As a runner, your feet become accustomed to all types of sensations, ranging from pleasant to bothersome. The springy bounce of new shoes, the gnawing pain of a blister, the uneven terrain of a trail run—it’s all part of the experience, for better or worse. Over time, you learn to control what you can and enjoy (or, at least, deal with) the rest.
So, what do you do when you feel… nothing?
While numbness in the toes and feet isn’t necessarily the sign of a serious issue, it’s definitely not something you should ignore. To better understand what’s potentially causing numb feet and what to do about it, we spoke with Grayson Wickham, P.T., D.P.T., C.S.C.S., founder of Movement Vault, and Susan Paul, exercise physiologist and Training Program Director at Track Shack. Here’s what they had to say.
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What’s happening in the body that leads to numb feet?
Numbness is typically a cardiovascular or a peripheral nerve issue, explains Wickham. “It could be that you have decreased blood flow to your lower extremities, specifically your feet,” he says. Some external force may be restricting blood flow, or the vascular system isn’t working correctly to deliver blood and nutrients to the feet.
Running may worsen symptoms, as physical activity increases the body’s demand for oxygenated blood. But runners with blood-flow issues may also feel numbness during everyday activities or when they’re at rest.
In the case of a nerve issue, a tight muscle, a stiff joint, or an injury to the lower back (because of its proximity to the spinal cord) can compress or irritate the nerves responsible for delivering sensory and motor information back to the brain. This disruption to the nervous system may be exacerbated by increased muscle contraction or the impact of running. This chain of events can lead to numb feet on the run.
What causes feet to go numb on the run?
The root cause of foot numbness, whether related to your vascular or nervous system, could be traced back to a few common causes:
Paul notes that most runners need running shoes that are a full size larger than their street shoes. “You need to have plenty of room for your toes and forefoot; remember, your foot spreads out upon impact,” she says. Shoes that are too small, narrow, laced tightly, or even too “supportive” can compress nerves or restrict blood flow.
“Some people wear motion control shoes, which are very rigid and don’t allow your foot to move very much,” Wickham says. “If your shoe is too rigid and tight, if it doesn’t allow good motion at your foot and ankle, that can eventually cause numbness.”
Tight muscles or joints
Wickham explains that a tight joint or a tight muscle, especially in the feet, legs, or glutes, can eventually lead to feelings of numbness. He uses the foot, which contains 29 muscles (19 intrinsic to the foot and 10 that cross the ankle joint and connect to the foot) as an example.
“You’ve got nerves that run down into the foot, and their job is to innervate those muscles,” Wickham says. “If you have a tight muscle in any of those muscles in feet that compresses the nerve, then that nerve’s not going to work as efficiently or work at all in some cases, and that could lead to numbness in the feet.”
Additionally, poor mobility (the byproduct of tight muscles and joints) can throw off your running gait, worsening the problem. “Say someone has an excessive heel strike when they’re running. That’s basically going to increase the impact through your feet,” Wickham says.
A lower back injury
Wickham explains that the spinal cord is the center of the nervous system. “The nerves that branch off your spinal cord either send electrical input to a muscle to get it to fire and contract, or there are the sensory components—the nerves coming back to the spinal cord send sensory information,” he says. So if a nerve is compressed at the low back due to something like a bulging or herniated disc (which should be evaluated and treated by a medical professional), that will compromise the whole system.
An underlying health condition
In some cases, numbness in the extremities, including the feet, can be a symptom of an underlying medical condition disrupting the circulatory system, like diabetes or peripheral arterial disease (PAD), for example.
“Your feet are furthest from your heart, and your heart’s pumping the whole system. So, your toes and your feet are so far away that, if someone does have a medical condition affecting their blood vessels and their circulatory system, the most likely place that someone’s going to feel the effects is in their feet,” Wickham says.
You’re on a run when your feet go numb—now what?
Feet numbness is not the kind of discomfort you should push through. If your feet go numb while you’re running, stop. Numbness, Wickham says, is the body’s “check engine light”—something’s wrong and needs your attention. Plus, a lack of sensation is bound to negatively affect your gait, which could lead to injury.
Considering the above list of common culprits, try pausing your workout to do some quick troubleshooting:
- Loosen your shoelaces a bit. “Maybe you just tied your shoelaces way too tight on that run,” Wickham says.
- Stretch your calf muscle. Perform the typical calf stretch, but make sure to contract the calf muscle once you’ve reached the end range of your stretch and hold the contraction for at least 10 seconds. (Think about pressing down on the gas pedal.) Then contract the muscles in the front of the ankle (lift up on the gas pedal) for 20 seconds. Do 3 reps, then switch sides.
- And stretch your big toe. Slip off your running shoes and place your big toe against a wall or a box so that it’s extending upward. “Once you’re in a maximal stretch, you’re going to feel the stretch on the bottom and inside of the foot,” Wickham says. “Then, flex and curl the big toe into whatever it’s up against and hold for a 20-second contraction. Then, relax and do the opposite by contracting the muscles on the top side of the big toe by trying to pull the toe away from whatever it’s resting on. Hold that for 10 seconds.” Do 4 reps, then switch sides.
If, once you do some stretching and lace-loosening, the numbness doesn’t subside, call it a day. But don’t get too discouraged—just because you can’t fix your issue from the sidelines doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution.
How do you prevent feet from going numb on the run?
If you regularly experience numbness in your feet (or anywhere else) when you run, it’s a good idea to see a medical professional for a complete evaluation. In the meantime, there are a couple of things you can do on your own that may potentially alleviate your symptoms.
Buy new running shoes
Before making any purchases, “obtain a proper shoe fit by a running store professional, a physical therapist, or other sports medical expert,” Paul recommends. And if possible, shop at a specialty running store with a wide variety of shoe options and treadmills for testing. “Consider trying out a totally different shoe, too. Some brands come in different widths, which may be helpful to you; and you can try models that correct rolling in (over pronation), rolling outward (over supination), or a neutral shoe, and see if the numbness still occurs,” she says.
It’s also worth trying different lacing patterns. “Experiment with alternate ways to lace your shoes, like every other eyehole, and make sure they are not tied too tightly,” Paul says.
Stretch and work on mobility
To help prevent numbness (as well as various other pains and injuries), Wickham strongly recommends keeping a regular mobility practice—even just a few minutes every day can be helpful—that includes active stretching and self-myofascial release. It should address the whole body, not just the lower extremities. “A weak link in the kinetic chain will lead to compensation in another part of the body,” which can cause overuse and injuries, he says. “Work on everything [shoulders, back, quads, hammies, glutes, calves, etc], and you’re going to be covering all bases.”
And don’t forget your feet. “Even if somebody is dedicating time to stretching and mobility, they’re most likely not putting in a lot of work into their feet,” he says. Make sure to stretch out your toes and ankles, and use a mobility ball to “decrease the tension in your plantar fascia and those small intrinsic muscles in the bottom of your feet.”
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