Relief for Exercising Feet

Don't let foot problems sideline your fitness goals.

From the WebMD Archives

You've finally started that exercise program, and you're beginning to feel the excitement of a healthy new lifestyle.

But just as you're getting into the workout "zone," you're sidelined with achy feet -- corns, calluses, blisters, maybe even an injury that not only compromises your fitness goals but can make even waiting for the bus feel like you're standing on a bed of nails.

"The small foot problems that probably don't make much of difference at other times can suddenly become a very big deal when you begin putting significant stress on your feet, as you do when you're starting an exercise program," says podiatrist Dominic Catanese, DPM, director of the Podiatry Service at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

And if you suffer from diabetes, experts say, even seemingly insignificant foot woes can turn into major medical problems if you're not careful.

"When blood sugar isn't under good control you can develop neuropathy -- a lack of feeling in the feet that can prevent you from recognizing both the early warning signs of trouble, as well as when the problems themselves occur," says Morris Morin, DPM, chairman of the Department of Podiatry at Hackensack University Medical Center in New Jersey.

This, combined with compromised circulation in the lower extremities, can also make it harder for even a simple foot injury to heal. "It can end up sidelining you for weeks or even months," says Morin.

The good news is that over time, feet can get used to new stresses, allowing skin to grow thicker and tougher so fewer problems occur.

In the meantime, there are steps you can take to reduce the risk of common workout-related foot problems and keep your feet feeling healthy and happy.

To help you put your best foot forward, WebMD asked three top foot specialists for advice. Here are five things they said you should know.

1. Don't Skimp on Footwear

It's hard to walk through you favorite discount emporium and not stop at those tables of sneakers piled high, selling for such a low price. But buy them, say experts, and your feet will pay.

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"There definitely is a difference in sneakers, and if you are serious enough about your health to start an exercise program, you have to be serious enough to invest in good footwear, and doing so will help you avoid many injuries," says Ken Plancher, MD, director of Plancher Orthopedics and Sports Medicine in New York and Greenwich, Conn.

Here's what Plancher says you should look for:

  • Check for solid construction with a flexible toe bed (your shoe bends when your foot bends), a strong heel counter (the area that hugs the back of your foot), and most important, padded insoles and arch support.
  • Look for a "cross trainer" shoe, which works for all-around athletic wear.
  • Shop in an athletic footwear store, where a clerk should not only measure your feet, but also ask about any biomechanical problems such as flat feet, or weak or pronating ankles, before suggesting styles.

Catanese adds that the sneakers should also feel good – wide enough to accommodate your foot without pressure, and the right length.

"When shoes are either too short or so long they allow the foot to slide forward, you get a slight tapping of the toes against the tip," says Catanese.

Normally, our feet can take it. But once you start working out, adding thousands more steps to your daily routine, all that tapping adds up.

"It causes a problem known as subungal hematoma, or bleeding under the nail, one of the most common workout related foot problems we see," says Catanese.

Often causing significant pain, this frequently requires medical care, including drilling into the nail to release the fluids.

"It's a lot easier to get a good-fitting pair of shoes," he says.

While experts say it's smart to break in a pair of shoes around the house before wearing them during your workout, Plancher says they should "feel like heaven" from the moment you slip them on. If they don't, keep looking.

2: Sock It to Me, Baby

While shoes are important, experts say the No. 2 cause of workout- related foot problems is wearing the wrong socks. Because socks provide the cushion between your skin and your shoe, they can either prevent or cause friction that eventually leads to irritation, and sometimes injury.

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"If socks are too thick, rough in texture, too tight, or too loose, that friction multiplies and so does your risk of foot problems," says Morin.

Seek out a sock with some cushioning on the sole, in one of the new microfiber fabrics designed to wick away moisture, the experts advise.

"Moisture that builds on the skin contributes to blisters, as well as foot odor, skin fungus, and fungus of the nails," says Catanese.

Socks should also be white, he says, particularly if you suffer from diabetes.

"People think we recommend white socks because of the dyes in colored socks, but actually it's because the white allows you to immediately see if there is a problem," he says. "Any stain on the sock, either blood or a yellow-tinged fluid, or even a clear liquid, you know something is wrong, even if you can't feel it."

3. Become One with Your Inner Sole

If your shoe doesn't have a built-in arch support, Plancher recommends investing in a shoe insert that supports the foot from heel to toe.

"You're not looking for cushioning as much as for the arch to be supported," he says. "You should feel the insert pushing gently against your arch, so that your body weight is supported symmetrically across the entire foot."

This one step places the foot in the correct biomechanical position, which automatically reduces the risk of blisters, corns, and calluses by at least 50%, he says.

Experts say good arch support also helps prevent another common workout problem: plantar fasciitis, an inflammation of the band of tissue that supports the foot arch.

"Good shock absorption may help some, but it's really all about the mechanics of the way the foot functions," Morin says. "If the arch caves in and collapses down, you're going to have a problem."

Signs of plantar fasciitis include pain in the arch or heel that is strongest when you walk after resting.

4. Curb Your Enthusiasm

While being excited about your new workout program is a good thing, doing too much too soon is the quickest way to put your feet out of commission.

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"One of the most common -- and the biggest -- mistakes folks make when they start to exercise is working themselves too hard," says Morin. "They try to walk three miles when they haven't done that since high school."

This not only helps lead to blisters, corns, and ingrown toenails, it can also cause more serious problems, including plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and tendonitis.

"Your feet are like the barometer for your whole body," says Catanese. "If they begin to act up, it's a sign you're putting too much stress on your heart, your lungs, your muscles, your bones, as well as your feet."

The key to avoiding most problems, he says, is a gradual progression of activity that allows feet to get used to all the new action.

5. More Tootsie Care: Do's and Don'ts

Even if you follow all the advice, experts say you may end up with at least a few days of foot discomfort. To keep small problems from turning into big ones, our experts offer WebMD these self-care Do's and Don'ts:

  • Do self-treat corns and calloused skin with non-medicated donut pads designed to take pressure off the affected area.
  • Don't use salicylic acid preparations or any compound designed to "eat away" dead skin. "The compound doesn't know good skin from calloused skin. You could really harm your feet," says Catanese.
  • Do soak feet often in warm water with a mild soap.
  • Do use foot files and pumice stones regularly to smooth and soften skin.
  • Don't use razor-like or other cutting devices in an attempt to cut away dead skin or remove a corn or callous. If it's that thick, says Morin, you need medical attention.
  • Do use medicated foot sprays, designed to kill athlete's foot fungus, after showering in a gym or other public facility.
  • Do check your feet every day, including the bottoms. Look for signs of redness, swelling, irritation, cuts, blisters, or corns. If you have diabetes, don't try to self-treat these problems -- see a doctor right away.
  • Do moisturize feet, but only at night before going to bed. Doing it during the daytime can make shoes slip and cause more friction and irritation.
  • Don't try to lance a blister. Instead, let it go down or drain on its own and keep the area bandaged and clean until it heals.

WebMD Weight Loss Clinic-Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD

Sources

SOURCES: Dominic Catanese, DPM, director of Podiatry Service, Montefiore Medical Center, New York. Morris Morin, DPM, chairman, Podiatric Medicine, Hackensack University Medical Center, Hackensack, N.J. Ken Plancher, MD, director, Plancher Orthopedics and Sports Medicine, Greenwich, Conn. and New York; associate clinical professor of orthopedics, Albert Einstein School of Medicine, New York.

© 2006 WebMD, Inc. All rights reserved.

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