I don’t know if it was my “Flintstones’ feet, or the weight gain. But as I crossed the finish line all I could think about was the throbbing pain in my feet. How I wanted to throw my shoes into the street. By the time I got to my car I could hardly walk, and unbelievably after sitting for an hour though the throbbing was gone, I could hardly walk when I stood up.
That was my experience after my first 5k in over 15 years. Instead of celebrating with my best friend I was home with my feet up wondering how I was going to feel 10 years from now. Foot pain that is almost as unbearable at child birth was now like a second nature to me – and I didn’t know how to make it stop.
Each year, nearly a quarter of a million walkers/runners are stopped in their tracks as a result of a walking-induced pain or an old exercise injury that walking has aggravated. As bothersome as the initial problem can be, the real damage is what happens next. You stop exercising, misplace your motivation, and soon gain weight and lose muscle tone. To make sure a walking injury doesn’t prevent you from reaching your fitness and weight loss goals, take a look at the Solutions for the Top 10 Biggest Walking Pains, adapted from Prevention.
1. Plantar fasciitis
Feels like: Tenderness on your heel or bottom of foot
What it is: The plantar fascia is the band of tissue that runs from your heel bone to the ball of your foot. When this dual-purpose shock absorber and arch support is strained, small tears develop and the tissue stiffens as a protective response, causing foot pain. “Walkers can overwork the area when pounding the pavement, especially when you wear hard shoes on concrete, because there’s very little give as the foot lands,” says Teresa Schuemann, a physical therapist in Fort Collins, CO, and a spokesperson for the American Physical Therapy Association. Inflammation can also result from any abrupt change or increase in your normal walking routine. People with high arches or who walk on the insides of their feet (known as pronating) are particularly susceptible. You know you have plantar fasciitis if you feel pain in your heel or arch first thing in the morning, because the fascia stiffens during the night. If the problem is left untreated, it can cause a buildup of calcium, which may create a painful, bony growth around the heel known as a heel spur.
What to do about it: At the first sign of stiffness in the bottom of your foot, loosen up the tissue by doing this stretch: Sit with ankle of injured foot across opposite thigh. Pull toes toward shin with hand until you feel a stretch in arch. Run your opposite hand along sole of foot; you should feel a taut band of tissue. Do 10 stretches, holding each for 10 seconds. Then stand and massage your foot by rolling it on a golf ball or full water bottle.
To reduce pain, wear supportive shoes or sandals with a contoured footbed at all times. Choose walking shoes that are not too flexible in the middle. “They should be bendable at the ball but provide stiffness and support at the arch,” says Melinda Reiner, DPM, a podiatrist in Eugene, OR and former vice president of the American Association for Women Podiatrists. Off-the-shelf orthotic inserts (by Dr. Scholl’s or Spenco, for example) or a custom-made pair can help absorb some of the impact of walking, especially on hard surfaces. Until you can walk pain free, stick to flat, stable, giving paths (such as a level dirt road) and avoid pavement, sand, and uneven ground that might cause too much flexing at the arch, says Phillip Ward, DPM, a podiatrist in Pinehurst, NC. If your plantar fasciitis worsens, ask a podiatrist to prescribe a night splint to stabilize your foot in a slightly flexed position, which will counteract tightening while you sleep.
2. Ingrown toenail
Feels like: Soreness or swelling on the sides of your toes
What it is: Toe pain can develop when the corners or sides of your toenails grow sideways rather than forward, putting pressure on surrounding soft tissues and even growing into the skin. You may be more likely to develop ingrown toenails if your shoes are too short or too tight, which causes repeated trauma to the toe as you walk, says Ward. If the excess pressure goes on too long, such as during a long hike or charity walk, bleeding could occur under the nail and—sorry, ick!—your toenail might eventually fall off.
What to do about it: Leave wiggle room in your shoes. You may need to go up a half size when you buy sneakers, because your feet tend to swell during exercise. Use toenail clippers (not fingernail clippers or scissors) to cut straight across instead of rounding the corners when you give yourself a pedicure. “People who overpronate when they walk can exacerbate existing problems in the big toes,” says Ward, who suggests using inserts to reduce pronation (walking on the insides of your feet). If you have diabetes or any circulatory disorder, have your ingrown toenails treated by a podiatrist
3. Achilles tendinitin
Feels like: Pain in the back of your heel and lower calf
What it is: The Achilles tendon, which connects your calf muscle to your heel, can be irritated by walking too much, especially if you don’t build up to it. Repeated flexing of the foot when walking up and down steep hills or on uneven terrain can also strain the tendon, triggering lower leg pain.
What to do about it: For mild cases, reduce your mileage or substitute non-weight-bearing activities such as swimming or upper-body strength training, so long as these don’t aggravate the pain. “Avoid walking uphill, because this increases the stretch on the tendon, irritating it and making it weaker,” says Schuemann. Regular calf stretches may help prevent Achilles tendinitis, says Michael J. Mueller, PT, PhD, a professor of physical therapy at Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. In severe cases, limit or stop walking and place cold packs on the injured area for 15 to 20 minutes, up to three or four times a day, to reduce inflammation and pain. When you return to walking, stick to flat surfaces to keep your foot in a neutral position, and gradually increase your distance and intensity
Feels like: Pain on the side of your big toe
What it is: A bunion develops when the bones in the joint on the outer side of the big or little toe become misaligned, forming a painful swelling. Walkers with flat feet, low arches, or arthritis may be more apt to develop bunions.
What to do about it: “Wear shoes that are wider—especially in the toe box,” says Ward. If you don’t want to shell out for new shoes, ask your shoe repair guy to stretch the old ones. Cushioning the bunion with OTC pads can provide relief, and icing it for 20 minutes after walking will numb the area. Ultrasound or other physical therapy treatments may reduce the inflammation. Severe cases can require surgery to remove the bony protrusion and realign the toe joint.
Down for the count, and want to get the cardio workout you need while your foot heals? Try these great low-impact cardio work outs