Low-Impact Exercises Will Help When Your Heels Hurt

People become interested in low-impact exercises for a variety of reasons.

In some cases, they’re interested in putting more focus on cross-training. For others, it’s a matter of becoming (painfully) aware that an aging body isn’t handling the stress of activity it once could.

An especially important reason is to rehabilitate a foot or ankle injury.

When it comes to injury rehab, there are many opinions and insights into the topic, depending on who you talk to. We are taking the approach, surprisingly, of an experienced podiatrist here in Indianapolis. It just comes naturally after helping so many people with foot and ankle injuries.

As a general rule, our approach is to avoid changing your normal activities unless necessary. Rather, we focus on modifying them in an appropriate manner.

So what does that mean?

Well, if you’re an avid runner, we won’t try to turn you into an Olympic-caliber swimmer. Sure, there may be aquatic activities involved with your rehab, but we understand that running is important to you and your goal is to get back to it.

Further, we need to emphasize this: Modifying your activities isn’t the same as outright stopping them.

Yes, your body will require at least a certain degree of rest. However, the best recovery results happen when you’re able to resume your normal movements without further damage. Modifying your activity will help your body not get so beaten up while it recovers.

What Does Recovery from Injury Look Like from a Timing Perspective?

As is the case with many elements of injuries, it really depends on certain factors. And a major consideration is the nature of the injury itself.

When we’re talking about injuries that are chronic in nature, you likely have a longer recovery period. It can be related to how the injury developed.

See, chronic injuries develop over time, often in response to an accumulation of damaging physical forces combined with biomechanical abnormalities. In other words, a lot of stress on a faulty machine.

A great example of this is a long-distance runner who overpronates:

This runner’s feet roll excessively inward as they attempt to protect the body from harsh physical force loads as each foot lands—loads that can add up to 22 tons (for a 100-pound runner) just by running a mile or two.

The problem here is that overpronation adds a greater force on the feet than they are intended to endure.  Try carrying a full bag of groceries at an arm’s length from your body and you will see how quickly you fatigue! Our feet are truly remarkable structures when working correctly, but they have their limits when things go south!

A variety of injuries and issues can develop in response to overpronation, especially in the big toe’s metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint. (That’s a “fifty-cent word” referring to the joint where the toe connects to the foot.)

Now, let’s switch gears for a second and talk about the opposite of chronic injuries—acute ones.

Whereas a chronic injury happens due to a heavy amount of force distributed over time, an acute injury will generally happen in an isolated event. You can think of this variety as being more “accidental” in nature than chronic injuries.

A great example of this is when an athlete’s foot is planted in the ground and the rest of the body changes direction, causing the ligaments supporting the ankle to extend beyond their intended range of motion.

In case you didn’t pick up on it, we just described an ankle sprain.

With this injury, it is essential that you allow the damaged ligaments to heal fully before resuming normal, high-impact activities. Rushing back into action too soon can lead to repeat injury and chronic ankle instability.

Instead of going back to the court or field (etc.) and giving the proverbial “110%” before your body’s ready, a smarter approach is to take the movements you would use in your favorite sports and scale them back a bit.

(Another great thing you can do to reduce your recovery time is control inflammation at the time of injury—so get an ice pack on that sprained ankle ASAP!)

Taking all of this into consideration, it’s probably less than surprising to see that it requires a fair amount of balance between healing and activity. It’s incredibly important that you keep moving but, at the same time, we don’t want to push things too far.

To strike a proper balance, we need to manage gravity.

Wait, what??

Managing Gravity

If we want to get down to the core of the issue, why can high-impact activities be so problematic?

Because of something Sir Isaac Newton knew a thing or two about: Gravity!

As a general rule—when you defy gravity, you pay. Fortunately, the price is usually one our bodies are capable of paying. But there are times when the cost is too great, and we can’t afford it. (If you were skydiving, you’d wear a parachute, right?)

The way gravity affects the body when walking, running, and doing other “normal” activities can be as extreme as jumping out of a plane without that parachute. That 22 tons of impact that occurs in a 2 mile run is from 2,200 steps and not from one impact, so it does play a considerable role in foot and ankle injuries.

We may need to alter the effects of that gravity somewhat. No, you won’t suddenly go flying off the earth, but one way to mitigate gravity’s effects is through activities like cycling, ice skating, rowing, and curling. Gravity is still impacting the body, but less than it does with high-impact activities featuring running and jumping.

(You can also drink a beer while curling much more easily than while running … or maybe not; check out www.breweryrunningseries.com)

Now, to remove gravitational forces—or at least severely limit them—it’s time to hit the water!

Aquatic activities, like swimming and water aerobics, can almost be thought of as no-impact. So water is essentially how you defeat gravity, and this is quite beneficial because there’s no pounding on your joints!

Rehabilitation and Cross-Training

When getting back to your favorite activities, skill level will certainly be a consideration. In the case of elite athletes, physical therapy may entail a greater degree of resistance training at earlier stages than for your average “weekend warrior.”

Regardless of level, proper rehabilitation requires strengthening affected body tissues, while at the same time maintaining fitness levels as best as possible. Rehab is not the way to a permanent fix, however. It should be temporary, but there may be elements you incorporate in your fitness plan going forward.

Be prepared for some sort of shift in routine during rehab. This is especially true for many runners, whether they wish to hear it or not. Reducing overall impact may be an essential part of recovery and avoiding chronic problems in the future. And that may mean some transitioning to lower-impact activities like cycling.

True story: Your favorite go-to foot doc was actually a runner once upon a time but had to switch to cycling for rehabilitation purposes. Turned out that he loved cycling and has stayed with it to this day. For every runner who is still running on a regular basis after 4-5 decades, there are dozens of cyclists who are still riding.

Cross-training is also a smart approach, whether you are currently undergoing rehab or not. It provides better overall fitness, but without the downside of beating up your body the way intensive exercise programs can.

Finding Balance Between Goals, Fitness, and Physics

It is important to be realistic with your body. After all, sometimes in life you will have to take a detour—and that might lead you to new and exciting places. (Like, for example, becoming an avid cyclist.)

Having dreams of greatness is good, and the true motivation to pursue them can be rare. But there are good and bad ways of treating your body to get somewhere, and continuing to push yourself much too hard or repetitively (we’re looking at you, ultra-marathoners, age group softballers, AT hikers, 4-decade mogul skiiers) can make those dreams crash into a sea of chronic pain. We want take age out of the activity equation and keep you crushing it, but with age comes the wisdom of rehab and prevention.

If you have been suffering from heel pain, great toe joint pain, or other foot and ankle injuries, we will work with you to create a plan that lets you continue to pursue your fitness goals as much as possible—just expect it not to match what you’ve been currently doing!

For physically active foot and ankle help in Indianapolis, call Your Go To Foot Doc at (317) 545-0505. We also welcome appointment requests and questions via our online contact form.


9505 E. 59th St., Suite A
Indianapolis, IN 46216

Phone Number

(317) 545-0505

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