Most people choose to ignore their feet. They're generally ugly, sweaty, callused and odorous, which means they're often stuffed into shoes-or ski boots-and forgotten. However, three out of four Americans experience serious foot problems in their lifetime, often the result of neglect.
For many, ski season is synonymous with pain in the feet, commonly caused by poor-fitting ski boots or existing foot problems. But with innovations in bootfitting, custom insoles and socks, foot pain could go the way of leather ski boots. When it comes to foot health, the focus should be on preventing injuries, rather than treating them, says Dennis Kiper, D.P.M., who specializes in podiatric sports medicine in Arcadia, Calif.
One-fourth of all the bones in the human body are in your feet. When these bones are out of alignment, so is the rest of the body. Strong feet and ankles, which together act as accelerators, brakes and shock absorbers in skiing, are not only crucial to performance, but also help keep the body upright and out of the emergency room. If your foot is stable, slight movements of your leg will be transmitted directly to your ski edge.
Here we highlight the most common foot problems and offer potential solutions. Give your dogs the attention they need now, and enjoy pain-free skiing for years to come.
Blisters Everyone gets blisters once in a while, but they shouldn't be common features of a healthy foot. If your feet are frequently blistered after a day of skiing, that could be a sign of ill-fitting boots. Avoid cotton socks-they increase friction and retain moisture. Your feet are better off in a synthetic-blend or polypropylene sock. To treat a blister, first clean the surface with alcohol. Then, with a sterilized pin, puncture a small hole at the edge of the blister. Drain the fluid with gentle pressure and apply an antibiotic ointment, but leave the skin in place. "If you get a blister on the first day of a ski trip and plan on skiing the next, wait until your trip is over to pop it," Kiper says.
To prevent a blister, apply athletic tape over areas prone to blistering. To protect an existing one, cushion with moleskin before buckling your boots.
Plantar Fasciitis (heel spurs) Most pain associated with the heel can be linked to this disorder. Overpronation-the flattening of the arches and inward tilting of the ankles-produces small tears and inflammation in the wide band of tendons and ligaments that stretch from the heel to the ball of the foot. This band forms the arch of the foot and serves as a shock absorber for the body. "Even in a ski boot, there's a fair amount of motion in the foot arch," Kiper says. "R.I.C.E." (rest, ice, compression, elevation) and anti-inflammatory drugs will help ease the pain. A heel cushion-with the center removed or cut into a horseshoe shape-will reduce stress on the heel. To help prevent the disorder, get custom insoles and stretch the Achilles' tendon and calf. (See "Foot Prep" on the following page for useful stretching tips.)
Foot Numbness That burning feeling or "pins and needles" coursing through your foot is a sign that either your circulation is being restricted or that you have irritated or damaged nerves. Caused by too-tight ski boots that put pressure on the calves, toes and top of feet, this sensation can progress to complete numbness. Orthotics (the medical version of custom insoles) can take pressure off, but properly fitting boots will eliminate the problem.
Stress Fractures When the foot is subjected to repetitive trauma, such as it faces with moguls or steep runs, the structure of the foot becomes unstable. Most foot injuries in skiing are biomechanical and a result of overuse, Kiper says. Symptoms of a fracture are pain, swelling and redness. To treat, immobilize and ice the injured foot, allowing it to rest. Orthotics will reduce and help heal long-term stress fractures.
Cold Feet Overly tight ski boots inhibit the circulation of blood in the toes and feet, making them colder and possibly hindering performance. Wearing synthetic-blend or polypropylene socks that wick moisture away from the foot will help keep feet comfortable and dry. Avoid caffeine because it constricts blood vessels. If you have debilitating problems with cold feet, effective boot heaters are available. (See "Booting Up," In Gear, page 186.) Most are powered by a battery pack that straps to the outside of your boot and can be worn with insoles or orthotics. A cheaper alternative is neoprene boot shields that act as heat insulators and are worn over boots.
In the quest for warm feet, desperate skiers can get creative. Be careful. "One morning I wrapped my toes individually in Saran Wrap," says Michael Hulcher, 31, of Denver, Colo. "I thought the insulation would keep my toes warm, but after two hours of skiing, my feet had turned purple from the constriction. I couldn't ski for the rest of the day. Now I just change my socks when I stop for lunch."
Prevention The best way to eliminate most common foot problems is to get your boots fit by a professional. By assessing the size and shape of your foot and your level of skiing ability, boot-fitters help you find or alter a boot to make it right for you. "We try to put the skier in a boot that's going to help them progress with their skiing ability, be comfortable and have fun," says Ben Wax, manager and bootfitter at Inner BootWorks in Stowe, Vt. The most common problem Wax sees is boots that are too big. "Then people overbuckle them, crush the arches, cut off circulation to the toes and are miserable," he says. The boot should fit snugly in the shop because you'll pack down the liners when you ski, making it roomier. (For more information on bootfitting, see "If The Boot Fits," September 2000, page 148.)
Wax also recommends that all skiers use custom insoles in their boots. Insoles not only support your foot in a neutral position, eliminating cramping, heel slip and toe pressure, but they also help you run a flatter, more efficient ski. "Nothing we wear is quite as unnatural as a ski boot," says Jim Jetté of Workingman's Custom Insoles in Boulder, Colo.
"A custom insole mirrors the image of your foot and makes the ski boot truly your boot." An imprint of the bottom of your foot is taken using heated plastic or computer-generated scans. Jetté encourages using insoles when buying new boots. "Some people think an insole will make their ski boots tighter," Jetté says. "But with an insole, the foot will actually take up less room in the boot. It keeps the foot from spreading out, making it not as long or as wide as it is without an insole." A good pair of custom-fit insoles from a ski shop costs anywhere from $75 to $200, but is priceless when it comes to skiing comfort.
Need to put some "pep" into your long ski days? Studies show that sniffing a peppermint scent can boost endurance during exercise.
To contact Dr. Dennis Kiper, visit www.drkiper.com.