How to prepare your feet for an ultra trail running race

by | Oct 7, 2022 | Run, Training, Training "How To's"

Step one: DON’T get a pedicure before running a trail race…

Back in July 2000, I went to Indonesia for the first time. For an 18-year-old fresh out of school, it was a dream surf trip and I prepared accordingly – I was fit, surfing at an elite level and went equipped with a quiver of the best boards. What does this have to do with trail running you ask? Well, probably the most important thing I did in the three months leading up to the trip to coral reef utopia, was to condition my feet.

Toni Mccannn Trail Running In Europe
Toni McCann (c) Mike McMonagle

An older pro from my hometown had told me to toughen up my feet and prep them for the warm water and beatings they would no doubt take walking on the coral reefs to access the surf spots. If it hadn’t been for him my time in the islands may have been a lot less pleasant (thanks Justin)…And no, booties are not part of this discussion.

Now, while it may seem a stretch, very similar principles apply to trail running. When it comes to stepping it up in distance, many runners neglect to prepare their most valuable tool – their feet.

Read on and then step it up:

“Don’t get a pedicure!” Starts Toni McCann. “If you have your feet done they’ll get rid of the callouses. They look gnarly, sure, but those gnarly-looking calluses are an additional layer of protection, you want that.”

According to Toni, aside from keeping those lovely rough spots, is making them in the first place. “General conditioning of your feet starts with running a lot of mileage,” she says.

“The other thing is a good pair of socks, for me, a single pair of thin socks are the way to go.” Toni believes that if your socks are too thick they will rub where they shouldn’t causing a risk of chafe and blisters, the same thing with double-layer socks. “You want something that your foot kind of moulds to because as soon as you start sliding around in your socks when trail running the fabric starts rubbing where you don’t need it, the idea is to make your foot and sock one so that there are not multiple surfaces rubbing against each other.”

Toni Mccann Trail Running In France
Toni McCann (c) Ian Corless

From this, it leads that you also (and this may be obvious, but you’ll be surprised) to have shoes that fit well. “Your trail running shoes want to lock your feet in.” For Toni, the next big point to remember is prevention: “If you know that you are prone to getting blisters make sure that you strap up potential hot spots where you may have had problems in the past. You can also use things such as baby powder to prevent moisture build-up, or use a bit of lube such as vaseline to prevent rubbing.”

“Prevention is the key,” ultra trail running ace Ryan Sandes echoes Toni’s sentiments. “The biggest thing with preparation for a marathon distance trail is that a lot of people do the training but then when doing longer runs they don’t necessarily always test all the gear they are going to be using in the race,” the Capetonian says. “If you tend to get blisters then I would put anti-chafe or some vaseline on your feet, but you can’t wait until race day, you need to test it.”

Ryan Sandes Prepares His Feet For An Ultra Trail Adventure Around Lesotho
Ryan Sandes (c) Craig Kolesky / Red Bull Content Pool

“As important as testing out the gear you are going to use on race day is to also really mimic the race conditions — if you are doing a race with lots of river crossings then run with wet socks and see what happens. Socks can cause blisters when they soak up water and get thicker, so you might decide to go with a thinner pair of socks. If the race is going to be really hot, do some training runs in hot conditions and see what happens to your feet (they often swell in the heat) which might influence your shoe choice.”

Ryan also finds that toughening up his feet with a few short barefoot runs helps a lot for trail running. (Good for Indonesian surf training too). “Do a few shorter runs barefoot just to strengthen your foot muscles and toughen them up a bit. I run 10-15 minutes on a grass field, just like 10 to 15 minutes once a week,” he says.

According to Ryan, once you’ve done the hard yards in the prep it is also very important to manage your feet during the trail running race. “If you feel like you’re developing a hot spot, stop at the aid station and if there is sand in there take it out and strap up the spot if need be.”  

“Oh, definitely cut your toenails and file them down as smooth as possible because in a training run of 20kms or so you might not feel it as much but suddenly once the distance increases or in a trail running race, you push a bit harder and that toenail catches on your sock every time and then after 30kms you can really start to feel that,” he says.

But, whatever you do, DON’T get a pedicure.

Hitting the Western Cape for some trail running missions this summer, here are a few alternative adventures to tackle while there.

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