Swimming can be a great activity for those suffering from plantar fasciitis.
The painful condition stems from the inflammation of the thick band of tissue (called fascia) that connects the heel bone to the toes.
The inflamed tissue causes heel pain that ranges from an uncomfortable ache to a stabbing sensation, making weight-bearing activities such as running, walking, and hiking an unpleasant experience.
An overabundance of load-bearing activities, unsupportive footwear, or weak or dysfunctional calf and ankle muscles can cause the condition in the first place.
Fascia becomes overloaded. Microtears form in the tissue. Inflammation and pain ensue.
"I find that in most cases of plantar fasciitis, the plantar fascia has been overloaded beyond what it was capable of withstanding and without sufficient rest," says Laurie Kertz Kelly, a licensed physical therapist and exercise coach based in Austin, Texas.
The low-impact nature of swimming makes the sport a go-to recommended activity by health professionals for people who want to exercise without making the problem worse.
"Swimming can be the perfect exercise for plantar fasciitis—it allows you to work out without placing as much force through your foot," says Timothy R. Corker, a Pennsylvania-based physical therapist. "The ability to swim in the gravity-eliminated position that a pool provides will allow a great workout for the muscles of the leg that have been weakened as the plantar fasciitis started."
Corker says it can be tough for those suffering with plantar fasciitis to find quick relief for the condition since healing requires strengthening the calf and ankle muscles and allowing the microtears to heal, but movement is painful on land.
"Once these muscles get stronger, the ankle and calf will stabilize, and the plantar fascia will no longer be overstressed, allowing it to properly heal," he says.
But swimming is not a cure-all, and you may find you need to take additional steps to avoid irritation.
If you find kicking painful, you should opt for swimming with a pool buoy and avoid flip turns or pushing off the wall while you’re experiencing symptoms.
Kelly also recommends gradually reintroducing load-bearing activities. That's a process that can start in the pool.
Kelly recommends that you start by walking in a depth of water that feels comfortable for your feet.
"Start with 10 to 20 minutes, and gradually decrease the depth of the water over several days or weeks," Kelly says. "This approach will strengthen the tissues in your feet by steadily adding load until you can tolerate your full body weight. "
Swimmers can try a similar approach on land.
"I recommend determining what amount of weight-bearing activity is tolerated without symptoms—such as the number of total steps taken on land—and gradually increasing the intensity/duration/frequency of the weight-bearing exercise," Kelly says.
You may also want to pay extra attention to trigger or pressure points in the calves, she adds. If pressure to any part of the calf creates pain in your foot, try to apply pressure to the calf using a tennis or lacrosse ball or visiting a professional who specializes in myofascial work.
Typically plantar fasciitis can be treated or addressed at home with physical therapy, stretches, ice, and rest, but you should see a doctor if your symptoms worsen within 24 hours of swimming.