3 Simple Ways to Prevent Running Injuries to Your Feet
There’s no feeling quite like hitting your stride during a good run -- and none worse than not being able to run because of injury. But unlike trauma-induced injuries, like tripping over a log and spraining your ankle, some injuries are a result of overuse, improper form or footwear and are 100-percent preventable.
One of these common overuse injuries is plantar fasciitis. It occurs when the connective tissue along the bottom of your foot becomes inflamed. Since this tissue is connected to your Achilles tendon at the heel, it can cause more than just foot-related pain and discomfort, and a severe case might even require a long break from running to fully heal.
But by focusing on prevention and caring for your feet even while pounding them into the track, you can defuse risk factors before they sideline you.
Never take your feet for granted. Always think of them as a tool that you can work hard, but that need some TLC occasionally.
Steve Wales, technical footwear guru for Brooks Running UK
1. Take Your Warm-Up and Cool-Down Seriously
One of the easiest ways to prevent injuries during your run is to warm up beforehand. But don’t rely solely on stretching. A 2006 study published in "The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research" found that static stretching before a run can be damaging to your muscles and stamina.
Dynamic exercises like lateral lunges, arm circles and wide-stance star jumps will increase your blood flow and heart rate, making your muscles more limber overall and preparing them for your run.
When you’re finished, whether it’s a mile or a marathon, be sure to pay as much attention to your feet as you do to your legs during your cool-down. This means stretching your toes and arches the same way you would your calves and quads.
Seated arch stretches, foot doming (gripping and releasing the ground with your bare feet) and spelling out the alphabet with your toes help reduce tightness and weakness, which are often the underlying cause of foot injuries.
2. Improve Your Form
Being aware of the way you move while running is key to preventing injury. One of the most important things is to know -- and control -- when, where and how your foot strikes the ground during each part of your gait cycle. This cycle consists of four parts:
- Initial contact with the ground
- Midstance or single support
Focus first on your initial contact with the ground. Many runners, particularly new ones, strike the ground with their heel. But over time, the repeated impact can damage the heel.
If you tend to strike the ground heavily with your heel, change to a lighter step and hit the ground somewhere between the edge of your heel and midfoot. Roll forward quickly and keep your ankle lightly flexed, making it easier to spring off your foot.
Another mistake new runners tend to make is overpronating, which occurs when your foot rolls inward as it hits the ground. This causes excess stress on your foot and ankle.
On the other hand, some runners underpronate, or supinate, which occurs when your foot doesn’t roll in enough. In this case, the majority of the impact is absorbed by the outside of your foot. Ideally, your foot should rotate in about 15 degrees.
Good form encompasses the movement of your entire body, not just your feet and legs. The cornerstones of good form are:
- A straight and relaxed back and neck
- Bent arms with movement originating from the shoulders
- Little side-to-side movement in the hips and waist
- A light landing as your foot hits the ground
Focus on one or two things at a time, like keeping your core engaged and your toes pointed forward, and pretty soon those changes will become second nature.
Also pay attention to your stride, the length of your step when running. You want a quick leg turnover and a short stride, meaning your feet land underneath your body. Avoid landing with your feet in front of you because this increases the strain on your knees and hamstrings -- and that increases your risk of injury.
3. Get the Right Shoes for YOUR Feet
Selecting the best pair of running shoes means knowing what kind of feet you have and how their shape affects the way you run. While minimalist shoes are a recent trend in running, if you have high arches or overpronate, you’ll need shoes with specific support. This helps reduce your risk of injury by making sure your feet have the proper support.
Runners with flatter feet tend to overpronate and may require a more supportive shoe to prevent rolling and guide the foot through foot strike, says Matt Foord, technical adviser for Newton Running. He recommends runners who overpronate wear shoes with extra stability, while those who supinate choose neutral or universal shoes.
You want to position your feet and Achilles tendons to the 12 o’clock position on the clock face, says Steve Wales, technical footwear guru for Brooks Running UK. If there's deviation from that, choose a shoe with some degree of stability to help maintain correct foot positioning.
But what does that mean? Most stabilizing running shoes have a wedge of firmer material in the midsole that the foot rolls into, says Wales. “Ideally this wedge should be at the rear of the shoe, seeing as that is where the movement occurs," he says. Different shoes will have different-size wedges and may have other features that increase the stiffness of the shoe, so try several pairs on before committing.
Feet that supinate have other needs. Wales recommends that these runners choose an unsupported shoe with either cushioning or flexibility. “The cushioning protects the finer bones in the foot and flexibility ensures there is no artificial restriction on the movement of the foot,” he says.
By analyzing your foot shape and structure, you can make more informed decisions about the shoes you need. One of the simplest ways to do this is with the wet test. Get your feet wet, and then walk normally on a piece of paper.
A normal foot, one in which the arch is neither flat nor high, has a wide band along the outside connecting the ball of the foot and the heel. In contrast, if you have a flat foot, you’ll see a print of your entire sole. And if you have a high arch, you’ll see a band that’s very narrow to nonexistent.
You can also talk to a footwear expert at a sporting goods store. They often analyze people’s gaits using video and can provide helpful tips based on what they see.
“Look at the wear on an old pair of running shoes," says Foord. "Place the shoes side by side on a table, with the toes pointing towards you. Look at the shoes from eye level. If either or both lean noticeably inward, you likely pronate.”
Keep in mind that many runners who develop plantar fasciitis have to change their shoe type to treat it. A common underlying factor of plantar fasciitis is muscle weakness. Plantar fasciitis can arise from shoes that have too much support, which restricts the foot’s natural movement and ability to protect itself, says Foord.
Or it can occur if your shoe has a large, built-up heel, which prevents the plantar fascia moving, loading and absorbing impact properly. "This can in itself make the fascia tight and shortened, which can exacerbate the issue,” he says.
As Wales says, “Never take your feet for granted. Always think of them as a tool that you can work hard, but that need some TLC occasionally.”
Anna Campbell is a writer and editor who specializes in food, travel and fitness. She holds a degree in media studies from the University of London. When not writing, she enjoys exploring the hidden corners of Europe and is currently training for her first half marathon.