Any runner who has bunions knows it can be a major impediment to training. A bony growth that protrudes from the joint of the big toe, bunions can cause many issues. At best, they make finding the perfect running shoe a bit difficult. At worse, they can cause significant pain while running—or even just walking. There are a few steps runners with bunions can take to make sure their miles are pain-free.
Does running cause bunions?
The short answer—no. People without bunions will not suddenly develop them when they start a training program.
“It’s not that running causes bunions. If you have bunions to begin with, running can perpetuate that deformity,” says Dr. Richard T. Braver DPM, a sports podiatrist located in Fair Lawn, Riverdale and Englewood, NJ.
Many bunions are formed because people are genetically predisposed to them. People with a more sedentary lifestyle may never notice a foot issue or find pain in everyday activities. However, the force running places on the foot can bring about discomfort more quickly. Improperly fitting shoes and poor running form can exacerbate any issues.
A majority of runners with bunions also tend to pronate, meaning they roll inward every time their foot strikes the ground. Instead of pushing straight ahead, the big toe angles towards the adjacent 2nd toe, causing stretching and pain to the bunion joint.
Treatment Options For Runners With Bunions
“The most common complaint we hear is pain at the side of the bunion where it’s really very prominent, the side which is bulbous, tends to rub on the shoe and it causes pain, ” says Dr. Braver
Addressing the fit of a shoe is often the first conservative approach for runners. Dr. Braver suggests creating a small opening on the side of their running shoe where the bunion protrudes. Put the shoe on, feel the area where the bone is most prominent, mark it with a pen, and then cut a small X in the center. This allows the big toe to have more room to move while running.
The big toe isn’t the only part of the foot that can experience irritation. Many runners also don’t realize that bunions can shift the bone of the big toe inward, causing pain in other areas of the foot.
“The second metatarsal underneath the ball of the foot may also hurt when they push off,” says Dr. Braver “And that’s because when a bunion gets out of position, it’s not taking its fair share of weight. What happens is that weight is then transferred to the next bone.”
Runners with more moderate foot pain often turn to orthotics. Getting fitted for an orthotic relieves pressure on other parts of the foot and helps restore correct running form. While it won’t heal a bunion, it can help prevent it from getting worse.
When a bunion becomes severe, the answer is typically surgery. It’s important for runners to find a sports podiatrist who has familiarly in treating athletes. The surgical procedures of sports podiatrists can vary from traditional methods, with an emphasis on minimizing scar tissue and allowing for a greater range of motion. Runners should expect to miss anywhere from 8-12 weeks of running. Even then, the build up to a normal training plan takes a while. Dr. Braver suggests alternative low impact exercises to his patients during the recovery period to keep them cardiovascularly fit. This may seem like a long time to be off your feet. However it is a much better option that experiencing severe discomfort while running.
“People get to that point when they say ‘I’m not going to cut every pair of shoes I have. It hurts when I’m running. It hurts when I’m walking. The bunion throbs.’ Then we say you don’t have to live with this pain. We can fix it,” says Dr. Braver.
Advice To New Runners With Bunions
All runners who are starting a training program begin at the same place—a specialty running store. Getting fitted for the proper shoe is very important, especially since so many runners with bunions pronate. A supportive shoe in the proper size will help to minimize any pain. A bunion may require a shoe in a wider width (2E or 4E), which most running specialty stores can quickly order if they don’t have it in stock.
Dr. Braver also recommends that new runners visit a sports podiatrist if they begin a training program and experience foot pain.
“More than likely they will need orthotics to stop the bunion from getting worse and worse. The orthotic can’t fix the bunion like surgery can, but it can slow down the progression.”
This should not discourage anyone with bunions from trying to start a running program. Just be aware of your body, increase mileage slowly and take action at the first sign of pain.