Why Do Your Feet Hurt After a Workout?
You’re rocking a workout — maybe deep into a HIIT session, lifting some weights, or doing a barre class — and then foot pain strikes, forcing you to dial the intensity way back or stop completely. Or maybe the pain shows up as an aftershock and lingers for a few hours, causing you to wonder if this is about to become a chronic issue.
Foot pain is very common for people who are working out, no matter what activity you’re pursuing, according to Lauren Borowski, M.D., sports medicine specialist and assistant professor in the Department of Orthopedic Surgery at NYU Langone Health.
“It could just be due to using the feet in new ways, similar to being sore from a workout, or it may be a bigger problem,” she says. “The key is becoming aware of when it’s happening, what part of the foot is affected, and how often you experience it.”
Here are four possible reasons why your feet hurt after a workout, and read on for tips that may bring relief — and when to see a doctor.
4 Possible Reasons Your Feet Hurt
This is usually the top pick for why the bottom of your feet might have pain or cramping, according to Theodore Shybut, M.D., associate professor in the Joseph Barnhart Department of Orthopedic Surgery at Baylor College of Medicine. The plantar fascia is a thick band of tissue that connects heel bone to toes, and when this gets inflamed, the pain can be intense.
2. Irritated nerves
If the pain is around or in between your toes, you may be experiencing some “nerve entrapment” issues, Shybut says. Keep in mind that your feet have tiny little joints, with nerves wrapped around them. When the joints get compressed in some way — improper footwear could do it — this can cause the nerves to fire up. You may also experience numbness or tingling because of this problem.
3. Repetitive stress
Try tapping your index finger against a table a few times with a moderate degree of force. Then picture doing it a few hundred times, a few thousand — how would that finger be feeling? That’s a decent analogy for what’s happening to your feet when you do exercise that relies on the same motion over and over, like running. Repetitive stress can cause very small fractures, especially in the mid-foot region.
4. Muscle tears
Much like any other muscles, the ones in your feet can tear if you try to increase range of motion before the muscles are ready, says Samantha Parker, yoga teacher and CPT. She notes that jumping (sometimes literally) into a workout can cause muscle contractions in the feet that can lead to micro-tears that cause pain after the workout.
8 Ways to Avoid Foot Pain
When it comes to feet, pain is not “weakness leaving the body,” as some old motivational posters assert. It’s a signal that something is wrong. But when it comes to taking care of your feet, there are several ways you can make it right:
1. Stretch it out
People tend to forget the feet when doing warm-up stretches, Borowski says. Taking time to get feet and ankles moving before you work out could prevent stiffness and strain during activity.
2. Ice right way
Standing on an ice pack sounds more like a dare than a remedy. And it’s not as effective as moving the ice around to reduce inflammation. Do this instead, suggests Parker: Put a golf ball, water bottle, or lacrosse ball in your freezer, and after your workout, place it on the ground and put your foot on top, rolling it around the arch, heels, and other areas.
3. Massage your calves
Borowski notes that foot pain can sometimes be caused by tight calves, especially your Achilles tendon. Take time before a workout to massage out these muscles, and do foam rolling or massage afterward, too.
Maybe you’re training for a marathon and pounding those miles to prep. While that’s important, it could also be setting you up for a stress fracture if you’re not doing other activities as well. Repetition is hard on any group of muscles, joints, and tendons, and the feet are no different.
5. Strengthen the foot muscles
Have you picked up a towel or a pencil with your feet today? If not, it may be time to start. Borowski says your foot muscles, much like any other muscles, benefit from getting stronger — and walking doesn’t do it. She suggests a few minutes a day of barefoot “pick-up” challenges. Don’t forget adding ankle strength moves to your mix, too.
6. Spread your toes
Much like foot-strengthening exercises, toe separation doesn’t get much attention, but it should. Our feet are squished into shoes all day, and that often leads to toes that can barely be pried apart. Try this: Stand with bare feet, press down into your heels and balls of the foot, pick up only your toes, spread them out, and put them back down. If there’s no space between the toes, that means you have stiffness there, and it’s a good idea to start practicing this maneuver more often.
7. Change your shoes
Foot and ankle pain due to improper footwear is a common issue, especially if you’ve been wearing the same shoes for way too long. If you’re having foot pain, make the investment in good shoes, and visit a specialty store for a fitting if possible.
8. Dial it back
One of the biggest reasons for sudden foot pain that Borowski sees is athletes doing too much too soon. You ran three miles yesterday, so why not make it six today, right? That kind of ramp-up places a great deal of stress on the feet, she says. A better strategy is to increase intensity gradually.
When to See Your Doctor About Foot Pain
Being able to reduce and eliminate pain on your own is a beautiful thing, but that may not always happen if there’s a serious structural issue, like a stress fracture. In that case, seeing a doctor sooner rather than later can be helpful. Borowski offers these tips for when to set up an appointment:
- Pain begins sooner during every workout, and either stays steady while you exercise or gets worse
- You can’t seem to shake the pain for hours or even days after the workout
- The relief strategies that worked well before aren’t working as well now
- You’ve started to experience foot pain when you’re not working out, when you didn’t before
- The pain has begun to interfere with everyday activities, particularly sleep
- There’s swelling that seems especially pronounced and/or doesn’t go down with ice and rest
- You’ve got significant bruising, which can indicate internal injury like fractures
In general, mild foot pain experienced as part of a new workout may be inevitable. Stretching, ice, changing your shoes, and gradual progression are likely your best strategies. But if the pain is forcing you to change how much or how often you work out, it’s a good idea to get checked out.