Plantar Fasciitis: How I Beat My Long-Term Battle With Heel Pain
Posted on October 08 2012
I’ve been meaning to write this post for a long time. However, I’ve been holding off because I wanted to be sure that I have in fact won my battle with persistent heel pain. I’m finally at a point where I think my war with plantar fasciitis is officially over.
As a runner, I’ve been very lucky in that I have not succumbed to any significant running-related injuries. In fact, the only injury that kept me from running for more than a few days occurred as a result of running a second marathon in a month’s time in a new pair of racing flats (my first marathon in flats). I developed a case of peroneal tendonitis that stopped me cold on a few subsequent runs and sent me limping back to my house. Given the stupidity of my approach to that race, I deserved to get hurt, but even then I missed less than a week of running.
For the most part, my body seems to repair itself pretty quickly. Aches and pains pop up, and usually within a few days they go away. I’m usually good at listening to my body, and I’ve developed strategies for attacking aches that seem to be very effective for me (e.g., mixing up shoes). However, the one pain that appeared and simply did not want to go away began in late 2010.
I can’t remember exactly when my heel pain started, but I think it was shortly after the above-mentioned race in which I injured myself. I know that the pain was in full force in January 2011, and it lingered for well over a year. The symptoms pointed to a classic case of plantar fasciitis. Pain, sometimes intense, upon first waking up in the morning, just below my left heel. It hurt to put any kind of pressure on my heel for the first few steps after getting out of bed. After a bit of walking the pain would ease off, and on most days it would go away such that it wasn’t a big deal. Sometimes it would hurt on runs, most often not, and it was never bad enough to keep me from running (I didn’t miss a single day of running due to heel pain). I couldn’t find any pattern linking my footwear choices to the appearance of the pain, except that shoes with hard heels made it hurt when I walked (e.g., Merrell Trail Glove and Vibram Trek Sport), and I recall one memorably painful run in the Saucony Guide 5 (talk about shoes that have little in common!).
Until summer 2011, the pain was isolated to my left foot. That summer I ran a 5K in Vibram Fivefingers just to see how fast I could go in a barefoot-style shoe, and though the race went well, I strained the insertion of my abductor hallucis muscle on the inner side of my right heel. The insertion was tender, and not long after that pain appeared underneath my right heel as well. I had what I self-diagnosed to be bilateral plantar fasciitis (I may or may not have had a bit of assistance from Dr. Google, perhaps you know him?).
I was never particularly aggressive in trying to treat the pain, mainly because it was never much more than a first-thing-in-the-morning nuisance. A bit of calf stretching, both straight legged and bent-knee to target the soleus muscle, seemed to do the trick. Being in zero drop shoes at work all day seemed to keep things loose and stretched out (particularly my calves), which I think helped prevent progression to a more severe case, and on most days I’d forget that I even had a problem. But the pain was still there every morning, both under the heels on each side and at the abductor hallucis insertion on the right side. By early 2012 I realized that when something painful lingers for over a year, it might be worth getting it checked out (yes, I am sometimes stubborn). My wife had been seeing a chiropractor friend (Brett Coapland of Performance Health Spine and Sport Therapy) who specializes in treating athletes (she’s had nagging hip issues since the birth of our daughter), and I decided to let him have a go at fixing my feet.
Brett has great manual therapy skills, and he did some active release work and Graston on my feet and calves. He also did a bit of dry needling – not sure if it helped, but it sure felt interesting. He also gave me some exercises and stretches to loosen up my posterior chain – my hamstrings and calves were wickedly tight after years of neglect. We talked a lot about trigger points (I had some really tender spots in my lower legs), and he had me doing regular foam rolling of my calves, particularly my soleus in the lower calf.
The first foam rolling sessions were intensely painful, even worse-so when I used the Rumble Roller, which may as well be a medieval torture device! I remember on one occasion my 2yo son taking the roller away and putting it out in the hall because I was screaming out while rolling my legs. In addition to stretching my hams and calves, I also regularly worked my foot over a rubber bouncy ball (stolen from my kids – they’re a great source of improvised self-therapy devices) and a Foot Rubz ball.
Over the following weeks I noticed my hamstring mobility improving – I actually reached a point where I could touch my toes with locked knees – never been able to do that in my life! Un-weighted, stiff-legged deadlifts in front of a wall seemed to really help stretch out my hams. Foam rolling got progressively less painful, and I became a strong believer that it does actually accomplish something beneficial – it seemed to really work away some of the angry spots in my calves. It’s really hard to say for sure, but the heel pain did seem to subside a bit as I headed into Spring 2012.
Another thing worth mentioning is that in January of this year I started taking Taekwondo classes with my kids. Taekwondo is great for improving flexibility and strengthening the feet and legs. It’s also great for improving balance. We always practice barefoot, and much of the class involves standing on one foot. Again, I don’t know if this helped, but it’s a factor worth mentioning. I also played around a bit with using Therabands for foot strengthening, as well as an AFX Foot Strengthener, which is an interesting device. I’m really lousy when it comes to following through on home strength work though, and given that Taekwondo was a scheduled class twice per week, that was my most consistent outlet for strengthening exercise.
Move the calendar forward to July 2012, and I embarked on the two most intense months of running I have ever undertaken (monthly mileage PR’s in both July and August). And, rather surprisingly, my increase in mileage coincided with a complete cessation of my foot pain. My feet still felt a bit tight when I first woke up (and they still do), but no pain to speak of, and nothing at all during the day or on runs. The lingering pain at the insertion of my right abductor hallucis muscle disappeared as well.Three months later and that’s where I am now – pain free and still not quite sure how I got here.
Lots of people will claim to have the answer to curing plantar fasciitis. I will make no such claim. All I can say is that the diminishment and ultimate cessation of my pain seemed to coincide with three things – starting Taekwondo in January, being treated by Brett and following his advice in the winter through early Spring (mostly for calf work after the initial few appointments), and ramping up my mileage from Spring into summer (2011 was a low for me running-wise – many weeks with only 10-15 miles max). I don’t know which of these factors, if any, was most important in fixing me (or if all played a role), but let me wildly speculate for a minute (this is, after all, a blog and not a medical journal, so I’m allowed to wave my hands around a bit here).
Here’s what I think happened. I started running minimalist in 2009. As it does for most people, moving to low drop shoes, particularly zero drop, non-cushioned shoes, resulted in a lot of initial calf soreness for me. I had sore calves for a long time, and I never did anything to take care of them. No stretching, no foam rolling, nothing. I think that as I accumulated more and more miles in flat shoes my calves got progressively tighter and tighter. Then, I ran a hard marathon training cycle in late 2010, with two hard-effort marathons in late 2010. I think the progressive battering of my calves for over a year combined with those races (and the preceding intense training) may have triggered the pain in my feet. I continued to do nothing to take care of my legs through 2011 (short of being in flat shoes all day to keep my calves from shortening up), and my mileage diminished considerably so there was less positive stimulus for repair. The pain lingered.
As I moved into 2012 I began doing intensive strengthening and flexibility work on my feet and legs in Taekwondo, then added to that by seeing my chiropractor and following his treatment plan. The calf foam rolling worked wonders, and continued flexibility work helped as well. As my calves loosened up, they pulled up less on my calcaneus on each side and eased some of the strain on the plantar fascia below (the tissues are all interconnected). My calves no longer seem to get sore when I run zero drop now, so that is an added bonus. Then, as I increased my mileage I kept a good positive repair stimulus going and kept the blood flowing well to the damaged regions of my feet. Repair occurred, and the pain went away.
The above story sounds good, but it’s just my speculation about what worked. One of my goals in the future is really to dig into the literature on specific running injuries and summarize what we do and don’t know (I hope it doesn’t lead to another book…).
If I had to give advice to anyone dealing with chronic plantar fasciitis it would be to not focus solely on the feet. Consider your calves, as well as regions higher up in the leg. The pain in your foot may simply be a reaction to a problem somewhere else (e.g., incredibly tight calves from going minimalist without any attempt to maintain tissue quality in transition – I’m a disciple of Jay Dicharry in this line of thinking, read his book!).
If you have tight calves, get a foam roller – I really have become a believer in what they can do with regular use. I’ve come to believe that a foam roller should be mandatory equipment for anyone planning to go minimalist, particularly if your goal is to go zero drop. You need to take care of those legs in transition! Do as I say, not as I did – I hope people can learn from my mistake
I also think that being in zero drop shoes almost full time prevented progression of my pain into something more severe. Pain occurred for me immediately after any time I relaxed my calves for an extended period of time – at night while sleeping, in the evening on the couch, etc. Wearing flat shoes all day helped to keep my calves fully lengthened while standing and walking, whereas a heel lift would have shortened their working range during the day.
And don’t think that treating pain always requires rest – my pain went away in concert with the biggest ramp-up of mileage in my life! Rest can definitely be helpful in overcoming acute pain, but it doesn’t necessarily resolve the underlying cause – you need to get at the root of the problem if you want long term resolution of the issue. Again, for more on this read Jay Dicharry’s book.
Most importantly, don’t despair – my heel pain, though never acute, lasted for upwards of 16 months. But it’s now gone, and I just ran a half-marathon PR last weekend. There is a light at the end of the sometimes very dark plantar fasciitis tunnel!