The Agony of the Feet: 10 Expert Tips to Care for Your Tootsies

Photo:  Kim Lucian

Photo: Kim Lucian

According to your fitness tracker, you walked 22,000 steps in one day over the weekend. Your heels are calloused, the balls of your feet ache, and your arches are cramping. 

Should you be taking better care of your feet?

Most of us don't spend time thinking about our feet beyond the occasional pedicure-pampering session, but foot health and aesthetics actually go hand in hand. Dr. Catherine Cheung, a San Francisco podiatrist with Golden Gate Sports Medicine who's board-certified in both foot surgery and reconstructive foot and ankle surgery, offered Rockyt these ten tips for keeping feet in tip-top shape.

Tip 1: Pack a backup shoe

It may be hassle to carry an extra pair of shoes, but it's good to have a backup shoe plan. "I always tell people to pack a pair of walking shoes in their purse because you don’t know when you’re going to be able to get up those hills," Cheung said. She also noted that the current sneaker trend makes the commuter shoe feel cooler. "I’ve seen more people switching out shoes. Basically, they have the commute shoe and the destination shoe." 

If you don't want to carry your shoes to work every day, consider keeping a few cute options at work. "I have five or six pairs of shoes at work, and I have my commute shoe," she said.

Photo:  Kim Lucian

Photo: Kim Lucian

Tip 2: You could be hurting yourself, even if you don't feel hurt

Not all injuries have obvious symptoms like bruising or bleeding. "I see a lot of stress fractures from walking around on San Francisco concrete in shoes that aren’t made for it," Cheung said. "It’s a repetitive stress injury and people don’t know that’s bad for them."

Cheung has noticed that new San Franciscans seem to be more susceptible to this type of injury. "There’s so much walking in SF compared to other cities," she said. "A lot of the injuries I see are in transplants—they’ve just moved here and they’re not used to all the walking. They’re trying to walk in their normal cute shoes or high heels. They don’t realize how much they’re walking and they end up getting these stress injuries."

Tip 3: Check the insoles before you buy new kicks

Cheung recommends checking the insoles before you wear that new pair of shoes. "Make sure there’s enough support from the shoe along the arch area." You should be looking for a "general kind of protection from the ground." And don't fall into the trap of thinking that all flats are good for your feet. "You can wear flats, but if you wear ballet flats all day and they’re super thin, you’re still going to be in pain from the shock absorption standpoint," Cheung said. "Support and shock absorption would be the two things I would consider."

Tip 4: Over the counter insoles are a good investment

Don't misinterpret the warnings about stress fractures and sturdy insoles as an endorsement for custom orthotics. According to Cheung, whether or not you need custom orthotics depends on your foot type. "For a lot of people, I recommend just an over-the-counter insert to give you some kind of support. Shoes, depending on the manufacturer, have a decent amount of arch support built into the shoe already, so it depends on the shoe itself." If your feet constantly feel tired or you need extra arch support, Cheung recommends starting with an over-the-counter insole. People with more extreme foot types, (e.g. flat feet, really high arches, or bunions) should look into a custom orthotic.

Remember that custom orthotics will fit better in a bigger shoe, like a running shoe. It’s harder to fit a custom orthotic into a cute shoe or a dress shoe, so they may not be practical if you’re going to wear a dress shoe a lot of the time.

Tip 5: Yes, you should add those rubber soles.

Shoe repair shops usually suggest adding rubber half soles on top of leather soles to help your shoes last longer—and that's not just an upsell. According to Cheung, it goes back to shock absorption and safety in terms of slippage. "I’ve seen people slip and fall in a bathroom just because the ground was wet. Having a little bit of rubber gripping on the shoe is a good idea."

Photo:  Kim Lucian

Photo: Kim Lucian

Tip 6: Walking takes a toll on your feet.

"The more you walk, the more issues can crop up. That's why babies have such smooth feet; They don’t walk yet. They don’t have that stress on their feet," Cheung said. Of course, some of it is just plain genetics. Regardless, self-care products can help. Cheung recommends a battery-powered callous remover, like this $20 version from Emjoi, noting that a lot of people use similar tools to smooth out peeling and callouses. The critical step is to take care of your feet before they develop cracks or fissures.

And if you want to use self-care as excuse for a pedicure, Cheung will back you up. "I’m not opposed to pedicures, if you go to a good place," she said. "It really makes a difference in maintaining your feet so they don’t look so weathered."


Tip 7: You (probably) don't need a regularly scheduled appointment with a podiatrist

Podiatrist visits aren't like gynecologist visits: you don't need to schedule an annual unless you have a medical condition, like diabetes. Think of podiatry as a responsive field instead of a preventative field.

That said, you can do a lot to avoid a responsive visit if you take care of your feet. "I think people should stretch their calves and hamstrings a lot more. That relates to the foot health." At home, try rolling the arch of your foot on a golf ball, or scrunching a towel or marbles with your toes to get the intrinsic musculature of the foot going.

Tip 8: Over-the-counter foot treatments aren't perfect.

Over the counter insoles are fine, but over the counter corn pads aren't right for everyone. "Some of the over the counter products can be dangerous because a lot of them are filled with acid, and acid doesn’t know the difference between healthy skin and bad skin," Cheung explained. "It will eat away the good skin, and that can be more painful and cause more problems." If you are dealing with the corns, a good podiastrist can fix you up in about 15-20 minutes.

Photo:  Kim Lucian

Photo: Kim Lucian

Tip 9: Your nails need a breather.

A lot of nail polishes contain ingredients that will make nails more brittle and discolored, and they can even stain nails. Cheung suggests taking a nail polish break every so often just to air the nail bed out. "I usually tell people take a week off every couple months to air out your toe nails." Swimmers need those breaks more frequently, since water can stay trapped under nail polish and keep the nail from breathing. "If you’re a swimmer, I tell people to take more time off without the nail polish."

Tip 10: Try this, not that.

When you’re looking for nail polish, Cheung suggests formulas that are free of camphor, DPB, ethyl tosylamide/epoxy resin, formaldehyde, formaldehidy resin, paraben, toluene, TPHP, xylene, and wheat, aka 10-free polishes. (It just so happens that her newly-launched nail polish, Aza, meets that criteria.) While we don't know precisely what negative effects those ingredients might have, we know that—in isolation—they aren't things we generally want on our bodies, Cheung said. She also suggests finding a formula that has healthy ingredients like tea tree oil, a natural anti-fungal, and Vitamin E oil, a natural nail strengthener. 

San Francisco demands a lot from your feet. If you want them to feel better (and look better on the rare occasion you can wear sandals), you need to take care of them. Take it from Dr. Cheung: a little stretching and pampering can go a long way in keeping you on your toes. 

If you fall into the category of people who need to see a podiatrist, call (415) 409-1367 to book an appointment with Dr. Catherine Cheung at Golden Gate Sports Medicine.