Having personally been a victim of dealing with heel pain on the trail, I want to share some secrets with you that helped me help heal the pain before it took me out of the game. You will always want to consult your doctor, however, if you are currently experiencing pain of any type. This article aims more at keeping foot pain problems from happening in the first place, if possible.
I cannot put enough stress on the need to properly condition the muscles in your feet prior to hitting the trail. Lots of walking in your neighborhood with a loaded pack and standing calf raises (with or without weights) will help strengthen your arches. I believe that most of us (myself included) believe we are already prepared because we feel generally fit. I know I sure did not fully understand the need to prepare this way prior to hitting the trail for the first time on a long-distance hike. I now do these exercises every morning in my daily life, usually while I brush my teeth in the morning and evening.
Added Stress From Trail Terrain
Realize that one common cause for heel pain on the trail comes from the irritation and inflammation of the tissue that makes up (and/or supports) the arch of your foot. When your feet are not ready for the extreme physical challenge of the trail, the extra weight from your backpack constantly pushing down on your arches and long, confining, sweaty days cause sudden, shooting pain.
Symptoms of Plantar Fasciitis on the Trail
I noticed some stabbing pain the second day in my first multi-day hike some years ago. It seemed to get better once I resumed hiking, but I knew it was a sign of something not quite right. I visited a doctor once I got home and found out that this type of pain is frequently plantar fasciitis or the warning signs thereof. The sensitive tissue in your feet has a tendency to “draw up” and get tight when over-stressed. This tightness puts added pressure on the place where this tissue joins the heel bone. This causes painful sensations that you will definitely notice upon standing or hiking after pausing for a bit.
Stretches You Can Do at Home and On the Trail
If you are pain-free, exercises and stretching may help to keep you that way. One of my favorite stretches can help keep the tissue in your feet soft and limber. It actually keeps my pain away if I remember to do it every day. It is great, too, if you can do this stretch before you get out of bed in the morning (or out of your sleeping bag on the trail). I first learned about this from a seasoned hiker I met on the Appalachian Trail who had hiked over 6,000 miles in his lifetime.
Bring your left foot up and place it on top of your right thigh where you can reach it. Grab your left big toe with your left hand and pull it gently towards your shin, starting very gently until you feel the stretch in the bottom of your foot. Once you feel the stretch, use your left thumb to put slight, massaging pressure on the tissues (the plantar fascia) running along the bottom of your foot. Repeat this exercise a few times, for about a minute each time, on both feet morning and night.You should notice a difference after only a couple days. I do this stretch religiously every day and believe this has helped immensely with my previous pain, as I no longer have any issues at all.
More From This Contributor:
First Person: Water Dry in Spots on the Appalachian Trail
Life as Seen Through My Hacked-Up Hiker’s Toenails
Our Parks Are Suffering; Why We Are Partially to Blame