Your feet are your hardest working body-part, literally the foundation on which your waking life is based. "When your feet hurt, you hurt all over," says sports podiatrist and marathon runner Franklin Kase, DPM, FAAPSM. Foot pain can be excruciating, making you less likely to get up off the couch, let alone strap on sneakers and get exercising.
But there are ways to minimize injury potential, says Kase, who's been a runner for 35 years and has never had a major foot or ankle problem. His secret? He wears supportive footwear and incorporates the five elements of exercise into his workout routines: warm up, stretch, aerobic exercise, cool down, then stretch again. You read that right: warm up first, then stretch. "If you stretch before warming up with a three-to-five minute gentle walk or other aerobic routine, your muscles will tense up and form knots," he warns. And if your lower body muscles are tense and don't perform properly, your feet won't be supported by your lower body - potentially resulting in injury.
We asked Kase and Physical Therapist and Duquesne College Associate Professor Robert Martin, Phd., CSCS, for their best feel-good solutions and preventative measures for five common foot issues.
Skin Irritation: Both overly moist and overly dry feet make exercise uncomfortable. If your feet are too dry, you could get blisters or chaffing. If your feet are too moist, you could grow foot fungus. To keep feet in top form, Kase recommends applying lotion after a bath or a shower. "When I run marathons, I tend to put Vaseline between my toes to avoid blistering," says Kase. Keep excess moisture at bay by wearing socks that are at least partly synthetic; man-made fabric pulls moisture away from your skin better than cotton. And always leave just enough wiggle room in your shoe for your skin to move safely.
Heel Pain: Heel pain is often caused by wearing unsupportive shoes like thin heels, thin-soled ballet flats or flip flops while walking on hard surfaces such as concrete. (But you knew that already, didn't you?) Minimize heel pain by choosing supportive shoes. Heels with a broader base will give your gait more stability than stilettos. Get in the habit of stretching your feet when you wake up in the morning: gently push your toes towards your ankles for 30 seconds per foot. Already aching? Icing your heels can reduce swelling, and heel cushions might lessen the pain. Martin recommends alternating workouts that put pressure on your feet such as walking or running with lower-impact sports such as swimming or biking.
Bunions: When you've got a bunion, slipping into any shoe can be painful. To minimize agonizing pressure, go through your shoe collection and single out any footwear (including sneakers) that really puts pressure on your foot; then donate those shoes to charity! In general, you should buy shoes with a wide or extra wide width based on the size of your bunion. Don't just go up a number size; doing that will rob your heel and instep of needed support. Also, consider talking to your doctor about bunion surgery. In most instances, Kase says, you can walk on your foot on the day of surgery.
Unstable Feet and Ankles: If your feet tend to rotate outwards causing your ankle to roll, you're at a high risk for ankle and foot sprains. This is caused by a weakness in the muscles that surround your ankle, says Kase. Custom orthotics, available through a podiatrist, can help align your foot properly to better support the ankle muscles (and they might be covered by your insurance). In fact, Kase says without orthotics in his shoes, he wouldn't be able to run marathons. Martin recommends core exercises such as planks for stability.
Ankles Sprains: Ankle sprains can happen anytime you walk on an uneven surface like rocks, potholes or cracks in the sidewalk. Ankle strengthening and stretching exercises are key to both preventing and recovering from sprains. To strengthen ankles, sit on a table or tall chair and let your feet hang down at a 90 degree angle. Wrap an ankle weight around the ball of your foot. Lift foot and ankle, moving your foot up, right, left and down, holding each movement for 7 to 8 seconds. Perform this exercise 10 times on each foot, daily.