Feet. They’re gross.
We’ve been taught all our lives to keep them off the table, and squirm when someone removes their shoes in a public place.
Even in the Bible, washing someone’s feet was the ultimate sign of respect or humility.
Why? Because they’re dirty, stinky, and gross.
But when it comes to running, feet are the most important tool you have. Legs, mental toughness, nutrition, that’s all important, but if the feet are in bad shape, none of that matters.
All runners should take care of their feet, but trail and ultra runners face new obstacles because of the terrain and distance. Things like dirt, mud, river crossings, and uneven terrain affect how your feet handle the run.
So today we’re going to break down proper foot care. How to take care of and prepare your feet for race day.
My Foot Problem
I’m going to get a little personal, I’ve always struggled with foot issues.
I’ve dealt with blisters, black toenails, and infections so gross I don’t even want to mention them here. Just take a look at this photo from right after the 2013 Massanutten Mountain Trails 100:
That photo doesn’t really even do them justice. Most of the blisters have already popped. And all the missing toenails?
They fell off during training.
Let’s just say that when it comes to foot care, I’ve made my mistakes, and I’ve paid the price.
The tips outlined below aren’t just something I read on Wiki-How, they’re methods I’ve developed and tested time and time again. Not because I want to, but because I have to.
Not everyone is lucky enough to have sensitive of feet as me, but we all have to deal with issues depending on the terrain.
So let’s dive in to foot-care for the trail runner, and start with before you even put on a sock:
Endurance runners love lube. We slather it all over our nipples, between our thighs, and underneath straps.
I’d probably bathe in the stuff before a race if I could. Yet for some reason it wasn’t until after several years of running that I thought to put it on my feet.
Rub the lube between your toes, along the bottoms of your feet, and on the heels. If you know of a particularly irritable hot spot, pay it extra special attention and check back in regularly. The lube reduces the risk of friction, and thus reduces the risk of blisters.
My recent obsession has been the Rocket Pure’s Anti-Chafe Balm Stick, which I’ve found to leave less residue than many of the other leading brands.
I first put it to the test at the Black Mountain Monster 24 Hour, and have been impressed by how well it does for my toes.
As a side not, the Rocket Pure also sent me a recent care package, including a powder which seriously helped with my stinky shoes (my wife is grateful), and an awesome foot repair balm I’m using post long runs.
While they look retro and hip, I think I speak for everyone when I say the days of white cotton socks while running are over. Running specific socks are in.
As runners move from the road to the trails, and dirt, water, mud, and rocks enter the equation, your sock choice becomes even more important.
Here’s what to look for in a trail running sock:
- A moisture-wicking fiber to keep your feet dry and cool. Look for synthetic or natural fiber (like wool).
- Large seams cause irritation and rubbing. Good running socks are now made with minimal seams around the toes.
- Fit is incredibly important. Too big of a sock will bunch up and slide around inside your shoe.
- Thickness of the sock should change depending on the conditions.
- Added arch compression can make for a more comfortable run if circulation and swelling is an issue.
There are a few leaders in the sock category. Companies take the conditions of trails to heart.
- DryMax: Probably the most well-known brand in the trail and ultra scene, and one of my favorites
- Injinji: Makers of the toe-sock, which is great if you have a lot of issues around your toes
- Swiftwick: Best known for the added compression in the midfoot
- DarnTough: A mostly wool-based option perfect for winter, and always includes their signature lifetime guarantee
Shoes might be the single most important aspect of foot care, and the type of shoe you’re wearing will drastically change how your foot feels under different conditions.
Here are 5 rules to follow when selecting a shoe:
- Size: When it comes to long distance and ultra running, you want to go a half or full size bigger to allow for swelling. My favorite trick is to try on sizes until they start looking like clown shoes, then take it down by a half size. For me that just means half a size larger than my normal shoe.
- Toe Box: Larger toe boxes give your toes room to spread out, instead of forcing them to scrunch up and rub against each other. This is also the best solution I’ve found for black toenails.
- Upper: Depending on the terrain and conditions, you want a shoe with a lighter, breathable mesh upper, or a water and mud resistant fabric. For example, I now run in the HOKA ONE ONE Challenger ATRs on dry trails, but the more rugged Mafate Speeds for wet and gnarly trails.
- Comfort: The more comfortable the shoe, the less strain and irritation you’ll have on your feet.
- Fit: While having room around your toes is important, your foot should fit securely inside the rest of the shoe. The goal is to lock the foot down to avoid slipping or rubbing.
The Lace-Lock or Bunny Ears Technique
My favorite trick when it comes to securing your foot within the shoe is called the Lace-Lock, which I learned from Pete at Black Mountain Running Co.
You know that extra lace hole at the top of your shoe? It servers a purpose!
After trying to explain how it works with written instructions for longer than I’d like to admit, I think it’s best to just share a video so you can see for yourself. Here’s how to tie your shoes with the Lack-Lock method.
The 2 Rules of Proper Mid-Run Foot Care
Proper foot care isn’t just about what you do before the run, it’s how you take care of your feet during the run. There are two main rules to follow for proper foot care during a run, particularly during a longer race like an ultramarathon.
Rule 1) Never Ignore a Hot Spot
Before something goes terribly wrong, your feet will send out a warning. Most commonly in the form of what’s called a hot-spot, or a spot on your foot that burns ever so slightly as it’s forming a blister.
This is your warning cry. Your last call to do something before it gets bad.
Don’t ignore that cry for help. Take the time to adjust your shoe, cover the blister, or do whatever you can to keep things from escalating. You may lose a few minutes addressing the issue, but will save lots of time and discomfort if it turns into a full-blown blister.
Rule 2) Swap Out When Possible
For ultramarathons, especially those over 50k, it’s wise to leave a fresh pair of shoes and socks in a drop bag or with your crew. If the trail is wet due to river crossings or mud, you’ll be glad to have the extra pair of dry shoes. The simple act of putting on a new pair of socks can be a major physical and mental lift.
During my recent 24 hour race, I took the time to change shoes and sock 3 times.
Give Your Feet the Respect They Deserve
There are many different factors that play into a good long run or race. How you train, nutrition, weather, just to name a few.
Foot care should be included in the list.
Take the time to try out new socks, shoes, and lubricants, and train with them before a race.
I’ve made the mistake of ignoring foot issues, and had to deal with issues far worse than most other runners on the course. It’s painful, discouraging, and mentally draining.
Quit thinking of feet as gross, and start giving them the respect they deserve.