Every summer and fall, millions of Americans volunteer to raise funds for worthy charities by taking part in a walking event. If you’ve signed up to participate this season, here are expert tips that can prevent foot fatigue and pain before, during and after the big day (or days).
Many new cause athletes underestimate what it takes to fulfill the commitment they’ve made, especially for a distance walk or multi-day event. Although a cause walk isn’t a marathon, it still requires training, preparation and intelligent self-care in order to avoid serious foot pain or even injuries.
Walking is a great workout because it can be as challenging as running for the lower legs, feet and ankles. Here’s what you need to know to reduce the possibility of foot problems enjoy your cause-walking experience.
Steps to take before the walk
- Wear the right shoes. Your shoes are vital to your performance. If possible, stick with comfortable shoes or sneakers you’ve already worn for walking and other activities. Thinking that a brand-new pair will help you finish a walk is a mistake, because for most people, it takes time to get your feet accustomed to new footwear. If you’re new to walking, buy new shoes at least 3 to 4 weeks ahead of time so your feet can get accustomed to them.
- Pay attention to fit. For optimal fit, follow an integrated approach. Have your feet measured by pro in the athletic footwear section to ensure proper sizing and wear the same socks and inserts or orthotics you will wear during the event. Remember, there should be a thumbnail’s width between your longest toe and the end of the shoe.
For optimal protection — especially if you have diabetes or any other condition that puts your feet at risk for blisters, abrasions, athlete’s foot or other issues — consider wearing padded socks made of acrylic or acrylic blends that wick moisture away from the feet. If your feet are at risk, any lesion can lead to ulceration and risk of amputation.
- Train and condition yourself. Start where you are and use discretion when beginning a training program. If you’re preparing for a long-distance walk, but you’ve been pretty inactive for a while, follow the tried-and-true advice to “start low, go slow.” This means you don’t try to walk 20 miles your first time out; aim for a mile or two the first day. If that feels doable, continue that distance for another 4 or 5 days, add a mile or two the next week and continue at that pace over a period of several weeks, building in rest periods as appropriate.
Your event’s website may offer training schedules based on the distance and time you have available to train prior to an event. If you have a medical condition such diabetes or arthritis, you should check with your doctor before embarking on your first cause walk.
- Take time to stretch. Stretching during training and immediately before the race is particularly important if you are predisposed to plantar fasciitis or Achilles tendon problems. Don’t stretch “cold”; march in place or take a short walk at a leisurely pace for a few minutes before stretching. Do gentle stretches to elongate the muscles, tendons and ligaments in the feet and legs and get blood flowing through those areas. After your walk, do “cool down” stretches.
- Don’t “push through” any pain you feel when training. Pain is an indication that something is amiss. If you try to keep walking despite foot pain, you run the risk of injuring yourself to a point that you won’t be doing any events in the near future.
- Plan training routes carefully. Avoid areas with heavy traffic or missing sidewalks. If possible, train on surfaces that are similar to what you will experience during the event. Few places are perfectly flat, so anticipate walking up and down some hills and train appropriately. Stay safe by walking in designated pedestrian areas or, if you have to walk on a street or a road, staying on the left facing traffic. If you are out after dark, wear reflective and light colored clothing that can be spotted by drivers. Check with the sponsoring organization or event administrators to see if training walks are planned in your area.
Preventing foot pain and other issues during the walk
You’re trained, conditioned and ready to go! Just remember a few things that will help you stay enthusiastic and energetic once you get on your way.
- Stay hydrated. How much should you drink? The International Marathon Medical Directors Association recommends that runners and walkers drink whenever they are thirsty. But don’t wait too long, or try to ignore your thirst – drink whenever your body tells you that you need fluids. Since water is heavy, you probably won’t be able to carry much with you. Take advantage of rest stops to hydrate along the way.
- Carry snacks with you if you’re walking for more than an hour. Energy bars, which typically combine carbohydrates, protein, and fat, are easy to carry and eat. Trail mix is another great choice. Other good snack foods include apples, raisins, bananas and oranges. Experiment with different snacks and meals during your training period to see what works best for you.
- Always use SPF 30 sunscreen on all exposed areas of your body. The sun’s rays are most powerful between about 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., so plan accordingly. Shield your face and head from the sun with a cap or hat. Sunglasses with UV protection can help protect your eyes.
- Carry rain gear, water, sunscreen, a small first aid kit and snacks in a small day pack or waist pack. Don’t overload the pack; try to keep the weight to no more than about 5 pounds.
- Stop walking if something happens that causes serious pain. For example, if you suddenly develop cramping so severe you can’t put your foot down, or every time your heel hits the ground you’re experiencing pain, not only in your heel but your ankle and your leg, then it’s time to say, “Let’s stop.” Rest, drink some fluids and massage the cramp, if that’s what’s stopping you. After about 15 minutes or so, try to walk at a normal pace.
Don’t try to be heroic; you’re not proving anything by trying to walk through the pain. When you’re walking for a cause, the people who support you won’t care if you don’t complete the entire walk. They support you because they feel you’re doing something worthwhile.
After the walk: wise moves to deal with any lingering effects
After your walk, be sure to take care of any foot issues that arise.
- Blisters. These can be a problem even with the best precautions. Most people’s feet are not accustomed to walking long distances and therefore the skin is not conditioned enough to resist the prolonged friction of a long walk. It’s smart to carry moleskin or bandages on your walk so you can stop and treat any “hot spots” as they develop. Afterward, you should apply fresh coverings and keep an eye on blisters as they heal.
- Stress fractures. Prolonged pounding on hard surfaces, which occurs with walking as well as running, can have a cumulative effect on the bones of the feet. These fractures typically develop from overuse, not because of traumatic injury. If your footwear provides sufficient shock absorption, you should be able to prevent a stress fracture, but if you suspect you’ve suffered one, see your podiatrist right away.
- Plantar fasciitis. The plantar fascia is a thin layer of tissue that runs from the front of the heel bone to the toes on the underside of the feet, and is the primary support for your feet. Repetitive stress and rapid increases in activity levels can lead to inflammation of the fascia, most often at the attachment to the heel, and the condition can be very painful. In some cases, partial tears can develop in the fascia—a separate condition from plantar fasciitis that can be diagnosed via ultrasound.
Preventive strategies for plantar fasciitis include stretching and avoiding rapid increases in distance or exertion levels. Another related issue is plantar fibromas, which are fatty cysts that can enlarge and become painful during extended walks. If you have unexplained foot pain following your walking event, consult your podiatrist as soon as possible.
- Achilles tendon issues. An Achilles tendon tear, normally caused by overuse or overtraining, can be devastating. The tendon runs from the back of your heel up the back part of your leg and connects the calf muscles with the heel bone. After age 30, the Achilles tendon becomes more vulnerable to injury because blood flow to the area decreases and the tendon loses elasticity. With extended use in distance walks, it can become inflamed.
Stretching is important to prevent injuries and you should pay careful attention to any pain or tenderness. If you feel pain in the Achilles tendon area during your walk, stop immediately and rest. If pain continues after your event, see a foot pain expert right away.
- Sesamoiditis or injured sesamoids. Right under the big toe are 2 small bones encased in a tendon. These act like pulleys by providing a smooth surface over which the tendon can move, enhancing its ability to move the muscles during walking. When these small bones become inflamed, they can become very painful. Proper protection and cushioning for the front portion of your foot can help prevent sesamoid injuries, but consult your foot doctor after the event if you feel pain in this portion of your foot.
Have fun! And let us know if we can help keep your feet healthy this season
We congratulate you on your commitment to charitable giving and we wish you a happy, healthy walking event! We hope these tips will help you avoid foot pain and other issues. If you need advice or treatment before or after your event, Dr. Jeffrey Wachtel is here for you.
As a seasoned podiatrist with many successful years in practice, Dr. Wachtel serves hundreds of patients near Lansdale, Pennsylvania. He is happy to consult with you whenever you’re experiencing foot pain, discomfort or changes in foot function.