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Why athletes are wearing insoles and you should too

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An injured runner’s journey to foot pain relief

Key takeaways

  • Foot pain prevents anyone from getting the most out of physical activity

  • Insoles support the feet as shock absorbers

  • Insoles help prevent and relieve foot pain

Athletes subject their bodies to incredible amounts of shock as they push their limits to jump higher, run faster, and kick farther.

The brand of footwear they use while training and competing is very easy for us, mere non-athletes who want to be physically fit, to spot. We may even buy our own pair of those shoes. But athletes have another trick up their sleeves to get that extra bounce in their steps:

Insoles!

I got intrigued by insoles when one of my feet got injured as I was training for a 10 km road race. My foot was swollen enough, in fact, to warrant a trip to the emergency room. Thanks to this injury, I dreaded getting out of bed because of the excruciating pain that often shot through the length of my leg.

I started feeling like I was walking barefoot on pebbles too. Desperate to find quick relief and to (at least) walk without crutches, I embarked on a journey to understand my foot a bit more, to see my different options for treatment, and to peel at the layers of insoles that support injured feet.

Foot anatomy in a nutshell

The foot is so complex, with many moving parts. It can be divided into three main sections:

foot anatomy diagram

  • The forefoot, where the toes and the ball of the foot are located

  • The Mid-foot, also known as the arch

  • The Hindfoot, where the heel and the ankle can be found

There are 26 bones and 33 joints in each foot. On the other hand, over 100 ligaments, tendons, and muscles work hard to keep the foot stable each time you are in motion.

According to Casey Jo Humbyrd, of the John Hopkins Medical Center, the feet absorb three to five times more force than the hips.

Let’s say you take about 10,000 steps a day. Toss in repeated movements as you perform your exercise regimen. Ideally, the bones, ligaments, tendons, and muscles of both feet are in tiptop condition so you can perform your best.

However, overusing the feet can lead to injuries. Over-fatigued muscles pass on the stress to the bone, which may lead to painful hairline fractures. Inflammation in the plantar fascia, a ligament that stretches from the toes to the heel at the bottom of the foot, is the culprit for the dreaded first steps in the day.

And have you ever felt like you’re stepping on a pebbled walkway with bare feet although you are wearing shoes? The ball of one, or both of, your feet is most likely inflamed.

How do you get rid of foot pain?

Note: It is best to consult your primary care physician before embarking on any treatment plan for foot pain.

The doctor will take notes about the pain’s history (e.g., When did it start? Where in the foot did you feel the pain?), observe your gait and posture, and order images to be taken (e.g., x-ray, magnetic resonance imaging) to make a diagnosis. The treatment plan will depend on the determined cause of the pain. The doctor may—based on the severity of the foot pain and the damage on the foot—recommend medication, surgery, and/or physical therapy.

 

Medication

Oral and topical pain relievers reduce pain without generally dealing with inflammation; non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), on the other hand, deal with both the pain and in the inflammation. Your doctor will help you navigate through your options and will discuss the possible side effects of each medication.

 

Surgery

Orthopaedic surgeons perform procedures that can correct ligament, tendon, and muscle injuries, and bone fractures. However, not all patients will be candidates for surgery as this is the last resort for dealing with foot pain. So it is best to discuss treatment options with your doctor.

 

Physical therapy

A physical therapist works with the patients to achieve two goals: reduce foot pain and improve how the injured foot functions. If you go this route to correct your foot pain, you can expect the therapist to teach you several exercises for muscle stretching and foot-strengthening. Aside from exercises, the therapist will perform manual therapies on your injured foot during your appointment.

And then there are insoles…

Insoles are removable accessories that are placed inside your shoes to make them more comfortable and to improve how your shoes mould into your feet. The beauty of using insoles is that they provide comfort and support when and where your feet need them the most. Choosing a pair of insoles may be daunting because there are so many different choices! But here’s something that can help: the really good insoles adequately absorb impact, relieves foot pain, and even boosts performance.

 

Absorb impact

When you are walking or running, each heel strike generates a shockwave that spreads over the entire musculoskeletal system and is absorbed by the joints and the soft tissues. Failure to properly absorb that shockwave leads to injury. One of the simplest ways to reduce the shock is by using external shock absorbers, like insoles. A 1999 study reported that insoles reduced the pressure coming from heel strikes and forefoot landings. Meanwhile, a 2009 study indicated that the design of the insole affects the impact force on the knee.

The best insoles contain the best shock absorbers. Poron, for example, is a polyurethane that absorbs shock while maintaining flexibility in shoes. Form and function (hence, longevity) are maintained thanks to Poron’s open-cell design; the open cells act like tiny springs that absorb shock.

 

Ortholite is another open-cell type of long-lasting foam that can absorb shock. It is made of 5% recycled rubber, making it eco-friendly. Vegan cork, on the other hand, gives just the right amount of stiffness to brace the foot while keeping it comfortable.

Of course, when an insole is degraded, it becomes stiffer which means reduced shock absorption. Thus, insoles should be replaced promptly to ensure that they do their jobs properly.

 

Relieve pain

Strategically located padding, corresponding to the heel, the arch, and the ball of your foot provide relief from foot pain by transferring some of the force of each of your steps from the painful areas to nearby areas. For example:

Metatarsal pads, found where the ball of the foot sits, transfer some of the pressure from the ball of the foot to the bone shaft. This is important when the ball’s natural fat padding has migrated, thereby weakening the capacity of the ball of the foot to cushion each footfall.

The heel supports a person’s entire body weight. Moreover, it takes the brunt of weight-bearing as it is the first part of the foot that hits the ground. Heel pads act as cushions that absorb the shock from walking, running, or jumping. The cushioning effect then relieves the pressure in the heel.

 

Boost performance

Insoles are not only capable of absorbing shock. The really good ones can use your body weight as a performance booster. This is made possible by the materials found in the insole and the strategic locations of the padding. The idea is that the insole converts your body weight into energy that increases your bounce or propulsion, thereby improving performance in a variety of sports.

Who uses insoles?

Because insoles are effective in relieving pain and boosting performance, top athletes have been known for popping them into their shoes. Usain Bolt, the fastest man on the planet, is known for wearing insoles. So does skateboarding legend Tony Hawk. Professional athletes in basketball, lacrosse, baseball, snowboarding, and football are also known for wearing insoles to protect their feet and improve their games too.

Conclusion

Insoles are a fast and easy way to relieve foot pain. They can absorb shock, relieve pain, and boost your performance because of the superior cushioning materials found in them. Athletes engaged in different sports use them too. If athletes swear by them for managing foot pain, insoles must be effective for our foot injuries too!

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