Getting off on the wrong foot

Holiday or vacation travelling – as fabulous as it sounds – can be an exhausting activity.  Time zone differences, jet lag, a change in diet, and anxiety about travel schedules requires mental resilience.  Even overstimulation from museum exhibits and tourist attractions can leave you brain-dead.

Yet for many individuals, the physical exertion of holiday travelling – especially when this deviates from your normal daily pattern of movement and activity – may lead to pain and injury of the lower legs and feet.  Those 12-hour sightseeing tours that traverse endless stairs and require the stamina of a marathon runner do nothing to minimize your discomfort.

It’s possible to prevent foot and calf pain by strengthening your legs, as long as you allow ample time to condition. Too, it’s helpful to understand the reasons that typical injuries occur to your feet and lower legs while travelling.


Common conditions and causes of discomfort

Compared with typical daily movement, holiday travel usually involves substantially more walking, standing in lines, and carrying a weighted rucksack. When the load on the lower legs and calves exceeds its normal tolerance, the tissues and structures don’t cope very well. And this leaves you vulnerable to pain and injury.

Often, the Achilles tendon and the plantar fascia (under the foot) become overstretched, inflamed and very painful when they experience sudden increased loads. This can lead to problems known as overuse injuries such as Achilles tendinopathy and plantar fasciitis. In fact,  Achilles tendinopathy is one of the most frequent overuse injuries in the ankle and foot. Therefore, exercise is the best preventative and therapeutic intervention to prepare for anticipated increased loads on the legs and feet to prevent foot and calf pain.

Another common cause of travel-related calf, ankle, and foot pain is a sudden increase in the volume (or step count). In general, many people walk less than 5,000 steps per day. However, while travelling, a daily count of 10,000 – 15,000 steps is more common.  This unanticipated increase in walking volume, compounded by additional weight of luggage or rucksacks, overtaxes lower leg and foot structures.

Finally, another factor that contributes to overburdened legs is a change in footwear. If the design of your ‘travel shoe’ varies from your typical footwear, your feet can suffer discomfort. This is especially relevant if the height differential (the slope angle of the shoe’s sole, from the heel to the toe) of your travel shoes is less acute – or more flat – than the shoes you typically wear. Too, if there is less arch support in your travel shoes, your feet can suffer plantar fasciitis. It is possible for your tendons and muscles in the feet and ankle to adjust and build resilience to a change in footwear, but this requires some time and preparation.


Four Tips to Prevent Foot and Calf Pain

Reduce your chance of encountering foot and calf pain when traveling with these tips:

  1. Choose your travel footwear wisely.
    • Ensure your footwear is always well fitted with good arch support. If you are wearing athletic type shoes, they should be less than a year old.
    • Examine the shoe differential (the vertical difference between the height of the heel and the front of the shoe). This dimension should not deviate from walking shoes you typically wear.
  2. Walk in your travel shoes at least a month prior to your journey.
  3. Increase your walking distance and duration by 10 % each week. Initiate this ‘training’ 2-3 months prior to your travel date. Your body will become conditioned to the loads that it will encounter. This will help prevent foot and calf pain when travelling.
  4. Walk with a weighted rucksack (if applicable) to train for your holiday. Gradually increase the load (weight) to simulate the conditions you may experience while on holiday. Pay attention to your posture with a weighted rucksack so that you remain upright with a neutral spine.


Exercises for strong and flexible calves

Heel Raise:

  1. Start in a standing position with your feet hip-width apart.  Keeping your knees straight, rise on to your toes.
  2. Return to the starting position, controlling the movement as you lower your heels to the ground.
  3. Start with a small number daily 5-10, and slowly increase to 30 a day.

Calf Stretch:

  1. Start in a standing position, hold on to a table or chair for support and place one foot flat on the floor behind you, keeping the knee straight.
  2. Keep the toes pointing forwards and your heel on the floor.
  3. Bend the knee of the front leg, moving your body forwards, until you feel a stretch in your calf of the back leg.
  4. Make sure your heel does not rise off the floor and your back knee does not bend.
  5. Hold the stretch for 20-30 seconds and repeat x2 on each leg.


For more information on injury prevention refer to these blogs:

  1. How to avoid exercise-related injuries
  2. Why do we experience exercise-related injuries?