Whether you’ve recently decided to give running a try or have been competing in races for years, chances are you’ve encountered at least one foot problem. Runners often experience a wide range of conditions—from small annoyances like blisters to bigger problems like stress fractures, which can result in runners having to take weeks or months off.
Here are five common foot problems among runners suffer, along with tips on how to prevent and treat them.
1. Plantar fasciitis
What it is: The name of this condition refers to the plantar fascia—connective tissue that runs from the heel to the base of the toes. Plantar fasciitis occurs when the fascia becomes torn and results in inflammation and pain, which can feel like a sharp pain or deep ache along the arch of the foot.
Causes: Plantar fasciitis can occur after increasing mileage too suddenly or drastically. Other causes include inappropriate running shoes, excessive pronation and flat, high-arched feet.
Prevention: Experts usually recommend that runners increase mileage by no more than 10 percent per week. Regularly practicing plantar fascia and Achilles tendon stretches and running on soft surfaces, such as dirt trails instead of asphalt or concrete, may also help. Prevention is particularly important because plantar fasciitis can often get worse, in which case it becomes increasingly difficult to treat.
Treatment: At the onset of plantar fasciitis, massage and ice is often recommended. Rolling a golf ball and/or frozen bottle of water under the foot may help alleviate pain. In order to speed recovery, shoes with adequate arch support should be worn when walking and doing everyday tasks. If pain persists, seek help from a sports podiatrist.
2. Runner’s toes
What it is: Runners may have great-looking legs, but their toes are often a different story. Problems such as ingrown toenails—when the nail grows into the skin—black toenails and missing toenails are particularly common among long-distance runners.
Causes: Ingrown toenails can be caused by poor foot hygiene, improper footwear and cutting the toenails too short. Black toenails are caused by constant rubbing of the toes against the front of the shoe—this leads to blood blisters forming underneath the nail.
Prevention: Prevent ingrown toenails by not clipping toenails too short and by clipping them straight across, rather than rounding the edges. Both ingrown and black toenails can be prevented by wearing the correct running shoe size—which is typically one half to one full size bigger than your non-running shoes—in order to ensure that there’s sufficient room.
Treatment: If a toenail becomes ingrown, soaking the foot in warm salt water daily for 15 to 20 minutes can help reduce pain and swelling. If you get a black toenail with manageable pain, it is usually best to leave it alone—the damaged part becomes pushed off, and a new nail naturally replaces it. If it becomes infected, see a doctor.
3. Athlete’s foot
What it is: Athlete’s foot is the most common form of skin fungus and, as the name suggests, commonly affects people who exercise in athletic shoes, which provide the fungus a warm and moist environment in which to thrive. Athlete’s foot is commonly characterized by peeling, itching, cracking and sometimes blisters on the bottom of the foot and in between the toes.
Causes: There are two types of fungus that typically cause athlete’s foot—trichophyton mentagrophytes and trichophyton rubrum. When you come in contact with either one, the fungus begins to grow on the outer layers of the skin and/or the toenails. Fungi can be contracted from other people with athlete’s foot or from damp, contaminated surfaces, such as shower floors or locker rooms.
Prevention: Take precautions such as avoiding direct contact with communal shower and locker room floors. After a run, be sure to dry off feet and change into clean, dry socks. Be sure to thoroughly clean feet as part of your daily hygiene practice.
Treatment: Over-the-counter or prescription anti-fungal cream can treat athlete’s foot, as can certain oral medications. However, people with athlete’s foot are more likely to get it again, which makes prevention all the more important.
4. Stress fracture
What it is: A stress fracture is an incomplete break of the bone. Runners most commonly get stress fractures in the shin, heels or metatarsal bones—long bones that start at the midway point of the foot and run up to the base of the toes. Signs include sudden swelling and bruising with an unidentifiable cause.
Causes: Whereas acute fractures are a result of a slip or fall, stress fractures are a result of overuse or cumulative strain on a bone. In other words, going too far, too hard, too fast will prevent your bones from repairing themselves quickly enough.
Prevention: When increasing mileage, avoid increasing by more than 10 percent every week. Avoid increasing duration, intensity and frequency all at the same time. Regular strength training, cross training and foam rolling may help prevent stress fractures. If you’re not sure about how to train correctly, it is best to seek advice from professionals.
Treatment: If diagnosed early, stress fractures can be treated with rest, ice and anti-inflammatory medication. More severe fractures may require crutches, a cast or surgery. Time off from running—anywhere from weeks to months—is often necessary. Getting enough calories and nutrients is also vital in preventing a relapse.
What it is: When there is friction between the skin and another surface, the body produces fluid, which builds up beneath the skin that’s being rubbed. Health risks of blisters are typically less serious than those of other common foot problems; however, if left untreated or treated improperly, blisters can lead to serious infections.
Causes: People with foot abnormalities, such as bunions and hammertoes, are more at risk for developing blisters than people without such abnormalities. However, anyone can develop blisters. Shoes that are too tight can lead to blisters. Heat and moisture also cause the feet to swell, which intensifies friction and increases risk of blisters.
Prevention: Since dry skin is more prone to friction, using skin creams and lotions on a daily basis can reduce risk of blisters. Synthetic moisture-wicking socks are ideal for runners, as cotton socks retain fluid. Coating the bottom of your feet with Vaseline or another lubricant before a run can also help prevent blister formation.
Treatment: If the blister is small, it is often sufficient to cover it with gauze and a bandage, as the blister is likely to dry and heal on its own. If the blister is large, it is often best to drain it with a sterilized needle and with clean hands—refrain from cutting skin—and then cover with a tight bandage.