Friday, June 15, 2007

Preventing Blisters and Black Toenails, esp. during Trail Running

I thought I'd post this to this blog. I posted it on my local trailrunning blog recently, and got some responses. For more running and trail-running advice, click here.

Disclaimer: There are some strong opinions expressed here, but most of them were acquired over time by (me) making many stupid mistakes, and learning from those mistakes. Take it or leave it, it's just information (with some personal opinion added). Most of this information applies to trail runners, but much of it crosses-over to regular pavement running, especially for marathoners. Something I don't mention below: some folks have toes that curl upward or severely downward or outward, and they have special issues to deal with, so please forgive me. (That's where pre-lubing or proper taping methods can come-in handy. I don't normally advocate taping).

Trail Running - Preventing Blisters and Black Toenails:

I disagree with runners that think they have to lose toenails and get blisters on every ultrarun or marathon. It's ridiculous. Especially runners that aren't front-runners in races. (The real fast folks are a different level of runner who push the limits constantly, and probably will lose toenails and get blisters because of racing shoe choices, never stopping to adjust anything, etc). But if you are a slow to upper-middle-of-the-pack runner in long races, what I would call an "Extra-Mediocre Runner," blisters and black toenails are very preventable. I haven't had a blister in 3 years and have NEVER lost a toenail...(sound of wood being knocked). And that includes hilly & mountainous ultra races, and more than a few 50 and 100-milers where my feet were wet & muddy for the whole event.

If you get blisters or black toenails every time you run a race...change something...anything, darn-it! On a recent 3-day training run on trails through the Sierra Nevada Mountains in May 2007, my buddy and I didn't have a problem. LOTS of other folks did. On the first day, we ran 34 miles of technical trails in the mountains. We had 3 major (40-minute) steep decents, and 3 major (one-hour) steep climbs throughout the day. Half of the "first day folks" had major problems with feet and leg issues, and most of them dropped out of training camp that first day. It was easy to see what they were doing wrong, in most cases. The "toenail losers," "ankle twisters," and folks that got "stone bruises" were always wearing "normal" road running shoes or racing flats, instead of trail-running shoes. And most of the blister folks didn't have their shoes tied tight enough, or didn't know anything about electrolyte consumption or foot care.

Talking to some of these runners was interesting, (and is what got me so riled-up to post this). Many of them just assumed that it's normal to have massive blistering and other problems, especially while running in the mountains. (Some of them live there, and train on those trails constantly, too). Heck, I don't have mountains here in Kansas City, and I don't have any of their problems when I run in the mountains.
A training run on the Western States 100 Trail, May 2007.


Blisters are caused by 3 causal factors: heat, moisture, and friction. Trying to eliminate all 3 of these from your running experience can be impossible, but you can usually minimize at least one of the factors during a run, and thus prevent blisters.
Gnarly heel blisters on some poor sap.

Wearing socks that wick-away moisture is a huge plus. You should never wear cotton socks! They stay saturated and are like wet sandpaper on your feet. Find a synthetic or wool sock or sock combination that works for you (during training). I personally use Injinji Tetrasok (toe-socks) in combination with a very-thin outer sock, like a Bridgedale, Smartwool, or Ultimax (depending on the season/weather). This combination works well for my feet, but you may need something else, entirely. Try out your sock experiments during training...duh! What about not wearing socks at all, you say? Unless you are very special, or actually have your shoes "painted" onto your feet for a super-custom fit, you will just end up being a really-stinky-footed-and-blistered-idiot.
Injinji Tetrasok...the "Toe Sock."

Sizing your shoes is important, because your feet will expand up to 1/2 size during a very long run. I buy shoes that are 1/2 size larger than my feet for ultra-running distances. Your feet (and hands) will also swell if you don't take-in enough electrolytes during a race or long run. Foot swelling can cause blisters. Here's a good article about that:
Blisters, Black Toenails and Sodium by Karl King:

Also, tying your shoes correctly or tight enough is very important, especially in hilly or muddy conditions. I use a lacing method (called lace-lock) that prevents heel-slippage on steep up-hills and in muddy, shoe-sucking conditions. On steep down-hills, if your shoe laces are loose, your toe will slam into the front of your shoe and cause major toe and toenail trauma. This is how many folks get dreaded "black toenail" and lose nails after a race. It's also a recipe for severe blistering. Like your mom used to say, "Tie your shoes!"

Proper Shoes:
Wearing shoes "appropriate for the conditions" is paramount. If I run a race on pavement, then I will wear racing flats or other road running shoes. On a rocky and root-infested trail, I always opt for true trail-running shoes. The stone-bruised and ankle-twisted runners at the end of every race are usually wearing road-racing flats or soft, non-protecting road running shoes. Most of them end up with lost toenails, as well, (because the toe-box on these shoes is real tight). Unless you are a really fast & fluid trail runner, or a "World-Class" trail runner, I would not opt for road-running shoes on any trail ultra, trail marathon, or trail race.
Vasque “Blur” Trail Running Shoes

As I've said before:
True trail-running shoes are not just road-running shoes with more durable upper soles and added traction. Trail-running shoes should be fairly light, and have more protection for your toes and forefoot area, to keep from getting "rock & root-induced trauma." You also want your heel to sit lower within the back of the shoe to avoid ankle sprains. Road-running-style "motion control shoes" tend to be higher in the heel area, less flexible, and more prone to putting torque on your ankle area than true trail-running shoes. While wearing these "higher-heeled" shoes, If you were to step on an small stump, rock or root, (which you eventually will), you would have a much higher chance for a severe ankle injury. Not good. Also, the stiffer the shoe, the less of your shoe bottom contacts the surface of the unevenly-surfaced trails. You therefore have less control and less "trail feel" with a stiff shoe. Stiffness also equals heavy, in most cases. There is absolutely no reason why a decent trail-running shoe should be any heavier than a road-running shoe. More information here.

Foot care:
Taking care of your feet during the run is important. I always see ultra-newbies and uber-superstitious runners at races with drop bags "bigger than a bus," filled with shoes and socks to change in to, during the race. This is a very naive tactic, in most cases. In a wet race, your feet will be wet again within minutes. (And now you've just lost 7 or 8 minutes changing shoes/socks at the aid station, all for nothing). A better tactic is to treat your feet when problems arise. When you feel the pain of a "hot spot" forming that will eventually become a blister, pull to the side of the trail and put some lube on the particular spot. Carry a small amount of lube with you. I use a water-resistant and thick silicone gel. You can also use any anti-chafing sports lubes found at running stores. I only pull back the first sock layer, then apply lube directly to the sock surface at the "hot spot" location. It takes me 30 seconds to do this, but it will make all of the difference in the world. Also, in a dusty/sandy race, gaiters can work to keep friction-producing crap out of your shoes. Taking care of your feet BEFORE a run or race is important, also. Trim and file your toenails prior to any long run. This will lessen the chance for toenail trauma.

Proper Training:
Training "for the conditions of the trail" is important. If you train only on pavement for a trail marathon or a trail ultra, you are either a TOTAL MORON, or you are a poor sod that has no "trail options" in your immediate area. For instance, I am always amazed at the number of 100-mile racers that NEVER train on night trail runs, even though up to 40 miles of their 100-mile race will be done at night. Training on trails for events (and on trails at night) teaches your body to "feel" the trail, and to react to trail surface conditions "go with the flow" of the trail. It's called "proprioception." You will learn to become a fluid trail-runner that hardly ever trips and rarely falls, if you train this way. This is a good thing, if you intend to race in long-distance trail races, do well, and not fall flat on your face or have other troubles.

In summary, preventing most foot problems is easy:
Tie your shoes. Wear appropriate footwear for the conditions. Wear the proper size of shoe. Never wear cotton socks and find socks that work for you. Take your electrolytes. Take care of your feet immediately when any problems arise. Pick your feet up high enough to clear objects on the trail, (then repeat); this can be practiced while ACTUALLY TRAINING ON TRAILS, (not pavement).

For more running and trail-running advice and information, click here.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben

PS, in the interest of full disclosure:
I have no financial interest in the products mentioned above, but Vasque is a sponsor for our Midwest Trail Series, this year. I personally like to run in Vasque Blurs, but I also like to run in La Sportiva "Pikes Peak" and Mizuno "Trail Wave Ascend 2" models, and a few other shoes, too. Find the shoe/sock combination that is right for you. By the way, I have big, flat (size 13) feet with narrow heels and a wide forefoot
-Bad Ben

Friday, June 01, 2007

Travels With Pat...My WS100 Training Camp Story

My WS100 Training Camp story.


My buddy Pat Perry got into the Western States 100, this year. That's no easy task. You have to qualify and be selected in a lottery. In his case, someone else got injured, and gave his place to Pat. Lucky Bastard!

Pat Perry

In addition to qualifying and being selected in the lottery, you must complete 8 hours of service. This may be in the form of volunteer trail maintenance or volunteer work at an organized trail or road running race. So, they just don't let any old Yahoo into the race that has the entry fee, (like Leadville does).

The Western States 100 Endurance Run is run on the Western States Trail starting at Squaw Valley, California, and ending in Auburn, California. Runners must reach the finish line within 30 hours, or it's considered a DNF. If you finish within the required 30 hours, you get a Western-style belt buckle.
If you finish within 24 hours, you get a special silver buckle:

Pacers for the runners are allowed on the course at certain places. That's where I come in...I'm lucky enough to pace Pat this year. I'll be pacing him from Foresthill to the finish line. That will be about 40 hilly miles in the dark, mostly. I'll also be crewing for him up to that point.

This race is the oldest 100-mile "ultra" event; the grand-daddy of them all. That's one of the reasons that it's so hard to get a spot each year. How did it start? Here's what Wikipedia has to say about it:
"In 1974, Gordon "Gordy" Ainsleigh was the first to run the course of the Western States Endurance Run. At the time, the trail was used only by horses participating in the 24-hour Western States Trail Ride. When his horse went lame prior to the race, Ainsleigh decided he would run the torturous 100 miles of mountain trail from the Squaw Valley Ski Resort to Auburn, California, rather than look for another horse to ride. Ainsleigh, amazingly, completed the 'equestrian race', without a horse, in 23 hours and 47 minutes. This was the fabled beginning of the Western States Endurance Run, and the beginning of the modern sport of ultradistance trail running." This is why 100-milers (and many 100-Ks) to this day, still give out Western-style belt buckles (usually) for finishing.

By the way, Gordy still runs the race! And he was at the training camp!
Here's a photo of me and Gordy after about 25 miles on the first day:

So...getting back to my blog posting story...Pat and I were there for a 3-day training weekend on Memorial day weekend. This is no piece of cake. The first day, you run basically the toughest part of the course for 34 miles. The 2nd day you run another part of the course for 20 miles, and on the third day, you hit it again and do the last 20 miles of the course.

There are aid stations every 10 to 15 miles or so, to keep you from having to pack too much with you. I still ended up running out of water twice on the first day (on the two toughest climbs on the course). I should have had 3 or 4 water bottles, instead of two; or I should have taken my 100-oz Camelbak with me. Oh well, it was a good learning experience.

The first day, we started at Robinson Flat, near the snow line. After a short climb, we ran down, down, and more down.

Then we got to climb Devil's Thumb, but we first took a little cool-off break:

A shot of Devil's Thumb rock, near the top of an hour or so climb.

We also came across Tonto's gravesite (and a few others). Tonto was Scott Jurek's dog and training partner for 10 years. Scott won the race a record 7 years in a row.

After the Devil's Thumb climb, we descended again and then rose from another canyon to Michigan Bluff. Then we had yet another major downhill and uphill before we could cease running on the first day. We repaired to dinner and our digs at the Foresthill Middle School, where we both had tents set up in the track and field oval.


Along the way, we met some special folks. I met Eric, and found we had a similar past to talk about. I had already met his lovely wife at the Cascade Crest 100, last year.

We also got to meet and talk with many of the participants and speakers, including Tim Twietmeyer, who's finished the race more times than anyone, usually within 24-hours, as well. He has also won the race and set a Master's finish time record.
You would have thought that it was tough to get up and run 3 tough days in a row, but I really looked forward to it. Even though I still consider myself not in the best physical condition, I was impressed that I will be able to pace Pat well the last 40 miles, in spite of him being a lot fitter than I am. (He will have been softened-up by 60 miles when he gets to me). I also like to run at night, so that will be a plus, too. I'm just glad I had the opportunity to go to this camp. It's really hard to simulate mountainous running conditions where I live. We have hills, but not 40-minute downhills and 1-hour climbs.

Happy trails,
Bad Ben
More Photos

The path to enlightenment.