As runners, having healthy feet is crucial. We ask a lot of these relatively small parts. Every time we move about, even when standing, they bear our bodyweight. When running, each foot absorbs significant impact forces, varying from about three times our body weight at slower paces to seven times bodyweight in sprinting. The way we run, the terrain over which we run, and the shoes we wear, all affect the demands made of our feet.
An internet search ‘anatomy foot images’ reveals that the feet are complex and contain many long and short bones, ligaments, tendons, and other soft tissues crammed into a relatively small space. We try to buy the correct shoes for our feet, spending hundreds of pounds on a pair perhaps, but day to day we may not invest time in maintaining these wonderful structures; that is, until something goes wrong with them!
What can go wrong with feet? WebMD provides some really clear photographs of common foot problems that most of us know about and which are not especially unique to runners
These include athlete’s foot, bunions, and plantar warts (verruca). The same resource provides suggestions about why we may experience foot conditions and pain and some of that is more pertinent to runners.
Finally, ageing can cause some relevant foot issues such as a natural reduction in the fat pads that cushion the feet, another source of foot pain for runners
Okay, these are the nice, or not so nice, pictures and useful explanations but what can we reasonably do to improve our chances of running on healthy feet and prevent problems arising?
Shoes feature high on most runners’ list of priority actions. We are acutely aware of the importance of wearing running shoes that are appropriate for our feet, fit us correctly and are replaced when worn out. A previous blog post covered this topic.
If we run on different terrains, we realise that we may need to have more than one type of running shoe (e.g. shoes for road, shoes for trails, shoes for the track).
Wearing running specific socks, which often have padding in the soles and which may be designed to reduce friction (and the risk of blisters), is another obvious action that runners will generally take. Purchasing replacement shoes and socks is an infrequent although important event. However, daily foot care and managing our training load, which may not be quite as exciting, can have greater consequences for our feet. I have previously written about the management of training load:
Having a look at our feet after we shower/take a bath, cutting our toenails correctly, checking our feet for signs of calluses, cracked skin, sore areas, infections etc. and dealing with these fairly straightforward problems appropriately, can help detect and address simple common problems and prevent them worsening. We may need to check with a podiatrist or pharmacist if we are unsure of what we should do.
Taking prompt action if we are experiencing foot pain can prevent a minor niggle becoming a show-stopper. In many cases simply putting our feet up, or taking a few days’ rest from impact activities (including walking), will be all that is required. If we frequently need a break from impact activities, cross training can be useful regular feature in our training plan. This may mean substituting a non-weight bearing cardiovascular exercise session, such as cycling or swimming, to give our feet a rest. If the niggle is ongoing or severe it should not be ignored, and advice should be sought from a doctor or physical therapist. This is particularly the case if we have previously had a similar problem, as the way in which we typically run may be influential and the problem may re-emerge once we ramp up training again.
What about actions we can take to help prevent issues occurring in the first place? Strength and flexibility exercises, many of which can be done when we are seated and enjoying a cuppa, can be very effective if done regularly a few times a week. These include exercises which strengthen the foot arches and those which encourage the full range of movement of the toes. Simple toe curls and extensions (drawing the toes under the foot and then spreading them), moving the big toe and the other four toes independently, all done slowly and deliberately, strengthen the foot structures and enable us to use our feet correctly when we run. Gently walking on the ball of the foot on a soft surface for a short period is also useful. We practice these and other exercises early on in Strength & Mobility Classes for Runners because attention to foot health is vital in enabling us to run.
Self-myofascial release is important also for plantar fascial health and functioning. Using a spiky ball, or a more stable spiky peanut (as show in the photo above), to massage this long band of fibrous tissue, which connects the back of the heel to the toes, improves blood flow to the area and helps to reduce the likelihood of inflammation. A few minutes per foot per day is easy to fit into our daily schedule.
Unfortunately, for many of us, devoting a few minutes every day or every other day taking actions to prevent foot injury may fall off the ‘to-do list’ due to the busyness of daily life. However, we don’t use our feet just for running; every step we take simply getting around requires us to have healthy functioning happy feet! Let’s look after these intricate amazing body parts.
“The human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art.” (Leonardo da Vinci)