or trigger for your ankle pain, it very well could be a result of poor technique. Many runners are unaware that they are running with improper form. Issues such as overstriding, heel striking, slow cadence, backward lean, and even a cross body arm swing can all add up over time to result in various injuries.
Taking the time to evaluate your own running form might feel tedious, but will certainly pay off in the long run – literally.
When you are struggling with ankle pain while running, understanding the anatomy of the ankle can be especially helpful for narrowing down the location of your pain and determining potential causes.
Runner’s Ankle Anatomy
Although the ankle might seem like a relatively small part of the body, it is surprisingly complex. According to Road Runner Sports, each individual foot contains a surprising 26 bones, 33 joints and hundreds of ligaments and tendons. It’s no wonder so ankle and foot issues can arise!
Orthopedic Associates describe the structure of the ankle in a bit more depth:
- There are two joints: the ankle joint and the subtalar joint
- Each joint contains three bones: tibia, fibula and talus
- Ligaments and muscles surround the ankle to provides stability and support
It’s important to note that many other muscles and tendons can affect the function and stability of the ankle. The four that are directly connected are:
- Calf muscle connects to the Achilles tendon in the back of the foot
- Anterior tibialis muscles run down the front of the calves
- Peroneal muscles run down the outside edge of the foot and ankle
- Posterior tibialis muscles run down the inside of the calf to the arch of the foot
While the ankle itself is relatively small, one simple imbalance in any of these connecting muscles, ligaments or tendons can be enough to cause the ankles to hurt after running.
Ankle Injuries from Running
Most runners attempt to quickly self-diagnose when their ankles hurt after running. Oftentimes, the pain is blown off as something minor or insignificant. While this is certainly possible, failing to properly diagnose and address the issues when they first occur can lead to a much bigger problem later on.
Here are some of the most common ankle injuries that can result from running.
Strains occur when the ankle tendons become inflamed. In most cases, this is due to repetitive use or overtraining.
Sprains occur if the ankle is moved in an unnatural way. Ankle sprains are quite common, and usually resolve on their own with rest.
Ankle tendonitis occurs if the tendon tears, swells or frays. A general discomfort or irritation in the ankle might be a sign of tendonitis. It can occur on any of the ankle tendons, in the front, back, or either side.
These small cracks in the bone develop when the surrounding muscles are no longer able to absorb the shock of impact to protect the bone. If stress fractures are left untreated, they can develop into something much more serious and require a cast or boot.
This type of chronic ankle condition is a result of joint damage, inflammation or weakness, which inhibits the ability to move properly. Arthritis could be due to a variety of underlying conditions, so it is important to rule it out when determining why you are experiencing ankle pain when running.
How to Treat Ankle Pain from Running
Even if you are unsure of the specific cause of your ankle pain, there are a few steps you can take to attempt to treat and relieve the pain on your own. In most cases, minor runner’s ankle issues can be resolved with rest and a little time off. Here are some ways to treat ankle pain from running.
The first thing to do if you are experiencing ankle pain after running is to rest. If you notice the pain begin while you are running, stop your run and head home. The longer you put off resting, the greater the likelihood that the pain will develop into a more serious injury.
Taking time off can be hard for runners, but it is always much easier to take a day or two off upon the initial onset of pain as opposed to being forced to take weeks or months off down the road. Put your training on hold for a few days or weeks, and wait to resume until you can run without pain.
Another way to treat running ankle pain, especially when swelling or inflammation is involved, is to ice the ankle. If you are suffering from an ankle sprain, ice will help control the swelling to heal the area more quickly.
If you notice general pain or swelling in the ankle area that gets worse during or after a run, making a point to ice the ankle when you return can help prevent it from getting worse.
One other way to help manage pain and potentially minimize swelling is to compress the area. If your ankle seems swollen or especially irritated after a run, try compressing it. Compression socks, sleeves or a wrap can all help to relieve pain and support the ankle.
When the ankle pain from running is so bad that you can no longer walk properly, it’s time to elevate it. Resting with ice, compressing the area and elevating it can be an incredibly helpful combination when it comes to relieving pain and preventing further injury from developing.
In many cases, ankle pain after running can cause runners to limp or be unable to walk and move properly. When things become more serious, the pain can even develop into a throbbing or hot sensation that makes it difficult to sleep.
Over the counter pain relievers, such as NSAIDs, can be helpful for managing the pain until you are able to receive further treatment. Be careful not to use pain relievers before running in attempts to mask the pain – this will only make the injury worse.
In some cases, stretching can help relieve ankle pain that’s caused by running. If the pain is due to a connecting muscle, ligament or tendon, stretching the surrounding areas might be a helpful way to reduce pressure in the ankle.
Try incorporating regular stretches of the shins, calves, feet, and even quads and hamstrings to see if the pain might be related to another area of the leg.
Ankle braces can be very helpful when the pain is so bad that it is altering your walking form. These braces provide extra support to the ankle and help prevent any further damage from sudden movement.
Sometimes, taking time off from running is just not an option. Whether it’s a few days before a race or the pain is due to another chronic issue, many runners find that they are stuck running with ankle pain. In these cases, adding extra support can be helpful.
Taping the surrounding area can be especially helpful when it comes to stabilizing and supporting the ankles during a run. Athletic tape, such as KT tape, provides helpful guides demonstrating exactly where to place the tape in order to best support the ankle.
How to Strengthen the Ankles for Running
Perhaps the best, and most effective, way to prevent ankle pain from running is to strengthen the ankles. Taking the time to make sure the area is strong, supported and mobile will help prevent any injuries in the future.
Exercises such as heel raises, heel walks, star steps, and most single leg exercises help keep the ankles and surrounding muscles strong. Not only will this provide added protection during a run, but it will help prevent muscle imbalances from forming.
Check out all of the best ankle strengthening exercises for runners here.
Experiencing ankle pain while running can be disheartening, but it’s not always a sentence to taking time off. Understanding the anatomy of the ankle, potential injuries, and how to treat pain as soon as it occurs will help runners stay on the move without interruption.