For years, the norm has been to avoid getting your feet wet. When feet get wet for extended periods, usually the feet have skin that is soft and macerated. In long events, and especially in multi-day events, that can lead to trouble. Taping or patching wet feet, or macerated feet, is very difficult. So it is best to keep your feet as dry as possible.
This has always been the rule.
In the past few years, adventure style races have become popular, which puts runners in conditions where wet feet are the daily norm. Most often, these races are six to seven days in length. The race often includes running through the jungle or mountains with stream crossings, wet foliage, wet trails, mud, and extremely humid conditions. In these conditions, your feet are always wet.
If you think this doesn’t apply to you because you are doing a “dry” race, please consider this. Even dry races with no water crossing can produce wet feet. Dumping water over your head at aid stations to cool off will get water in your shoes. Plus our feet naturally sweat and this buildup can result in wet feet.
Shirley Thompson, the Race Director of the Jungle Marathon told me, “We always advise runners to train with wet feet so that they can focus on a strategy before they get to the jungle. As far as footwear is concerned, we always emphasize trail shoes with good grip, and that comfort is the main factor.”
So how can we do that? For training runs, soak your shoes and socks before heading out. Step in puddles or use a hose if they dry out. Try to keep them wet as long as possible. If you feel a hot spot or blister start, stop and adjust your shoes and add tape, lube or your favorite blister prevention product. Take time to find the best shoe and sock combination for your feet when wet.
Personal Foot Care of Wet Feet
Because your feet will be wet, often at the start of each stage, it makes sense to do some of your training with wet feet. Use the same shoe and sock combination that you plan to use for the race – and get them wet. Walk and run in them. Not just a 30-minute run, but hours! Put some distance on your wet feet that is the same you expect to do during the race. Try to also to do back to back wet feet training days. It’s that simple.
As said earlier, stop and deal with any hot spots as soon as you feel them. Check for folds in your socks, friction from dirt or sand, pressure inside your shoes – and get rid of these irritants. Lube the area or apply a piece of tape or blister prevention patch to help. This may seem like common sense, but many people ignore this simple step.
At the end of each day’s stage, remove your wet shoes and socks, dry your feet and air them as much as possible. If your feet have tape on them, remove the tape to dry the skin underneath. Wear sandals or Crocs around camp to keep your feet away from the wet ground and dirt and sand. Walking around barefoot will often aggravate wet, cold, and soft macerated skin. Later in the day or the next morning, re-tape your feet and patch any blisters.
Because you cannot count on medical people patching your feet the way you want them patched or that they will be available, you must learn how to patch your own feet. I have helped at events where I have patched feet all afternoon and evening, and then had people line up in the morning for more work. Sometimes the medical staff is stretched thin or cannot get to everyone. Be prepared to do your own patching and have your own equipment. Better safe than sorry.
Many times at races, I have seen athletes who have not trained their feet for the event. They enter a race and don’t put the necessary miles on their feet, don’t have the right shoes, don’t know how to manage and patch their feet. I encourage you to take the time to train with wet feet and condition them for the extremes of your race.
In August I worked the Gold Rush Adventure Race in the California Sierras. Throughout the race I worked at three checkpoints. As racers needed foot care, I carried my lounge chair and foot care box to where their team was set up and did what I could.
Most racers had hot spots, blisters and sore feet. A lot of times, athletes tell me that have blisters and yet, after cleaning their feet, none are visible. They may have a very sore spot or a hot spot, but there is no blister. Sometimes I can tape over the area or place a Spenco patch to provide a bit of cushioning. I often add an Engo Blister Prevention Patch to their insole underneath the tender area on their foot.
A lot of the racers needed blister care and taping. My whole aim when patching feet is to get the racers back in the race. I do what I can to drain and patch blisters on any part of the foot.
One of the racers came into checkpoint where they were transitioning from bikes to foot. At this point, they had been on their feet for almost two days. They started with a long paddle, followed with a long bushwack up a canyon, and then a really long bike section. The team was near the end of pack. The four members sat and discussed their options and whether to continue. The next section was a long trek of about 36 miles.
The racer needing foot care took off his shoes. As he sat back in my lounge chair, I removed his socks. His heels were fine, however he had major problems with blisters at the ball of the foot where the toes started. Both feet were the same. I cleaned his feet and did an evaluation.
I wish I had taken a few pictures of his feet but I was too involved in getting his feet patched so the team could continue. At the base of each toe were blisters. Many extended to several toes. Some of the blisters extended up between the toes. The majority had blood in the fluid. There were blisters at the base of the toes from one side of the foot to the other side – on both feet. His feet were swollen so the blistered skin was stretched tight from the fluid. In addition, several of the toes had blisters on the bottoms or sides, several with blood inside.
The blood in the blisters was my major concern and that there were so many of them. I usually drain blood blisters and with clean skin and a dab of antibiotic ointment – in a 24-hour race, I’m comfortable doing that. I always ask the person if they are up to date with their Tetanus shots and give them instructions about infections.
I talked to the racer and gave him my honest opinion – that he not continue in the race. We talked and I gave him my reasons. The next section was about 36 hard miles of cross-country trekking. His feet would get wet, and this would soften the skin and lead to further skin breakdown. The blisters were in a hard area to patch and it would especially be one long patch at the base of all his toes. The swollen condition of his feet was not going to get any better. And most important, the blood in so many blisters, even with the blisters lanced and patch, would increase the chances of an infection. Plus, if his feet took a beating during the trek, the blisters would become a huge open unpatchable mess (for lack of a better term). And of course, his feet would hurt badly.
He took my advice and I wrapped his feet as shown in the photo.
I think I can count on my fingers how many times I have advised racers to stop because of foot problems. Sometimes your feet simply quit. They have had enough.
Could this have been prevented? Based on my experience, I have to say, probably. Changing socks, treating hot spots, earlier blister care, better socks, moisture controlling lubricants, airing feet at checkpoints, and better shoe fit. In a team event, such as adventure races, every member of the team must help the other members with foot care. Every team member must be honest with their teammates about the condition of their feet. In solo races where athletes are racing alone, they need to be constantly aware of their feet. And where there are crews, these important people must ask questions about the condition of the athlete’s feet.
There are no guarantees in a race of any length. Our feet propel us forward, but every so often, out feet quit.
I have worked a lot of events. Every one has its one set of conditions that stresses the participants’ feet. Sometimes, it’s the dry heat of Death Valley or the rainy British Columbia coast, or the ups and downs on the trails of the many trail hundreds.
For years, the norm has been to avoid getting your feet wet. Wet feet often mean skin that is soft and can become macerated. In long events, and especially in multi-day events, that can lead to trouble. Taping or patching wet feet, or macerated feet, is very difficult. So it is best to keep your feet as dry as possible.
And then there’s the Jungle Marathon.
The Jungle Marathon is held in the Amazon Rain Forest of Brazil. This year’s race is held over October 4 to 13.The race is in the stunning State of Para – often referred to as the Caribbean of the Amazon. Competitors have the choice of two distances: 240km or 100km, which will be completed in stages throughout the week. The longer distance will include six stages and the shorter will include four. Imagine running through the jungle with stream crossings, wet foliage, wet trails, mud, and extremely humid conditions. Your feet are always wet.
At the Jungle Marathon runners have to be self-sufficient, carrying their food and provisions during the race. They are provided bottled water at designated checkpoints. Nights are spent sleeping in hammocks at campsites along the shores of the river.
Shirley Thompson is the race director and she stresses, “Our medical team has many years experience in remote locations. Your safety and well-being is our prime concern and we employ only the most experienced personnel to assist us.”
Shirley told me, “We always advise runners to train with wet feet so that they can focus on a strategy before they get to the jungle. We also tell them to buy your book and try to find a strategy that works for them. As far as footwear is concerned, we always emphasize trail shoes with good grip, and that comfort is the main factor.
I personally spend quite a bit of time in the jungle preparing the trail and doing a trial run of the course, and I always use the same strategy, which I found years ago in your book. I spray on two coats of New Skin Liquid Bandage, then wear SealSkinz hi-tops, with a thin lining sock. I have never had a blister.”
Vicky Kypta instructs new medics who join the team on foot care and she gives clinics for competitors in the United Kingdom on foot care and preparation for the race. I emailed her and asked about their strategy for managing runner’s feet. Here is her response.
“Feet are soaked from the start of each stage, so in the end it made more sense to get people used to their feet being always wet. We found runners had less problems during the race when they had trained with wet feet. There was a lot of hideous feet in the first couple of years of the event before we adopted this strategy.
As far as blister prevention is concerned, we encourage all runners to find a shoe/sock combination that works for them and to train in them including getting them wet. During the race, the runners are told to stop and deal with any hot spots as soon as they start which includes not waiting to get to a checkpoint. It is amazing how just stopping for 20 minutes to deal with feet saves so much time and pain later in the race.
Some runners have their own preferences on how to treat blisters and if they do then we follow their instructions otherwise we tend to drain non-blood filled blisters. On those hardy enough we the inject compound tincture of benzoin to help seal the space created by the blister, to serve as a local antiseptic, and to prevent further abrasion or loss of skin. However, due to the intense burning sensation experienced for a few moments after injection not all runners want this method used – so for all others we drain the blister and then use the benzoin over the top to provide a tacky surface to help the tape stick. Over the top of the blister we then apply a layer of fleecy web and tape over that using zinc oxide tape.
Over toes we just use tape without the fleecy web as otherwise it becomes too bulky resulting in the runner being unable to put their shoe on.
Some runners like to use Compeed on their blisters and whilst they are very good at protecting the blister we have found through experience that with an ultra event such as the Jungle Marathon, they are very difficult to remove should there be any further problems with the blister later on during the race and more damage is often caused in attempting to remove them so we therefore don’t encourage their use.
Over the years we have been very fortunate and have had very few macerated feet as at the end of each stage we get the runners to remove all the tape and to thoroughly dry out their feet. Blisters and problem feet are then freshly taped later that evening or the next morning ready for the next stage.
Despite the incredible punishment the runners feet endure during the Jungle Marathon, year after year we have very few cases of macerated or infected feet which I believe stems from early and effective treatment of problems as they arise.”
Vicky holds foot care clinics including medical care prior to the races to help provide the runners with increased knowledge to enable them to treat themselves more effectively which will hopefully reduce the amount of foot problems even further.
The Jungle Marathon helps their runners successfully complete the race because of their unique approach to foot care. Here are my observations:
- They encourage participants to train with wet feet
- They even suggest soaking your shoes and socks before heading out for a training run
- They give specific advice that runners find the best shoe and sock combination for their feet when wet
- After each day’s stage, they have runners remove their tape, which allows the skin to dry out – re-taping afterwards
This combination of advice and attention of the runners keeping their feet healthy for the multiple stages of the race works well. I commend Shirley and Vicky and the Jungle Marathon for their success with foot care.
I encourage you to check out their website and Facebook page. If you are looking for a stage race with adventure, this is a well-organized event.
Here’s the link to the Jungle Marathon’s website.
Here’s the link to the Jungle Marathon Facebook page.
One of the runners doing next week’s Badwater 135 Mile Ultramarathon recently emailed Denise Jones with questions about managing his feet at this grueling race. Denise cc’d me with her response. I liked what she wrote and decided to use part of it here because it is important information.
[Denise talking about feet getting wet]. How you avoid getting your feet wet is that you avoid getting water sprayed on your legs. It’s your core that needs the cooling anyway. If you are sprayed on the legs, i.e., quads, you have to have it wiped off, then you wipe sunscreen off too. You can survive quite well without getting sprayed on the legs (honest). And, very importantly, you make mental notes about how your feet are “feeling” and address any hot spots BEFORE they grow!
As well, you make sure your crew knows by giving them strict instructions NOT to get you wet below your waist, and if anyone does (they DIE…just kidding). Really. The water that hits your legs runs down the legs into shoes. Depending on how hot it is, which is not looking very hot this year, the water that is sprayed often evaporates. However, if you get those feet wet, then one of the factors that come into play is blisters, i.e., heat, moisture and friction. You can’t avoid heat and friction, so you try to avoid moisture. The tape, as you know, acts as another layer of skin. But honestly, if you do get wet feet, and they blister, then it the athlete either is sucking it up and running anyway with those blisters, which has been done, or drops, which I doubt is on your agenda. Since you are fast, I imagine you are going to be pushing hard and those front-runners can definitely suck it up. When I see their feet afterward, I remark how much better they would have done if they had not allowed their feet to get wet or if they had figured out what works. Certainly socks, sometimes two layers, if you have trained with them and lube, and or powder can work well. Injinji’s often work with a sock over them, with lube and powder under that. The leg sleeves that have become popular now, which I really like, are a culprit I think because they allow water to drizzle into the shoes and socks. While they prevent sunburn, they do act as a catalyst to carry water that is in excess seeping down the legs onto the feet and shoes. That is DEADLY!
What I find is most important is that you have a Plan A – and then Plan B which comes into play if Plan A doesn’t work. Everyone is an experiment of “one”. About the time I think I have the magic combo figured out, someone proves me wrong. Case in point: KNOW YOUR FEET and what causes you problems and address that with a plan and then a backup plan if that fails. Then maybe you won’t need to use it once you are underway. All bets are off if you are pre-taped and those feet get wet because wet tape is not a good barrier. Duct tape is too hot and does not dissipate heat, though it can withstand moisture, often the feet macerate underneath.
Hopefully you do not have deep callus. That is also a “no-no” in my book in Death Valley because we cannot drain deep blood blisters because the callus can’t be penetrated.
Good advice from Denise – a pro about foot care in the heat. I’ll be back next week with a report from Badwater.