Is the Key to Curing Runners' Heel Pain in the Toes?

If you're a runner who suffers from heel pain, one of the first questions an astute sports doctor, podiatrist or physical therapist will ask is: What shoes do you run in, and how long have you been wearing these? The next question will likely be: What type of shoes do you normally wear when you're not running?

The answers to these questions reveal more about the cause of the pain than most runners realize.

How Shoe Selection Can Influence Heel Pain

Ray McClanahan, DPM, sports podiatrist, founder of Northwest Foot & Ankle in Portland, Oregon, and long-time competitive distance runner, believes that footwear choices can impact foot health dramatically. McClanahan, or "Dr. Ray," believes that we are born with perfectly shaped feet, and if we wear shoes that conform to the natural shape and encourage the natural movement of our feet, pain can be eliminated. He says shoe features that include heel elevation, toe spring and tapered toe boxes should be replaced with footwear that is widest at the ends of the toes, flexible in the soles and flat from heel to toe—also known as "zero drop" in running shoe lingo.

More: The Pros and Cons of Minimalist Running

"Using footwear that respects normal foot anatomy offers the possibility of profound foot-health benefits, including the resolution of longstanding foot pain associated with plantar fascia problems," says Dr. Ray.

But, switching the type of shoes you wear won't eliminate your heel pain overnight. Rather, this is one of the steps to rehabilitation. Runners thinking about ditching their current running shoes for minimalist-style shoes with wide toe boxes should transition to the new shoes gradually to give the body time to adapt. Walk around in the new shoes a few times for brief durations initially before running in them. Wear them for the first or last 10 minutes of your runs for a week or two, change into them to complete strides a few times a week, and warm up in them for 15 to 20 minutes before workouts (switch to the usual shoes you complete workouts in until you get used to the new shoes). 

More: How to Transition to Minimalist Shoes and Barefoot Running

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