Watching the arms of the world's swimming elite, such as Michael Phelps, Aaron Peirsol and Natalie Coughlin, seemingly cut through the water at the Beijing Olympics as effortlessly as if it were melted butter, one tends to give little thought to their feet, which are working just as hard beneath the surface of the water.
"Most people understand the importance of strong and healthy feet for runners or any athlete who spends a lot of time pounding their feet on the ground," said Daniel Altchuler, DPM, president of the California Podiatric Medical Association. "However, few immediately think of the very important role feet play in swimming. You really can't swim with an injured foot."
Feet are important because they help propel the body through the water. It is important for swimmers to have good flexibility in their ankles for a wider range of motion and propulsion. The motion of the foot in both freestyle and backstroke is extension and flexion in a flutter kick. In the butterfly, the foot flexes and extends also, but in unison, which is why it is referred to as a dolphin kick. In the breaststroke, the kick involvesrotation at the ankle as well as flexing and extending the foot.
Strong, healthy feet are also important for swimmers to get a fast start off the blocks and for pushing off the walls during turns. Competitive swimmers agree that races are often won or lost based on the speed and power of the start and turn.
One of the most common foot problems swimmers face is cramping in the feet. Foot cramps during swimming are usually caused by excessive pointing of the toes. Swimmers should properly warm up and gently stretch their feet before starting a workout, as well as relax their feet during the stroke.
The most common foot and ankle injury is tendonitis on the top of the foot and rear ankle, caused by repeated toe pointing in kicking. Treatment includes stretch and rest through pullbuoy use. Pull-boys are placed between the thighs to allow armonly propulsion while the body is buoyant.
Another common problem for swimmers' feet is infection such as athlete's foot and toenail fungus. Other problems include foot contusions or "swimmer's heel," mild ankle sprains from improper flip-turn technique and slipping on wet pool decks.
To maintain healthy feet, swimmers should do the following:
- Do gentle stretches to warm up feet before entering the water.
- Wear shoes on the pool deck to reduce the risk of foot injury and contacting fungi.
- Dry feet thoroughly after swimming or showering.
- Apply talcum powder or medicinal spray to previously infected areas to prevent recurrence.
- Change and wash socks frequently.
- Try not to wear the same pair of shoes two days in a row.
Daniel Altchuler, President of the California Podiatric Medical Association, graduated from Samuel Merritt College (SMC) California School of Podiatric Medicine (CSPM) formerly known as California College of Podiatric Medicine (CCPM), in 1975.