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The F word

Looking back on my running ‘career’ to date, I can easily pinpoint the single most important improvement I’ve made.  No, it’s not taking 15 minutes off my 10k PB, or finishing 69 mile ultramarathons, or even just being able to run a mile without stopping (in the early days, that was a huge improvement and achievement!).

No, the single most important improvement I’ve made is in my foot care.  So I’m here today to talk about the dreaded F word that brings revulsion to any runner (or walker, for that matter)… Feet!  And more specifically blisters.  Warning – those of a sensitive disposition may be easily offended by some of the images in this blog, so proceed with caution.

I’ve been running since 2016 and, in that time, I’ve gone from suffering indescribable blisters that stopped me walking for day, to being virtually blister free.  Notice I say virtually, because that’s the thing with blisters is that you just don’t know when they are going to strike.

Sadly, there is also no one size fits all strategy in dealing with blisters, but I hope by sharing what I’ve learned along the way, it may help some of you stop getting blisters too.

What is a blister?

First of all, what is a blister?  Blisters are bubbles or fluid-filled lumps that form under your skin, typically when it is damaged (for runners, it’s normally friction that causes this damage).

Blisters can be filled with blood, pus or a clear-ish fluid called serum that is part of your blood.  Sometimes, the entire top of the blister is worn off (called de-roofing) exposing the skin underneath.

How are blisters formed?

Blisters when running are caused by friction, either between your skin and your sock or your skin and your shoes.  To make matters worse, we are more susceptible to blisters when our skin is wet so those sweaty feet you get from running, just add to the problem.

Treating blisters is a whole blog post on it’s own, so today I am going to focus on prevention.  What steps can runners take to prevent blisters, as much as possible, in the first place?

Preventative measures

It’s worth stressing here that it really is trial and error with blister prevention.  What works for me, might not work for you.   Equally, what works for me now might not work for me 6 months down the line.  Or might work at some events but not others.  It’s a constantly evolving process.

With that in mind, what are some of the anti-blister tactics you can use?

Foot care year round

Don’t focus on your feet in the week or two leading up to a race – by then, it may be too late.  I’ve learned to make looking after my feet a year round endeavour.

  • Keep toenails neatly trimmed and ensure any rough spots are buffed out.
  • Keep your feet soft by regularly moisturising them and getting rid of calluses where you can.  Some athletes swear by toughening their feet up before a race – more on that later.
  • Keep your feet clean and dry as much as possible.
  • Wear shoes that are kind to your feet – pointed toes or shoes that are too small (length or width) can cause problems further down the line.
  • Walk barefoot where you can to toughen feet and strengthen foot muscles.

During your runs

  • Make sure your shoes and socks fit correctly – when I ran my first ultra my shoes were a little snug because my feet had swollen, which led to blisters forming on the ends and underneath of my toes.  Correctly fitting shoes and socks will greatly reduce friction and therefore blisters.
  • Keep feet dry as much as possible – if your feet sweat a lot, consider using a foot anti-perspirant and wear cool, breathable socks.  If you are running where it is particularly wet, consider using waterproof socks over your normal running socks.
  • Apply anti-blister treatments to your feet before your run e.g. a lubricant like BlisterShield or BodyGlider; a powder such as Odor-Eaters; an antiseptic such as Sudocrem (great for wet conditions as it leaves an oily lubricating residue).
  • Tape areas that you know are particularly susceptible to blistering – but be careful to ensure your taping doesn’t cause more hindrance than help.
  • Wearing two pairs of socks or a twin-layer sock can help reduce friction.
  • Consider toe socks, such as Injinji, if you suffer from blisters on the toes.
  • Wear gaiters where necessary to keep stones, dust, twigs, grit and such like out of your shoes as much as possible.
  • When running longers races, consider a change of shoes and socks at intervals in the race to accomodate for foot swelling and to keep feet dry.

What else?

It’s important to stay properly hydrated and consider your electrolyte levels as these will affect your skin and it’s propensity to blistering.

If you do get a hot spot, which is that warm feeling you get as a blister begins to form, it’s important to stop and take care of it immediately.  This might be cleaning the area, replacing socks or shoes, applying tape/plasters/Compeed/etc.  Better to spend five minutes applying some preventative measures that should stop the blister forming than leave it and be limping in agony further down the line.

Further reading

If you suffer from blisters or foot problems and want further and more comprehensive advice, I’d strongly recommend reading John Vohnhof’s Fixing Your Feet.  I have a copy and it’s one of my most thumbed running books as I refer back to it time and again for ideas, hints and tips.

It’s not an exact science, and John’s book proves that with over 350 pages of really useful information.

 

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