It’s easy to take your feet for granted until they start to hurt. Whether you run, walk or spend lots of time on your feet, you might end up with foot pain at some point in your life. But our feet aren’t just a source of irritation; they’re a source of information. Depending on the foot problem you’re dealing with, you may have an issue with stride rate, posture or general bone health.
Here’s what podiatrists have to say about what certain foot ailments might mean.
“Black toenails tell you that your toenails are too long or your shoes are too small,” says Alicia Filley, a physical therapist and founder of The Healthy Hiker. “They occur when your toes repeatedly hit the end of your shoes and are more prevalent after running downhill. You can easily fix this problem by keeping toenails trimmed and potentially going up in size in your shoes.”
Danielle DesPres, an avid runner and podiatrist in NYC, adds that “Most of the time, this discoloration is due to something called a subungual hematoma, or in simpler terms, a collection of blood beneath the nail plate, which is usually the result of repetitive micro-traumas of the toe rubbing against the toe box, and often ends up in the toenail falling off completely. So, when looking at your current shoes or when purchasing new ones, make sure you have enough room in the toe area, but not so much that your foot slides around in the shoe. Don’t forget to consider the thickness of your socks, as they will also take up room in the toe box!”
A blister indicates friction between your foot and whatever part of your sock or shoe that it’s rubbing against. You may need to tighten your shoelaces to keep your foot in place if your blister is being formed where your shoe meets your ankle, or consider looking for a new pair of shoes if your blisters appear where your toes meet the bottom of your foot, since that tends to mean your shoes are slightly too large and you’re sliding around in them, podiatrist Mark Gallagher says. Rubbing petroleum jelly or anti-chafe balm on the soles of your feet prior to your run can minimize the friction. And if you get a blister, Dr. Pedram A. Hendizadeh recommends applying an antibiotic ointment or hydrogen peroxide to help minimize the discomfort and Betadine to help dry the blister out.
BURNING ON THE BALL OF YOUR FOOT
“A very common problem that I see that causes symptoms of burning in the ball of the foot is extremely tight calf muscles,” says DesPres. “When your calves are tight, it makes it more difficult for your heel to reach the ground, and consequently, more pressure is repeatedly put on the forefoot, leading to inflammation of the nerves in the area and a burning sensation.”
Luckily, the fix is simple: Stretch your calf muscles and hamstrings daily, DesPres says.
PAIN AT THE TOP OF YOUR FOOT
Admittedly, this could be caused by many different things, but DesPres says the simplest remedy may be to loosen your laces. “Often, runners end up with a burning pain on the top of their foot, right where the tongue of the shoe is, and more often than not, it’s just the result of laces that are tied too tight,” she says. “Try to loosen up your laces, and the pain, burning and inflammation should subside within a week or two. If it doesn’t, that’s the time to see a specialist.”
Plantar fasciitis is when the ligament (the plantar fascia) at the bottom part of your foot is inflamed. “Plantar fasciitis can tell you that you’ve changed an aspect of your training too quickly,” Filley says. “Big jumps in mileage, changing terrain or taking on a new challenge like hill climbing may subject your feet to more load than they can handle.”
A SORE AND SWOLLEN SPOT
“This is a big one and may be a sign that you have a fracture,” says DesPres. If the soreness doesn’t diminish or go away, and it’s in a very specific spot on one foot, you may be dealing with a stress fracture. “In the foot, these are most common in the metatarsals [toes] and the heel bone,” she adds. “Usually, they are accompanied by swelling and slight redness in the area of the stress fracture. Additionally, the area will be painful both when walking or sitting.”
ANY RECURRING PAIN, SORENESS OR INFLAMMATION
Remember, your feet are absorbing huge shocks with every single stride, and if you have recurring issues, it might be time to seek expert help. “If there is misalignment or poor shock absorption, the feet will react and show it. One of the ways our feet tell us there is something wrong is through pain and swelling,” says NYC-based podiatrist Nelya Lobkova.
Listen to what your feet are telling you and act accordingly. Maybe it’s tight muscles or ill-fitting footwear — whatever the issue, addressing it helps prevent long-standing problems.
Check out “Workout Routines” in the MyFitnessPal app to discover and log workouts or build your own with exercises that fit your goals.