Stick It: Gymnasts and Foot Injuries
Posted by Jenn F. on Thursday, March 22nd, 2012
2012! An Olympic year! A Summer Olympic year! Just think, in a few months we can look forward to seeing people run, jump, and throw things all over London! And of course we’ll see people run, jump, and throw themselves around, onto, and off things. Yes, the gymnasts are back.
Gymnastic competitions of all levels go on every year, but it’s only during Olympic years that they really penetrate the mind of the public. That’s the only time when the sight of those happy little sprites bouncing around can be seen on major television networks. Look at them, swinging on bars, jumping over odd pieces of equipment, flipping and skipping around on feet made of springs.
What?! They DON’T have feet made of springs? Hey, your feet could get hurt doing all those things!
And indeed they can. Gymnasts’ feet take a lot of abuse, which can lead to injuries such as:
- Plantar fasciitis
- Foot stress fractures
- Achilles tendinitis or ruptured Achilles tendons
- Sprained or broken ankles or toes
As you can see from this list, gymnasts are susceptible to both traumatic injuries, as in “BAM!! I just landed badly and my foot is hanging awkwardly off my ankle!” and repetitive motion injuries, as in, “Ow, my foot still hurts for the 17th day in a row. Well, can’t let it stop me from my 33rd straight day of five hour practices!”
The latter are the more nefarious ones–if you break or sprain your ankle falling or landing hard, you know it, everyone sees it, and the treatment is fairly straightforward. However, in a sport like gymnastics, which calls for long hours of solo practicing and encourages an obsessive mindset (see this list of “You know you’re a gymnast when…” items), injuries like stress fractures and tendonitis can creep up on an athlete and worse, can be ignored or hidden by a gymnast determined to be ready for a meet. The Olympics only come once every four years and many gymnasts will accept playing with pain so as not to miss their chance at medal glory.
Injured feet aren’t going to help a performance, though, so it’s important for gymnasts, their parents, and their coaches to be aware of what’s going on with the gymnast’s feet and be willing to accept some downtime in exchange for better health and performance down the road. If you’re a gymnast and you’re feeling foot pain, heel pain, toe pain, or ankle pain tell someone; not only will your injury not heal on its own, but any compensation your body does to try to protect the injury could lead to a worse injury. If you’re a parent or coach, watch out for a gymnast who winces in pain while doing a routine or is walking with a hitch. Contact a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) to get an accurate diagnosis of the injury and work on a plan for healing.
The key to staying on your feet and winning that competition is prevention, of course. Here are some tips for preventing foot injuries in gymnasts:
- Make sure you’re stretching properly. All gymnasts seem to spend their time in a perpetual stretch (seriously, if you every knew any girl who did gymnastics, you may have noticed that they don’t sit, they do splits. Don’t leave the room to get an extra chair when a gymnast arrives, because she’s going to be on the floor), but don’t forget the calf stretches that will help keep your plantar fascia and Achilles tendon free and less likely to be injured.
- Take a break. Repetitive motion injuries come from, well, repetitive motion. If you have a tendency to certain types of foot injuries, work with your coach to come up with a practice plan that will give your feet a break a couple times a week. Work on your upper body (though don’t obsessively overdo that either–shoulder injuries are a big issue for gymnasts). Work on apparatus that don’t require as much foot pounding. Sure, the uneven bars require a landing, but at least you only do that once a routine, as opposed to the constant pounding your feet take while tumbling. Use the breaks as an opportunity to focus on developing skills that might not have been your primary focus (see this post about gymnast Jonathan Horton, who took the time recovering from his foot injury to concentrate on getting better on the rings).And really, take a break. No good can come from overtraining. Days off are okay.
- Eat right. As we talked about in our foot stress fractures post, brittle bones are a quick ticket to an injury. It’s easy for gymnasts who are always on the go and hyper-concerned about staying thin to neglect their eating habits. However, it’s vitally important to make sure your body has enough fuel to stay strong enough to get you through practice (don’t forget to eat something before practice!), as well as the rest of your day . It can be really hard to figure out the right diet for you on your own, so if you’re not sure what you should be eating, talk to a professional. A coach helps you figure out a plan for practice and a nutritionist can help you develop a plan for eating.
- Wear the right shoes. It always comes back to the shoes! Most people picture gymnasts with bare feet, and that is part of the sport’s aesthetic, but there are also shoes available to protect your feet for certain types of performances. Gymnastics Rescue describes these:
- Apparatus shoes – Thin light shoes when the gymnast is landing off a piece of equipment. They provide some traction to help prevent sliding.Vault shoes – Padded shoes worn when gymnasts are vaulting and landing hard.Balance beam shoes – Thin shoes with rubber or leather soles to help grip the beam.
Of course, talk to your coach about the right kind of shoes. Choose shoes that fit fit properly and choose shoes that work with your foot type. If you have flat feet or high arches, a podiatrist at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) can analyze your feet and help select an appropriate insert that will help keep your feet healthy.
Some gymnasts, though, will prefer to perform barefoot or will have their feet taped up to provide some protection without the weight of shoes. That’s up to the gymnasts, but as always, they should be aware of how their feet feel, and consider a change if they’re experiencing foot pain.
Keep this information in mind and you gymnasts out there will go a long way towards keeping your feet healthy. If, however, you are experiencing any foot pain, contact us at The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet.
If you have any foot problems or pain, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. Geldwert, Dr. Katherine Lai, and Dr. Ryan Minara have helped thousands of people get back on their feet. Unfortunately, we cannot give diagnoses or treatment advice online. Please make an appointment to see us if you live in the NY metropolitan area or seek out a podiatrist in your area.