Podiatrists Jane Andersen and Megan Leahy offer tips to help runners keep their feet healthy, happy and injury free.
Best Ways To Prevent Foot Pain
With so much focus on pace, distance, gear, cross-training and recovery, it’s easy to forget that healthy feet are the linchpin to running success. Because no matter how fast you are or how on point your outfit is, sore feet make it close to impossible to have a good run.
Each foot has 26 bones (between your two feet, that’s 25 percent of all the bones in your body!), 33 joints and more than 100 ligaments, muscles and tendons. If any of those are out of whack, not only will your feet hurt, you’ll begin to notice alignment issues elsewhere.
Instead of telling you what to do once you’re at the injured “rest, ice, compression and elevation” stage, we checked in with two podiatrists, who also happen to be runners, to learn their tips for keeping feet healthy. Think of this as their nationwide PSA for functional feet.
Buy New Shoes
The first step, according to Dr. Jane Andersen with InStride Chapel Hill Foot and Ankle in Chapel Hill, N.C., is to replace shoes frequently, meaning after 350 to 500 miles.
“The number-one cause I see of injury is shoes past their prime,” she says. “If people would replace their shoes more frequently, it would prevent so many of the injuries we see.”
For those who also wear their favorite runners as everyday kicks, be sure to track those miles as well. Andersen says it’s as simple as checking daily steps on your phone or fitness tracker. If you ran 4 miles and walked 2 more with the dog, at the grocery and at the playground, that’s 6 miles of wear and tear on your footwear.
Both Andersen and Dr. Megan Leahy, who works at the Illinois Bone & Joint Institute in Chicago, stress the importance of visiting a specialty running store when it’s time to purchase new shoes. Not only will knowledgeable salespeople be able to analyze your gait, determine the best type of support for you and make sure you’re in the right size, but they live and breathe running shoes. Meaning, they know everything about the latest models and what might work best for your feet.
When it comes to shoe size, Andersen and Leahy also say it’s critical to be measured and have at least a thumb’s width of space between the tip of your longest toe and the end of the shoe—even more if you plan to run half marathons and farther. Leahy’s tip is that if you can wiggle your toes and still feel the shoe, it’s probably too short or narrow for you.
If you have a history of injuries from the knee down or are an overpronator, Leahy says you may need to add supportive inserts or custom-made orthotics to your shoes. A podiatrist or physical therapist will be able to help with options.
- Doctor’s Orders: According to Leahy, foot pain is never normal. If you are suffering, it’s time to visit your doctor. For any pain from the knees and below, a podiatrist (a doctor who specializes in the lower extremities) can help. Examples of things Andersen and Leahy treat include ingrown toenails, warts, athlete’s foot, bunions, hammertoe, tendinitis, stress fractures, neuromas, sprains and much more. They can even help to prescribe preventative care to keep feet healthy.
You also need to pay attention to your sock size to purchase a pair that works for your foot. They shrink over time, wear thin and can lose their elasticity, all of which set feet up for blisters. Avoid 100 percent cotton socks, which hold fungus-friendly moisture, and plan to refresh your sock drawer at least once a season.
According to Andersen, a former half-marathoner who now prefers spending time exploring trails with friends, months spent in flip-flops result in a late-summer spike in patients with foot pain. “If you want to keep running, you need to make good shoe choices when you aren’t running,” she says. “Cheap flip-flops don’t offer the necessary support.”
But, for those who love to free their feet, all is not lost. The American Podiatric Medical Association has a list of approved products on its website (apma.org), and it includes flops and sandals. The list meets with Andersen’s approval, and she’s now wearing sandals for the first time in 20 years.
Once you’ve found appropriately supportive flip-flops, wear them instead of going barefoot in public places like pool decks and in locker rooms to prevent issues including athlete’s foot, plantar warts and skin infections.
If you only make time to do one stretch a day, Leahy, who ran cross country and track in college, recommends the wall calf stretch. The doctor says most of the runners she sees have tight calves. Do the stretch three times a day and hold for 90 seconds on each side.
- Wall Calf Stretch: Stand about 2 feet away from a wall. Place the ball of your right foot against the wall and keep your right heel touching the ground. Lean into the wall while keeping your knee straight. This stretches your right calf as well as your toes and plantar fascia. Hold for 90 seconds. Repeat with your left foot.