Our feet tend to get the raw end of the deal. They may be the first part of the body to hit the ground on a run, but they’re often the last thing we think about when preparing for or recovering from hard exercise.
When overworked and underappreciated, your feet will (understandably) start to complain. No athlete wants to be sidelined by issues such as painful blisters, plantar fasciitis, calluses, or tendonitis; fortunately, there are various measures you can take to prevent these problems from disrupting your running regimen.
Here’s how runners can keep their feet happy before, during, and after a workout.
Pre-Run Foot Care
Most runners are well aware of the benefits of doing some dynamic stretches—lunges, squats, leg swings—to warm up before diving right into exercise. Perhaps fewer runners are aware that there are warmups they can do for their feet.
“It’s good to prime your feet for a run with ‘foot warmups,’ especially if you have struggled with plantar fasciitis issues in the past,” says Andrew Simmons, head coach at Lifelong Endurance and a USATF Level 2 endurance coach.
One warmup he recommends involves using your toes to scrunch up a bath towel—this simple exercise activates the plantar fascia, which is the ligament connecting the heel bone to the toes. If you’re experiencing underlying tightness in the sole of your feet, try using a lacrosse ball, a frozen water bottle, or a massage ball or roller to roll out and release the fascia.
Self-massage of the feet and ankles is another effective way to prepare for a run. (If foot pain is a frequent occurrence, make this a daily practice.) Use your thumbs to gently squeeze the sole of your foot from heel to toe for about five minutes, then grasp the tops of your toes and pull them slowly up toward the shin for a good stretch of the plantar fascia.
Take it a step further by massaging up into the shin and lower leg to keep things loose and mobile, or use a foam roller to roll out the calves thoroughly, from the back of the knee down to the Achilles tendon. Once your muscles have been kneaded out, slowly do a few ankle rotations, 10 to 15 on each side, to finish out your foot warmup session.
Throughout this process, Simmons advises runners to be on the lookout for any bruising or touchpoint pain they might discover on their feet: “That can be an easy first sign of a stress reaction or stress fracture.”
No one likes getting a blister, but there tend to be mixed feelings about calluses. While these thick patches of hardened skin can act as a form of natural foot armor, calluses are occasionally painful and often viewed as undesirable from an aesthetic standpoint.
Because calluses are the result of repeated friction on the skin, the best way to prevent them from forming is by reducing that friction as best as you can. Do this by wearing shoes that fit securely—not so tight that they chafe, not so loose that your feet slide around inside them on a run—and choose sweat-wicking socks with thicker fabric on the heel and toe areas (where the shoe typically rubs up against).
Lubricant and moleskin bandages, when strategically placed on areas of the foot that tend to blister, are also great lines of defense against calluses. For even more protection, regularly moisturize your feet with lotion after showering to help keep skin soft and smooth.
If you used a lacrosse or massage ball for your foot warmups, keep it handy for postrun recovery. Work away any soreness or tightness in the soles by rolling your feet over the ball—or put your hands to work and massage each foot from heel to toe. On days when the mileage is longer, the effort is more intense, or your feet are just feeling beat up, ice can do wonders in reducing swelling. Propping your legs up against the wall will also help you drain fluids that are pooling in your lower half, while also stretching your hamstrings and relieving a worn out lower body.
Runners also have plenty of options to choose from when it comes to products geared toward post-workout recovery. After hours on your feet, it can be a welcome relief to slide tired feet into a pair of foam recovery sandals or calf-hugging compression socks. You might even opt for ankle sleeves, like those offered by Incrediwear, to combat flareups of tendonitis or plantar fasciitis after a run.
And for those who work at standing desks, Simmons suggests trying an acupressure mat underfoot. “Our feet can grow weak from being in shoes all day, so this is a great way to toughen them up and keep them stimulated.”
Choosing the Right Footwear
Another important consideration for keeping your feet in top shape? Proper footwear. This includes your socks, your shoes, and even how you lace up. Tie your shoes so they are snug, but not constricting; too-tight laces restrict blood flow, cause numbness in your feet, and might even lead to Morton’s Neuroma, a painful nerve-swelling condition.
“If you are tying tighter because your heel or midfoot slides around in the shoe, try changing how you lace your shoes, or consider a different shoe that fits better,” Simmons said. “You want enough room in a shoe that your foot can move when you’re running downhill, but not so much that the movement creates a hotspot or blister.”
Dr. Joanna Shuman of Shuman Podiatry and Sports Medicine in Sterling, Virginia, cites poorly fitted footwear as one of the major causes of tendon issues in her runner patients. She strongly recommends getting fitted for the correct size shoe and not wearing a pair past their maximum mileage. “Know how many miles you should get on your shoes,” she says. “You should regularly change up which shoes you wear—don’t use the same pair every day, or for every activity.”
Wearing the right socks is also key for a pain-free run, so choose fit and materials wisely. Look for a pair that fits snugly to the shape of your feet without slipping around as you move, such as Wigwam’s Synchroknit Custom Fit socks. And, of course, avoid cotton, which does a poor job of carrying sweat away and ultimately results in blisters, hot spots, and a poor run experience. Technical materials, however, are much better at wicking moisture away from the surface of your skin.
As a final word of advice in preventing blisters, Simmons shares a preferred trick: anti-chafe lubricant. “Lubing your feet—especially in raceday scenarios—can be a great precaution to help you succeed.”