The Agony of Da Feet

Agony-2
The author during a cross country race (smiling because it's a rare blister-free moment!).

Are blisters driving you mad? Kristin Duffy feels your pain and provides some tricks that might help.

**Warning: This article contains a graphic blister photo that some may find disturbing!**

“Well, I won’t be having meat for dinner!” These were the words of my coach, Scott Willett, after showing him my feet at the finish of my first triathlon. The pain from blistering was bad enough for me to whip off my shoes at the finish, showing him (and pretty much anyone who might commiserate with me) the fleshy mountains of fluid-filled skin that had suddenly increased the sides of the balls of my feet to about twice their typical size. The right was worse than the left, a trend that would continue throughout my running and triathlon career. Did I mention that this first triathlon included only a mere 10k run? Would I ever be able to set my sights on a marathon? Or an Ironman? Or, god forbid, an ultra?

Growing up an utterly non-athletic kid in Ohio didn’t set me up for having the tough feet I was going to need when I turned my attention towards triathlon, and eventually running (yes, in that order) as an adult. I did love competitive sports – watching them, that is. My favourite TV programme for many years was ABC’s Wide World of Sports, “Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of sport. The thrill of victory… and the agony of defeat…” The words “the agony of defeat” were accompanied by the visual of an elaborate ski jumper wipeout, the footage of which had me flinching every week. That wipeout always led me to question, “Why would anyone go through so much pain for their sport?”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, I bring you “the agony of… da feet”.

I wish I could say that I quickly found the solution to the problem which left me hobbling towards that very first triathlon finish line.  That my ascent into longer distances in both triathlon and running was a testament to the socks (or shoes or taping method or foot cream or powder) that solved the issue, but NO. What I would have liked even better would have been to say that slightly more run-seasoned feet or an easy fix to my stride had left me blister-free for life. Uh-uh. I have dealt with blisters of massive proportions, similar to that first run, after nearly every race I’ve done, no matter the distance. This holds true for many training runs as well and is often even worse during trail runs where my feet take more of a beating.

I can hear most of you now: have you tried (insert sock name here)? Have you tried different (socks, shoes… list from above)? Yes, yes, absolutely yes. The only thing that I haven’t explored as thoroughly as possible is taping. As a triathlete, I’m not about to sit around taping my feet in a sprint-distance transition when most people can’t even be bothered to wear shoes with tie-up laces because speed is so of the essence. I have used moleskin to some effect, but my blisters are sneaky buggers – most of the time they just blister around the tape, leaving me with a whole different configuration of pain and a new style of finish line hobble.

So where does this leave me (and maybe you if you feel my pain, literally, in your own feet)? Well, it leaves me with some seriously ugly feet for one, but that’s another story.

Below I list some potential solutions for you, what’s worked for me and a couple of tips about each.

One of the author's painful post-run blisters.

The previously mentioned moleskin

Cut to size and smoothed on carefully, soft, sheared moleskin adhesive pads have helped me get through decent-length runs with minimal blistering. Of course, they are not ideal for triathlon where they will get wet in the swim, but still they’ve proven to be better than nothing. Top tip: cut little slashes in them as you smooth around curved foot areas to avoid extra fabric build-up and, yes, blisters.

Greasy for wet, powder for dry

Personally, I’ve found that the same remedies for dry days don’t work for rainy ones and vice versa. I like a nice, greasy lubricant on wet days. My favourite is Aquaphor healing ointment, which is formulated with 41% Petrolatum to allow oxygen to flow and help heal the skin. A quick squeeze of Aquaphor in transition or pre-placed in my socks has saved me from a lot of hurt, especially on a very wet day. In a pinch, I’ve also used BodyGlide on my feet. Most triathletes think of it more for use around the back of the neck to avoid wetsuit chafing or under the arms for the same reason, but I’ve found it can help reduce my really nasty blisters to something that I can run on without crying.

I’ve found only recently a powder that seems to do the trick on dry days. 2Toms Blistershield sprinkled in my socks the morning of an ultra run kept me nearly blister-free over a distance of 50 kilometres – a vast improvement over the issues I had on that first 10k. I still need to try Blistershield in really wet conditions, but the other powders I have tried haven’t worked well for me in rainy or wet conditions.

Double-layer socks

Double-layer socks, for anyone who doesn’t know, are socks with two layers that allow for the friction to happen between the socks, instead of between your sock and foot. Personally, I find this type of sock not all that effective and they are so annoying to turn the correct way out post-laundry. I’ve pretty much vetoed these for me, but they may work for you.

Other sock ideas

Toe socks – I wore these along with the Blistershield in my virtually blister-free ultra run. I’m not sure if it was the powder or the socks, but I’ve been told that even if the blisters aren’t on your toes, toe socks help to keep the sock in place, resulting in less friction, hence, less blistering. My advice here is that if you have fat toes, careful of which ones you buy. I have one pair that is the epitome of comfort, but another that feels like they’re choking my poor toes to death.

Merino/wool socks – of the many socks that I’ve tried (the list is endless), I really like Smartwool merino running socks. They are breathable and wick away sweat to help with potential blistering and are available in ultralight, so don’t feel hot on your feet. Be careful that you don’t wear a thick pair when it is hot, though, or you might sweat enough to actually cause blisters.

Run cross country

Even though I’m convinced the issue is not my shoes – honestly, folks, I’ve tried every brand and loads of models. I find that running in cross country spikes has never caused my blisters to make an appearance. The cross country trainers that I have had are so light and seam-free that they keep my feet very happy, even when running through a bog. That said, I’ve yet to find a triathlon suitable for cross-country spikes and the season really isn’t that long, so this is only a part-time fix.

Pedicures

Pedicures are a double-edged sword. Get one too near a long run or a big race and you’ll be forming all-new blisters on your soft, soft virgin feet and may end up cursing my name. Let your feet go all callused and hard and you may find that the callus that was meant to protect your feet has been the almost-literal rock in your shoes that causes your next blister. I recommend lightly buffing calluses to take off the really hard layer, leaving just a bit of protection. When I treat myself to a salon pedicure, I ask them to leave some callus, but  I keep a close eye on them. Pedicurists are very zealous about getting every last bit of callus – ouch.

Run slowly!

You may have noticed that a lot of the blister problems that I’ve mentioned involve racing. Maybe running slower would help? Wait… no one wants to do that, so we’ll just scrap that idea right here and now. Though I do recommend testing out various blister solutions on runs of all distances and speeds so that you know what works prior to any big day. Nothing new on race day, after all.

Bring flip-flops

Worst case scenario, always bring flip-flops to put on after a race. Many a time, the walking that I’ve had to do post-run has been saved by the fact that I had my trusty flip-flops. Of course, if the blisters are on the bottoms of your feet, bringing a strong friend to carry you home may be a more suitable solution.

I would be very interested to hear what other techniques Serpies have found effective in the Battle of the Blister. Just please don’t ask me if I’ve tried different socks or shoes. Why yes, yes I have.

PS – If you’re interested in the fabulously vintage footage of the opening to ABC’s Wide World of Sports, click here.

Kristin Duffy is a slow runner, but a fast talker. Despite the dichotomy, she loves to do both.