Lisa de Speville, who lives in Johannesburg, South Africa, is a close friend who often emails with insights on blisters and foot care. Yesterday I received the following email and asked whether I could share it with my readers. Her email contains insights on little toe blisters, issues with minimalist shoes, and fit of shoes modified with gaiters.
Here’s her email.
Last week I ran in the 5th edition of the Namib Desert Challenge. I had the pleasure of running in their inaugural event back in 2009 and so it really was a treat to return. Great event, well-organized, wonderful region of Namibia and a lovely warmth and hospitality from the organizers.
Since about June last year I’ve been running in more minimalist shoes. I’ve always enjoyed a softer, more tactile shoe and I took to the pair of Asics Gel Fuji Racers that I won at a race immediately. I liked them so much that I was even running them on road. I like to keep trail shoes for trail and road shoes for road so in about August I bought a pair of Inov-8s. The brand is relatively new in SA so I thought I’d give them a try (my road shoes have been Addias Response or Supernova for more than 10 years). Let’s see… I’m in the Men’s Road X 255 (6mm lift), which is not flat as a pancake. Both the Asics and Inov-8 are quite roomy and my feet enjoy this.
Certainly over the past three months I’ve felt a change in my soles – more firm and muscular, which stands to reason if they’re strengthening and working harder. It is muscle after all. Before I started adventure racing and running ultras my feet were 1.5 shoe sizes smaller and I have a feeling that my feet are another half-size bigger in recent months.
So, the time comes for the Namib Desert Challenge and I get my favorite race shoes stitched with Velcro for my desert gaiters. Everything is ready. I hadn’t worn these shoes for a while. They were still relatively new – perfect for going into a multi-day race - as I’d bought two pairs of the same at an end-of-range special many months ago. I’d flattened the first pair so they were in no condition for this race.
When I put my foot into the shoes in the days before the race to get a feel for them again they felt a little tight, especially across the width of my forefoot. And more than just newness. This is why I figure my feet are a certainly a half-size bigger. Nothing that some lace-loosening wouldn’t sort out.
I started to develop what I call ‘triangle toes’ almost immediately. This is the one thing I avoid like the plague because I hate having sore little piggies. Triangle toes is where the underside of the little toe – and sometimes the neighbor next door – becomes pointed. A blister forms here and can result in a ‘toe sock’ – where the skin of the whole toe comes off, almost like a sock. It’s nasty and I not very fondly recall some incidents of almost toe sock about 10 years ago in adventure races. Since then I take special care pre-race to make sure my little toes stay ’rounded’ and that any harder, potentially triangular skin, is filed off regularly.
I dealt with the resulting blisters – stage 2 or 3 they came up on both little toes - by draining, leaving overnight to dry and then added some tape for the stages. I tried to flatten the triangle under the tape, but it ended up triangular again at the end of the stage. For the most part they gave me little trouble.
At the start of the 55km ultra stage on Day 4, I was debating whether to remove the inner soles for give my feet more room so that the little toes would have more width. It felt odd so I started with them in and my laces not too tight. By the first waterpoint I needed to change something so I took out my innersoles. I had to re-tape a toe a little way further because the change in space altered something. After this, no problem.
I’ve never run in shoes without innersoles and it really changes the feel of the shoe. The Adidas Response TR shoes really suit my feet – I’ve been running in them for 13 years! Taking out the innersole changes them to the Inov-8 feel. Flat and bland inside, which isn’t a bad thing – just different. It also makes the sole feel so much more flat and less cushioned – I felt like I was running in a non-cushioned shoe… for 47km!
Fortunately I was none the worse for wear but, for sure, if my feet hadn’t been conditioned from 10 months of running in ‘flat’ shoes my feet would have felt it. I ran the 5th and final stage without the innersoles too.
Aside from the triangle toes, my only other foot ailments included an injured big toenail on my left (not sure why? perhaps from a kicked stone?). The toenail developed a blister underneath, which was easily solved by drilling into the nail to relieve the pressure. I only discovered this one after the second stage when inspecting my feet. The other blister came up on the long stage under the ‘joint’ of my left big toe, where it connects to the foot. I have some scar tissue there from when I sliced my toe open many, many years ago. It occasionally twinges and at this race, on the long day, I caught exactly this spot so many times on rocks – prodding in. I couldn’t have purposefully aimed as many times in that exact spot! Again, not a bother (fortunately!) and easily solved by draining. On the final stage I didn’t hit it once and so it didn’t flare up again. For the rest, beautiful feet after 230km.
As I haven’t had triangle toes for years, this confirmed for me that width-ways just-that-little-too-tight squeezing of the forefoot is almost guaranteed to cause triangle toes and the resulting underside blisters, with the potential for toe sock, somewhere you do not want to go. In fitting shoes we tend to focus on the amount of space at the front of the shoe but definitely need to pay attention to left-right wiggle room.
Finally… one of the runners had really badly injured toenails (most of them) and the tops of his toes. The reason… too small desert gaiters for his shoes! I don’t know what kind they were (not mine) but they were Velcro attached (around the shoe) and pulling at the top and front of his shoe and causing toe injury. Live and learn.
Lisa de Speville
Johannesburg, South Africa
Adventure Racing: www.ar.co.za
The Washington Post article caught my eye, “Minimalist running style may be undermined by new findings from Kenya.” The January 21 article by Lenny Bernstein on the web was about a new study published at PLOS One.
Bernstein starts the article with a figure that catches your attention, Americans spent $59 million on “minimalist” running shoes last year, on the premise that the most healthful way to run is the way people have done it for thousands of years: barefoot.
Years after runners everywhere were introduce to running barefoot in 2009 in Born to Run and a 2010 study of Kenya’s famous Kalenjin distance runners, the new study may cause some to rethink how they run.
In the new study, a group of George Washington University researchers tested a different population of barefoot African runners and determined that most of them naturally strike the ground with their heels.
The study at PLOS One is Variation in Foot Strike Patterns during Running among Habitually Barefoot Populations.
The study measured subjects running along a trackway at least three times at their self-selected (comfortable) endurance running pace, and three more times at a faster pace. The track had a plantar pressure pad placed midway along its length.
The article quotes Kevin Hatala, a doctoral student in anthropology at GWU, and how they expected the group’s study of 38 Daasanach subjects of northern Kenya to support Harvard researcher’s Daniel Lieberman’s conclusions about the Kalenjin. Hatala said, “Instead, we found the opposite to be true. In the group we were looking at, the majority of them were rear-foot striking at their preferred endurance running speed.”
Bernstein wrote, At higher speeds, some of the Daasanach switched from a heel strike to a forefoot strike, but even then, heel-striking was more typical. Hatala was reluctant to speculate why his findings differed from the prevailing wisdom. In addition to the effect of speed, running style could be the result of information that is culturally transmitted from generation to generation. Or it might have something to do with the predominant surface where each group lives. Hatala and Lieberman are at the early stages of comparing their data.
“I guess what we found really interesting about this is it directly shows that there is not one way to run barefoot,” Hatala said. “We have a lot more to learn about how people who are barefoot run and what might be the best way to run barefoot.”
The abstract for the study says, “Our data supports the hypothesis that a forefoot strike reduces the magnitude of impact loading, but the majority of subjects instead used a rearfoot strike at endurance running speeds. Their percentages of midfoot and forefoot strikes increased significantly with speed. These results indicate that not all habitually barefoot people prefer running with a forefoot strike, and suggest that other factors such as running speed, training level, substrate mechanical properties, running distance, and running frequency, influence the selection of foot strike patterns.”
Sales of minimalist shoes are up 303 percent between November 2010 and November 2012, compared with a 19 percent increase in running shoe sales overall in the same period.
Are you a barefoot runner? If so, what is your foot strike pattern when running – forefoot, midfoot, or rearfoot? And importantly, does your foot strike change as your pace changes?
If you are into Vibram FiveFingers or any of the new minimalist shoes, you owe it to yourself to check out the website BirthdayShoes.com.
I consider BirthdayShoes to be the best informational website on the subject. It is very up-to-date as new shoes are released. In the month of March alone, they reviewed the:
- Nike Zoom Waffle Racer IV
- Merrell BarefootTrail Glove
- Vibram FiveFingers TrekSport
- New Balance NB Minimus
- Fila Skele-Toes Four Toed Shoes
While the main focus is on FiveFingers, they are fair in their reviews. The “Guides” section offers a wealth of information on resources, reviews, how to’s, frequently asked questions, and modifications and repairs.
If you wear FiveFingers, are thinking about getting a pair, or are interested in minimalist shoes, BirthdayShoes.com is a website to bookmark.