My Left Foot. And the Right One, Too.
If you’re reasonably young and healthy, your first visit to a podiatrist’s office will feel a little like a trip to a retirement home. The waiting room will be populated by you and a variety of elderly patients with oxygen tanks hooked onto their wheelchairs. It is an unsettling experience that leaves you feeling simultaneously young and old. I still dread the visits two years after my first appointment, but have learned to treat them as an abject lesson in living: a poor diet paired with a sedentary life means you’ll end up diabetic and unable to cut your own toenails.
The reason I visit a podiatrist is that I have punished my feet rather too much over the years. As podiatry explains it, the padding on the balls of our feet loses its cushioning qualities with age. This exposes the nerve endings to the percussion of walking or bicycling and can cause considerable pain on impact. And that is why my feet feel like they’re on fire during a long day on the bike.
I used to think the pain had other causes. Fellow sufferers on bike forums suggested switching to bike sandals (tried it) or buying different pedals (tried that, too). No one thought to recommend a podiatrist. That’s probably because we associate health problems with weakness and failure. Hypochondriacs–not bicyclists–visit specialists. Bicyclists tough it out.
It was Michael Sylvester who first suggested a podiatrist at my Sweetpea fitting. I later asked my physician for a referral, and the first humbling visit followed soon after. It was eye-opening and revolutionary in way I hadn’t expected. Until I saw a specialist, I didn’t realize how much my feet hurt every day. I was in discomfort walking down the hall at work, standing at the kitchen sink, even sitting at a desk. Naively, I thought the prescription for change would be specific to the bike, but that first conversation involved a long list of don’ts affecting everyday life:
No flip flops,
No walking barefooted around the house,
Wisely, the podiatrist did not try to talk me out of bicycling. Instead, she focused on minimizing the pain through changes in foot care. No more cheap shoes. The focus would be on quality rather than quantity. She handed me a list of sanctioned (and expensive) footwear brands, and said to buy a couple pairs twice a year and throw them away at the end of each season. Oh my God, it was my husband’s dream come true–a closet with just two pairs of shoes.
After she had addressed what to do off the bike, the podiatrist turned to my time on it. She insisted on platform pedals–no egg beaters that concentrate pressure from the downward stroke onto the weakening fleshy pad of the foot. The bike shoe had to be as wide as possible, with plenty of room in the toe box and a really stiff sole (I now wear Specialized BG mountain bike shoes). Over several subsequent fittings, she created custom orthotics to support my arches and lessen the impact on the ball. To counteract pronation, she added pads beneath the insoles. The pads must be replaced every 1,000 miles of riding, and the shoes replaced once a year.
It’s been an adjustment, but the payoff has been real. My feet feel better than they have in a long time, both on and off the bike. I still have foot pain, but it occurs farther into the ride and doesn’t tend to last as long nor be as severe. I still walk around the house barefooted sometimes, but being pain-free much of the time has made me notice discomfort when it occurs, and I look for the built-up shoes before my feet hit the floor most mornings. If you’re a cyclist having problems that can’t be resolved by switching shoes or pedals, perhaps you should consult a podiatrist. Though it pains me to admit it.