Every time you go for a run, your post-workout endorphins are hijacked by the gnawing pain in your foot. And though you try to massage it out every day, it comes back anyway. How frustrating. Unexplained foot pain can stem from everyday wear and tear, such as improper running form or ill-fitted shoes, larger issues, like tendonitis or stress fractures, or a combo of all of the above. That’s why we contacted Dr. Chanel Perkins, DPM, aka Fab Foot Doc, to give us the rundown on the four most common causes of foot pain after running so that you not only know the root of the problem but how to prevent it as well.
Unexplained Foot Pain After Running? A Podiatrist Breaks Down 4 Common Causes (Plus, What You Can Do to Feel Better)
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1. Plantar Fasciitis
The main culprit for foot pain after running is a condition known as plantar fasciitis which occurs due to overuse of that ligament. “It will often present as heel pain that is sharp and stabbing,” says Dr. Perkins. “The plantar fascia is a thick ligament on the bottom of the foot which attaches to the heel bone. Running can result in excessive stress and strain on the plantar fascia ligament which can lead to inflammation and even small microtears in the ligament.” Improving running form and the overall biomechanics of the feet—usually achieved by getting appropriate insoles—can help avoid any heel pain.
Another tried and true way of preventing plantar fasciitis is stretching before you run. Stretches such as the heel raise and calf stretches will ensure that part of your foot is nicely warmed up before a run and nicely relaxed afterward. Proper shoes and rigid arch supports will also help take the stress and strain off the plantar fascia ligament, says Dr. Perkins.
How to treat plantar fasciitis:
- Rest. The best thing you can do to reduce the inflammation is taking a break from running and any other highly impactful activities, according to Dr. Perkins. Proper rest will allow the ligament to calm down so that any inflammation has an opportunity to heal itself.
- Ice the area. This may be the oldest trick in a book but it’s a go-to for a reason. “Icing is a natural anti-inflammatory that will help soothe any inflammation in the ligament,” she advises.
- Try a tennis ball massage. Place a tennis ball on the ground and gently roll it under your barefoot for a few minutes. This will help loosen up the plantar fascia ligament. Make sure you put enough pressure on the ball to get a deep foot massage.
- Take anti-inflammatories. Over-the-counter anti-inflammatories such as Ibuprofen may also help.
2. Stress Fracture
A stress fracture is a small break in the bone which can cause sharp pain whenever the foot is carrying weight (i.e., walking, running, standing). Like plantar fasciitis, most stress fractures are the result of repetitive overuse, that’s why it’s no surprise a lot of runners fall victim. “Any bone in the foot is susceptible to developing a stress fracture, but the metatarsal bones are most affected,” Dr. Perkins tells us. “A new runner or a runner switching from the treadmill to outdoor running may experience a stress fracture. According to Sports Health, symptoms of a stress fracture may include sharp, localized pain, tenderness, swelling, changes in biomechanics—walking/running differently to avoid putting pressure on the area—and bruising.
To avoid a stress fracture, it’s best to gradually increase your running distance and intensity, as opposed to going all Usain Bolt overnight. Pacing yourself gives your foot more time to adjust to its new demands. Dr. Perkins also recommends you mix up your workouts. Add some cross-training exercises—hiking, walking, cycling, walking—so that your foot isn’t constantly stressed.
How to treat a stress fracture:
- Get a proper diagnosis. Stress fractures need a proper diagnosis to identify, so if all signs are leading you to believe you have one, your first step should be a visit to a licensed podiatrist for a diagnosis.
- Rest. Again, you can never go wrong with giving the foot a break. Dr. Perkins advocates for resting your foot for six to eight weeks to allow the stress fracture to properly heal. In severe cases immobilization in a boot or even a cast may be necessary.
“Muscle tendons are prone to developing tendinitis if there is chronic stress or an injury that leads to inflammation of that tendon. Runners will usually develop either peroneal tendonitis or Achilles tendinitis,” Dr. Perkins tells us. “If there is pain on the lateral (outside) of the foot or outside of the ankle joint, that pain is usually due to peroneal tendonitis. If the pain is in the back of the ankle joint near the heel bone, the pain is typical of Achilles tendinitis.” Tendonitis is also signified by swelling and stiffness in the foot.
To keep tendonitis at bay, stretches of the calf and ankle are highly recommended, so a little bit of downward dog and some ankle circles can go a long way. You should also refrain from running on uneven terrain like hills because they add stress to your foot. Again, gradually increasing activity and cross-training can help lower your chances of getting tendonitis.
How to treat tendonitis:
- Get a proper diagnosis. “Always see a licensed podiatrist to diagnose and get advanced imaging, if necessary, to rule out a potential tendon tear,” advises Dr. Perkins.
- Avoid stretching too much. This may sound counterintuitive, “but once diagnosed, too much stretching can sometimes further injure and aggravate an already inflamed tendon,” she says. So, follow your doctor’s instructions on the proper way to rehabilitate your type of injury.
One of the worst parts about getting new running shoes are the potential hazards that come with breaking in new gear. One of those is blisters. Blisters are most commonly caused by friction/rubbing between the skin and a sock or shoe. However, blisters are also common in runners running long distances or those with sweaty feet.
To avoid getting blisters, make sure you wear appropriate socks with your running shoes. A nice pair of moisture-wicking socks will help your feet stay dry as you break a sweat. You should also wear shoes that fit properly. “Not too tight and not too loose,” says Dr. Perkins. “It is recommended to size up a half size for running shoes since feet expand in length and width with impact.” Lastly, apply a skin protectant or lubricant such as petroleum jelly on areas more prone to developing blisters. Baby powders or anti-chafing powder can also be used to keep feet dry during a run.
How to treat blisters:
- Don’t pop them. It may seem like a harmless thing to do, especially when they’re small, but under no circumstances should you pop your blisters. Doing so may lead to bacterial infection. For prominent blisters, the American Academy of Dermatology advises that you loosely cover the blister with a bandage, or use moleskin padding if they’re on pressure areas such as the bottom of your foot. If the blisters are small and aren’t causing any discomfort, leave them alone as they’ll dry up on their own.
So, the next time you go for a run, make sure you stretch and that you’re wearing shoes and socks that may help your unexplained foot pain. And don’t forget to rest!