Keeping in Step with Summer
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Outside magazine, June 1995
Keeping in Step with Summer
Preparation for these sunny times shouldn’t stop at the quads or biceps. Your feet need a hand, too.
Summertime–when we trot up and down mountains, sashay through 10k races, leap for a Frisbee on the beach, and, of course, fend off barking dogs. That is, our feet hurt: When we outdo ourselves on in-line skates, a mountain bike, or a rock face, it’s not only our hamstrings, backs, and shoulders that suffer. Our feet follow right along.
The unpleasant truth is that 85 percent of us will at some point be temporarily sidelined by foot problems. That’s because each time you take a step, you’re asking 26 bones, 130 ligaments, and 40-some muscles and tendons to act in concert, performing a series of sophisticated machinations so that the foot can be rigid enough to propel you while remaining flexible enough to
The problem is that there’s a fine line between building feet up and breaking them down. Foot fitness is, to some extent, achieved unwittingly; even those short walks to the photocopier help strengthen the foot’s stabilizing muscles, improve its flexibility, and make it more durable by building bone mass.
But laps around the office in your Florsheims can’t match miles spent in lightweight running shoes, heavy hiking boots, stiff cycling shoes, or confining in-line skates, in which you can push your feet too hard and never notice it. Sure, they’ll recover from a long off-road run, but head down that trail too often, repeating those same motions time after time, and you’ll start
That helping hand can be found, first and foremost, in the right pair of shoes for your sport. The imbalances Ross speaks of often manifest themselves in pronation, the foot’s natural inward roll as you stride from heel to toe. We’ve all heard that most of us overpronate or underpronate, but here’s the fallout: Overpronators, whose feet roll inward excessively, continuously
If you don’t know which side you lean toward, a good shop person can figure it out by watching you walk or jog. Basically, overpronators should seek out more stability; underpronators, more cushioning.
But controlling what’s around your foot isn’t enough. The same muscles and tendons that you’re trying to protect with proper gear should also be conditioned with focused exercise. It’s a matter of working some specific foot muscles–namely the intrinsics (in the forefoot and arch) and extrinsics (in the heel and ankle)–on a regular basis (see “Getting a Foot Up on Overuse
Finally, take care of your arches–if you’ve got them. The arch helps keep the foot somewhat rigid throughout the gait for built-in motion control. If you weren’t born with flat feet or have yet to develop them at the hands of gravity, protect your arches with some firm support. If your feet are already pretty flat, go with as much arch support as you can comfortably
The Plantar Fascia Tug-of-War
Unfortunately, things easily get worse, or at least no better. The body repairs a microtear by zipping the two sides of the wound together with scar tissue, which is even more inelastic than the original tissue. The result is a stiffer plantar fascia and the possible development of inflammation, or plantar fasciitis. Now, along with heel pain, you’ll feel a dull ache across the
While some of the discomfort of plantar fasciitis dissipates as your fascia stretches slightly each morning, it’s hard to get completely out of the nasty tear-scar-tear-scar rut. So it’s important to treat plantar fasciitis when you first notice the pain: Rest, apply ice, take anti-inflammatories (like ibuprofen), avoid hill workouts for a couple of weeks, and support your arch
Cushioning the Metatarsals
The catchall name for pain in this area is metatarsalgia, and while it may initially be merely annoying, like a pebble in your shoe, it can eventually put you off your foot altogether. Notorious among climbers and cyclists, metatarsalgia is best treated by increasing the padding in your shoes or inserting orthotics. Padding is available in aftermarket shoe liners, made by
Reasons for pain at the metatarsals can also be traced elsewhere. Strap yourself too tightly into a pair of in-line skates, cycling cleats, or climbing shoes, and the bones can pinch a nerve, usually between the third and fourth toes, causing numbness or tingling. If you act quickly, the solution is simple: Loosen your shoes.
However, says Shonka, “If the tingling persists, or if it starts feeling really painful, you may have done some damage.” That damage, he says, may lead to nerve inflammation. If you try different shoes but the tingling doesn’t stop–or if it turns into a consistent, burning pain–it’s time to punt. Go see the foot doctor.
Likewise, you’ll need a doctor’s help if you notice a tingling or shooting pain that originates at the ankle and extends toward the toes. This is tarsal tunnel syndrome, and it’s similar to the much-discussed carpal tunnel syndrome, in the wrists, in that it’s an overuse injury: TTS is often a result of the repetitive motion of overpronation. Basically, it’s caused when the
What’s curious about TTS is that it often gets masked by other injuries, as the foot and ankle make adjustments to protect the nerve. So you’re likely to suffer from plantar fasciitis, Achilles tendinitis, and even knee problems–which can all hide the tingly feel of nerve damage–as the body tries to set itself straight. Your foot specialist may refer you to a neurologist, or
But when it comes to our feet, most of us, thank goodness, should never have to bounce from one waiting room to the next. With the majority of injuries, a little respect, rest, and common sense will put us back on our feet or in our skates in no time. Which is pretty fortunate, considering how things could have turned out. “For the most part, our feet are very functional,” says
Sara Corbett, a frequent contributor to Outside, wrote about sports nutrition and psychology in the May issue.