Foot Health for Runners

My feet after the 2008 run across the U.S.: my right foot had suffered plantar fasciitis and Achilles pain, both of which improved (some) while I was still covering sixty miles a day on my way to NYC.

Runners regularly ask me about plantar fasciitis in the arch and heel, Achilles pain, cramping, and heat, wondering if there’s a relationship and what a person can do to safeguard against injury. Yes, there’s a relationship, and yes, there are a few things you can do to prevent these common runners’ ailments—all of which I’ve experienced and successfully healed (more or less) at one time or another. A couple of years ago, I dealt with all three at once.

Usually, symptoms of foot pain are caused by overused and tight ligaments and muscles that reach up into the lower portion of the leg, so stretching your calf muscles often helps. The connecting tissue and muscle in the calf area affects the plantar region, as well as the Achilles tendon of your foot, so concentrate on stretching those muscles in the lower leg.

In stretching any part of the body, I’ve found it best to warm the muscles up by moving at a modest pace, then stretching, and then continuing on into your training. Gentle stretching at the end of a workout can be even further helpful in maintaining muscle health.

Here are a couple of classic stretches that do the trick:

  • Do a runner’s stretch, pushing against a wall with your hands, placing one foot forward in a bent, relaxed position and applying gentle tension on the other leg while it’s extended back with your weight on the ball of this foot; alternate after about thirty seconds to a minute.
  • Find a stair step, and put the balls of your feet on the rise as you drop your heels; you’ll feel a gentle stretch of the calf muscles and the arches of your feet.

If you experience irritation in the Achilles area, try cutting a slit down the back of your running shoe’s heel cup, about 1/2″ to 1/8″ to relieve the pressure. (Worried about ruining a perfectly good pair of shoes? Remember that they’re expendable but your feet aren’t.) Icing and ibuprofen can help reduce the inflammation that exacerbates soft tissue problems.

Plantar fasciitis is a bit tricky, but what’s worked for me in the past is to remove the insole of the shoe and get an over-the-counter “soft” arch support. I prefer a 3/4 length, but if that feels odd to you, you can get one that’s full length. Look for something to offer gentle support but flex enough to allow your foot to do what it’s designed to do and get stronger. A Strassburg sock (splint), worn while you sleep, helps keep the foot in a ninety-degree position, allowing for an all-night stretch that can be beneficial in healing. All of this can be aided, again, by icing and ibuprofen.

Generally, cramping in the foot and other areas of the body is caused by salt lost through sweating and high temperatures, especially when the heat radiates up from the ground and is magnified by a hard, dark surface, such as asphalt. With temperatures above 75 degrees, I advise taking an electrolyte supplement; my favorites are Salt Stick and Sustain. I’ve taken 250 mg every hour while running, or even double that under extreme conditions. Taking these supplements, you must be sure to drink plenty of water.

With all these issues, you have to gauge what’s best for your own body and, of course, it’s wise to consult the appropriate health-care professional whenever you’re considering taking medication and supplements, or if an injury becomes acute or chronic.

Happy running!

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