Heptathlete Kelly Sotherton, 38, won gold at the Commonwealth Games in Melbourne in 2006, as well as bronze at the 2004 Olympics in Athens and the World Championships in Osaka in 2007. She retired due to injury before the 2012 London Olympics.
Here she talks exclusively to Exceed about her most important asset – her feet.
Like most people I didn’t really take proper care of my feet until I got an injury.
As a heptathlete my feet get a real battering and I started waking up in the morning with my feet feeling stiff and tight. I’d get a sharp pain in my heel when I stood up and some days it felt like I had trodden on a nail. It was that sore.
I didn’t know what it was so I just carried on with life and sport as normal. I was 25 and training five days a week after working in the day for a debt-collecting company connected to HSBC.
The consequence was that my body subtly started to work around the pain to keep me moving. Over time my body mechanics adjusted to compensate and I ended up with worse problems including a bad back, hip and neck problems.
It wasn’t until my physiotherapist diagnosed me with plantar fasciitis in 2002 that I realised I had a problem.
The plantar fascia is a strong band of tissue that stretches from your heel to your middle foot bones. It supports the arch of your foot and also acts as a shock-absorber in your foot. Plantar fasciitis, or inflammation of the plantar fascia, causes pain under your heel. With the amount of sport I was doing I was a prime candidate for this sort of injury.
My podiatrist was great and prescribed bespoke orthotics for my feet. Inserted into my trainers and spikes they allowed me to train pain-free and improved my foot biomechanics. From then on I saw my podiatrist regularly and got my orthotics and trainers checked twice a year. I always wore them until 2011 when I changed from Nike to a more engineered Asics trainers.
The foot is an incredible complex structure and in 2009 I ruptured my plantar fascia. It would have put most athletes out of action for a long time but I was lucky and found a surgeon in Holland who carried out a successful operation which got me back running within two months.
I’ve had other foot injuries over the years, including lots of sesamoid injuries and bone stress injuries. The sesamoids help the big toe move normally and provide leverage when you push off during walking and running. Injuries are common in elite athletes because we put increased pressure on the ball of our feet. It made running very painful for me.
But you have to get on with it. I did rigorous training drills, stretched religiously, had regular massages and gait analysis.
The worst time for me was when I fractured my spine in between winning bronze medals at the Olympics Games and the world championships. It didn’t really come to light until after the long jump and the pain became incredible.
In May 2012, I was forced to retire from the heptathlon because of the two prolapsed discs in my lower back. It is still sore today and it’s stopped me running. Instead I walk a lot and try and eat a healthy diet.
Being an Olympic athlete has left me with strange feet. I had Athlete’s Foot for ten years until I finally found a treatment that worked; my nails are soft from all the jumping into sand pits; I’ve got light bumps like mini bunions on each foot and my toes remind me of crow’s feet as they bend in two places. But I’m still proud of my feet!
I’ve loved sport all my life. Although I’m not from a sporty family I knew from a young age that I was strong willed, selfish and single-minded enough to make a career from it. Within nine months of quitting my job I had won an Olympic medal.
Today, I coach Birchfield Harriers and I’m a mentor for British athletics AASE programme with young athletes. I make sure they understand how important it is to have healthy feet and footwear. It’s not enough to spend time in the gym building up your abdominal muscles. To move faster, run stronger, kick more powerfully, you need strong, fit and healthy feet.
My next ambition is to be President of the International Olympic Committee and I’ve got until I’m seventy to crack it.
Back problems ended my Olympic career and I sometimes wonder if I’d looked after my feet better would I have ever had the health issues I did? It would have been amazing to have another five years in the sport and achieve an Olympic gold.