Strenthening the Feet and Reducing Foot Discomfort for Runners

We have been racking up a lot of miles and I am sure that you are starting to feel some discomfort in your feet after the long run. Think about it…we are taking 180 steps per minute, so for each mile that we log at a 12:00 pace, we are taking 2,160 steps. That means that on the long run this weekend you will be taking almost 40,000 steps—all before 9:00 am. Pretty incredible considering that many people set goals to take 10,000 steps in a day—we are knocking it out of the park! So, what is going on with your feet and why do they feel so sore after the run? And most importantly, what can you do to combat the soreness and fatigue?

Some basics about foot anatomy

Each foot contains 26 bones, 33 muscles, 31 joints and over 100 ligaments. Considering that the human body only has 206 bones, the fact that the feet together have 52 of those is pretty remarkable. Did you know that there are more sweat glands per inch on your feet than anywhere in the body? There are 125,000 sweat glands in each foot that release nearly a cup of moisture every day, keeping those babies nice and moisturized.

Some of important components of the foot that relate to running:

  • The Achilles tendon makes it possible to rise up on your toes, run and jump.
  • The plantar fascia aids in support and stabilization of the foot during running. As you begin a step the heel lifts up and the plantar fascia tightens to form the curve of the arch and provides a strong push off with the toes.

What is causing the discomfort and what can I do?

The first thing to look at is your shoes. Do they allow for your feet to swell on the long run? If you are wearing shoes that have a lot of wear, your feet might be trying to accommodate and your biomechanics might be thrown off. Be sure to get fitted by a professional at RunOn and a rule of thumb is that your running shoes should be at least a size bigger than your regular shoes. You should have a thumb width distance from where your toe ends and the end of the shoe. They should fit snug around the ankle so that your foot doesn’t slip in and out.

I have to ask a personal question--are your toenails trimmed? I keep my toenails extremely short and you know why? I have lost toenails from running in the past. Your toenails can rub against the inside of the shoe or even cut the adjacent toes. I go to a nail salon for a pedicure but I cut my nails before I go because the nail technician won’t usually cut them as short as I like. Black toenail can happen from excessive rubbing or Morton’s Toe. This is the official name for the second toe being longer than the big toe (how many of you have it? I do!). Be sure that the toe box of your shoe is wide and long enough to accommodate this. With black toenail, the blood is pooling under the toenail. You can either wait until it falls of or see a podiatrist to get some help. You might also have a thickened toenail—which is caused by repeated trauma to the nail. I am particularly susceptible to this often have a black and thickened toenail all in one. This sucker will stick around for as long as you let it but if you want to get rid of it, you can file it down. Use an emery board to file the top of the nail and new growth should come in over time.

You might not have built up the strength in your feet that you need for the long runs. We are so used to wearing shoes that support our feet that we don’t build the muscles that are necessary. Your arches might have fallen or you might have weak feet. Try to walk in your bare feet as much as possible to build those muscles. While you are walking, focus on lifting the arch of your foot off the floor. Think of your foot having four corners—the big toe, the little toe, and the two sides of the heel. Make sure that your weight is evenly distributed on all four corners. I have some strengthening exercises later in this post. Wearing compression socks will be a huge help with this—they stabilize and increase the blood flow.

Blisters can form for a variety of reasons—from shoes not fitting properly to wearing the wrong type of sock. If the blister is not causing pain, leave it alone. But if you are like me, you won’t be able to leave it alone. I usually puncture it with a sterilized needle and then squeeze out the liquid. Keep it clean and dry as much as you can. You can try aloe to speed the healing if the skin has come off the top exposing the raw flesh underneath. There are also a lot of special products that you can buy to put over the blister—which can protect it on the run. Some people even swear by duct tape but I have never tried it. Be sure to wear socks that are specifically made for running in order to keep your feet dry and to support the foot.

What can you do?

Simple quick fixes:

  • Use a tennis ball to massage the bottom of your feet. Place it under the arch of your foot and roll it along the arch.
  • If your feet are swollen after the run, put them in an ice bath.
  • Feet aren’t swollen but just sore? Soak your feet in warm water with Epsom salt.
  • Skip the high heels and cowboy boots! (There are some crazy people out there who have run a marathon in high heels to raise money for charity. I am crazy but not THAT crazy.)
  • Wear compression socks to support the feet.

Exercises to stretch and strengthen your feet (start by doing each one 3 times a day and hold for 30 seconds each; increase time as you become more comfortable):

  • Lie on your back and bend your knee into your chest. Take a strap or belt and place it on the ball of the foot, holding the strap on each side of the foot with your hands. Start to extend the leg, bringing it fully straightened. Everyone’s flexibility will be different so you might not have your leg at a 90 degree angle with the body. Once the leg is straight, pull down on the strap so that your toes are coming closer to you and your heel becomes higher than the toes. Repeat on the other side.
  • On the floor, sit up tall with your knees bent, back flat. The bottoms of the feet are facing each other and knees are splayed out to the side. Lean forward and weave the fingers of one hand between each of the toes of your opposite foot. With a firm grip, stretch and massage the toes and the ball of the foot.
  • Place a towel on the ground and sit with your feet flat on the towel, knees bent at 90 degrees. Scrunch your toes try to grab the towel with your feet and pull it toward you
  • Stand with your feet a comfortable distance apart. Try to lift just the big toe on both feet, keeping the other toes down. Then try to do the exact opposite: lift all the toes but the big toes. Lift the big toe and baby toe up as you press the three middle toes down. Lift the three middle toes up while pressing the big toe and baby toe down. This one is very difficult at first but with practice you can do it! Most people who pronate, or roll to the inner arch, have a hard time lifting the big toes and most people who supinate, or roll on to the outer edges of the foot, have a hard time lifting the other toes.
  • While sitting in a chair, slowly take the ankle in circles in both directions clockwise and counter-clockwise
  • Place some marbles or other small balls on the floor. Use your toes to pick them up
  • Stand on a slanted board with your feet fully planted and toes fully spread apart. Rise up onto your toes and hold, pressing down through every toe
  • Stand up straight and shift your weight to your left leg. Flex your right toes up toward the ceiling and then curl the toes to pull at the ground, scrunching your toes to move the right foot forward an inch at a time. Repeat on the other side
  • While standing up straight, press the heel, big toe joint and the pinky toe joint into the floor and lift the arch of your foot. Balance and hold for 10 seconds
  • Hero pose: come onto your knees with the knees separated hip width distance and the heels of the feet separated a little wider than the hips. The tops of the feet are flat on the floor. Gently sit the hips down in between the heels. If this feels okay, bring your elbows down to the floor behind you. If this feels okay, start to walk your elbows forward until your back is flat on the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.
  • Toe pose sequence: begin on your hands and knees with a folded blanket under your knees. Your knees and feet should be slightly apart with the shins parallel with each other. Turn your toes under so balls of feet rest on floor. Sit back on heels with knees resting on the floor. Place hands on tops of thighs. Hold for 30 seconds. Next, lift your knees off the floor so that you are squatting and balancing on your toes. Hold for 30 seconds. Next, bring your heels to the floor and sit in a squat with feet flat to the floor. You may need to separate the feet apart wider to bring your heels all the way to the floor
  • Downward-facing dog: begin on your hands and knees with the wrists below the shoulders and the knees below the hips. Curl your toes under and press your hips up, bringing your body into a 90 degree angle with the floor. Lengthen through the arms and the legs. Next, come up on your toes, lifting the arches of your feet as high as possible and then extend the heels down toward the floor. Hold for 30 seconds.