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Running Pains

Neckar river
Neckar river

(running next to the Neckar River in Heidelberg, Germany — one of my all-time favorite routes)

I didn't start running until the pandemic. I tried running in college. One time, I ran with the back of my left shoe folded unto itself (as might happen when you slide into your shoes folding the back as you go and then, don't correct it once your foot is fully in). As soon as I started that run, I knew something was off but I decided to push through with it. That caused a real injury. Believing the injury would heal itself, I put up with some pretty sharp pain up and down my leg for a month until I went to see a PT. She prescribed an exercise regime that helped cure the worst of it. But the foot injury never seemed to fully go away. For many years after, I would experience cramps and spams on the foot as well as swelling behind the knee. These symptoms got worse every time I did a run so I settled for hiking and biking and just gave up on running.

By fall of 2019, I had moved to New York and no longer owned a bike. I didn't like doing cardio indoors in a gym so I figured I'd give running another shot as the leaves were coming down and the temperatures were mild. I enjoyed the act of running immensely. I started off with half mile runs and slowly built up to a mile. But the pains persisted.

Achilles tendonitis

At this time, the pain was mostly around my left ankle: achilles tendonitis. The pain would start a little bit into the run and most times, wouldn't really ramp up during the course of the run. But afterwards for maybe a day or two, my ankle would burn and ache.

Then, the pandemic happened and I was stuck at home. Thankfully, I went to a gym where I had an assigned coach who'd build out my weekly program. Talking to her about my achilles tendonitis, she added a few stretches and some strength work to my program every other day. Over the next few months, this program did wonders. It would strengthen my calves and foot muscles to the point where one day, the pain totally went away when I was running.

I had previously assumed that it was impossible that I would ever be rid of this pain. Because once you learn to live with pain for a while, you settle into thinking that perhaps, it will never go away and you'll just have to live with it for the rest of your life.

Since then, I've been running quite a bit. I'm on track to run 365 miles in this calendar year. But I'm not pain free. That achilles problem has gone away but now, the pain crops up in other places.

I view the pain differently now though and this is the lesson that has taken me a long long time to learn. Pain is just a signal from the body that something is wrong, and this pain can be addressed with real solutions. That's an empowering notion.

Over the last few weeks, I've crystallized the approach to dealing with pain:

  1. Observe the pain
  2. Isolate where it hurts precisely
  3. Research solutions
  4. Try something
  5. Assess and repeat until something works

This year, I've been struggling with plantar fasciitis on my left foot. Plantar fasciitis is an inflammation of the plantar fascia, a ligament that runs from the heel to the toes. It's pretty close to the achilles. Plantar hurts at the bottom of the heel while achilles hurts on the back on the heel radiating up into the calves.

plantar fascia

To figure out that you have plantar fasciitis, you can't just Google "my heel hurts" or worse "my foot hurts". By and large, the solutions you'll find on the internet aren't specific enough. You'll see a lot of results for heel pain but that might not help with your plantar.

foot anatomy

A better approach: find a bone or muscle map of the problem area. Figure out the name of the exact spot where you are experiencing pain. Then, do a search for "X pain" on YouTube and Reddit (I haven't found the more generic Google results super helpful because sources like WebMD are likely to suggest medical/surgical interventions which is not what you typically need).

Once I figured out that it was my plantar that was hurting and that the name for the pain I was experiencing was "plantar fasciitis". I researched some solutions and picked one that looked good.

You'll usually have to try a few different solutions before hitting on one that works. How do you know what's the best solution? Try a bunch of things. If it's a stretch, it's easy to know if it's targeting the right spot. You should feel some instant relief. With strengthening, you'll have to wait a bit longer, and check-in after a week or 2 weeks to check if it's helped with the pain.

For my plantar fasciitis, I was able to mostly get rid of it with a workout from the Recover app. I tried a few other routines from YouTube but this was the one that really worked.

I've had many, many other problems while running as well as lifting and I find the 5 steps I've outlined, the cycle of observe > isolate > research solutions > try > assess, eventually provides the solve. It works like a charm. You could also go to a PT who can help you with some of these steps (you'll still have to do at least some of the observing yourself). If that's an option, I'd certainly recommend that too.

Back to other feet issues: I talked about my plantar and achilles issues on the heel side of the foot. I've also had pain on the opposite end of the foot: in my big toe. I noticed one day when I was on a short jog that my toe on the right foot was pinching quite a bit while the toe on the other foot wasn't. The problem was my shoe was too loose around my foot and when my feet slid with every stride, I was pinching my toe to stabilize. Simply tying my laces a little tighter solved that pain. That's the power of observation over passive acceptance of pain!

Ironically, I've also had pain from tying my laces too tight. A very tight shoe can apply a lot of pressure on the bony top of the arch. Simply loosening the laces didn't work for me. It caused my feet to slide around in the shoe. What did work was skipping the eyelets around the arch. All you got to do when something doesn't work is experiment and try a few other things.

Observe. Isolate. Research. Try. Assess. And keep on running!

moss landing beach

(running on the beach next to some horses in Moss Landing, CA)