Rowing Machine Causing Toe or Foot Pain? Why it’s Happening and What to Do!
Updated: Nov 20
Do your foot straps constantly get loose when rowing? Or are you getting some pain on the top of your foot or around your toes? You aren’t alone and there is a common reason this happens. First, let’s start with the muscles and where they are so you understand a little more of what is going on.
Checkout the most recent YouTube video I made about this topic if you'd like to listen/watch instead of read.
Foot and Toe Anatomy
So the first thing we need to talk about is your toes and the muscles and tendons that are often involved when you get pain in this area from rowing.
What a lot of people don’t know is that a lot of the muscles in the top of your foot and toes are actually up in your shin area. This is why you could have pain in your shin, front of ankle, top of foot, or in the toes, but it might all be coming from the same muscles being involved. This picture shows some of the muscles that are the common culprits including the tibialis anterior, extensor digitorum longus, and extensor hallucis longus.
From the first picture you can see the tendons are in the foot, which is where they attach, but the big red muscle belly is up in the shin area, which you can see in the second picture.
What’s Causing this with Rowing?
A common reason that you might get pain in one of these spots is when you are pushing back during the drive phase of the rowing stroke and you get to the back finish position. Sometimes we use our toes to help catch us on the straps so we aren’t flying back as much. If you look at this picture you can see that my toes are up. This is overusing all of those toe extensor muscles to really keep you from flying backwards really quickly. So, you're controlling more with your toes as opposed to the other bigger muscle groups like your quadriceps.
Another reason that happens is during the recovery phase of the rowing stroke where you are going back to the catch and moving forward. What might happen is, instead of controlling nice and slow with the big leg muscles, what will happen is we'll actually pull ourselves forward with our toes against the strap. This ends up using a lot more of these toe muscles again. You want to try and keep your toes relaxed and against the footplate, instead of the straps. If you use your leg muscles to slowly bring you forward instead of your toes, it will take a lot of pressure off those smaller muscles.
Another reason that could contribute to pain here is based on where your feet are on the footplate. The footplate moves up and down, so don’t forget to move it and find a position that is comfortable for you based on your flexibility, mobility, and where the straps are hitting on your foot. Try moving the footplate up or down and seeing if the pressure point changes. You can also checkout this video on footplate positioning which might help as well.
What to Do to Stop the Foot/Toe Pain or Loose Straps
A big thing that you can actually do is take your feet out of the straps. Put your feet on the footplate, but don’t strap them in.
DISCLAIMER: If you try this, please start gently as sometimes people push so hard and are so used to keeping themselves from flying backwards with their toes that they fly off the rowing machine. Please don’t do this. It hurts!
I recommend people do this for either 10-20 strokes as a warm-up, especially if you are working out at a gym in a class like Orange Theory Fitness (OTF) or Crossfit. You usually don’t have a ton of time, so doing some of the strokes like that can help start to reinforce keeping the connection to the machine and not using your toes. If you are doing shorter rows like 100-500 m, feel free to do a whole piece without being strapped in until you get the hang of it. After that, strap yourself in. Hopefully with time you will start to notice a difference.
I hope this was helpful and happy rowing!
If you are interested in heart rate training and rowing, checkout this recent video I did, blog post on the topic coming soon!
If you'd like to follow along to a steady state beginner workout, checkout this youtube video and follow along.
If you need more help with your rowing form, here is a blog post with more information.
Happy rowing and wishing you a pain free rowing experience!
If you found this helpful, you can grab a copy here of my book, Beginner's Guide to Indoor Rowing for more info on how to adapt the rowing technique for you and common things to look for that might cue you into adaptations you might want to make to avoid getting hurt.
You can also join our community of rowers!
Please remember, this is NOT medical advice, and is a forum. If you would like medical advice, please follow up with a healthcare provider or feel free to reach out to me and we can chat on how I might be able to help or help you find someone who can.