Looking after your feet

As it's #feetweek (March 8-14), here's a timely look at why you shouldn't neglect one of the most important parts of a runner's anatomy


by Heena Patel |

The foot is an incredibly complex part of the body and deserves more attention than it gets, especially from runners. The mechanics of the feet are extremely intricate, so they need to be well maintained and looked after to ensure they are in optimum condition for the best performance. As a runner, your podiatrist can be your best friend!

Trail running can put a huge strain on the feet as it involves crossing many types of terrain, which is often uneven and has steep gradients. When going downhill, runners tend to lean on the forefoot, and this can place a huge amount of pressure in that area, leading to all sorts of lesser toe problems, such as friction corns and blisters, which can be very painful. Walking on downward slopes can also cause bigger problems by placing excess amount of pressure on the ankles, which can lead to lateral ankle sprains.

It is advisable to avoid frequent downward running as continually spraining the ankles leads to weakness of the joint, and damage to the muscles and ligaments can occur during the sprain. So, to stay healthy, it is best to mix up your trail with plenty of uphill and downhill segments; this will not only make it more interesting and challenging for you, but also give your feet a break!

Weakness in the joints leads to instability, which in turn can impact on the quality of your foot health and might cause ankle rolling. Using poles when walking or running downwards can help to stabilise the body and reduce the chances of ankle sprains. Despite this, the variety of terrain in trail running can actually be easier on our feet than pounding those harsh concrete pavements in conventional road running. Concrete or tarmac surfaces can be very unforgiving and can cause a negative and unnecessary impact on the knee and lower back joints, increasing the risk of causing long-term damage.

Our feet are connected to our entire body and this can affect various aspects of our health, but one of the most important aspects it can affect is our gait. Abnormal gait patterns can lead to hip, spine and lower back issues. Bespoke orthotics may be issued, which in turn will help to improve the gait pattern. Footwear should also be addressed; be sure to go to a professional running shop, where the staff will be trained to best advise on all the options. Always go shoe shopping in the morning because by midday your feet would have increased by half a size due to natural swelling.

Another crucial part of trail running is working out your gait, which is a simple process. Book yourself a biomechanical assessment with a specialist podiatrist. This assessment is an in-depth analysis of your gait patterns as well as your joints, and it will also test ranges of motion within all your feet joints. The podiatrist will be able to diagnose any issues and also can spot any leg length discrepancies you may have, which can lead to a tilted gait which can cause lower back pain. In general, we would always advise on a “heel to toe” gait for optimum foot health. The podiatrist will also be able to advise on the best posture to create an ideal gait.

Trail running has many advantages, including getting fresh air, mindfulness and exploring nature. In many ways it is also better for the feet than running on concrete as the different terrain surfaces mean less pressure on the same joints. However, it is always best to prepare and prevent any foot problems before taking it up as a hobby. Even seasoned trail runners should be sure to care for their feet and regularly visit a podiatrist. As a runner or athlete your feet are your greatest asset, so if look after them, they will look after you!

5 exercises to strengthen your feet

1 Heel raises

Find a suitable step and bring only the balls of your feet and about half an inch behind that on to the top of it, allowing your heels to drop below as far as you feel comfortable. Now lift yourself onto your toes, being careful not to allow your ankles and knees to roll in, but keeping a straight line through your legs. Start off with 10 repetitions and work your way up by five each day.

2 Toe walks

This is as simple as it sounds. Bring yourself up on to your toes, again being careful to keep a straight line through your ankles. Start with 10 steps on each foot then increase by five on each foot as you progress day by day. They will only be baby steps so don’t worry you’re not going very far - just focus.

3 Toe Resistance

Find an elastic band and place this around your toes about halfway up. Now try and spread your toes as far apart as possible and hold in this position for 5-10 seconds. This exercise increases balance in landing from running and walking, both majorly important for your kinetic chain. Repeat three times and gradually build up the time you hold by approximately three seconds each day.

4 Single leg hops

This exercise is best performed in a mirror to ensure you are keeping a straight-line form with the leg you land on and not rolling your ankle either in or out. Bring your left knee up to hold the foot next to the knee of the right supporting leg. Now, using your arms to help pump yourself up just like on the trails, perform a small hop on the right leg. Allow time for balance to be achieved from the landing and hold. Now repeat 10 times. Switch sides. You can progress these a little faster than the other exercises, keeping a close eye on form, by up to 10 each day.

5 Heel walks

Same as above, but this time reach your toes up towards your shins as far as you can and begin to walk. You will feel the burn in the muscles surrounding the front of your legs.

5 simple ways to make a difference

1 Firstly, visit a podiatrist for a foot health check-up and a full biomechanical assessment of the feet including any callus or corn removal. The assessment will also pick up on any potential problems in the ankles and knees.

2 Make sure you have properly fitted shoes fit for trail running. You should always buy shoes in person in order to be fitted by a professional.

3 Introduce a foot exercise regime before you go to bed. These can be gentle circular movements of the feet. Another great exercise is to roll a tennis ball or a bottle of water under the arch of the foot slowly. This can increase the strength of the muscles and ligaments around the midfoot.

4 After a run, rest from all activity and soak the feet in an Epsom Salt foot bath. Epsom Salts have great anti-inflammatory properties and can help with muscle tension. The salts will help your feet to relax.

5 Clean your running shoes regularly, especially if you have run a particularly wet or muddy trail. This will give your shoes a longer life span and save your feet from potential fungus, as well as reducing the risk of smelly shoes!