by Hallie Music M.S., C.I.F.T
It is easy to think of recovery and preparation as two separate phases, to be completed in sequence; however, proper recovery is the best preparation. This is true in so many areas of training and life. As a gait analysist and corrective exercise specialist, I see this at a micro level, but distance runners will experience this too. The better you recover from one run will help you, and your body, feel more prepared for the next one. So let’s talk recovery, specifically foot and ankle recovery.
After a run, your feet and ankles may be achy and sore. It is natural to take off your shoes and be barefoot to let your feet 'relax' and ‘breathe’. However, these areas were just stretched and worked, especially if you are running hills or over diverse terrain, and may need extra support. Instead of lounging in comfortable shoes like flip-flops or even being barefoot, try slipping into a good supportive shoe the day after a long run. I would suggest not the ones you ran in the day before, but if you have a second pair of sneakers, maybe even your workout/lifting shoes; something with good cushion, arch support, a wider toe box, and less of a heel stack (or foot drop), if you have it.
Why do I recommend shoes with good cushion, arch support, a wide toe box, and lower heel stack/foot drop?
Well, it comes down to giving some areas support while giving other areas room to breathe. Let’s dive in just a little:
The cushion in our shoes helps the joints by taking up some of the impact from the ground. While our joints are very good at doing this on their own, the repetitive impact during a run does take its toll, so wearing shoes with extra cushion the day after a run gives your joints a little bit of a break.
Our feet are designed to have room to move. Due to having so many separate bones in our feet, there are a lot of connective structures that are not rigid. The shape of the bones and connective tissue creates the ‘arch’ of our feet. When you are not putting pressure on your foot, it is taller and narrower, but as soon as you step the arch adapts and gets wider and flatter (this is one reason why tying your shoes too tight will hurt). This is normal and healthy movement, but after working the muscles of the foot and calf to lengthen and contract with every step during a run these muscles get fatigued. Wearing a supportive shoe after a run helps keep these muscles in proper position and length while they heal and rest.
Most running shoes are narrower at toe and may even come to a rounded point. While this has some performance aspects, it really comes from societal standards of beauty and class structure (the history of shoes is very interested, who knew?!). Our feet are shaped the way they are for a reason, and repeatedly squishing them can negatively impact movement and feeling. Wearing a shoe that gives your toes room to splay out or wiggle helps keep the muscles of the foot and calf active, helps maintain & improve balance, and maintains the cells that help you feel the ground below you.
If you have every seen someone wear high heels, or worn them yourself, you understand a high stack height or foot drop. This puts more pressure on the ball of your foot and shortens the muscles in the calf and ankle. While this can be beneficial for some people while they are running, we don’t want to keep our feet in that position all the time. Wearing a shoe with a low stack height and/or foot drop allows those muscles to stretch back out and allow for pressure to be distributed evenly across the foot.
What if you don’t have another pair of shoes to wear or you want to do more to help recover?
Well, compression socks can be really beneficial to help reduce soreness, increase blood flow to the muscles, and will offer a little bit of support to the arch of your foot, so they are definitely worth looking into!
In my personal opinion the thing that is going to help the most is (drum roll please) Movement!! Don’t worry, I don’t mean another run or an intense workout. Simple mobility exercises that you can do while relaxing around the house will help reduce soreness, increase blood flow, and strengthen and support the foot structures we have already talked about. Here are a few of my personal favorites:
Toe scrunch and extend
You are going to ball up your toes and then extend them out as far as you can.
Using a towel, pillowcase, or even just the carpet of your floor, you are going to pull and scrunch your toes together as if you were picking the material up. You can use small marbles or a pencil if you need and actually pick them up with your toes.
Push your toes out away from the heel and away from each other.
Roll your ankle, making big full circles, in one direction then switch directions.
Aided toe flexion & extension
Using the palm of your hand, roll your toes towards your heel stretching out the top of your foot. Then roll the toes back to extend them, stretching out the arch of your foot.
Toe taps & heel taps
Lift your toes up towards your calf, together or alternate, return to the floor. Then lift your heels off the ground, together or alternate.
Wall or stair calf stretch
Placing the ball of your foot up against the wall, allow the lower calf to stretch, you can lean into this as well to increase the stretch. OR
Standing with the back half of your foot off a step, allow your heels to lower down to stretch the calf.
Lunge calf stretch
Standing with one leg slightly in front of the other, bend the front knee and lean over the front leg, stretching out the upper calf.
Kneeling ankle mobilization (if can’t get on knee, towel stretch)
Kneeling on one knee, with the other foot slightly in front on the ground. Pulse forward flexing the ankle, this can be done with a resistance band around the front ankle to increase the stretch. Switch legs.