The Secret to a Blister-free Foot March

The Fort Benning summer heat baked around us as a crusty Sergeant First Class shared sage advice from his long career in the Infantry. He was the senior trainer at the Infantry Officer Basic Course, tasked with imparting leadership and combat wisdom upon the Army’s freshest crop of Lieutenants. We, being that group of new Lieutenants, knew almost nothing about life in the Army and hung on his every word.

The experienced trainer talked about foot marching, “Listen, men…you’re gonna walk a lot of miles during your career as a grunt. And it’s time to start toughening up your feet.” He relayed his methods for ensuring his feet could take him as far as he needed to go:

“Wear your boots as often as possible…hell, I wear my combat boots out to dinner with my wife. You can put on foot powder before a march, if you want. I don’t. And I don’t wear socks because I want those calluses to stay tough, like leather.”

We followed his advice…and we all got blisters.

Noncommissioned officers conduct a ruck march during an NCO Development Program event at
Smith Lake Recreation Area, Fort Bragg, N.C. May 11, 2012. Link to photo.

Don’t Be a Hard Ranger

Traditional military advice, and the recommendation from our seasoned platoon trainer, says to make the foot tougher than whatever it’s rubbing against (sock liner, boot, etc.). It turns out that this “Hard Feet” approach to foot marching is exactly opposite of what distance hikers and ultra runners do to protect their feet.

Blisters come from the combination of friction, heat, and moisture. Foot powder and fresh socks can reduce moisture, but friction is unavoidable. And no amount of lace-tightening can prevent the foot from sliding forward and back with every step. So, it’s a bit naive to expect skin to outlast the hostile environment inside the infantryman’s boot over tens of thousands of steps.

The Foot Care Bible

At this point I must recommend a book that radically changed my approach to foot care, Fixing Your Feet: Injury Prevention and Treatments for Athletes by Jon Vonhof. I read it while training for a long distance marching event years ago, which I survived blister free.

Vonhof has spent decades treating feet in the long distance racing community and covers everything from shoe sizing to toenail care to emergency treatments in the face of shredded feet. If foot care is at all part of your mission, buy his book now.

The Secret? Go Soft

Following the advice in Fixing Your Feet, then experimenting with my own preferences, here is my formula for making sure every foot march is blister-free.

  • Get rid of the calluses. The “hard feet” theory is risky because over long movements, blisters can still form under the calluses. The friction damage occurs below the outer layers of toughened skin and results in excruciating pain for the (now) patient. Prevent this calamity by using a pumice stone to file down the tough skin on all parts of your feet. Make the heel and balls of the feet just as smooth as the arch. This process will take weeks, so be patient.
  • Baby your feet. After each pumice treatment, it’s time to moisturize your feet. I use Miracle of Aloe Foot Repair Cream and it works wonders. Lotion will help keep your feet hydrated and pliable and will aid recovery after long marching hours. You can also soak your feet in Epsom salts following workouts, which will speed recovery. If you can get past the flak your friends will give you, go get a pedicure. It’ll be well worth it.
  • Trim the talons. One overlooked step in preventing foot problems is toenail care. You should trim your toenails regularly and use a file on all rough surfaces. This will prevent the nail from snagging the sock and creating a bur that leads to pinpoint friction and a blister.
  • Apply skin lubricant. This is the most radical departure from conventional military foot care “wisdom” and the most important step to this approach. Buy a stick of Body Glide Foot Anti Blister Balm and apply it directly to your feet prior to long walks. Endurance athletes typically use BodyGlide to lubricate and protect the thighs, groin, underarms, and occasionally the nipples. It lasts for hours and all but eliminates the friction problem inside the boot.
  • Find the right gear. Your choice of equipment is decisive, so put the time into testing different combinations of boots, socks, laces, and liners. I went through four types of boots before settling on what I think are the most reliable and comfortable boots available, Blackhawk Men’s Warrior Wear Desert Ops Boots. I tried different types of laces (thick, thin, flat vs. tubular), as well as various lacing patterns (which Vonhof discusses). Then I experimented with no less than seven sock brands, finally settling on the Under Armour Men’s Heatgear Boot Socks. And just one pair at a time, although I tried two pairs at a time. I also tried sock liners but didn’t prefer them.

So, my routine looks like this:

  1. Trim and file the toenails.
  2. File down the calluses.
  3. Moisturize the feet one hour prior to walking.
  4. Liberally apply BodyGlide 15 minutes before stepping off.
  5. Don one pair of Under Armour socks inside of Blackhawk boots with the original Blackhawk laces, tightened to comfort.
  6. Walk a long way.
  7. Soak the feet in Epsom salt for 15 minutes immediately afterwards.
  8. Shower, then file the calluses again with a pumice stone.
  9. Moisturize once more and relax with feet elevated.

What I’ve mentioned here is really just the beginning. To fully prepare yourself for hard days on your feet, I recommend becoming familiar with how to properly treat foot problems if they arise, as well as nutrition and training considerations. Fixing Your Feet is a great way to start.

What foot care techniques have worked for you? Share your thoughts in the comment section below.

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