There’s a difference between running hurt and running injured. Running hurt often means that there’s some discomfort–often the good kind of hurt where you can tell your muscles are getting the workout they need. Sometimes, however, the hurt–while caused by running–isn’t a sign of overcome plateaus and progress made in speed, time, or distance. For runners, running hurt is common. And while some aches and pains are more common than others, too many runners know what running with bunions feels like. It’s not fun. Worst of all, due to the pain, when you’re running with bunions, you’re running injured–not hurt. If untreated, it can make running unnecessarily painful and dangerous.
What are Bunions in Runners?
A common misconception is that bunions are an outgrowth from blisters–that untreated blisters become bunions. This is false. Blisters in runners usually develop due to repeated friction on the foot. These blisters are small and unsightly pockets of fluid.
Bunions in runners (as well as in everyone else) are very different.
To put it simply, a bunion is a foot deformity, whereas a blister is not. They usually occur on the joint of the big toe of the foot. The onset takes time. The big toe will bend toward the rest of your toes. The skin of your big toe’s joint is more exposed and will develop a bump that becomes red and painful.
In some cases, a bunionette – or a Tailor’s bunion – can form at the joint of your pinky toe, causing much of the same problems: your pinky toe will lean toward the other four, and a red, painful growth will appear at the joint.
Burning sensations are also common for those experiencing bunions. In the most severe cases, patients will develop numbness in the area.
As a runner, bunions can be extremely painful. Every time your foot strikes the ground, your exposed joint will absorb the impact. At a set pace, that speed makes the impact of your body three times more than its weight. All that force comes crashing down on that damaged area with every footfall. It’s not pleasant.
Common Causes of Bunions in Runners
Bunions are often caused by the routine compression and misalignment of the toes. In other words: your narrow shoes are uncomfortable and they’re hurting your foot. Bunions tend to affect more women than men, with the prevailing theory being it’s because women tend to wear narrow shoes most often–high heels, stilettos, etc.
However, genetics also plays a role in this as well. Those with a family history of bunions tend to pass it along down each generation. That comes down to how your foot is structured. A bad angle can place stress on the joint and exacerbate the growth of a bunion. Rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disorder that results in swollen and painful joints, can also cause bunions to develop regardless of your shoes or active lifestyle.
However, runners are at an increased likelihood of developing bunions (usually in cases where there’s always a genetic predisposition for it). Running shoes may not be the most comfortable. The foot itself is a very vulnerable area, and the stress of running can sometimes make bunions more of an inevitability than a possibility.
It takes time for bunions to form. If you begin to notice inflammation or feel pain at the joint of the big or little toe, seek out a podiatrist as quickly as possible. They can diagnose the situation and provide possible treatments, of which there are many.
Treatment for Bunions in Runners
Running with bunions can be painful, but it doesn’t mean it’s permanent. When diagnosed, your doctor will likely prescribe rest, icing the affected joints, and pain medication. Sadly, the pain medications will likely just be over-the-counter ones like Tylenol. They may also suggest nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) like Ibuprofen, Motrin, and Advil.
However, long-term treatments should also be considered: using orthotics or agreeing to surgery.
In many cases, it’s the structure of the foot that’s the problem. Podiatrists can create customized orthotics that are placed in your shoe. Over time, they will realign your foot, allowing you to place less pressure on the joints, and preventing more bunions from forming in the future.
The other option is nobody’s favorite: surgery.
Surgery is a very common treatment for bunions. In fact, it’s the best option. It corrects the problem in your foot the way that even orthotics can’t. At the same time, you need to be aware that it’s a complicated surgery, and the recovery period is extensive.
Bunion surgery involves cutting into the foot and repositioning the bone manually. In the first two weeks following the surgery, the patient is usually in a cast and uses crutches to get around. After four weeks, they’re given a “casted shoe,” which is padded and allows for the foot to begin to take weight again when walking. Eventually, the patient can work normally again and begin a rehab program. Runners with bunions usually don’t return to their normal running schedule for at least three months. Of course, then you’ll have to start carefully with brief jogs to make sure you don’t stress an unready foot or pull muscles that have grown accustomed to a sedentary lifestyle.
Tips for Running with Bunions
If you’re not ready (or not a candidate) for surgery, there are ways you can continue running with bunions. It’s not foolproof, it’s not a complete solution, but it can make things easier. We mentioned earlier how vulnerable the foot is. Before going on a run, tape your foot into the normal position–toes straight, not leaned against each other. You can also use a toe separator, which is available at most sporting goods and pharmacies.
To help relieve the pain and stress on your joints, you need to build these muscles in your foot: the adductor halluces, the flexor halluces brevis, the fibularis longus, and the tibialis posterior. There are exercises to help you build these unnecessarily-difficult-to-pronounce muscles. You should also do these exercises on your other foot as well. It’s quite possible you have a genetic predisposition for bunions, and it may not limit itself to just one foot. These exercises will help relieve pain while also increasing blood flow.
Single-Leg Calf Raises
As a runner, this exercise is probably already part of your regimen, or it’s at least something you’re familiar with. You’ll need a slightly elevated surface, like a stair, low bench, or calf block.
- Place your toes and the ball of your foot on the elevated surface. Your heels and arches should be off the surface. For balance, grasp a wall, rail, or banister nearby. Bend your other knee behind you.
- Extend the ankle of your foot on the surface by raising your heel as high as possible.
- Lower the heel by bending the ankle until you feel a stretch in your calf.
- Do 2 sets of 10 reps.
- Switch feet and repeat.
NOTE: For extra weight, use both feet at once.
- Sit on the ground. Bend your knee so that your foot (and the heel) is flat on the floor ahead of you.
- Keep your heel on the floor and use it as a pivot to raise your foot.
- Gently pull your big tow away from your other toes.
- Hold for 2 seconds.
- Do 1 set of 10 reps.
- Switch feet and repeat.
- Sit on the ground. Place your foot just ahead of us, with your toes pointed at the ceiling.
- Curl your toes down to the ground as best you can.
- Use your hand to push them down further. Use enough pressure so that your toes are like a tight fist. Do this with each toe separately or as a group.
- Hold the toes in place for 2 seconds.
- Do 1 set of 10 reps.
- Switch feet and repeat.
Shin Release (with a lacrosse ball)
- Place a lacrosse ball on a foam block on the floor.
- Next, bend one knee for balance on the floor beside the block.
- Bend your workout knee and place it on the ball.
- Using your knee, move the ball around your shin while also rotating your ankle. Balancing isn’t going to be the easiest thing here, so you’ll probably lose the ball and knock the block over from time to time. It happens.
- Do this exercise for 5 minutes.
Calf Release (with ball or roller)
- This is essentially an inverted version of the Shin Release.
- With the same block and ball (or foam roller if you have one), place the very back of your knee on top of the ball. Your toes should be in the air.
- Begin to move back and forth–side to side at first. Then up and down.
- Do this exercise for 5 minutes.
NOTE: You can adapt both the Shin and Calf Release to suit your needs. Focus on areas that you feel the most tension and focus the exercises there. The massaging nature of the exercise will help relieve that tension and increase blood flow, which promotes both healing and muscle growth.
What Are Some Ways I Can Prevent Bunions From Running?
Well, here’s the thing: if bunions are hereditary, they may not be avoidable. Genetics are a roll of the dice in a lot of ways, so this may work, but then again, it might not. Use the above exercises as part of your normal regimen to keep problematic areas from worsening. Go to a podiatrist when you first see signs of bunions. Again, bunions in runners aren’t necessarily caused (even primarily) by running, so it’s hard to determine whether you can actually take steps to prevent them.
That said, let’s take a quick look at some specific factors that commonly lead to bunions for those who do and don’t have the predisposition. We mentioned one before. It’s the shoes. Most running shoes have a tapered toe box: they get narrow at the toe. If the box is particularly tight, it can cause friction against the toe joint and press your big toe toward the others, helping create the deformity that causes bunions to develop. Like all shoes, they alter the natural shape of the foot and can be detrimental to runners in this situation.
Some running shoes also have elevated heels. The elevation is slight, but it can be enough to add pressure to the joints and balls of your feet.
When purchasing running shoes, go for pairs where the toe box is wide. When you place your foot in, it should feel more like a slipper than a new pair of dress shoes. In other words, no jamming your toes in and feeling uncomfortable. Some of the boxes are even padded, offering extra soft protection for the joints. Test the flexibility of the shoes. A flexible sole provides more support.
And There You Have It: Everything You Need to Know About Bunions in Runners
If you’re running with bunions, you should seek out a podiatrist’s help first. If caught early enough, they can be treated with exercise and a new pair of shoes.
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