By Cadre Garrett
“Pain don’t hurt.”
— Patrick Swayze, Road House
My feet first spoke to me in the summer of 1995. I was 12 years old and running track. It was cool to wear Vans back then, but as I found out, it wasn’t cool to wear Vans and run track. I was diagnosed with Achilles tendonitis, and it took months of recovery before my feet were the same again. They didn’t talk again until Army Infantry Basic Training in 2002. It was a wake-up call to how weak my feet really were, but they toughened up quickly with the amount of ruck marching I did. In Special Forces Assessment and Selection in 2006 I found out that my feet were still a lot weaker than I thought. They talked to me LOUD in SFAS. After being selected, I went back to my Infantry unit and finally saw a medic. I had broken my 3rd metatarsals clean in half on my left foot with overuse. My feet told me in the Special Forces Qualification Course that they were the most important part of my body and more important than any piece of hardware (except my rifle of course.) My feet have told me in their own language – and yours will tell you – how to get them stronger than stone, how to keep their skin after being soaking wet, how to operate with blisters, how to survive the frigid cold, and ultimately how to carry you to the Promised Land.
The best maintenance is preventive maintenance. The tougher your feet are, the less they get hurt. It’s that simple. It does take time and effort to toughen them; being able to walk on hot coals does not happen overnight. Start walking with a load (not too heavy at first, your goal is to not get injured; if you are injured going into an event it will be exacerbated tenfold DURING the event.) Start light, and wear thin socks. Only go far enough until you feel your first hotspots (hotspots are places on your feet you will get a blister if you continue to march). If you get hotspots too early or too often you may have not broken in your footwear yet, or you could possibly have the wrong footwear altogether. One way to help eliminate hotspots is by buying Moleskin (an adhesive with one side that is soft fabric, usually found in the foot section of a pharmacy) and applying it to known hotspots on your feet.
You can also toughen your feet and reduce injuries at the gym. Wear minimalist style shoes or lift barefoot (warning, you can get injured if you do not work up to this!) Do lower leg workouts that specifically strengthen the lower sections of your legs: one-legged dead lifts, one-legged squats, step-ups, calf raises, and one-legged balancing exercises are all good. Continue increasing distance (never more than 15 miles) and using lighter footwear. Walk barefoot outside, but be careful of where you step. Only walk barefoot until you are uncomfortable. Eventually, ruck barefoot. Ruck in the sand whenever possible, and ruck stairs. Take care of your nails so as not to get an ingrown toenail.
The socks you choose to train with are very important in toughening your feet as well. The thicker the sock you use, the more likely you are to sweat; the more moisture in your footwear, the more likely you are to get a blister. If you’ve really toughened your feet, you can use a thinner sock; the thinner the sock, the less you will sweat. When your feet sweat less, you’ll end up with fewer blisters.
Another way to help your feet sweat less is to spray them down twice a day with an antiperspirant spray. The one I use is Arrid XX Extra Extra Dry. This will help close the sweat holes in your feet and they will sweat less.
What do you do with a blister when you get one? A blister is caused by excessive friction and moisture. When you have a chance to stop moving, the first thing you should do after filling up with water is take care of your feet. Only take one shoe off at a time, whichever foot is bothering you most first (you never know when you might have to put your footwear back on in a hurry). Make a small incision in the bottom of the blister big enough to drain all of the fluid. Cut a piece of Moleskin so it fits over the affected area and make a hole in the Moleskin so that it doesn’t rub the damaged skin area. Put on a dry pair of socks when finished treating the blister. If you don’t have a dry pair, wring out the pair you have as much as possible and clear out any debris before putting them back on. If your blister is a blood blister, treat it the same as any other blister.
In the cold weather it is important to NOT put on more than one set of socks. This will only create more friction with the added layer. It is also important not to wear socks that are too thick and make your feet sweat. It is best to wear the same socks you have been training with: if that means thin socks, continue to use thin socks. Your feet will be cold, but they will also be cold if you are sweating; if your sweat freezes, you have blisters and possible trench foot or frostbite. In the cold it is important to change your socks regularly. This is the only way to keep them warm. Do not rub your feet vigorously when they are cold. This will not warm your feet up, but it could possibly tear skin off your feet.
Foot powder can cause more damage than good. A lot of people seem to think that if you dump a ton of foot powder in your boots your feet will never get wet. This is not true. When foot powder is used in excess, it will clump up and create a piece of debris in your footwear or sock. A piece of debris adds more friction and discomfort, which adds blisters and possible foot injury. If you are going to use foot powder, use it VERY sparingly or do not use it at all.
Bottom Line. If blisters are not taken care of properly, they will force you to walk differently than you normally would because you are trying to compensate for the discomfort you are feeling. If you change the way you walk, this can create problems that are not nearly as easy to recover from as a simple blister. These injuries can include stress fractures, breaks, Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, sprained or broken ankles, and pain or problems in knees, hips, and back. The blister that you do not take care of could take you out of your prime years before your time and possibly put you in a wheelchair decades sooner, all because you did not learn to listen to your feet. The foot language is more beautiful than any in the world: learn it, love it and have an amazing relationship that will last your lifetime.