Getting blisters on a run is the most annoying of injuries. They hurt. They can keep you sidelined when you're trying to train. They heal slowly. Worst of all: They're not even cool enough to brag about. So let's see how we can prevent them from happening in the first place.
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What Causes Them?
Basically, there are three things that cause blisters: heat, moisture and friction. Combined, they're even worse. Let's break them down.
Heat is inflammatory. It causes of bit of swelling which puts extra stress on your skin, making it more susceptible to irritation. Running barefoot on hot pavement can certainly give you blisters, but for us shod runners it's indirect heat that we need to worry about. Heat may soften your skin some, but not as badly as a far worse villain...
Moisture. As in sweat. Or rain, or pouring something over your head in a race (highly recommended on hot days). When your foot gets wet not only does your skin get softer and more susceptible to abrasion, but its texture changes, becoming rougher. This is an evolutionary trick to give us better grip on slippery surfaces, but when running with shoes on, it just gives your sock something to rub against, and rubbing equals...
Friction. This is public enemy number one. Because the motion of running is so repetitive, all it takes is one little thing to be off for there to be a slight increase in pressure in a certain spot. Repeated thousands of times in a short period, the skin in that spot becomes inflamed, then — like when you bite your lip, and it swells, so you keep accidentally biting it — you just keep nailing it over and over again. Gradually your body pumps a mostly clear fluid into that location and it turns into a water-balloon of pain.
So, now that we know what it is, let's kill it.
Shoes 'n' Socks
Since the friction that causes the blister happens between your foot and your sock, that seems like a good place to start, right? Right. The old backpacking adage "cotton kills" applies here too. Cotton is super absorbent, and as it sops up water (or sweat) it becomes more abrasive, which causes more friction. All bad. For running socks, synthetics are the way to go. Not only do they not absorb moisture, but a good sock will wick it away from your foot, helping to keep it dry.
A lot of runners swear by double-layer socks (like these from WrightSock). The idea here is that the friction builds up between the two sock layers, rather than between your foot and the sock. The same idea can be accomplished by using the feet from pantyhose or a thin running-sock under another sock. Some runners prefer thicker socks, and some like thin ones. It's best to experiment as much as possible to find what works for you, just make sure they're loose enough for you to spread your toes, but tight enough that material won't bunch up under your feet.
There's a lot of personal preference when it comes to running shoes, but there are some general rules. For running, you may want to go a half size larger than normal, as your feet swell slightly as you run. To help find the right fit, try on shoes in the late afternoon, because your feet swell as the day goes on too. Also, consider the climate you're going to be running in. If it's hotter than hell, you probably want something light that breathes well. If you're going to be getting wet, look for shoes that drain and dry quickly.
Blisters and their specific location can reveal a lot about your form. This is easy to miss, and I certainly did. I hadn't had any blister problems until I started increasing my speed a bit. Suddenly I was constantly getting a blister just in front of the ball of my foot, between my big and second toes. I tried every combination of sock and shoe, but the problem persisted. I finally realised that I was sacrificing my form to gain speed. My feet weren't moving quite fast enough. Ideally, you place your foot down directly underneath your body, push it back, and then lift it up. Your feet should be moving at the same speed your body is travelling. If you're doing it right there should be very little friction imparted onto your foot. Because my feet were slow, every time I landed it was like hitting the brakes a little bit, which caused my foot to slide forward in my shoe, creating friction. I'd then have to make up for it by pushing back behind me too hard. The answer — for me — was increasing my cadence (taking shorter, quicker steps), bending my knees more and not pushing back so hard. You'll lose some speed temporarily, but you'll get it back over time, and you won't be hurting yourself in the process.
That's just one example of how bad form can lead to blisters, but there are many more. Jason Robillard of Barefoot Running University, wrote a terrific piece in Triathlete identifying the symptoms, the likely causes, and the cures for common running problems, including various blisters. It's important to note that as a blister forms you will typically change your gait in order to avoid the painful area. This may further compromise your form and lead to more serious injuries.
Tricks of the Trade
Form and footwear are the two most important factors, but why not bolster those with some technology? If you have a specific spot that's particularly prone to blistering there are a lot ways to help protect it. The simplest solution is to apply a lubricant that won't rub off. BodyGlide goes on nice and light, but it's very resilient and generally won't come off with water alone. For longer runs you might want to go with something thicker like Aquaphor, which will stand up a little better to salt water.
If you think moisture is playing a big role in your blistering, you can try adding talcum or Gold Bond powder to your socks, which may help sop up the moisture. Or you can try spraying your feet with an antiperspirant to cut down the sweat.
Some advocate adding a layer of armour. If you try to protect the area with a padded, adhesive strip like moleskin, make sure you cut the piece to fit the blister area perfectly. Other people suggest putting duct tape on the affected area. You have to be careful with either of those methods though, because if an edge starts to peel and the armour bunches up, you'll be a whole lot worse off. For this reason, some people recommend products such as liquid bandages instead. For all of these, make sure what you're putting on is smooth and thin, otherwise you may make things worse.
When It's Too Late
Hey, sometimes blisters just happen and then you have to deal with them. If the blister is small, roughly the diameter of a pencil eraser, it's almost always just best to leave it alone. If it's a larger bubble though, most doctors recommend that you very carefully lance it with a sterilised needle. Just poke through one side, then squeeze out the fluid. You'll probably want to have your foot over a bathtub or something. Once it's empty, apply antibiotic ointment and put a bandaid over it, but do not remove the skin on top of the blister. Just let it heal under there.
While the spot it still tender you may want to look into something like a pad designed to take pressure off that hotspot. Many companies such as Dr Scholl's make various blister treatments that generally take the form of a puffy adhesive pad (sometimes with a hole cut out). This gives the blister a chance to heal while you lead your normal life.
Hopefully that will get you padding off on your way to better foot health. Remember, with blisters it's better to expend energy on prevention than it is to sit around waiting to heal. There are a million other cures and home remedies, and if you've got a favourite one, please do share it with the class.