What It Means When Your Foot Goes Numb When Running

It could be something as simple as too tight laces or a faulty gait

Soft focus woman massaging her painful foot while exercising. Running sport injury concept.
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It's one thing for your foot to fall asleep when you're just sitting around watching television or during a long plane flight. It's quite another for it to happen while you're actually on your feet. In fact, it's not all that unusual for people to experience a pins-and-needles sensation in their feet while running.

This can happen for a variety of reasons, most of which aren't serious and are easy to deal with. Read on to learn what might be going on if during a run your foot (or feet) go numb and what you can do about it.

Ill-fitting Footwear

A major cause of foot numbness in runners is too tight shoes that put pressure on nerves in the foot. If you suspect this might be the reason for foot numbness in your case, the fix is easy: Buy new shoes. Head to a store that specializes in running shoes and ask to be helped by a professional fitter who will consider not only the size of your foot but the shape as well.

For instance, if your foot is wide you may need a style that has an extra-large toebox (the area at the front of the shoe that houses your forefoot). The fitter also will take into consideration your running gait. Sometimes numbness develops as a result of a biomechanical issue (see below) that can be corrected with the right shoe.

Once you've picked out a shoe, buy a pair that's one half to a full size larger than your street shoe size. This is key because when you run your feet swell, especially when it's hot and humid outside. Going up a half or whole size also will accommodate thicker socks if you run in cold weather.

Overtight Laces

Sometimes it's not the shoes that are the problem, it's how you wear them—specifically, how you lace and tie them. It's common, for example, to pull the laces extra tight in order to get a good fit at the ankle, but this can entrap nerves on the top of the foot at the ankle, an area known as the tarsal tunnel (similar to the carpal tunnel in the wrist. This can be a particular problem for folks with high arches.

Try loosening your laces around your ankles. If this causes your feet to feel insecure, experiment with different lacing techniques to find one that keeps your shoes snugly on your feet without creating undue pressure over the top of your foot. You might also try putting some padding under the tongue of your shoe.

A Faulty Footfall

Sometimes a person's running form can put pressure on nerves in the foot that leads to numbness. For instance, overstriding—landing heel first with your foot ahead of your body's center of gravity—puts your feet in contact with the ground for too long.

To correct this common running mistake, try shortening your stride and focusing on landing on the mid-sole with each footfall, rather than lunging forward with your feet. This way your feet will be directly under your body with each stride. Run as if you're stepping on hot coals, keeping your movements light and quick. There are other advantages of correcting a habit of overstriding: You'll save energy and lower your risk of shin splints.

A physical therapist or running coach can help you to fine-tune your form if you need more specific guidance.

Foot Structure

The anatomy of your feet—specifically your arches—can play a part in numbness during running. If your feet are flat (meaning the entire bottom of each foot is in contact with the floor when you're barefoot) or if they're overly flexible, you're more likely to experience nerve compression.

This often can be corrected with shoe inserts called orthotics. You can purchase inserts at a pharmacy or chain store, but for the best results, have a podiatrist examine your feet. He may be able to guide you in selecting an over-the-counter orthotic, but if there isn't a ready-made one that will work for you he can prescribe custom orthotics.

Overtraining

Starting a running program full force as a beginner, or suddenly increasing the intensity and distances of your regular runs can lead to muscle trauma—essentially, injury to muscles in the feet that cause the tissue to swell and press on nerves.

If you're new to running, take the time to gradually build up your stamina and strength. For instance, follow a training program in which you alternate walking and running, decreasing the amount of time or distance you walk in equal proportion to the amount of time or distance you run.

Even if you're a seasoned runner, if you want to increase your distance, speed, or time, do it in increments so that you don't overstep the bounds of your abilities.

Muscle Tightness

Stiff, inflexible muscles just about anywhere in the body can lead to anatomical conditions that put pressure on nerves in the feet. If you sit at a desk all day, for example, your hip flexors are bound to be tight and, unless you manage to keep your torso perfectly erect, your back is likely to curve forward, putting pressure on your sciatic nerve.

There are, of course, numerous ways to relieve muscle tightness, both as part of your running routine and in between. Take a few minutes to do some warm-up exercises before you start running to get your muscles loose and ready to work. Be sure to stretch after your run as well.

If you're prone to muscle tightness in general, include flexibility exercise in your overall fitness regimen. A regular yoga practice can improve flexibility and proper body alignment. Using a foam roller or other massage tool can help you work out kinks in specific areas where tightness can impact nerves, such as quadriceps (thigh muscles), calves, hamstrings, and IT band. If it's in your budget, regular sports massage or another type of bodywork can also help keep your muscles pliable.

Neuroma

If none of these tactics bring relief, you may have a nerve issue called Morton's neuroma, in which a nerve in the foot in the area between the toes becomes enlarged or thickened due to scar tissue. The most common area for a neuroma to develop is in the space between the third and fourth toes, although the area between the second and third toes can be affected as well. This condition is especially prevalent in women who wear poor-fitting shoes for long periods of time.

Morton's neuroma may sound scary, but it's easily treated. See your primary care doctor or a podiatrist, who may prescribe metatarsal pads to wear inside your shoes to help lift and separate the metatarsal heads and take pressure off of the nerve. You'll position the pads just behind where you feel the pain, not directly on it.

Peripheral Neuropathy

This is the only potentially serious cause of foot numbness. Peripheral neuropathy is damage to the nerves that are part of the system that transmits information from the brain and spinal cord to the rest of the body. It's often a symptom of a medical problem. For some people, foot numbness or tingling is the first sign that they have diabetes. Once you've ruled out all other causes of the numbness in your feet, see your doctor to find out if you may be running on pins and needles because of a medical condition.

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View Article Sources
  • American Diabetes Association. Peripheral Neuropathy. Dec 5, 2013. www.diabetes.org/living-with-diabetes/complications/neuropathy/peripheral-neuropathy.html.