All high-impact workouts put strain on your feet and ankles, but Crossfit’s and Bootcamps mix of weights, jumps, and cardio can place additional types of pressure on your feet.
These types of stresses have led to misrepresentations in the media. CrossFit has a reputation of being dangerous, with stories of sprained ankles, plantar fasciitis or stress fractures, but these tend to be rare outcomes, and there’s no research based evidence that CrossFit is any more dangerous than other forms of intensive exercise. One study found that 70% of participants had been injured at some point which sounds like a lot, but researchers estimated the rate was three injuries per 1,000 hours trained. That’s roughly the same as you’d expect to get from gymnastics, and far safer than contact sports like rugby.
Still, there are some aspects of CrossFit which make it risky. The emphasis on high reps and heavy weights, mean you must have a good trainer. Many trainers have only a weekend’s training in CrossFit methods, and no expertise in biomechanics, and they may be oblivious to small mistakes in technique which can lead to big problems in the long term. The team mentality means CrossFitters encourage each other to push past the pain barrier; which is fantastic if you’re lacking motivation, but extremely dangerous if you’re on the brink of injuring yourself.
Many people have inherent imbalances, joint limitations or they may be harbouring niggling injuries which make exercise injuries more common. Niggling injuries are easier to overlook if they are in your feet or legs. For sports people it is very easy to ignore a recurring injury if it seems small, but as with most injuries the most serious often start years before as a niggle or an ache, with appropriate screening the more serious injuries can often be prevented.
Years of sedentary living and poor posture can lead to significant muscle weaknesses, leaving people much stronger on their dominant side. Even people who are fairly active often have muscle weaknesses that leave them out of alignment: for example, if you always carry a heavy handbag on your right shoulder then it will leave you stronger on that side of your body. It’s also very common also have one leg slightly longer than the other.
In everyday life, you’re unlikely to notice that one of your legs is a little shorter or you are suffering from ankle instability. But once you start doing intense WODs, lifting huge weights, or running long distances, the lopsided distribution of your body weight can lead to long-term problems with your ankles and knees. Unless you drop a barbell on your foot, most injuries are caused by problems building up over time as the strain on your body exacerbates pre-existing issues.
Eventually, though, building muscle strength through CrossFit will leave you less injury-prone, since stronger muscles are less likely to tear. You just have to make sure you’re pushing your body safely. Wearing well-fitted shoes is proven to reduce your risk of injuries from exercise, but since there’s such a variety of activities in a CrossFit class it can be hard to choose the right footwear. There is a large debate currently between the two most common shoes used in CrossFit, but we will broach this another time. As with all new sports and activities, there are some ideas about health and fitness which are widespread but not really backed up by scientific evidence. Eating paleo is one, doing multiple sets of Olympic lifts is another. There’s a widespread idea that the best shoe for CrossFit is one with a very flexible sole and zero drop – that is, a shoe that keeps your heel exactly level with your toes.
It is important to have a new shoe for each sporting activity, and with the variation of movements and activities in CrossFit, in theory, you’d need a different type of shoe for each activity – one for cardio, one for lifts, and one for jumps. Since everybody knows how to run or jump but most people have never done clean-and-jerks before starting CrossFit, it makes sense to focus on getting a good pair of weightlifting shoes.
Weightlifting shoes are very different running shoes. They usually have a slight wedge shape to them, because lifting the heel slightly reduces pressure on the spine while lifting and forces the quads to take more of the weight. The raised heel also discourages you from lifting the ankle or rolling sideways into ‘duck feet.'
Done correctly, with good form, weightlifting actually strengthens the bones in your feet and ankles, but done incorrectly it can cause nasty chronic injuries like collapsed arches. Women should be especially careful to wear the right shoes for lifting weights. A study found that men tended to get more ‘typical’ weightlifting injuries, like shoulder sprains or muscle tears in the arms, while women were more vulnerable to hurting their knees and ankles.
CrossFit is great for your cardiovascular fitness, it burns hundreds of calories a session, and all those squats will give you glutes that could crack a walnut. Just make sure that you’re taking good care of your feet and ankles, or you could end up ruining all your gains by getting injured.
About the author
Tim has been working in Singapore for 6 years, he spent 2 years at Tan Tock Seng Hospital before moving to The Foot Practice. Tim recently joined the UFIT Clinic team to help support our CrossFit Tanjong Pagar and CrossFit Bukit Timah athletes.
He has previously worked at Addenbrookes Hospital in Cambridge (UK) whilst also working under several renowned Podiatric surgeons in London. Tim has worked in Southern India, Peru and China treating a whole range of different foot types.
He specialises in non-surgical treatment of the foot and ankle, with special interest to sports injuries and paediatric foot care. With a specialist interest in the effect of custom made orthotics and the effect on foot health.