Running is not just one of the most popular forms of exercise. It is a function that is prevalent in a number of sports. Basketball, soccer, tennis, baseball, and rugby all involve running. Running is also a standard component of many training programs such as boxing and Mixed Martial Arts. As effective as running is in helping you lose weight and improve your cardiovascular health, it can potentially lead to a variety of aches and pains. Runners’ heel pain or plantar fasciitis is one of the most common afflictions for frequent runners.
What Causes Runners’ Heel Pain Or Plantar Fasciitis?
When you run, your feet repeatedly come in contact with a hard surface. It may seem inconsequential at first, but each heel strike sends stressful forces to your feet, knees, hips, and lower back.
Over time, repetitive stress will cause wear and tear on your bones, ligaments, tendons and muscles. Because the foot is the initial point of impact, it bears the major brunt of the stress forces. You will feel arch pain while running. Also, you will begin to notice that your heel hurts after exercise.
The plantar fascia is the main ligament in your foot. It is a flexible band of tissue that covers the arch of your foot from its heel to the ball. While the plantar fascia is strong, durable, and flexible enough, its range of motion is quite limited. It can handle your bodyweight and stretch when you move your heel, but repetitive stress forces will eventually lead to micro- tearing and inflammation of the plantar fascia’s tissues.
In time, the plantar fascia will no longer be able to accommodate an excessive range of motion. When this happens, heel and arch support are compromised. The heel bone loses its stability. You will start to feel pain located in the centre area of the bottom of your heel.
As ligaments become loose and inflamed, calcium deposits or heel spurs can develop on the heel bone. This leads to very painful sensations whenever it comes in contact with fatty tissues while walking or running.
One of the most identifiable plantar fasciitis symptoms and signs is early morning pain. Runners who are afflicted with plantar fasciitis will tell you pain levels are off the charts when they take their first step of the day. This is because overnight, the plantar fascia shortens and stiffens up from lack of blood circulation.
The pain subsides as you start moving and a bit of heel and arch support returns. However, make no mistake about it, plantar fasciitis or runners’ heel pain is a major cause of discomfort.
Keep in mind that plantar fasciitis isn’t the only type of heel pain. Most runners use plantar fasciitis as an umbrella term to identify heel pain when they self- diagnose.
There are other types of heel pain that appear to mimic the conditions of plantar fasciitis but maybe something else. It could just be a strained heel or perhaps a pulled muscle located near your arch. Regardless, your best option is to always seek consultation from a podiatrist.
How To Treat Runners’ Heel Pain
As painful and uncomfortable as plantar fasciitis is, the condition improves after a period of eight to 12 weeks where your feet are not subjected to the stresses of frequent running.
For regular runners and serious athletes, eight to 12 weeks is too much time off their training program. As an alternative, they cut down their total miles per week in half. They will endure arch pain while running as long as they don’t skip training. Foregoing extended rest in favour of protracted running time will not only prolong the condition, but it may make it worse.
When you have heel pain or plantar fasciitis, you have to perform treatment protocols right away.
Rest – Getting diagnosed with runners’ heel pain or plantar fasciitis isn’t the end of your world. Although you may be sidelined from the road or the treadmill, it doesn’t mean you won’t be able to exercise.
Safe alternatives to running include swimming, biking, Yoga, and strength training. Avoid movements that place weight on the heel such as squats and calf raises.
Ice – Submerge your foot in a bucket of ice water for 15 to 20 minutes every night. Another option is to combine ice treatment with massage stimulation. You can do this by placing a frozen bottle of water underneath your heel and roll it across your arch for approximately 15 to 20 minutes.
Stretching – Stretch the muscles supporting the heel multiple times every day. Before getting out of bed, do a light massage on your calf muscle. Include some dynamic flexion and rotational movements before stretching the calf.
Place a towel underneath the ball of your foot and lightly pull it toward you until you feel a stretch on your calf muscle. Do this multiple times at 30- second intervals.
Wear the Right Shoes – Choose a sturdy pair of shoes or those that only bend at the toes. If your shoes are too flexible, it will create more tension on the heel. A podiatrist may recommend wearing an orthopaedic boot which will stabilize your foot and remove pressure on the heel.
How To Prevent Runners’ Heel Pain
Running is so popular that it spawned a running shoe industry that generates billions of dollars in sales every year. Every manufacturer worth their salt will tell you their shoe has been engineered with the latest technology to give you the best heel and arch support.
Marketing collaterals claim space age materials that were kept top secret by the government were uncovered and used to create their shoes. Ads will highlight facts and figures from “studies” that prove their product delivers on the promise. They will pay world champions millions of dollars to endorse their shoes as the best.
What does it all mean? Nothing; because if you are a regular runner, you will experience some form of heel pain during your career. 5% to 10% of runners are correctly diagnosed with plantar fasciitis every year.
In the United States alone, there are an estimated 64 Million runners. If the estimates are correct, 3.2 Million to 6.4 Million runners suffer from plantar fasciitis in the U.S. alone.
The number does not take into account those who acquired heel pain from basketball, soccer, football, and other sports that involve running. Even a regular gym patron who spends a few sessions a week on the treadmill will notice that over time his heel hurts after exercise.
Buying the most expensive, high-tech running shoe will not protect you from the risk of acquiring runners’ heel pain. However, you can take steps to prevent plantar fasciitis from happening:
Buy the Right Shoe – The most expensive shoe isn’t always the right shoe for you. Your feet have their specific traits and characteristics. Before buying a pair of shoes, have your foot type and running technique analyzed. The salesman will make his/her recommendation for the best pair of running shoes for you.
Don’t Just Run – Running alone won’t make you a better runner. Cross train in other sports to develop skills that can carry over to your running and at the same time alleviate stress forces from your feet. As we mentioned in the previous section, swimming and biking are great alternative exercises.
Get Stronger – Stronger muscles mean stronger bones, tissues, and ligaments. Contrary to popular myth, strength training will also improve flexibility, range of motion, and mobility. Strengthen your legs, calves, hips, and glutes by doing squats, hamstring curls, deadlifts, leg presses, leg lunges, and variations of calf raises.
Reduce Your Bodyweight – Runners aren’t the only ones who suffer from heel pain. Overweight people also endure heel pain or plantar fasciitis. The condition is exacerbated if they take up running as an exercise. Take steps to reduce your bodyweight through a proper diet and supervised exercise before engaging in more vigorous activity.
Lastly, listen to your body.
It’s hard to say “no” to someone or something that you love. However, in the first instance of pain, the mind should overrule the heart. Take an extra day rest. If you continue to feel intense heel pain, take another day off. Should the pain fail to subside after 72 hours with our prescribed treatment protocol, you should schedule an appointment with your doctor as early as possible.