Suffer from blisters? Triathlon coach Graeme Turner explains how your running techniqe might be to blame.
Late in the run at Ironman Melbourne this year Mel Hauschildt was forced to stop due to debilitating blisters. Fortunately she had enough of a lead to allow her to adjust her shoes, apply some cream and continue on to win the race.
So what causes blisters?
There are many theories about what causes blisters.
• Your shoes are too loose.
• Your shoes are too tight.
• You don’t wear socks.
• You do wear socks.
• You wear the wrong socks.
And so on…
According to Wikipedia, a blister is a small pocket of fluid within the upper layers of the skin, typically caused by forceful rubbing (friction), burning, freezing, chemical exposure or infection.
Hopefully you don’t run in an environment where burning, freezing or chemical exposure is common, which means the typical cause of blisters when running is friction. Friction occurs when one surface moves or rubs against another. If everything is moving in the same direction; for example, a car tyre rolling on the road, then friction is negated or minimised. In running, the most common cause of blisters is when things are not all moving in the same direction.
When running correctly, the shoe and foot are travelling in the same direction as the foot strikes the ground.
When running incorrectly, this is often not the case and this can be broken down into two typical scenarios.
1. Foot landing forward of the centre
When running with our centre of gravity behind our feet (incorrect technique) at the moment of impact, our foot is travelling straight down or, more often in people that suffer from blisters, actually travelling slightly forward as in an over-stride. When our shoe hits the ground, the tread stops the shoe; however, the foot moves forward due to momentum within the shoes creating blister-inducing friction.
This action can occur up to 90 times a minute quickly resulting in a painful blister.
This can even be exacerbated by thicker socks, as the inside of the sock can move relative to the outside of the sock, creating even more friction. If you suffer from blisters it would be worth using a much thinner sock as you transition to the correct style of running. This is a common misconception. Thicker socks don’t prevent blisters; they can exacerbate them through allowing additional movement within the shoe.
2. Insufficient knee lift
Insufficient knee lift is common with new runners but also common with people who focus on where they are landing on the foot rather than the overall mechanics, and those who perform the common butt kick drill incorrectly. These people tend to have their knee pointing towards the ground and essentially kick or jam their foot into the ground. Often a lack of knee lift is indicated by a scuffing sound when running. In addition to the risk of blisters this scuffing sound indicates another issue.
Scuffing invokes two examples of energy. As defined in physics, both heat and sound are examples of energy – energy that would be more effectively used in creating forward momentum.
A blister around the ball of the foot is typically a good sign of a problem with your run technique. If you suffer from blisters, don’t throw away your shoes (although you may reassess your socks in the short term), but instead focus on correcting your technique.
How to avoid blisters
Even with good run technique blisters can still occur. Here are some tips to help reduce the chances of blisters ruining your day.
Avoid the expo
It’s amazing to see people buying new shoes for a race at the race expo – and amazing how often this happens. Athletes will often say, “But they are the same as what I have now.” New shoes, even the same brand/model, have an adjustment period as they shape to your foot. It’s also not uncommon that shoe manufacturers change the design and shape of a shoe without changing the model number. For example, a New Balance 890V3 is a different shape to a New Balance 890V4.
Speed laces are fantastic for speeding up your T2, but elastic laces means more foot movement (friction) within the shoe. For longer runs like a 70.3 or Ironman it may be worth sticking with the standard non-elastic laces as the extra 20 seconds in transition could be worth it if it helps you avoid having to stop due to blisters.
Tape your feet
You’ve tried everything but still get blisters? Then protect the area. Before the advent of triathlon specific running shoes – those that are designed to be worn without socks. I used to suffer from cuts and blisters, so would tape up the area with Elastoplast tape. Just be careful if taping around the foot you don’t tape it too tight and impact the movement of the foot. When you land, the bones of the feet disperse shock and you don’t want to impact (pardon the pun) this. It’s a good idea to put the tape on the day before the race to allow it to stretch a bit and to identify whether you have it on correctly.
A tiny blister can ruin your whole day (and months of training). By focusing on correct technique and taking some proactive steps (and common sense), the only thing that will be blistering is your run time.