Healthy Feet Running the 100’s

June 22, 2009 by
Filed under: Foot Care 

This next weekend is the grand daddy of all 100-mile trail runs, the Western States Endurance Run. There will be close to 400 runners toeing the starting line; the majority racing against themselves and the ever following demons of stomach problems, trashed quads, heat, being under trained, poor equipment choices, bad feet, and mental stresses. I want to talk about what I consider are two of the most important factors for healthy feet on trails runs. While their application here is a 100-mile trail run, they also apply to casual walking and hiking, and to extreme adventure racing and long distance hiking.

The number one factor is knowing what your feet need, and how to do it, before you have to do it. I have patched many feet at ultras and adventure races and have found that most racers have a fairly good knowledge base of what they should be doing. They know its smart to wear the right kind of socks and to have footwear that fits well. Many have also made footcare kits for their crews. I would make a rough guess and say about 30-40% are well versed in what their feet need and how to do it. The other 60-70% kind of wing it. They’ve read about footcare but somehow it falls lower on the priority list than does training, finding foods they can tolerate, the right flashlight for night running, and other choices. So they start their race and manage well for a while-until problems develop.

To have and keep healthy feet, you have to know what works for them in the sports in which you participate. You also have to know what to do when what worked no longer works. In other words, a fallback plan with the equipment to back it up and the knowledge of how to use it. Let me give some examples.

  • Learn what lubricant works but have a container of powder handy.
  • Learn what socks work but have one or two extra pair of other types.
  • Learn how to tape the hot spots that might develop.
  • Learn how to tape your toes, heels, and every other part of your feet just in case blisters form.
  • Learn how to tape like a pro and then practice taping and then practice some more, and then start over until your taping is perfect.
  • Learn that if you tape one toe, it may require a bit of tape on the next toe.
  • Learn how to lance blisters and patch over them.
  • Learn what happens to your feet when you don’t change wet socks and your feet become macerated and feels like there is one humongous blister on the bottom of each foot.
  • Learn that something simple like properly trimming and filing your toenails can prevent toe blisters and even black toenails.
  • Learn that in a 100-mile race, if you don’t control your feet, they will control you.
  • Learn that you may know how to patch your feet, but you crew may not unless you teach them.
  • Learn that an inexpensive shoehorn can prevent the formation of heel blisters when you try to shove your foot into your shoe because you are in a hurry to get out of the aid station.

The bottom line is that if you don’t learn what works for your feet, intentionally, you will learn the hard way. At mile 56, or 72, or even mile 96. It has become harder and harder each year to find volunteers to provide footcare for the racers. Medical care yes, but footcare, well, that’s a different story. If you need footcare the medical staff may be able to help, but they not know the finer points of footcare. You need to go into each race prepared.

The number two factor is real easy to solve. Keep your shoes free from trail debris. Small rocks, large rocks, sand, dirt, pine needles and other foliage, grit-all the normal stuff that finds its way into your socks and shoes. It starts with the debris causing a hot spot,which you ignore because it takes time to stop and clear out the offending junk. Besides, if you just shift your foot around inside the shoe, it may move and no longer be a problem. Then after a while, the hot spot has become a blister. Now you can’t stop because you don’t have the fixings in your fanny pack. So you have to wait until you get to an aid station. Once there you then hope they know what their doing and have the right supplies.

The solution? Gaiters. They can be store or mail order bought or home made. It doesn’t matter as long as they do the job of keeping trail junk out of your socks and shoes. Some runners are so light footed that they rarely get debris in their shoes. If that’s you then skip the gaiters. Just be sure that if you get something in your shoe, get it out. Many blisters and other foot problems come get started by an irritant in your shoe. A small pebble in your shoe works its way down to your forefoot. You shift your foot around and it seems to finally disappear. A few miles later it surfaces under the ball of your foot. After playing the shift-it-around-inside-your-shoe game, it gets the best of you and you stop to remove it. By then, some damage has been done. A hot spot or blister may have developed, or your foot may simply be sore and tender from the offending pebble. If you really want to be safe, tuck a spare pair of socks in your fanny pack or pin them to the outside. Dirt laced socks, caked hard with trail dust and whatever lubricant you are using  can cause problems too. The small particles of dirt or sand can cause as much damage over time as larger pieces of trail debris. Gaiters can help protect your feet.

Here are a few extra tips:

  • Use Hydropel on your feet to control moisture and maceration.
  • Trim toenails short and file them smooth so as you rub your finger over the tip, you don’t feel any rough edges.
  • File down your calluses – you don’t want blisters under them.
  • Add shoehorns in your crew’s foot care kit. This can save your heels when trying to put your shoes back on.
  • Before the race starts, pretape any know problem areas.

I truly believe that today’s trail runners are more educated than those of past years. Technology has improved shoes and socks. Products with names like DryMax, Smartwool, Hydropel, BlisterShield, and Body Glide have made it easier to take good care of your feet. I may see you at Michigan Bluff aid station at Western States or at the finish line, but I hope it’s only as you pass me by and say, Thanks, but my feet are fine!”

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