This past January, I ran my 10th marathon in my hometown of Houston. While I ended up having the race of my life and setting a new personal record, the training road to get there was not 100 percent smooth sailing. At the end of my last 14-mile training run, and just as I was about to begin my taper, some sharp, stabbing pain showed up on the bottom of my foot. It was the kind of pain any competitive runner fears will make them miss a race altogether.
Right from the beginning, I knew exactly what the culprit was: plantar fasciitis, which had not-so-conveniently shown up right around the same time before the same race two years earlier. Luckily, though, I was ultimately able to treat it in time to still run a great race. Here’s what I did (including the foot-rolling tool I now swear by) and how experts suggest for treating plantar fasciitis pain.
What is plantar fasciitis?
Plantar fasciitis is inflammation of the plantar fascia, the thick band of connective tissue that runs along the bottom of your foot, from the base of your toes all the way to your heel bone. This condition is common among runners, as well people who regularly wear unsupportive shoes, says Yolanda Ragland, D.P.M., a podiatrist in New York City. Since this band of tissue is connected to so many parts of your foot and leg, there are a ton of factors that can contribute to plantar fasciitis—basically, any weakness or alignment issue in your lower body that changes the way you run can impact how much stress gets put on your plantar fascia.
This inflammation can occur as a result of overuse, poor running, or overstraining of the calves and hips, says Bianca Beldini, D.P.T., a physical therapist and USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach in New York City. The plantar fascia is meant to absorb impact that we put on our feet, but when it’s subjected to high levels of repetitive physical stress (which is what happens when you run), the tissue can become damaged and irritated. This triggers an inflammatory response, resulting in the stiffness and shooting pain that’s a telltale sign of plantar fasciitis.
How to treat plantar fasciitis pain
The easy-to-recognize sharp, stabbing pain associated with plantar fasciitis is notoriously at its worst first thing in the morning, when you get out of bed and take your first steps. For this reason, Ragland recommends stretching your foot out by wrapping a towel, elastic exercise band, or similar tool—I used a yoga strap, which was easiest for me to maintain a firm grip on—around the bottom of your foot and pulling it toward you for a few reps (about 15 to 30 seconds each time) before getting out of bed.
Since plantar fasciitis can sometimes be aggravated by tightness in connected muscles in the feet and calves—for example, the Achilles tendon—many experts recommend stretching the feet and the calves in particular to help relieve plantar fasciitis pain. Some other stretches to try: Extend your leg and flex your foot up and down a few times; or, extend your leg, placing your heel on the bed, and gently pull your big toe back toward your ankle and hold for 15 to 30 seconds.
Once you get up and moving, the pain should improve as you walk, and using a tool like a lacrosse or tennis ball or spiky massage roller several times a day may help the pain gradually go away. “Anything that allows the bottom of the arch to roll and lengthen is a good way to treat [the pain],” Ragland says. Beldini adds that self-massage also helps increase blood flow in the area, which may help repair damaged tissue quicker.
Neither Ragland nor Beldini put a hard-and-fast number on how long to roll your foot every time, though Beldini recommends not spending more than five to seven minutes per session, as overdoing it could possibly make the condition worse.
Both times I had plantar fasciitis, I was ultimately able to kick it just in time to still race, and give credit, in part, to this spiky massage ball that’s currently only $ 7 on Amazon. Of course, this tool didn’t make my foot pain go away overnight, but diligently rolling my foot several times a day did ultimately help me completely recover and run at my full potential without pain. And while this tool can likely help other runners in similar situations, the best way to treat plantar fasciitis will always vary by person.
Ragland and Beldini both say you may not need to stop running completely while treating plantar fasciitis, but it’s key to listen to your own body. Some people may need to stop the activity that caused the pain in the first place; others may be able to keep at it but just dial back a bit until things improve. For the first few days after my foot pain showed up, running was definitely out of the question. Naturally, I was freaking out—I could barely even walk a step without pain; how the heck was I going to run 26.2 miles in less than two weeks? But with some rest and diligent stretching and rolling, the pain started slowly but surely improving.
Other treatment techniques I included in my recovery routine were rolling my foot over a frozen water bottle, and taking a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug (NSAID) such as ibuprofen (at the standard recommended dosage), both of which are pretty typical recommendations for treating plantar fasciitis. Ragland and Beldini also both recommend avoiding walking around barefoot for extended periods of time (something I was definitely guilty of as a work-from-home freelance writer), and to wear shoes that support your arches when you’re not actually running. My current go-to are the Oofos OOriginal Sandals, which I also love slipping my sore feet into immediately after a long run or race.
While it wasn’t the only plantar fasciitis treatment I used, I’m convinced that diligently rolling out my foot with the massage ball made a big difference because it was the one thing that could immediately reduce the pain, even if it was only temporarily in the beginning. Within a week, the first-thing-in-the-morning pain was gone, and even though I did complete most of the planned short taper runs on my training schedule, the pain didn’t return or get worse as my marathon got closer. And, I ultimately finished in 3:45:41, which was a four-minute personal best, with a 2½-minute negative split to boot (a first for my marathoning “career”).
When to see a doctor
While plantar fasciitis pain was familiar to me from a past diagnosis, if you have foot pain that’s sharp, sudden, or persistent (not improving after a few days), it’s always best to see a doctor to get properly diagnosed instead of just trying to self-treat, especially if you’re a new runner. Worsening plantar fasciitis pain isn’t something you want to run through, as it could eventually lead to a full-on plantar fascia tear, which could potentially require surgery to repair.
Additionally, even if you haven’t injured yourself that seriously yet, some runners may benefit from being fitted for custom orthotics to wear in their shoes, or they may respond better to treatment options like a cortisone injection if self-massage and other home remedies haven’t proved to be successful. Physical therapy that focuses on stretching and strengthening the muscles that stabilize the ankle and foot can also be helpful in some cases.
At the end of the day, always listen to your body and don’t be afraid to seek treatment when you think you may need it. It’s better to take some time off to sort things out than potentially injure yourself even more.
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