Put Your Feet First

By: CHRISTINA COLAVECCHIA

As active, healthy individuals we all know how important exercise is for our bodies. As we work hard to stay fit, it can be difficult to remember the important role our feet play in an active lifestyle.
The foot has 26 bones, 33 joints and 126 muscles, ligaments and tendons, all of which are strained and stretched every day. Almost every individual will experience some sort of foot pain in their lives and those who exercise it on a daily basis are even more prone to foot trouble or discomfort. Foot pain due to exercise usually manifests itself in three areas of the foot: the toes, the forefoot, or the back of the foot near the heel. High-impact exercise like jogging or skating can strain the feet and produce infections or issues that can actually inhibit exercise and an active lifestyle. “Maintaining good foot care allows an athlete to compete or perform at their highest level,” says Calin Wild, a defenseman for the Team Canada National Ball Hockey Team. “If an athlete does not properly maintain healthy foot care, it can lead to ongoing and continuous problems that are likely to affect an athlete’s performance.”

The Toes
The most common types of toe injuries are ingrown toenails, bunions and blisters. John Vonhof, an avid trail runner and creator of FixingYourFeet.com, recommends getting a foot brush for the bath or shower, which helps to rid your feet of dirt and dead skin, especially around the toes and heels. Keeping the feet clean is the most important step to maintaining healthy feet. To combat ingrown toenails, trim toenails properly by clipping them straight across and as short as possible without exposing the skin at the corner of the nail.
Ingrown toenails, like many other toe issues, are most commonly caused by poorly fitted shoes. When there is excess pressure placed on the toe, the skin and the joints can become aggravated, causing the toe to become sore and inflamed. Shoes that don’t fit well can produce red, calloused skin along the inside edge of the big toe, creating a bunion, and can rub or irritate the skin creating a blister. Look for shoes that are wide enough for your feet and don’t rub on any part of your foot (there should be a ½ inch space between your large toe and the tip of your shoe). When a bunion first begins to develop it helps to wear felt or foam pads on the foot to protect the bunion, or devices called spacers to separate the first and the second toes at night. These can be found at any drug store.
To avoid blisters, try a pair of ‘blister-proof’ socks (Thorlos sells great ones) or lubricate your feet to cut down on the friction that causes blisters. Rub some Vaseline or talcum powder on your feet before a run to protect against chafing. If you feel a blister beginning to form or are aware of any blister-prone areas, protect them with bandages or duct tape, which will adhere even as your foot becomes moist. Tom Hart, the Athletic Trainer for the Texas Brahmas, a minor-pro hockey team in the Central Hockey League, explains that it’s OK to drain blisters once they form, but leave the skin over the blister. Use Betadine, a topical antiseptic, or a damp tea bag to safely dry the blister.

The Forefoot
In the forefoot, pinched nerves and stress fractures are most common and are mainly a result of overtraining. “Almost every sport requires athletes to use their feet to run, jump, kick, skate or walk,” says Hart. Anytime there is a problem with the feet it can limit the effectiveness of the athlete. It is akin to keeping good tires on your car for maximum performance. A pinched nerve results from compression, constriction or stretching of the nerve. Symptoms of a pinched nerve include a feeling of numbness or ‘pins and needles,’ a burning sensation, or pain that radiates out from the pinched nerve. While the cause of a pinched nerve depends on the specific problem you are experiencing, overtraining or overexerting the foot can place extra pressure on your feet and disrupt the blood flow. If a specific type of exercise causes numbness, try a different activity like biking or swimming, which places less stress on the feet and body. Although a pinched nerve can be a relatively minor injury, early diagnosis and treatment is important to avoid permanent damage in the future.
A stress fracture is a small crack in a bone and, like a pinched nerve, can result from overuse. Stress fractures occur when muscles are sore and are no longer able to lessen the shock of repeated impacts. When this happens, the muscles transfer the stress to the bones, which can create small cracks or fractures. Studies show that athletes involved in activities like tennis, track and field, gymnastics, dance and basketball are at the highest risk for stress fractures because the repeated stress of the foot striking the ground places extra pressure in the weight-bearing bones of the foot. Rest is the most important element in stress fracture recovery. Apply an ice pack to the injured area and elevate the foot above the level of the heart. Keep pressure off the foot until properly diagnosed by a doctor.

The Ankle and Heel
Pain in the back of the foot and the heel is often associated with heel spurs and ankle sprains and strains. A heel spur is a growth of bone that extends from the heel bone into the soft tissue surrounding the bottom of the foot, causing inflammation of the connective tissue that supports the arch on the bottom of the foot (the plantar fascia). The heel spur is composed of calcium deposits and occurs where the plantar fascia stretches away from the heel bone causing pain and extreme discomfort. A heel spur can be corrected with heel cups, arch supports or insoles and is ultimately caused when there is not enough cushion for the heel during the repetitive strain high-impact exercise can produce. “With so many brands and type of runners on the market today, selecting the right footwear for you feet is extremely important,” says Wild. “Above all, fit and cushioning is the most important criteria.” High quality shoes with proper cushioning and a correct fit help to cradle the heel and the arch of the foot, providing support and reinforcement to the heel.
For runners like Wild, strong ankles and adequate ankle support are essential for maintaining overall healthy feet. Because the ankle joint is one of the major weight bearing structures in the body, the ankle is the most commonly injured joint. Close to two million people are seen each year by a physician for ankle sprains, strains and fractures. What’s worse, injury to the ankle can increase the risk of re-injury to as much as 40 to 70 percent, making it essential to strengthen and stretch the ankle as often as possible. The severity of an ankle sprain depends on how badly the ligaments are stretched or torn and symptoms can include pain or tenderness, swelling, bruising and stiffness. For minor ankle sprains, doctors suggest the RICE approach; Rest, Ice, Compression and Elevation. If the sprain is severe, consultation with a doctor is required.

Try these exercises to strengthen the muscles in the feet and avoid future strains and pains.
Toe Grip
This exercise massages the bottom of the foot and the transverses arch or the ‘knuckles’ of the foot.

1. Stand or sit on the edge of a chair with good posture and place a small rubber ball (or a golf ball) under your heel. Roll the ball around your foot with gentle pressure to massage and stimulate the sole.
2. Position the ball so it’s centered under the ball of your big toe. Push down with the big toe and lengthen it as you grip the ball. Repeat 3 times. Perform the same motion with each toe, positioning the ball under each ‘knuckle’ joint.
3. Massage the foot again by rolling it around your foot, then try to pick up the ball with your toes by wrapping them around the ball. Repeat the sequence with the other foot.

Towel Scrunches
This exercise works best on a smooth surface.
Lay a towel on the floor and stand or sit on the edge of a chair with good posture and the heel pressed into the towel. Spread the toes like a fan then grip the towel and pull it toward you. Repeat 5 times then work the other foot.

The Alphabet

1. Sit on a chair with your foot dangling in the air or on a bed with your foot hanging off the edge.
2. Draw the alphabet one letter at a time by moving the ankle and using the big toe as your ‘pencil.’

Seated Calf Raise

1. Sit in a chair with your foot on the floor.
2. Lift your heel as far as possible while keeping your toes on the floor. Hold for 5 seconds.
3. Return heel to the floor.

Repeat 10 times.

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