It’s a common problem. That dull, persistent ache in the back of your heel when you first step out of your tent. Hobbling around camp as if all of the ground is suddenly made of hot coals. Fervently rubbing your feet at the end of a long day, as if some magic genie will sprout from your big toe and grant your wish to make the pain go away. Well — I don’t have a magic genie for you. But I do have several methods that can help you prevent the onset of plantar fasciitis (a possible reason for your frustrating foot pain).
Your feet do so much for you. They carry you hundreds of miles, support you through all your adventures, and take you to see incredible sights. Why not return the favor by taking care of them?
First, What is Plantar Fasciitis?
Plantar fasciitis is the inflammation of the thick band of tissue that runs across the bottom of each foot, connecting the heel bone to the toes. So, pretty much the bottom of your foot. This pain typically lessens as you continue to move around, but flares up again after periods of sitting or laying down. Common causes of plantar fasciitis include age, activities which place stress on your heel, carrying weight while walking, and spending a lot of time on your feet — ahem, literally all things long-distance backpacking. The good news is it’s easily fixable and preventable, as long as you’re willing to put in the effort.
Fix Your Shoes
If your shoes are worn out, that could be a part of the problem. You might love your favorite pair of trail runners that has brought you the last 300 miles — but they might not be loving you back with that worn down sole. Although we might have once ran barefoot, we have since grown up wearing shoes that support our feet, so unless you have a few years to grow accustomed to running barefoot, you should probably invest in another pair of trail runners (or your shoe of choice that offers good support.)
Ask a local running store to assess your gait, and look into a new pair of shoes and even a pair of insoles. You can even purchase custom insoles that fit your feet — however, this is an expensive option, so I usually just go with what the running store tells me. I currently hike with the Altra Olympus Fives and a pair of insoles. However, everyone has different strides, so you might be better off with something else.
Rolling out with Rawlogy Cork Ball
First, I warm my feet up by rolling a Rawlogy cork massage ball along the bottom of my feet. This is a lightweight tool that loosens knots and relieves pain. A cork roller ball can also be used to roll out other strained muscles, not just your feet — or throw it at your camping partner if they’re snoring too loudly.
Start by standing or sitting with one foot on the ball. Roll the ball forward and backward under your arch, then under your heel. I like to roll out my foot-mound (i.e. the ball of my foot) in a circular motion. Stretch your toes by wrapping them around the ball. You can also roll side-to-side (cross friction massage) and put more pressure on sore spots with your body weight (i.e. pin the ball to a single point and push down).
Additionally, if your water bottle freezes overnight, you can use it in the same way, and give your foot an ice bath massage!
I recommend that if you think you may have plantar fasciitis, go visit a physical therapist. They work wonders. If you’re on the PCT, look for Dr. Morgan Brosnihan PT and her dog honey, who follow ‘the bubble’ in their van, or check out her Instagram for some quick tips. However, if you’re in a pinch, here’s a routine of simple stretches and strengthening exercises I do every morning and evening.
Even if you do one or two of these stretches, it is drastically better than doing nothing for your feet. By doing these stretches, you are loosening and strengthening the muscle that connects your heel bone to your toes, so the bottom of your feet should be in less pain as you walk.
At its worst, plantar fasciitis could be a thru-hike ender — so doing these simple stretches could keep you on trail, and if anything, in less pain. These exercises are great to do at the start of any foot pain, even minor. It’s best to stop it before it becomes a major issue. If you are already dealing with plantar fasciitis, these stretches can help lessen the pain. If any of these stretches causes you more pain, don’t do that stretch, or do a less intense version.
I also hang the heels of my feet off of the ledge of shelters or rocks (as long as they are not near any cliffs!) I grab onto the side of the shelter or a nearby tree to support myself. I usually feel a stretch in my achilles. I hold this stretch for thirty seconds, two reps.
When you first start this stretch, it is easier to do while holding onto something. Gradually, it helps your strength to do it on your own. Slowly raise yourself from a flat footed standing position to your tiptoes, and slowly bring yourself back down again. I usually do this about fifteen times, three reps. Four if I’m feeling ambitious.
When sitting down, throw your buff, sweatshirt, t-shirt, or some kind of fabric on the ground. Barefoot, put your heel on it, and reach out with your toes to bunch the fabric up underneath them. Yes, this might look super weird to anyone else at camp. But who will be laughing when you’re speeding by everyone with no foot pain the next morning? You! Do this stretch about ten times each foot.
Put both hands against a tree, shelter or building. Lean forwards in a lunge position. You should feel a stretch in your hamstring/calf. Hold this for about thirty seconds, two reps.
Ice, Elevate, Compress Your Feet
Icing your feet along with doing stretches will help decrease pain and inflammation. However, ice is often hard to find out in the woods, so I usually stick my bare feet in a nearby stream, and that helps a lot. Even doing this for just ten minutes can make a drastic difference in how your feet feel the next day.
Elevating your feet is also helpful, and I usually do this by propping my feet up on my pack, or a nearby tree, for about ten minutes. In any case, laying down is delightful.
If my feet are hurting a lot at the end of the day, sometimes I slip on a pair of plantar fasciitis socks, which are essentially compression socks for your feet. Mine look like toeless socks, (an estranged cousin of fingerless gloves) so I can take care of my feet and am extra hardcore sporting them around the shelter.
Lower Your Mileage or Take a Zero
No one wants to hear this, but if your feet are giving you a lot of grief, your body is telling you to chill out. So, go easy on yourself, decrease your mileage for a few days, or take a zero. Stretch, ice, and elevate your feet, and then gradually build back up. You will be less miserable and have a better time — so why not?
Sticking with just a few of these options will make a huge difference in your foot pain. The change won’t happen overnight, but practice patience and persistence, and your future self will thank you.