6 common foot problems triathletes face and how to treat them

Your feet have a huge impact on your triathlon performance, says Andy Barber, so you need to look after them properly. Here he explains how and the 6 most common foot problems/injuries triathletes suffer and how to treat them


Each of your feet has 26 bones, 33 joints, and more than 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. That means a quarter of the bones in your body are in your feet – yet something as small as a blister can make a big difference to how well they propel you forwards. Your feet are vitally important and must not be neglected!


It’s not just muscles that provide energy for movement. Elastic energy makes a huge contribution, and up to half of this comes from the tendons in your feet and ankles, so problems at your feet can spell trouble throughout your body. Thankfully, strength and mobility in your feet will prevent many problems and can aid your performance.

Going barefoot around the house, or for some light jogging on grass, will help mobilise and strengthen your feet. It also allows the air to get to your feet, which can help avoid skin problems.

When going barefoot is not possible, there are alternatives. Nike Free running shoes encourage your feet to do more work than conventional training shoes, and are graded on a scale out of 10, with 10 being a normal shoe and zero being barefoot. As with any exercise, start gently – even wearing them as casual wear will bring some benefits. Another option are Vivo Barefoot shoes, which come very close to the feeling of being barefoot thanks to their incredibly thin soles.

Specific exercises help, too. Take your socks off to practise scrunching up sheets of newspaper, or picking up a pencil with your toes. Do walking drills over short distances, walking on your heels, on the balls of your feet and then on the outside of your feet. Get used to standing on one leg with your eyes shut. To make it harder, do this on a soft surface such as a cushion or sandpit.

Achilles tendonitis

Achilles tendonitis causes

Your Achilles tendon supplies a huge amount of elastic energy and channels a lot of your muscular power when running. It can become inflamed for many reasons, including poorly cushioned shoes, overly soft cushioning, over-pronation or ‘sheering’ forces from uneven surfaces. It’s often caused by increasing the intensity or quantity of training too rapidly.

Achilles tendonitis prevention

The foot strengthening exercises mentioned above will all help. Suitable shoes and sensible changes to training and running surfaces will also help avoid tendonitis.

Achilles tendonitis cure

Achilles tendonitis is notoriously difficult to solve, partly due to diverse causes, so go to see a good physiotherapist. Act at the first sign(s) of trouble and reduce or stop training to allow the Achilles tendon to calm down. Check whether new shoes are suitable or whether old shoes are worn out. Carry out stretching on your calves and ice the affected area. The best course of action, of course, is to follow your physio’s advice.

Shin splints

Shin splint causes 

Shin splints’ is a generic phrase covering a multitude of conditions including muscle soreness and compartment syndrome, right through to a stress fracture. That means there can be many causes, including excessive/inappropriate training.

Shin splint prevention 

Generally speaking, strong and mobile feet and ankles will reduce the risk of any of these conditions. Managing your training load is also important as many of the problems are caused by excessive or inappropriate training.

Shin splint cure 

Get straight to a good physio! As this term describes a diversity of conditions, don’t just go on what a friend found helped them: your problem could be completely different. You need to address the root cause of your shin splints. Plenty of runners take a long break from training, only to find the trouble is still there when they resume.


Blisters cause 

Usually caused when your shoes create friction. Blisters are more likely in warm weather.

Blister prevention 

Ensure your footwear fits well. Wear quality socks that wick moisture, have flat seams and don’t bunch or rub. Quality socks often have padding in high friction areas; you can also buy two-layer socks which dissipate friction between the two layers. Lastly, make sure you break new shoes in slowly to reduce your chances of getting blisters.

Blister cure 

Good blister pads from brands such as Compeed are worth the investment. Avoid bursting a blister unless you have to. If you do have to burst it (for example, if it’s in a high pressure area), always use a sterile instrument to do so, drain it at the bottom, leave the skin in place, sterilise the area and then use a blister plaster or pad.

Ingrown toenail

Ingrown toenail cause 

A toenail growing into the skin at the side of the foot can cause great discomfort, especially as it’s likely to become infected. It can be caused by shoes that are too tight, an injury to the skin near the toenail or cutting the toenails too short.

Ingrown toenail prevention 

Ensure your shoes have a roomy toebox. Cut your toenails square rather than rounded and don’t cut them too short.

Ingrown toenail cure 

This condition can be far nastier than it sounds, and can turn even worse with an abscess, so visit your GP at the first sign(s) of any soreness or reddening at the edge of the toenail. You can roll small pieces of wet cotton wool and gently push them under the corner of the nail to help lift it out; after each wash, try to push a little more under to lift the toenail further out.

Athlete’s foot

Athlete’s foot cause 

Athlete’s foot (tinea pedis) is a parasitic fungal infection that thrives when your skin is moist, warm and irritated. Several different fungi and yeasts can cause the infection; it most frequently occurs between the toes; and is more common among men than women.

Athlete’s foot prevention

The fungus needs warm, damp conditions to survive. So keep your feet clean, treat irritations, don’t let your shoes stay warm and damp, and consider a pair of ‘slides’ for use poolside and in changing rooms. If you’re prone to athlete’s foot, there are also powders that can be used to help prevent the problem from brands such as Scholl and Mycil.

Athlete’s foot cure

You should use an anti-fungal treatment and keep your feet clean and dry; oral tablets may be needed in more severe cases. Treatment should usually be carried on for several days after the infection seems to have gone.

Plantar fasciitis

Plantar fasciitis causes

The plantar fascia is a thick band of tissue that runs through the arch of the foot, from the heel to the forefoot. It works as a stabiliser, shock absorber and provider of elastic energy.

The trouble is that overpronation, high arches, low arches, increases in training, worn-out footwear and hard surfaces – to name just a few conditions – can all inflame the plantar fascia. This inflammation can be very persistent and linger for months or even years. It tends to be worst first thing in the morning.

Plantar fasciitis prevention

Proper footwear, sensible changes to training and keeping your feet in good condition will all reduce the risks. Don’t buy overly rigid shoes, and get an in-store gait analysis to ensure your running shoes offer the right level of support.

Plantar fasciitis cure

The conditioning exercises already outlined (see intro) can help fight plantar fasciitis. Stretch your feet, legs and ankles regularly. Icing the plantar fascia can help. You can also buy a foot-roller or golf ball to massage the plantar fascia, but be warned: deep massage can be painful. A night splint can help keep the plantar fascia stretched to help ease the problem in the mornings.