“And forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet.” Khalil Gibran
Of the 206 bones in your body, 52 are in your feet. Each and everyone contributes to getting you to where you are going and is a potential major hindrance if not cared for. As a long-distance, long-term athlete, I spend a lot of time on my feet. Over the last 7 years, I have hiked 12,000 miles, paddled 1,500 miles, and bike-packed 4,000 miles. With 3,500 miles left to complete a non-motorized traverse of the Americas, physical maintenance, and specific foot care, is crucial.
One of the important lessons I’ve learned has been moderation. It sounds silly putting those two thoughts into the same sentence but it is a fundamental truth to how I’ve been able to keep going for so long. Maintaining a pace and stride which works for me, resting when my body needs it, and giving it the resources it needs to stay healthy and moving are all examples of moderation and care which I began learning when I started thru-hiking over a decade ago. And I continue to learn and relearn when my body makes her demands known or insists in the form of months of illness, repeated bouts of overuse injuries, or other physical breaks down.
Interestingly, these sorts of issues don’t usually spring upon you all at once. There are signs and symptoms. That tweak in your lower back. Is that a one-time thing or is that the beginning of chronic pain? Every endurance athlete knows this fear and the fact is, you never can know what it is going to be. What you can do is incorporate a steady practice of care and strength-building to give your body its best chance. Similarly, there are dozens of small things you can do to prevent going down that road, or to aid in recovery as you regain strength and stamina. These are a few of those small practices which can make a big difference
I spent the first 3 years of my backpacking career battling with trench foot. I came to think it was simply part of the experience. I tried doubling up on socks and traded my way up into Gortex boots and the issue only worsened. When wearing shoes and socks, your feet are experiencing a very different climate than the rest of your body. Usually, it is a warm, damp environment, just the sort of place fungus likes to grow. I was super glueing deep cracks in my heel shut. Until finally one day I swung in the opposite direction and wore lighter shoes and began airing my feet out more often. I quit sleeping in socks and the issue subsided.
If you go barefoot or wear open sandals, your feet will be able to dry naturally. Still, if you are on a multi-day trip, rinse or wipe your feet off at the end of the day, paying special attention to the areas between your toes. Not only will this keep your quilt or sleeping bag cleaner, but it will also keep your foot skin healthier.
When you are in a closed-shoes sort of environment give your feet time to air out whenever possible. Whether that is under your desk at work, on a lunch break along the trail, or on the drive home from the trailhead, keeping your feet clean and exposed to the open air contributes significantly to your foot health.
Mix it Up
Cross-training caught on in the endurance sports world over the past 20 years. All our muscle groups were made to work together so having one set particularly overdeveloped while others languish, doesn’t serve the sustained health of our physical systems in the long run. The same goes for our feet.
While thru-hiking the CDT this past summer, I was retraining my feet after several months spent exclusively in my Xero sandals on sandy beaches and in a kayak. Due to constant high mile days, the weight on my back, and the terrain, I opted to hike in trail runners with more padding and zero drop and quickly began to have arch pain. Thus I began alternating between my sandals and trail runners throughout the day.
Once the frosty mornings were past and when I took a breakfast break and aired out my feet, I would switch into my sandals for a few hours until lunch. At big river crossings, on smooth trails, and around camp, I was in my sandals. On thorny bushwhacks, across lava rock, and other rough environments, or at the end of the day when I was tired and not able to be as careful with my step, I would switch back to my trail runners. This switching back and forth made me very aware of my gait which is helpful because a hyper-extended gait is a leading cause of shin splints. While the cushion of the trail runners invited this sort of step, my Xeros reminded me not to fall into that.
Thus, if like me, you aren’t ready to spend 100% of your time barefoot, there are still many ways and a lot of space for barefoot practices to improve your awareness of how you move, and your experience of both your body and the outdoors.
Now, here I may get a bit hoaky for some folks, and I don’t mind if you skip on to the end, but at the end of a long and challenging day, I like to thank my feet. I leave my shoes at the vestibule, peel off my socks, and either soak my feet in a nearby stream or give them a good wipe down with a baby wipe. Then, sitting in the butterfly position or lying on my back in a modified happy baby pose, I wrap my hands around my feet and begin to stretch.
Beginning just above my ankle bone I rub small circles and check in with all those tiny bones. With the texture of my skin. With the cracks in my skin. I thank them for the miles they have put in. Marvel at the ground they have covered and the conditions they have weathered. Doing this I work my way all the way down the tops of my feet and then begin again at the ankles and cup my heel. In thru-hiking, that part of the foot takes a lot of heavy strikes and a lot of modern footwear encourages this, so they get an extra thank you for taking that extra whooping. Focusing on the soles of my feet and paying particular attention to both arches, I make my way to the toes. Stretching each toe individually and then tug outward from the tip, pulling them long and a good final stretch before crawling into my sleeping bag and asking my body to do it all over again tomorrow.
Endurance athletes ask a lot of our bodies but every thru-hike, ultra, or even just a junt around the block starts with one small step. The same measured moderation and care apply to foot care. Taking a few minutes out of your day or taking a few extras onto your training routine may be hard to convince yourself of when you are trying to make miles or balance a busy lifestyle. Whether it is washing and airing out your feet, switching out shoes, or staying awake a few minutes longer in your tent to stretch your soles, small steps can make the biggest difference in the long run. After all, your feet are carrying the most weight on your body, giving them a few minutes of dedicated care is the least you can do.
–Adventurer Bethany Hughes
The content of this post does not constitute and is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of a physician or other qualified health provider with any questions or concerns you may have about your health or a medical condition.