Olympic, rec athletes face risk of foot, ankle injuries

Michael Phelps photo
Michael Phelps readies for a race in 2009.

Michael Phelps made history in many ways at the recent Rio Olympics, and his achievements are especially remarkable considering that he—like many athletes as they reach their 30s—has suffered his share of injuries.

Over the course of his remarkable career, Phelps has experienced back, wrist and foot injuries. He was even suspected of having a genetic disorder that affects the body’s connective tissue.

A Big(foot) Advantage in the Pool

Phelps is built for swimming. A recent Science ABC post discusses how his 6-foot, 4-inch frame and size-14 feet are perfect for powering through the pool. The same report details that Phelps has highly flexible ankles, which allow his feet to propel him in almost fin-like fashion.

Incidentally, it was his incredible flexibility, long body and large feet that generated concern Phelps may have Marfan syndrome. Marfan syndrome affects the body’s connective tissue, and Phelps had some symptoms of the life-threatening condition. Phelps inadvertently raised awareness for Marfan syndrome when he described the diagnostic process in his book Michael Phelps: Beneath the Surface, which was released prior to the 2008 Olympics.

A Mysterious Foot Injury

In 2013, as he amped up his training and competitive schedule, Phelps aggravated what a coach called an existing foot injury. Phelps appeared at a golf event sporting a boot cast and limping, having just played in the days prior.

The swimmer declined to comment, but his longtime coach attributed the cast to a minor stress fracture. Stress fractures are extremely thin breaks in bones, and they are common among those overtrain; exercise in improper footwear; train irregularly; exercise on harsh surfaces; or have flat feet.

Athletes and Foot and Ankle Injuries

Even when the feet and ankles are stationary, they figure into most forms of physical activity and sport. They provide balance and weight support; they help push us forward and allow us to alter course; they aid in liftoff when we jump and absorb impact when we land. It probably comes as no surprise that athletes face a high risk of foot and ankle injuries.

A study conducted at the 2004 Olympics in Athens found 624 foot and ankle injuries during the games. The most frequent injuries were contusions, sprains, fractures and dislocations.

Prior to the 2012 summer games, an article by the American College of Foot and Ankle Surgeons (ACFAS) discussed Olympians who suffered lower-extremity injuries including plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, stress fractures and Lisfranc injuries. The ACFAS report emphasizes the importance of injury prevention for those who exercise routinely or participate in organized sports.

When to See a Doctor

As outdoor activities are popular in Colorado, foot and ankle injuries are common. Running, biking, hiking, skiing, snowboarding… all can result in painful injuries that impact your ability to engage in physical activity.

To prevent a problem from becoming more severe, it’s advisable to see a podiatrist if you feel discomfort for more than a few days. If the pain prohibits movement, or there is severe swelling or bruising or signs of fracture, you should see a doctor as soon as possible.

If you’re feeling the effects of a potential sports-related foot or ankle injury, the accomplished podiatrists at the Foot & Ankle Center of Northern Colorado are here to help. Please call our Greeley office at 970-351-0900 or our Longmont office at 303-772-3232 to schedule your appointment.

Photo by The Wolf

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