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Foot pain in runners - A quick guide

Updated: Jul 13

Foot pain in runners can present in 2 ways. It can develop suddenly e.g. you go over on your ankle or you feel a sudden sharp pain while running – also known as traumatic injuries. They can also develop slowly over time and the cause for this type of injury is often not that clear. In this article I’m going to focus on the second group of foot injuries – the ones that seem to develop for no apparent reason. I’ll also share the Top 3 things that I find works best for treating each of these foot injuries.

In this article:

  • Pain on the outside of your foot

  • Pain on the inside of your foot

  • Pain over the front of your anklePain under your heel

  • Pain in the front of your foot

  • Getting any tingling in your ankle or foot?

  • Stress fractures

I’ve done a livestream video in my Sports Injury Facebook Group on this topic and you may find that useful to watch.

Pain on the outside of the foot


Sinus tarsi syndrome

Despite its impressive name this condition is more painful than harmful. It is caused by chronic inflammation in the soft lining of the ankle joint.


The pain is usually located  just in front of the lateral malleolus (ankle bone), in a very similar place to where your ankle ligaments run and it often gets mistaken for a ligament sprain. (see picture below)


Here's a video where I discus Sinus Tarsi Syndrome in a lot more detail:



Causes:

It often develops after you’ve sprained your ankle. Ankle ligaments usually take about 8 to 12 weeks to heal so if your pain continues for longer than 12 weeks, sinus tarsi syndrome may be to blame.


Another common cause is if your foot rolls in excessively (over-pronation) when you walk or run. When this happens you tend to squash the outside of the ankle joint which can cause it to flare up. Some of the most common things that can cause your foot to roll in too much include muscle weakness around your ankle or hips, wearing trainers that are too soft or running on a camber.


My top 3 fixes:

The main goal with treatment is to improve the foot’s position and stop it from rolling in excessively while walking and running. You can achieve this through:

  1. Wearing supportive shoes ALL DAY LONG. This injury may have been caused by running, but if you want it to recover you’ll have to look after it throughout the day.

  2. I usually also prescribe supportive insoles for my patients (see examples below). In severe cases they may even benefit from wearing an ankle brace for 4 to 6 weeks while we strengthen up the muscles. Again, the aim of this is to stop the foot from rolling in.

  3. Foot arch strengthening exercises as well as strengthening the stability muscles around the hips are important to prevent this from recurring.

Peroneal Tendinopathy

Your peroneal muscles run along the outside of your lower leg. Their main function is to turn your foot out. Their tendons wrap around the back of the bone on the outside of your ankle. If these guys are to blame for your foot pain, you’ll often feel the pain over the outside of the foot – below the ankle bone or towards the outside border of the foot.


Here's a video where I discuss Peroneal Tendinopathy in a lot more detail:



Causes:

The main cause for this type of injury is usually something that makes your foot roll out more (excessive supination) while running.


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Check your running shoes – is it time to lay them to rest and get a new pair?

  2. How tight are your calves? Tight calves (especially soleus) can make your peroneal muscles take more strain.

  3. Have you been running on cambers that made your foot roll out more? Change your running route so that you run on the flat.

Pain on the inside of the foot


Tibialis Posterior tendinopathy


Your Tibialis Posterior muscles (Tib Post) is one of the main muscles that support your arch and stop your foot from rolling in or pronating excessively. Tib Post tendinopathy causes pain on the inside of the heel and along the inside of your foot’s arch. The muscle belly of the Tib Post lies in your calf and it can sometimes even produce pain along the inside of your shin bone.


Here's a video where I discuss Tib Post Tendinopathy in a lot more detail:



Causes:

The main cause of Tib Post tendinopathy in runners is when your foot rolls in too much while running (over-pronates). As mentioned above, over-pronation can be caused by several different things including the wrong running shoes, lots of downhill running, muscles weakness around the ankle or higher up in the leg etc.


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Check your running shoes (starting to see a pattern here??) – are they too soft or are they worn out? Do they provide enough support?

  2. Use supportive insoles or orthotics to take some of the strain off the Tib Post tendons. (See examples below)

  3. Strengthen your muscles in your foot and ankle as well as the stability muscles around your hips.

Here are some examples of supportive insoles that I found on Amazon – similar to the ones I use in clinic:


Pain over the front of the ankle


Tibialis Anterior tendinopathy

This tendon runs down the front of the ankle joint and wraps around the inside of the foot. It flexes your foot upward but also helps to stop your foot from rolling in too much. If the pain in your foot is coming from this tendon, you usually feel it in the area where your foot joins your ankle.


Causes:

The number one cause for Tib Ant tendinopathy that I see in clinic is when runners tie their laces too tight, causing the tendon to rub as they run. Running in shoes that are a lot heavier or doing a lot of downhill running can also cause the Tib Ant to flare up.


Top 3 fixes:

  1. Check if your shoelaces are a problem. You may have to tie them extremely loosely to help your tendon recover. I caused mine to flare up while hiking in Scotland a few months back and it took about 4 weeks of careful management before it settled down again.

  2. If you’ve recently changed running shoes you may have to check that they’re not to blame.

  3. Check if it’s better if you run on flatter terrain for a while.

Pain under your heel


Plantar Fasciitis

I’ve previously written a whole series of blog posts on how to treat this pesky problem, but here are the highlights. The plantar fascia is a thick fibrous band of tissue that runs from your heel to your toes. Its main function is to support your foot’s arch and stop it from collapsing when you put weight on it. Plantar fasciitis is essentially an overuse injury that develops when you strain the plantar fascia where it attaches to the heel bone. It can be extremely painful and stop you from running and walking.


Here's a video where I discuss Plantar Fasciitis in a lot more detail:



Causes:

Anything that puts extra strain on the plantar fascia e.g. unsupportive shoes, gaining weight, upping your running distance or intensity too dramatically. I’ve explained the causes of plantar fasciitis in more detail before.


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Wear supportive shoes with arch support inserts ALL THE TIME. You may have developed this injury through running, but you will have to nurse it all day long if you want to make a quick recovery.

  2. Identify what’s making it worse and try to avoid it.

  3. Do not go back to running too soon. You should have at least 4 pain free weeks and be able to walk 10km pain free (and without pain the next day) before you go back to running.

Read the complete guide to treating Plantar Fasciitis here.

Pain in the front of your foot


Metatarsalgia

This is pain under the ball of your foot. My patients often also describe it as feeling as if they are walking on a pebble. It is caused by inflammation in the little joints where your toes attaches to your foot.


I've also made a video where I discuss the treatment of metatarsalgia in more detail:



Causes:

These little joints become painful and sore when they are put under too much pressure for too long. In my experience (unless you’re a dancer) the main cause for this condition is wearing the wrong shoes. And I’m not necessarily talking about running shoes. Regular work shoes or leisure shoes are often the culprits. Examples include ballet pumps, men’s dress shoes, minimalist running shoes or old trainers.


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Switch to wearing soft trainers ALL DAY LONG until your foot has fully recovered. This may mean that you’ve got to commute in them as well.

  2. If you’re running in minimalist shoes (with very thin soles) you may have to switch to more cushioned shoes. Minimalist shoes are often touted as being the key to injury prevention, but they can cause their own injuries and metatarsalgia as well as metatarsal stress fractures are 2 examples.

  3. Using orthotics with a metatarsal dome (see examples below) can often help to relieve some pressure on these painful joints. It fits just behind the metatarsal heads and lifts the little joints slightly.

Morton’s neuroma

You have little nerves that run between the bones in your forefoot. When these nerves get squashed they swell and become irritated causing pain in your forefoot that often also refers into your toes. Because it’s caused by irritated nerves, you may also feel tingling or numbness.


Causes

Wearing shoes that are too tight is an obvious cause for Morton’s neuroma. But anything that causes the bones to move and squash together excessively can contribute e.g. if you have very flexible feet or your feet roll excessively while you run (pronation or supination).


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Make sure that you avoid all tight shoes.Wear supportive shoes that limit excessive movement.

  2. Use insoles with a metatarsal dome that can help to spread the little bones in the forefoot, creating a bit more space for the nerves.

  3. Here are some examples of orthotics that have arch support and metatarsal lifts. What I like about them is that they seem to have adjustable domes. Remember the dome has to sit BEHIND THE BALL OF YOUR FOOT – not on it.

Getting any tingling in your ankle or foot?


Tingling, numbness, a sensation of pins and needles or any strange sensations are usually a sign that your injury involves a nerve. Tingling etc. in the ankle and feet can be caused by injuries in the lower back or the leg or in the foot/ankle. I would consult a physio or other sports medicine professional if you’re experiencing these type of symptoms. They’re not necessarily more serious injuries, but they can be tricky to get better by yourself.


Stress fractures


Stress fractures are rare but they are a risk for anyone who does a lot of running. The most common areas where runners develop stress fractures are in the navicular bone, calcaneus and 5th metatarsal.


Bones normally first develop a stress reaction during which time they’re very painful but nothing is broken. If you can catch this injury early and do the right things, it can settle down in as little as 4 to 6 weeks. If you neglect the signs and symptoms from this and continue to train, it may develop into a full blown fracture which can take months to heal.


Causes:

Very high loads of training usually combined with not enough recovery time and often also a restricted diet. You can get a better understanding of how stress fractures develop in my previous blog post. Diagnosing stress fractures can be tricky as they often don’t show up on regular x-rays. An experienced sports physio should be able to diagnose this for you.


My top 3 fixes:

  1. Immediately cut out all aggravating activities and rest the body part from all impact. This may include immobilising it in a boot for a few weeks.

  2. Analyse your training programme including your diet and recovery to see where things have gone wrong.

  3. Ask your GP to check your general bone density and Vit D levels.

Let me know if you have any questions. You’re also welcome to consult me online via video call.

Best wishes

Maryke

About the Author

Maryke Louw is a chartered physiotherapist with more than 15 years' experience and a Masters Degree in Sports Injury Management. You can read more about her here.

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