If you’ve ever had to stop mid-run due to a foot cramp, you’ll know it’s a horrible, painful experience. These spasms usually happen in the arches of your feet – and can, quite literally, stop you in your tracks.
There are various reasons why muscle cramps might occur (it’s often claimed that it’s because you are dehydrated or haven’t consumed enough salt in your diet), but why do you really get foot cramp when running? And, more importantly, what can you do to prevent it in the first place?
What causes foot cramp?
“A foot cramp is experienced when an extrinsic (foot-leg) or an intrinsic (foot-foot) foot muscle is contracting involuntarily and suddenly,” says Christophe Champs, podiatrist and expert in biomechanics and custom orthotics at PODO Clinic & Workshop. This can be caused by a number of things – including the wrong kind of trainers, too-tight laces and muscle fatigue.
Wearing the wrong size running shoe can cause a myriad of issues for runners. Not only can ill-fitted shoes cause blisters, calluses and black toenails, but wearing the wrong pair of running shoes can also cause hip, knee and back issues.
Champs suggests opting for trainers that feel “snug but not tight – shoes that are too tight lead to lots of trouble including foot cramps when running,” he says.
His top tip? “Don’t buy running shoes in the morning if you intend to run after work when your feet are swollen.”
“Elastic, round, flat or broken laces all affect how tight your shoes will feel,” says Champ, who recommends for those who regularly suffer foot cramps, to lace your running shoes using “the runner’s loop lacing method to leave some precious space around the mid and forefoot”. Skipping a pair of eyelets on top of the instep “will also help if you have very arched feet with high insteps,” he says.
All this extra volume essentially means there’s extra room for the feet to swell up, the muscles to contract and retract properly, and ease circulation – which can all help to reduce the risk of foot cramps when running.
Being dehydrated can cause your feet (and, in fact, any other muscles) to cramp. “When you are dehydrated your body is not getting enough water to your tissues and organs,” explains physiotherapist at Complete Pilates, Helen O’Leary. “This means that the muscles can cramp as they are not getting the level of fluid they need. Symptoms to look out for include a dry mouth, chapped lips, dry skin, headaches and darker concentrated urine.”
Low levels of potassium
Having low levels of potassium can also cause muscle cramping, says O’Leary. “If you are worried about this, going to your doctor so that they can do a urine sample and blood tests is the best way to diagnose it,” she adds. “They can also pick up low levels of calcium and magnesium which can also cause cramps.”
“Overexertion can cause foot cramp,” says O’Leary. “Often this is down to overtraining and a lack of rest. Lots of people do not realise how important rest days are both for growing your muscles and allowing your body time to recover. Skipping rest days is likely to lead to overexertion and fatigue which can then lead to cramping. Often to feel better you will need to rest.”
How to stop foot cramp
On top of prioritising rest, drinking lots of water and, of course, wearing shoes that actually fit, Champs and O’Leary suggest looking into the following solutions…
If you find yourself continually cramping when you run, Champs suggests looking at the footprint you leave on the floor after you have a shower – “this indicates how much pressure is being distributed through your sole.”
“It’s a well-known fact that the heart is the most powerful pump to send the blood full of oxygen and nutrients to our organs. This journey down to our feet is eased by the law of gravity when we run,” he explains.
“But your feet are actually the second biggest pump of your body – a second heart – and when you use the entire soles through custom orthotics, you facilitate the blood transfer back up to the heart.”
Stretch it out
Gone are the days of languidly performing a couple of static stretches at the start and end of a run. In the quest for better running technique, faster times and reduced injury risk, stretching is vitally important. “Muscles need to be exercised and stretched to work at their best,” says Champs.
“Muscles fatigue when running, which affects both extrinsic and intrinsic muscles. Do not neglect working on your foot muscles when you run – the intrinsics naturally lose their strength since we wear shoes a lot, but they are as important as your core muscles,” he adds. “To increase your muscle's blood flow when you are subject to cramps, you need to stretch all those muscles regularly, whatever your level of running is.”
Strengthen your feet
Few of us take up running to spend our time exercising indoors, but anyone serious about running pain and injury-free needs to 'train to train'. “Foot cramps can be caused by a weakness in the foot muscles – this is partly down to the shoes we wear and the fact that we don’t do much strengthening work on our feet,” says O’Leary.
There are 29 muscles that are associated with the foot, she says. “10 of these go over the ankle as well and 19 of them are in the foot. Making sure you are doing strength exercises where you are working on the internal muscles is really key if you cramp a lot.”
“If you are already doing foot strengthening exercises and not feeling it in the arch of your foot, still cannot move your big toe independently or move your other four digits, but have been going for ages, chances are you need a bit more help as you might not be doing them correctly,” she adds.
3 foot exercises to strengthen your feet and become a better runner
1. Towel grabbing
Sounds odd, but dragging a towel across the floor using your toes strengthens the small muscles in your foot – and could help sustain your running load.
Find somewhere with a slippery surface (not a carpet) and sit in a chair with a handtowel spread out in front of you lengthways.
Place your bare feet side by side, with just your toes on the towel, and the rest of your feet on the floor.
Imagine your heels are glued to the floor, but the front half of your feet can lift up, then grab the towel with your toes and pull it towards you.
Continue with this scrunching movement until there is no towel left, then place the towel back into the starting position and repeat.
2. Big toe extension
Working on maintaining your big toe movement can help with your push-off while running and reduce the risk of injuries including plantar fasciitis.
With bare feet, take hold of your big toe with your fingertips and pull it up towards your shin.
Start with a bent knee, and then, if flexibility allows, try with a straight leg.
Hold for 30 seconds, then repeat on the other side – make sure you do this an even number of times on each foot.
3. Arch building
In order to help build strength within the foot, work on lifting and lowering your arches when standing.
Stand barefoot, hip-width apart.
Maintain contact with the floor with your big toe and heel, then increase your overall height by lifting up through your arch along the inside of your foot.
Slowly lower down again, then repeat for 5-10 reps.
The bottom line...
If you’re regularly experiencing foot cramps when you run, and they’re particularly painful, make an appointment with your GP. “If you know you are doing strength exercises well and have addressed all the other factors (shoes, drinking and eating well, stretches or rolling your foot), I would definitely seek help from your GP,” says O’Leary. “They can address any imbalances which may be contributing to the cramp.” Otherwise, speak to a physio who can help you look at your training load, address any strength deficits and also help you with stretches and rolling any areas of tightness.
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