The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine

Getting Along Swimmingly: Ankle and Foot Problems in Swimmers

Posted by on Monday, March 26th, 2012


You’re usually a land creature, but suddenly you have been transformed into a water creature. What happened? Hmm…I suspect you have a foot injury and the only thing you can do is swim. Of course! Swimming’s great! Whether the pool is indoors and large or outdoors and small, it’s a great non-impact workout that gives your poor injured foot (or feet) a break (figuratively, not literally!). But storm warning ahead–as gentle and safe as it seems, you actually can incur foot and ankle injuries from swimming.

Granted, you probably won’t run into a lot of trouble if you swim for a half hour, two or three times a week. However, if you are a serious swimmer or the parent of one, who spends more than an hour in the pool almost every day, there are a few foot issues that can come up. Let’s talk about what they are and how to avoid them.

Problem: Foot Cramps – There you are, in the middle of a big race, pulling ahead of the competition. Victory is in reach! Then suddenly, out of nowhere, your feet are seized with a brutal, stabbing pain. Foot cramp! You try to fight through it, but it’s too much. You slow down and watch in pain as your super arch rival pulls ahead. The agony of defeat (de-feet?), indeed.

Or maybe you’re just out for a nice  morning swim.

Whichever the case, few things will bring you to a dead halt while swimming like a foot cramp. They’re mean, nasty, and strike without warning. So, what to do?

Solution: To immediately relieve pain, stop and massage your foot; the cramp should go away in a moment or two (after you’ve lost the race!! Aargghh!!). The best solution for foot cramps, though, is to prevent them. You can cut down on your chances of developing a foot cramp by:

  • Stretching your feet properly. Yes, even feet need stretching. You can find some great foot stretches here at livestrong.
  • Hydrating. Yes, you can become dehydrated even while surrounded by water. Hey, you’re working hard and sweating! Cramps can come from not being hydrated enough, so make sure you’ve drunk enough (but not too much) before a hard workout and keep a water bottle nearby for breaks.
  • Eat well. As we’ve discussed before, shortcomings in your diet can lead to cramps, especially a lack of potassium. I’ve told you, when it comes to cramps, bananas are your friend! Have a banana sometime before your swimming workout, but of course, not too close to diving in the pool.

Problem: Swimmer’s Heel – It’s easy to think that any injuries you might get from swimming are all of the repetitive nature, but you actually can suffer traumatic injuries while swimming. You know that fancy flip turn you learned so you can start back down a lane more quickly? Well, people actually can scrape, cut, or bruise their heels while doing a violent turn; this is called “swimmer’s heel.” Some swimmers have even sprained their ankles doing a turn!

Solution: Treat cuts, bruises, and scrapes as you would any of those injuries out of the water; the same with a sprain. Prevention? Well, just be careful–be aware of where you are and how close you are to the wall. Most of these injuries probably come from swimmers who either think they’re closer or farther from the wall than they really are. It’s hard, but that’s the best you can do.

Problem: Ankle tendinitis: You swim! A lot! You love it! Then one day you feel a nagging pain in your ankle. It keeps nagging you, every day, every stroke in the pool. Welcome to ankle tendinitis. Most swimming strokes call for a repeated pointing and flexing of the foot, so after a while, the tendons in your ankles get worn out, inflamed, and painful.

Solution: The best way to deal with this is rest, but that doesn’t mean you have to stop swimming! The breaststroke calls for less extreme foot flexion than freestyle or the butterfly, so you can focus on that for a while (don’t wear out your shoulders, though). Another great option from the California Podiatric Medical Association is to use a pull-buoy. These are foam blocks that you put between your thighs so you don’t move your legs when you swim; all the power comes from your arms. Swimming with a pull-buoy will give you some options if you’re trying to let tendonitis heal, and you can prevent it in the future by alternating use of it with regular swimming during your workouts. Here are some great tips for swimming with a pull-buoy.

If you’ve been resting and avoiding using your feet in the pool, and your ankle pain persists, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine (212.996.1900) so you can get a clear diagnosis of your problem and develop a plan for treatment.

Problem: Athlete’s Foot – Ugh, that nasty fungus that attacks your feet and makes them burning hot, itchy and just plain ugly.

Solution: The fungus that causes athlete’s foot thrives in warm, wet conditions, so a pool combined with a locker room is like its dream home. Always wear flip flops when walking around the pool. When you’re done swimming, wash your feet and make sure they are absolutely, completely 100% dry before you put your socks and shoes on. If you wear fins, make sure you keep them clean and dry (you’re allowed to get them wet when you’re in the water). If you do get a case of the dread fungus, you can buy an over the counter topical treatment, or try one of these great home remedies for athlete’s foot.

The pool may seem like a safe haven for feet, but nothing’s perfect–even swimmer’s have to be careful about their feet. If you have a foot injury, whether from swimming or something else, contact The Center for Podiatric Care and Sports Medicine. Dr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. 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 MedicineDr. Josef J. GeldwertDr. Katherine Lai, Dr. Ryan Minara and Dr. Mariola Rivera 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.