While training for a marathon, your feet take a major pounding. Many runners forget about their feet in their strengthening and stretching programs, but as every runner knows, those feet will make some noise when there is a problem. And when they’re being stuffed into sneakers and forced to hit the pavement over and over again, problems are likely.
When you break down the gait cycle (the repetitive process of stepping with one foot and then the other) you realize how much your feet actually go through when you run. For starters, running is a one-legged sport—the time spent on one leg during each stride is one of the major distinctions between running and walking. With running, you leap and land with all your weight on one foot. In doing so, the feet transform from soft, malleable landing pads to rigid levers designed to help propel your body forward. (This transformation is known as the Windlass mechanism.)
Since your feet are the only contact point between your body and the ground (let’s hope!), that connection needs to feel good and strong or you, your feet, and your running performance will suffer. So show your feet some love by incorporating some of these seven practices into your routine. After all, they are what will carry you across every finish line—they deserve some TLC.
1. Do some simple toe stretches when your feet feel tight.
The flexor hallucis longus is a muscle that extends from the lower part of your leg all the way to the tip of your big toe. You need your big toe to balance and to help propel you forward when you run. Weakness or repetitive straining of this muscle, can cause it to feel tight or painful. Stretching it out can help ease discomfort.
Try this toe-against-the-wall stretch: Keeping your heel on the floor, line up your big toe against a wall. Gently press your knee toward the wall until you feel a stretch below the base of your toe. Hold for 30 seconds.
Here’s another good one: Get on your hands and knees and curl your toes under you. Then, gently sit down and back until you feel a stretch in your foot and toes.
2. Incorporate toe-strengthening exercises into your daily routine.
Strengthening is a necessary and critical part of marathon training. The feet should be no exception. By strengthening the feet and toes, you can create a more sturdy foundation for your running and improve the propulsion capabilities of your feet while you run. But can you think of a single strength exercise where you specifically target your feet and toes? Didn’t think so.
Try towel scrunches: Start sitting in a chair with your heels on the floor and a towel under one forefoot. Keeping the heel in contact with the floor, use your toes to draw the towel toward you. Try 3 sets of 10 on each foot. For best results, do this five days a week. This exercise targets the foot and toe muscles to help improve mobility, dexterity, and strength in the 33 joints and more than 100 muscles, tendons, and ligaments of each foot.
3. Try self-massage—with ice.
What’s better than ice or massage? Combining the effects of both at the same time! Whether you’re having sharp heel pain or pain across your arch from a tight plantar fascia (a thick band of tissue that runs from the heel to the base of your toes) icing (or cryotherapy) can help reduce acute inflammation and pain.
Try rolling your foot over a frozen water bottle. This allows you to both stretch and ice the plantar fascia. For a more direct effect, freeze a paper cup full of water, then peel the top part of the cup off and apply the ice directly to the painful area making small circles for about one to two minutes. The ice will melt as you do this, so keep a towel nearby for easy cleanup.
4. Make the “legs up the wall” stretch part of your postrun ritual.
When you run, your heart rate goes up, increasing blood flow to the muscles. When you stop running, blood, lymph fluid, and extracellular fluid can pool in your legs and feet, causing swelling and pain. While the gastrocnemius (what’s known as the calf muscle) acts as a muscle pump to return fluid from your feet back up to your heart, it can’t always keep up. Compression garments may help minimize swelling (though evidence on their effectiveness remains mixed.
You can help your body out by lying flat on your back with your legs straight up against a wall. This will help decrease swelling and return blood to your heart. Bonus: You get a great hamstring stretch out of it, too.
5. Roll it out with a lacrosse ball.
If you don’t have the time (or funds) to get regular foot massages, try self-massaging your feet with a lacrosse ball. By stretching and releasing restrictions in the soft tissue of the arch of your foot, you can help ease soreness and prevent inflammation and pain caused by repetitive straining of this fascia. It just feels pretty amazing, too. This dreamy and easy DIY massage is a go-to for many veteran runners—I, personally, keep a ball under my desk at all times specifically for this purpose.
6. Give your feet a stability challenge—sans sneakers.
Imagine your hands are in mittens every day, and then you decide you want to go rock climbing. This isn’t too different from having your feet in cushy, supportive sneakers every day. When you surround the feet with tons of support, they may become weaker because they don’t have to work as hard to do their job. As advanced as running footwear technology has become, our feet are begging to be naked and free so they can adapt to different surfaces and grip onto uneven terrain.
To challenge the feet to work muscles they’re not used to using, I love these Yamuna foot wakers. The spikiness and instability of these balls allows the small bones in your feet to move around in ways that regular footwear and walking on flat surfaces does not. Like working any muscle you’re not used to working, your feet may feel sore or tender the first few times you use these—when I have patients stand on them for the first time, their eyes light up. But after a little while, you’ll get used to them and really appreciate them. After a long run, I usually sneak in a few minutes on these balls before leaving for work.
7. Foam roll your calves.
What happens in your calves does not stay in your calves. That’s because many of the muscles in your calves continue into your feet: The gastrocnemius and soleus (calf muscles) join together to become the achilles tendon, which wraps around your calcaneus (the heel bone) and continues as the plantar fascia. Everything is connected, so sometimes fixing foot pain may require paying attention to muscles above or below the area that’s bothering you. For example, pain in the arch of your foot could be due to tightness or weakness in the tibialis posterior muscle—a calf muscle that supports the arch of the foot and also makes it possible to point your toes (called “plantar flexion”).
Rolling out your calf muscles regularly is a good place to start to relieve any tightness that may be impacting the muscles and tendons down the chain. It’s easy to do: Lie face up with a foam roller under both calves and use your arms to lift your booty up off the floor. Focus on putting your weight, and therefore more pressure, into the calf muscles. Slowly roll up and down the muscles. For increased pressure, press one leg over the other as you roll.
Every runner is different, and what is tight, weak, or dysfunctional in one person will be very different for another person. That means the best remedies will be different, too.
There are plenty of other tricks and tools—compression socks, foot inserts, toe spacers, warm epsom salt soaks, wearing sneakers that are one size too big to accommodate the extra swelling…the list of options goes on. It’s important to listen to your own body and address the areas that are causing you pain or discomfort.
And sometimes, you may need to enlist outside help. If your pain is affecting your ability to walk or run, stop running and schedule an appointment with your doctor or a physical therapist so you can be confident about what to do next. Remember that these tricks and tools aren’t one-size-fits-all solutions—but they are an assortment of options worth trying, and a reminder that relief is out there.