The truth is running isn't glamorous. It tears you down, it beats you up, and it fashions you into ever new forms. The sculptor that is running takes on an entirely different face in endurance running, in ultrarunning. The long hours, technical terrain, and other conditions can break you down. However, in all forms of running it doesn't matter how much it breaks us down, because it also builds us back up and that is part of why we love it, right? Well, it is for me at least.
Despite our love, running, of any distances or terrain, breaks our bodies down and that's the truth of the matter. One area of our bodies that is specifically targeted by the rigors of a run is our feet. Our feet are the first line of contact with the surface of the run and as such, take a beating. So how do we combat this? Well, over the years my feet have been especially beat up and as such I have encountered and overcome many different situations of foot well-being. These situations have bred many varied, creative solutions that apply both basic concepts of foot care and innovative approaches. I was motivated by the Climbing Magazine piece Ultimate Rock Climbing Skin Care Handbook by Chris Shulte and so decided to take a similar approach, but to running and feet. I hope that the straightforward and simple approaches help.
The nemesis or the tool, calluses are an old friend for every runner. What always strikes me is how fast and furious they can form. Calluses were something I was not at all familiar with before I ran, but now it is more like all too familiar. Look at it this way, an oyster makes a pearl when a grain of sand or other irritant makes its way in between the oyster's shell and mantle (the protective layer surrounding the organs). When this happens the oyster coats the grain in layers of nacre, the material that makes up its shell. Well, your calluses aren't much different. The irritant is the miles upon miles you've ran and while what your body layers might not be as beautiful as a pearl, it is still a functional solution.
Calluses are an excellent way to protect and toughen your foot. They allow you to skillfully cover more technical terrain and give your foot a dedicated layer of protection.
The important thing to remember, however, is that calluses can turn into enemies if you let them. If they become to dry they can create deep cracks into delicate new skin, this will cause you a nagging and deep pain. This happened to me after the Bryce Canyon 100 and I had to spend many weeks fixing it.
- Lotion: this is how I fixed those deep cracks in my calluses, by applying lotion to my foot at least once daily, usually twice daily. It is vital to keep your foot skin hydrated. I personally like Aveeno Daily Moisturizing Lotion, but you could even use coconut oil!
You must also remember to not let your calluses get out of hand. If you let your calluses get too thick they can reverse themselves and grow into your foot. It causes a painful reverse pyramid or pinpoint that digs deep into your foot. It is very hard to remove so don't let your feet get this bad. There are many ways to shave, cut, or file down your calluses and keep them at a manageable and beneficial level. Some of these ways are:
- Pumice stone (this is the simplest way)
- Electronic foot file
- Callus shaver
- Foot file (a pumice stone is better)
Now blisters are an annoyance that many people are familiar with, whether you are a runner or not. They can be a nagging nuisance if not taken care of quickly. There are many ways to deal with blisters, but in my life I live by the mantra of simplicity. Within simplicity inherent is efficiency. As such my solution to blisters is, when I get one, take a sowing needle, heat it over a flame (stove) until it is red hot to disinfect it, then pop the blister gently. Pop it enough to let the liquid drain and then the skin that made up the blister dries up and falls away within a few days. Simple and straightforward!
Honestly, because I run in sandals black toenails are not really a problem for me. The times I have got them my solution was again simple. Black toenails are, in most cases, caused by repetitive trauma to the toe (from the toes hitting the inside of your shoe again and again) causing a blister to form underneath the nail. This effectively detaches and kills your nail. My solution was always to simply let the dead toenail fall away or get to a point where I could, with as little pain as possible, take it off. Afterwards I would simply let the new toenail grow in, which might take a few months.
*Important: Remember with calluses, blisters, and black toenails to always vigilantly watch for infection. Clean your feet before and after any of the recommended solutions.
The reason this guide is comprehensive is because it not only covers skin or topical issues you might have with your feet as a runner, but I am also going to go over ways to become a stronger runner through your feet and prevent/treat foot injuries. Remember that it is not simply dealing with issues when they arise, but preventing them. That's why you keep your feet hydrated with lotion and part of the reason I run in sandals so that I don't have to deal with black toenails. Apply the same forethought and intention to within your foot.
Towel/Newspaper Toe Curl
This is an incredible exercise to strengthen the little muscles within your foot and toes, which allows you to have more control over the land you are running on.
- Begin by placing a towel (a dish towel size, a foot by a foot or so) or newspaper on the ground in front of you. You can do this exercise standing or sitting.
- Place your toes on the edge of the towel or newspaper facing you.
- Scrunch the entire towel or newspaper towards you by squeezing your toes again and again.
- Then, when the towel or newspaper is roughly balled up underneath your toes, extend your toes again and again to flatten the towel or newspaper out again.
- Try to keep your heel in the same place throughout.
Single Leg Balancing
This exercise can be done anywhere, at anytime, and strengthens not only your feet, but your glutes, core, and more.
- Stand on one leg and open your toes for solid balance.
- Balance on that leg for 30 sec. to a minute and then move to the other leg. Repeat as many times as desired.
Remember that you can do this exercise at home, at work, while standing in line, anywhere.
This exercise targets your calf, which plays a vital role in the absorption, distribution, and release of energy with each stride. In addition, if your calf is strong that strength positively benefits your entire foot.
- Stand with one foot on a staircase or other ledge.
- Only have your toes/forefoot on the stairs/ledge.
- Use your body weight and sink down into stretching your calf.
- Then, engaging your calf muscles raise your body back up.
- If using your entire body weight is too difficult right now, use the stair railing or other point to ease the weight you are putting on your calf.
We often hear about the importance of stretching. In reality when done wrong, which happens a lot, stretching can be very detrimental to your body. Too much stretching and you don't give your muscles a chance to effectively build muscle, which actually happens during rest. If you stretch when your muscles are cold, so right before a run after you've recently woken up or something, then that leads quickly to injury. Self massage is a much more logical approach to recovery, but stretching plays a role as well.
These tools, handmade by yours truly, allow you to target any muscle and dig deep into that muscle. This specific approach allows for beneficial cross-fiber massage. Cross-fiber massage is more beneficial than conventional rolling massage, because it prevents scar tissue from forming, maintains mobility, and aids in repair. Additionally the deep tissue aspect allows for a well-rounded, complete muscle recovery in areas of the muscle that we can't usual target. The Basecamp is the larger, yet still portable, version that you can use against the wall or floor for maximum pressure and control. For a finer, even more portable approach the Peak can come with you on your adventures. Remember the amount of pressure you apply is completely in your control. Both tools are great for your feet, because they allow you to target the fine muscles that make up your foot and calf. You can find out more and buy your own here.
I do also admit, however, that rolling out your muscles with a foam roller or massage ball also plays a beneficial role in recovery. What I like to use is a foot massage ball, like this, when I am sitting writing or reading or something.
If you haven't been able to tell, your calves play a vital role in foot health. If your calves are tight (usually due to glute weakness and thus calf overuse) then they will pull on your achilles and heel area muscles which will cause many issues. To prevent this be vigilant and massage your calves (ideally with the Basecamp or Peak). In addition you can perform some calf stretches:
- Downward-Facing Dog: a yoga pose that bookends, and features heavily within, almost every session of my practice.
- Stair or ledge stretch: imagine that you are doing the Calf Raise, but without raising your body up. Simply place your toes/forefoot on a stair, curb, or ledge and allow your body weight to stretch your calf. Lower until you feel a stretch, not until it hurts. You can bend your knee slightly to target you lower calf or lock your knee to target your upper calf.
- Extended leg stretch: place your hands against a firm surface in front of you and extend the leg you wish to stretch backwards. Make sure your entire foot is on the ground, keep your heel on the ground as you lean forward to feel a stretch in your entire calf. You can lower your knee slightly to stretch your lower calf and upper ankle.
Upper Foot/Shin Stretch
This stretch is deceptively simple, but it allowed me to grit out the last 20 miles of the Bryce Canyon 100 as my upper foot seized in agony. I would stop about every 100 yards or so, when it was really bad, to do this stretch quickly, simply so I could keep moving.
- Place your hands on a firm surface (for me it was a tree at Bryce) and extend the leg you wish to stretch backwards.
- Angle your toes into the ground and away from you.
- Now pretend you are trying to touch the ground with the top of your foot/ankle. Imagine someone is pushing on your heel and stretching the top of your foot. This will stretch all the way from your toes to your shin.
The feet are truly a fascinating part of our body. Their simplicity and function is without equal, within that I find beauty. They are our base inherent in each stride and as such I truly hope that you take care of them. I still have lots to learn, but these techniques are how I have kept my feet strong and healthy over the years and it has made me a better runner for it. I hope we can continue to learn together and I hope these techniques help you.