The Aging Athlete: Why Does My Heel Look Like A Swollen Butt Cheek?

by Nicole DeBoom

Why does my heel look like a baby’s butt cheek? Could it be because I ignored an injury that may have been treatable a decade ago and it evolved into a lovely foot appendage by age 43?

I’m currently sitting on an airplane next to a beautiful, glowing 31-week pregnant woman. We were discussing how pregnant women take such good care of themselves. They cut out all the bad stuff, nurture their bodies, eat, drink, exercise and sleep healthfully. I made the statement, “The last time I really focused on me was when I was pregnant.” As I said it out loud, I realized it was true. And I know that many of you are shaking your heads in agreement. So it’s no wonder we ignore injuries that start out small and eventually turn into monsters.

When I was racing in my late-20s, I started to experience Achilles issues – soreness that would go away after I started my runs. I managed the injury with chiropractic work, acupuncture, heel lifts, you name it. But here’s the key to my eventual failure: I never solved it. I never figured out what about my body, form, or equipment was allowing this little niggle to come back again and again.

When I retired from professional racing, my workout routine became even more haphazard. I would sit at my desk, cranking out emails, run out the door for an hour, then plop back down at my desk. Not a nice thing to do to my body.

This minor “managed injury” in my lower leg started to hurt more often in my mid-30s. I ran through it. I didn’t have time to figure it out. I assumed it would go away just like it always did. But instead of going away, it slowly got worse. When I was pregnant in 2011 at 39, I took about six months total off running, so I hoped that long break would cure my injury. It didn’t.

After trying massage, chiropractic work, Graston, and deep tissue hell, I finally went to a podiatrist who told me I should do surgery, even though no one could figure out what it was. That still baffles me today. Instead I tried another treatment called EPAT, it’s like tiny hammers that jam away at old injuries to stimulate blood flow which would theoretically heal it. I was so hopeful – but it failed miserably. My heel flared up so badly I could barely walk. With that, I ran away from podiatrists and sought out some new heel healers.

I finally got a diagnosis. Ready for this… I have a tissue issue. It’s not a heel spur, it’s not bursitis, it’s not a broken anything. I have a small bone growth on the back of my heel genetically. After years of high-use, my Achilles rubbed on that nub enough that the area became inflamed. The Achilles settled down but the nub created its own defense system and tried to protect itself, hence the inflammation and pain. Of course the tiny hammers aggravated it! They piled inflammation on inflammation!

Today I have accepted that one heel will never look like the other – I’m okay with that. I don’t care about heel beauty! What I do care about is continuing this wonderful sport of running. I have adopted custom insoles and I found a treatment that works for me called FDM, fascial distortion model. I also get the backs of my running shoes carved out so they don’t irritate my heel.

But most importantly, I have accepted a new philosophy toward running. I now run in moderation. I don’t run 6 days a week. I enjoy 3-4 days on my feet, 1-2 of which are hikes, the other 2-3 are runs. The other days are on a bike, in the pool or in the gym. I may want to run a marathon again in my life, but right now, I’m content with shorter distances, and my body craves soft surfaces, so I’m grateful for the beautiful trail access right out my door.

In the end, running injuries will happen to most of us. The true test lies in how we deal with them. I implore you to steer clear of my “ignore it and it will go away” approach, sometimes called “stupidity induced injuries.” Keep tabs, create a healing network, get a true diagnosis as early as possible so you can treat the cause, and don’t let “taking care of you” slip away as you get older.

Please share your injury stories here. Sometimes we feel all alone in this world, but it helps to know that others have found help, and you can too. If someone had shared with me their experience with this issue five years ago, it would have helped me tremendously!