Olympic Gymnasts' Fantastic Feats Require Healthy Feet

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Gymnastics is fairly unique in that it is performed with minor, if any, foot support. Therefore, the feet are even more at risk for injury. The California Podiatric Medical Association offers tips to help keep gymnasts' feet fit and flying!

California Podiatric Medical Association

California Podiatric Medical Association

"Your feet shouldn't hurt"

Combining beauty, grace, strength and explosive power, women’s gymnastics is one of the most anticipated sports of the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

The eye-popping, jaw-dropping twists and turns performed by those tiny Titans could easily lead the viewer to believe that those extreme gravity-defying routines are performed on spring-loaded feet. Alas, gymnasts' feet are made of flesh and bone, and as such "are prone to a myriad of injuries," according to Thomas Elardo, DPM, a board certified podiatric physician and surgeon, practicing in Los Gatos, CA.

A former champion gymnast, Elardo also married a gymnast, and their three daughters have all participated in competitive gymnastics. Thus, as both a former gymnast and podiatric physician and surgeon, Dr. Elardo is very familiar with the variety of injuries that can afflict gymnasts' feet.

"Competitive gymnastics at the elite level requires endless hours of training, practicing skill after skill, and getting up from numerous falls, in order to perfect a routine and to stick that landing - all for a performance that lasts approximately 90 seconds.

"Because the feet support all of the body's weight and must absorb a tremendous amount of force over and over again, they can be particularly susceptible to injury. Those extreme high-flying tumbling routines and hard dismount landings can put pressure more than 10 times a gymnasts' weight on their feet with each landing.

"Gymnastics is fairly unique in that it is performed with minor, if any, foot support. Therefore, the feet are even more at risk for injury during the various exercises. Nearly every activity in gymnastics is considered high impact and could result in some type of foot injury. Thus, gymnasts' feet take an awful lot of abuse, which can lead to both sudden traumatic injuries like sprains, ruptured tendons and broken feet, ankles and toes.

"There are also the repetitive motion injuries like plantar fasciitis (pain and inflammation of a thick band of tissue, called the plantar fascia, that runs across the bottom of the foot and connects the heel bone to the toes), Achilles tendinitis (pain and inflammation in the tendon, the band of tissue that connects calf muscles at the back of the lower leg to the heel bone), or stress fractures that can creep up on an gymnast and go ignored in the determination to be ready for the next meet. Only coming around every four years, the Olympics are considered the ultimate meet, and many gymnasts will try to play through pain so as not to miss their dream of standing atop the highest step on the podium and gold medal glory.

"Injured feet, however, aren’t going to help a performance. Not only will the injury not heal on its own, but any compensation by the body to try to protect the injury could lead to the injury getting worse and additional injuries.

"As the old nursery rhyme goes, ‘the foot bone’s connected to the ankle bone, the ankle bone’s connected to the leg bone, the leg bone’s connected to the hip bone’… so it should be remembered that the foot cannot be considered in isolation to the rest of the leg or body. Any foot injury could have an effect further up the body, altering posture and walking.

"Additionally, the structure of a gymnast's feet - flat feet, high arches, over pronation (rolling inward) or over supination (rolling outward) - can lead to inflammation of tendons and ligaments that can also contribute to injuries. Getting a podiatric medical evaluation of a gymnast's feet and gait can help identify (and minimize) potential foot problems both on and off the mat. Orthotics worn in street shoes can help provide stability and support outside of the gym, whereas proper strapping and taping can provide necessary support on the mat.

"If a gymnast is experiencing foot pain, heel pain, toe pain, or ankle pain that does not go away with a day or so of rest, ice compression and elevation (RICE), she should see a podiatric physician right away.

Dr. Elardo noted the following are also helpful in helping to prevent gymnastic foot injuries:

  • “Stretch the feet thoroughly and properly to get them warmed-up before practice and a meet.
  • Give feet a break. Mix-up that workout routine. Alternate between lower and upper body strength development.
  • Eat right - a healthy, well balanced diet with plenty of calcium and vitamin D for healthy bone development. There are 26 bones in the human foot. Feet contain more than a quarter of all the bones in the entire body.
  • Wear properly fitting, supportive shoes while off the mat. To help ensure that feet are getting the maximum support outside the gym, go shoe buying in the afternoon (feet expand throughout the day). Have both feet measured while standing and fully weight bearing. Try on both shoes and walk around the store. Avoid narrow toed shoes that pinch your toes. Shoes should not be tight or pinch. Properly fitted shoes don't need a break-in period. Keep the heel to between 1 and 2 inches. Both high heels and flat-soled shoes (commonly known as ballet flats) can wreck havoc with the foot causing a variety of issues including tendinitis, ankle pain, plantar fasciitis, arch pain as well as the development of corns and calluses.
  • Finally, DO NOT “play through the pain” — if your feet hurt, see a podiatric physician and fully follow instructions for treatment and recovery.”

To find a local licensed podiatric physician visit http://www.calpma.org.

Founded in 1912, the California Podiatric Medical Association (CPMA) is the leading and recognized professional organization for California’s doctors of podiatric medicine (DPMs). DPMs are podiatric physicians and surgeons, also known as podiatrists, qualified by their long and rigorous education, training and experience to diagnose and treat conditions affecting the foot, ankle and structures of the leg.

CPMA, keeping Californians on their Feet – Healthy, Active and Productive

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