Let me start by saying that I’m not a doctor and this isn't medical advice. I was diagnosed with plantar fasciitis five times. After all that, I consider myself an expert on not only getting it, but also getting rid of it. It's been years since I've had it. Here's how I avoid plantar fasciitis and stay on the trail. It doesn't involve any special hiking shoe or hiking boot, just some techniques.
Is your heel pain a plantar fasciitis symptom?
In general, plantar fasciitis a really intense pain on your heel when you walk, and it’s worse when you first wake up (I’ll tell you why in a bit).
These are the typical signs and symptoms that would suggest your heel pain is plantar fasciitis.
Stabbing pain around your heel / mid-foot
Bad pain when you first wake up and step down off your bed
Pain that decreases as the day goes on
You’ve recently switched to minimal running or barefoot running
You’ve been increasing your mileage, strides, and/or pace
You don’t stretch much
When I first got plantar fasciitis, I thought I had broken my foot, which I’ve also done when running (albeit being very overweight). The difference is that when I broke my foot, I experienced a sharp, white hot pain when my foot came down from a stride. Plantar fasciitis, when you first get it, starts as a subtle pain, if anything. The real kick is about 1 hour after you’ve pushed yourself and when you wake up the morning after.
Ugh, I think I have this, what is plantar fasciitis?
Welcome to a painful world. In a nutshell, you’ve overworked the shock absorber for your foot (your arch). In general, this happens because your feet are too weak and/or your muscles are too tight.
Your leg’s shock absorber goes from the arch of your foot, through your achilles tendon, and up your calf and hamstring. Shoes with a lot of padding encourage people to land on their heel when they walk (heel strike), which leads to other problems like shin splints. Walking on your forefoot activates the natural shock absorbing system in your legs, but requires your arch and hamstrings to be strong enough to take the shock over and over again.
When you push that shock absorbing system too much, your plantar fascia can tear. This happens when you are too heavy. A lot of hikers aren’t used to carrying the weight on a pack, and it takes it’s toll on your system. Going to far also pushes the limits of your shock absorbing system.
Once you’ve torn your plantar fascia and you continue to step down on it, you further inflame and agitate it. You need to stop and strengthen your shock absorbing system.
My Plantar Fasciitis Treatment
After lots of doctors visits and trying all different types of cures, these are the ones that worked. They all involved stretching and strengthening my shock absorber system. And unfortunately, rest.
Frozen Golf Ball – This one is great for mornings. Keep a golf ball in your freezer, and first thing in the morning, step down on it with some pressure and roll your foot on it. You’re going to want to apply enough pressure so it hurts a bit. My physical therapist told me to think of it as breaking up knots in the muscle. It hurts and it doesn’t make a lot of logical sense to me, but it worked the best.
Rest – First of all, stop any running and minimize your walking to stop the tearing and damage. This may seem obvious but I’m pretty good at ignoring the need for rest, and maybe you are too.
Stretch Your Hamstrings – The hamstrings are part of the shock absorbing system of your legs. Doing some simple stretches when I woke up and several times a day helped tremendously. Here’s a boring article on why it works. There are a ton of great stretches on YouTube.
Another thing that helped was rolling on the golf ball when I was sitting around watching television and at my desk at work. Likewise, doing the stretches when I was waiting in lines, standing around, etc. helped.
The Arch Support Myth
Some doctors told me that I needed more arch support, but that was actually what the problem was. By wearing heavily padding running shoes (which felt great), my feet and shock absorber muscles didn’t have to work, and got weak. When I hiked with boots that didn’t have all that cushioning, my feet had to work overtime.
If you want to strengthen your feet and avoid plantar fasciitis on your hikes, you should get a shoe without any arch support for your day-to-day life. The stronger your feet are the better.
Hiking With Plantar Fasciitis
If you absolutely must hike with plantar fasciitis, here’s the move. First, realize that you are just hurting yourself more. You will have to rest longer when your hike is over.
But sometimes you just have to hike, I get it. You’re going to want to support your arches as much as possible while you have plantar fasciitis. To do this, get the biggest, cushiest running shoes you can. When you hike, try to come down on your heel. Again, not healthy, but if you have to make a hike, this is the way to get through the day.
How do I never, ever ever, get this again?
Increase your distance gradually every week. Don’t hike more than 10% more than you did the week before. Cross-train during the week and avoid running if you can. Riding the bike is a good way to stretch and condition your shock absorbing system.
Take 5-10 minutes after each hike to stretch your hamstrings and calves.
Stretch every day when you wake up in the morning. Stretch your hamstrings and calves.
Avoid cushion shoes or arch support. Again, the more your arches are ‘supported,’ the less they work, the weaker they become. The idea is to get your feet stronger.