Providing Foot Care for Athletes

April 22, 2016 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: blister care, Foot Care, Health, Sports 

Providing foot care for athletes at ultramarathons and multi-day events is a huge responsibility. Their feet are what keep them going, and if you are known for providing foot care, the athletes will be appreciative of whatever you can do. If you are simply helping one runner, you might be a bit more casual. But if you will be part of a foot-care team, you need to be prepared.

In 2015 race directors of several multi-day ultramarathons in Europe were overwhelmed by shear volume of runners seeking medical attention for blisters. They said it took upwards of 30 minutes per foot to treat most of the runners, which caused a significant drain on the ability of the medical team to look after more serious problems. Beginning in 2016, these races are introducing a triage system for medical care. Patients will be assessed prior to treatment with the most needy being treated first, regardless of how long others have been waiting. If the assessment indicates “minor” blisters, advice will be given and runners will be expected to treat their own feet. All runners must have their own blister treatment kit as part of their mandatory gear kit. They candidly state that foot care is easily divided into several phases, what they call the 6Ps: “Proper Preparation Prevents Piss-Poor Performance” and provide a thorough list of preparation, prevention, assessment, and treatment suggestions. “Proper Prevention” means in the months before the event, “Prevents” means during the race, and “Piss-Poor Performance” is what happens if you fail to follow the first three Ps.

Rebecca Rushton, an Australian podiatrist and owner of blisterprevention.com.au, and I agree that foot care at multiday events is vital. I consider a 100-mile ultramarathon a multi-day event. The problem is that many runners have become dependent and expectant that events will have medical personnel providing even the most basic foot care. Participants have come to treat foot care services at events as a perk of the event. While it’s nice to have, it’s not practical and sustainable long term. Race directors need volunteers with the time and expertise in foot care techniques, and the budget for supplies and equipment. The larger and longer the event, the more volunteers are needed and the more costly it becomes.

I wrote in a blog post that, “… at some events participants will move along the trail from aid station to aid station, and at each one, require some degree of foot care. What was patched at an earlier aid station didn’t work or didn’t hold up and they want someone at the next aid station to redo their feet. That’s a lot of work and supplies.” Many athletes also fail to take care of their feet and fail to plan, and in many cases fail to take common sense action (reduce calluses, trim toenails, do self-care, etc) that could have prevented or reduced the problem. Rebecca and I support what we call assisted self-management. In the aid station, provide a table and a few chairs, and basic foot care supplies. Medical personnel will be available to give advice and tend to more serious treatment. It could even be that runners are shown how to patch the first blister and then they manage the rest. It’s a workable model and builds on today’s popular DIY (do-it-yourself) method of learning new skills.

Credit: Oxfam TrailWalker Melbourne and Rebecca Rushton

An example of self-assisted foot care. Credit to Oxfam TrailWalker Melbourne and Rebecca Rushton

This leads to a new mindset among many medical professionals that manage medical direction at races and multiday events that is worth considering. An article in the April 2014 Sports Medicine summarized it well. “Although participants in ultra-endurance events should be educated and prepared to prevent and treat their own blisters and chafing, blister care will likely be the most frequent use of medical resources during ultra-endurance foot races.” The mindset is that participants need to shoulder some of the responsibility for managing their feet. Medical staff at aid stations can quickly become overwhelmed even to the point of running out of supplies. We can help promote and support this new mindset in several ways:

  • Give participants tips to prepare their feet in advance of the event. (Refer to “Foot Care in Multiday Events” in chapter 16.)
  • Give participants tips on the best footwear selections for the event (types of shoes, gaiters, oversocks, camp shoes, and so on).
  • Give participants a list of foot-care gear they must carry. A section on mandatory foot-care gear can be found at the end of this chapter. Even runners in a 100-mile race can carry a small Zip-lok bag pinned to their bib number or in their hydration pack.
  • Advise participants whether or not foot care services will be provided and if so, to what degree. This includes no foot care and supplies, limited self-management, or full service.
  • Provide a self-service table of supplies for runners to use in DIY patching of their feet. This can speed up their in and out times at aid stations.
  • Stress the importance of knowing how to work on one’s feet (by reading this book or through other sources, or workshops).
  • Stress the importance of runner’s having crews knowledgeable in foot-care work and prepared with a well-stocked foot-care kit.

How you implement the principles of self-management or whether you decide to provide full service foot care services depends on several factors: The number of participants, the difficulty, the remoteness, the number of medical volunteers, the availability of supplies (and being able to absorb the cost) and the number of aid stations and how far apart they are. It should be a well-thought out and joint decision between the race director and the event’s medical director.

Please comment how you feel about foot care services at the races you run or help with, or as a race director. We’d love to hear your thoughts.

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