If legs are the tools of the cyclist’s trade, then feet are arguably that of the runner’s. Sure, legs are still part of the program, but feet play several very important roles and functions during the act of running. Taking care of your feet will go a long way toward keeping you up and running.
Your feet do more than just stick the landing. “Your feet absorb the impact when you make contact with the running surface,” says Dr. Douglas W. Bradberry, a chiropractic physician with Greenapple Sports and Wellness. “That force with each step can be three times your body weight.”
And it doesn’t stop there. Your feet have to support and stabilize your body through mid-stance. They feed your brain information about the terrain you are running on and help make adjustments to keep you balanced and upright. They’re part of the process until they propel you forward at toe off, and then begin the process over again with the next landing.
With all that, it’s not surprising Dr. Bradberry says foot injuries from running are relatively common. The most frequent he see in the practice are plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and stress reactions or stress fractures. The good news, he adds, they’re most often easy to understand and avoid.
Common Overuse Injuries in the Foot
If you’ve ever suffered through plantar fasciitis, you know it takes little encouragement to go from aggravating to acute. For the inexperienced, the plantar fascia is a band of tissue that connects the heel to the toes. If you pronate excessively, or your arch collapses when you run, walk or stand, the plantar fascia can become irritated or damage, causing pain in the front of the heel.
The Achilles tendon connects your calf muscle to the back of the heel. With repetitive activities, like running, this tissue can get strained and irritated. The fibers of the Achilles tendon can get damaged and become painful during activity or even to the touch.
Stress Reactions or Fractures
Stress reactions and stress fractures in the bones of the feet are caused when the impact of running forces bones to bend a little bit. This repetitive bending can cause inflammation in the outer layer of bone tissue (stress reaction). If the bending continues before the bone is able to heal, it can cause a break through all or a portion of the bone (stress fracture).
All three of these injuries are considered overuse injuries. In other words, they’re most likely to occur when too much repetitive stress is applied to a tissue, and it breaks down, becomes irritated, inflamed, or damaged. However, your body has a wonderful ability to strengthen tissue over time to handle more and more stress. Here are four ways Dr. Bradberry recommends to keep your feet healthy for the long run.
Four Steps to Healthy Feet
Slow and Steady:
Build in mileage gradually. A good rule of thumb is to increase volume by no more than 10% each week. This allows the muscles in the feet become better able to support the arch of the foot and limit the stress on the plantar fascia. The Achilles tendon become thicker and stronger to handle more stress. The bones even become more calcified and are less likely to break. In some cases, Dr. Bradberry recommends patients not run consecutive days to give the body an opportunity to recover and adapt before the next run.
Strength and Mobility:
To really improve running and avoid injuries, Dr. Bradberry recommends patients include strength training as part of their routine. And not just for core, glutes, quads, hamstrings and calves. There are muscles in the feet too. Exercises for the toes, mid foot and ankle can make a huge impact on performance and injury prevention. Focus on mobility (trigger point ball and stretches), stability (single leg balance, heel/toe walks and single leg Romanian deadlifts), and foot strength (toe yoga, towel crunches, and calf raises).
Nutrition and Hydration:
Proper nutrition goes a long way toward avoiding injuries, period. Staying hydrated and eating enough protein and carbohydrates has a direct effect on the health of the body’s tissues. Dehydration can cause an increase in the risk of sprains and strains. Not eating enough carbohydrates can cause fatigue and poor running form leading to overuse and misuse injuries. Not enough protein limits the body’s ability to add muscle tissue and become stronger and more resilient.
Time for New Shoes?
Maybe. Proper footwear plays a role in maintaining healthy feet. Dr. Bradberry says ideally, you want as little on your feet as possible. “You want your feet to be able to handle the stress of running without any outside assistance.” But not all feet are mobile, stable or strong enough. (You can get there, with strength and conditioning, and practicing proper form.) Good arch support can take stress off of the plantar fascia. The appropriate heel drop can limit the tension on the Achilles tendon. And the right cushioning can help absorb some of the shock and alleviate the stress on the bones.
The bottom line, says Dr. Bradberrry, is overuse injuries are most likely to occur when we increase activity too quickly. Patience is a virtue, and it can also keep you on your (healthy) feet.