By Brad McLeod and Jeff Grant
We get this question once a month: “How do I toughen my feet for upcoming Special Forces training?”
Foot problems are a hidden beast, a beast that is all too effective at unraveling months and years of an athlete’s training and preparation for a big event. Whether it’s SOF selection or a big endurance event goal, it’s important to do all you can to prevent issues with your feet. Stack the odds in your favor and show up at minute zero with tough feet.
The same guidance we share with military athletes applies to law enforcement, firefighters, endurance athletes and anyone who needs to rely on their feet for their job. Check out these tips as well to help your feet handle the abuse of a long hike (ruck march) on a trail, GORUCK, or SEALFIT Kokoro.
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The Apache Indians and infamous Tarahumara Indians (barefoot running tribe in Mexico) built feet that could handle anything at anytime, so we draw inspiration from them to build warrior-tough feet that can handle all the suck that you throw at them.
Our SGPT Running Coach Jeff Grant has run barefoot 10KM on urban streets, ran a week with a rucksack in the Moroccan Sahara in 125F heat, and once ran 37 hours in the Alps, covering more elevation than from sea level to the summit of Everest. He knows tough feet and shares his guidance in this article to help you toughen yours.
Tip #1: GO ON RUCKS, RUN ON TRAILS, USE YOUR FEET IN NATURE
The most natural way to toughen your feet is to spend time on them.
Get out in nature on terrain that varies, such as trails, sand, and rocky surfaces. Even if you don’t have easy access to natural places to hike, get outside on your feet for long periods of time rucking. Ruck with varying loads, from no weight to heavy, and at varying speeds.
Ruck in all weather conditions: hot, cold, & rainy. Experience having your boots or shoes too hot, too cold, too wet, and any other extremes.
These long rucks will build durability and strength for purpose. The varying terrain will force your stabilizer muscles to strengthen, while also increasing your ankle and foot flexibility. The compression and heat generated by time spent on your feet will force the skin on the bottom of your feet to adapt and thicken.
In general, walk as much as you can to any place you need to go that is walkable.
Use the walking time to work on strengthening your mind game by listening to a good Podcast or using a mental toughness mind hack, and you’ll be toughening your feet at same time.
Tip #2: GO BAREFOOT INDOORS
Leave your shoes at the door. Spending time barefoot will toughen the skin, while also strengthening the muscles of your feet. You need to be smart about how you do this, and that’s why you start indoors first.
You’re not going to build bulletproof feet though walking from the couch to the fridge, so expand this inside time to cover indoor training as well.
You can do bodyweight workouts, mobility work, strength training, and even use treadmills and other cardio machines indoors without shoes, all with the aim of strengthening the muscles and skin of your feet. If you’re worried about dropping weights on your bare feet or bumping into sharp corners, then work on your situational awareness and attention to detail.
Protect your toes like a weapon, first with your focused mind before relying on external things.
If you walk or run on a treadmill barefoot, start with only a few minutes and gradually work your way up in duration. You can get some large blisters from running barefoot on a treadmill if your feet aren’t conditioned precisely for it due to the lack of variation in the surface.
These blisters have a way of sneaking up on you, so start with just a few minutes and increase duration only by a couple minutes per session.
Tip #3: GO BAREFOOT OUTDOORS
Once you’ve built up experience indoors, move to the outdoors. Start a progression of outside barefoot walking, from using smooth surfaces to more course surfaces. Gradually extend the duration.
Walk on the lawn in front of your house or local park. If you are near a beach or stream with sand and gravel, walk there. Be careful of glass and small stones.
This method of adaptation creates small abrasions on your feet, which will gradually toughen them. Start with short walks and increase over time.
As your soles thicken, begin to walk barefoot on rougher, harder surfaces such as sidewalks, dirt trails, and running tracks. A rough asphalt road is a great finisher to toughen the feet. Do not do this if asphalt is hot. Run at the park or beach when walking becomes too easy. Increasing the speed with provide more friction to make the feet tough.
Our SGPT coaches have experience rucking barefoot with weight and even running long distances barefoot on sand and pavement. This foot toughness and durability took years to develop, so be wise in your progression and don’t rush it.
One stupid barefoot workout that you’re not ready for could undermine months of your training.
Tip #4: TAKE CARE OF LITTLE PROBLEMS BEFORE THEY BECOME BIG ONES
You train hard for months, toughening your feet as you go. Then, you’re out doing a big endurance event as training before your SOF selection or big race.
You notice a hot spot on your foot. You ignore it. Eventually, it is hurting so much that you alter your stride to take pressure off of that foot. That change in your gait leads to pain in your opposite hip, and eventually in your knee. You struggle to finish, but you make it.
Want more awesome info from Jeff? Check out his book Flow State Runner!
Days later you have an inflamed knee that will take weeks to heal, and a huge blister on one foot. When that dead skin finally falls off, you’ll be left with a large piece of fresh skin, that will now be months away from being as tough as what you built. Don’t be “that guy.”
Unless you’re in the middle of SOF selection, take the time to deal with hot spots on your feet before they become a big problem.
Sometimes the fix is as simple as adjusting a sock or relacing a shoe. Other times it involves using Moleskin to take the pressure off the hot spot or applying a lubricant, like Body Glide. (See Tip 6 below).
Tip #5: CONDITION YOUR FEET
With a cotton ball, dab rubbing alcohol (aka surgical spirits) on the soles of your feet. Rubbing alcohol is a drying agent that will harden your skin. Dab the soles of feet 3 times weekly. Monitor how your feet respond. You’re looking for toughness, not feet that are too dry and cracking.
Greg Everett of Crystal Athletics recommends using Corn Huskers Lotion every day to help heal your feet and toughen them up.
This is not the first time we have heard that tip. Greg is one of the top strength coaches in the world. You can imagine that weightlifting athletes tear up their skin often using a barbell, so they need to keep their skin in good shape and repaired. Good one.
The same can be done with your feet using CornHuskers. It keeps your feet from drying out and cracking. So just keep putting it on your feet after your days in the sand and walking barefoot.
Ultra runners sometimes use a tannic acid solution, applied to your feet every day for several months leading up to a big event. You can buy a solution at a pharmacy with 60% alcohol (115 g) + camphor (8 g) + phormol (5 g), or make an aqueous citric acid solution with lemon juice.
Just remember to start this process as early as possible before events so that you can gauge how your body responds.
ALSO, cut your toenails before big events. It seems simple, but it’s often forgotten and leads to blisters.
Tip #6: USE ANTI-CHAFE CREAM TO PREVENT BLISTERS
When you are hiking or running, use an anti-chafe cream like Bodyglide Anti-Chafe Balm.
Put it all over your feet, crotch, nipples and under your arms if you are doing a really long event.
This will not make your feet tougher, but will keep them prevent blisters. Blisters are the enemy of tough feet.
From Coach Grant: At the Marathon des Sables, runners complete between a half-marathon and double marathon in the desert extremes of sand dunes and intense heat.
The sand works exactly like sandpaper and destroys skin. On Day 3 of this race, my foot hit a sharp rock and it punctured my sand gaiter and shoe. Sand poured in. I finished the stage with bloody, blistered feet. My tent mates warned me against the method the race doctors used to deal with foot problems, saying that it was excessive and unduly painful.
I’m always down for some pain and didn’t want to be sidelined with a slow-healing blister issue, so I gave it a go.
Their method is to slice off the blister, clean it, and apply a large does of an antiseptic like Betadine. It hurt like hell when they applied the antiseptic to raw flesh, but it did the job of quickly drying and toughening the exposed skin.
I walked out of the med tent wearing blue plastic bags on my feet, which were covered in red Betadine, and let my feet air out overnight. The next day I ran 50 miles on them and finished a strong week of racing on what could have been broken feet.
Tip #7: BE SMART ABOUT YOUR SOCKS
If you’re in boots, wear double socks for long events.
Use a double sock combination like the video shows below. You can use a thin liner sock like the Fox River Socks and wear a thicker sock like the Darn Tough Vermont Merino Wool socks over the liner. The Darn Tough socks get great reviews by anyone that uses them.
Another very good sock option, particularly when in running shoes is Injinji toe socks. While they look strange, they are effective for many long distance runners and hikers in that they separate the toes and prevent them from rubbing together. This toe rubbing, especially with a long toenail present, is the cause of blisters in many athletes.
Also, in any type of event or training when you can take a short break, immediately remove your shoes or boots, as well as your socks, and air your feet. This simple action will prevent blisters, allowing you to keep the hard-earned foot-toughening gains of the time of your ruck or run.
Tip #8: TRANSITION TO MINIMALIST RUNNING SHOES
Circling back to the topic of the Apache Indians and Tarahumara tribe, their focus on barefoot running was born out of necessity, but offers insights and inspiration on the simple concept of less is more. The less you rely on shoe technology for your performance, the more your body will adapt to deliver what you need without the technology.
This doesn’t mean your feet will toughen up so much that they are like Vibram soles, but that they will get stronger, tougher, and more durable in all types of footwear and situations if you give your feet a chance to do the work they were designed to do.
Check out the heel-to-toe differential, or drop, of your current running shoes and work your way down to the 4-6mm range. Once you’ve spent 3-6 months in that range, test out moving forward toward zero drop shoes.
Transition down slowly and by alternating shoes that have a higher drop. Shoes like those from Altra offer zero drop, but with a more cushioned sole, which works very well for long distances. In addition, Altras offer a wide toe box, which the foot needs for expansion.
For rucking in boots, a positive drop is more suitable for most people than trying to match zero-drop running shoes, but use the least amount of boot weight and drop as you can for the program or task in front of you.
Tip #9: FOR LONG EVENTS, SIZE UP YOUR FOOTWEAR
If you will be on your feet for more than a few hours, size up your footwear. For long rucks and runs, your feet will swell. Shoes that fit at home will become tight, and that tightness will result in friction. The friction will result in blisters, and blisters will result in fresh, sensitive skin exposed to even more friction. You get the idea.
The trick with sizing up is doing so in a way that doesn’t lead to blisters from a shoe or boot that is too loose, especially in the heel. Take your time getting the size right and then spend lots of time testing and training in your footwear before relying on it for events that matter.
From Coach Grant: At the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, a 100-mile ultra marathon in the Alps, I had zero blister issues after 37 hours of running. That’s not to say though that my feet didn’t hurt! They hurt so much after the 30-hour mark that each step felt like I was stepping on nails.
The surface of my feet were fine, but the constant impact over so many hours had bruised the soles of my feet.
My feet had swollen so much that even the shoes I switched to at the 50-mile mark, which were a size larger than what I ran the first 50 miles in, and those were too tight. I didn’t realize just how much my feet would swell, and needed to switch to TWO sizes larger for the 2nd half of the race.
The tight shoes restricted the movement of my feet, which made the bruising problem worse than it needed to be. The lesson here is to make sure you fully understand the likely physical impact of extreme events and make smart gear decisions whenever you have the luxury of being able to choose your gear. Size up to create space for swollen feet.
Questions from our SGPT athletes:
Question: Coach, I am getting ready for a long trail run in the mountains of Colorado. I have a hangnail on my big toe and tried to cut it out but it got infected. What should I do?
Answer: Go to a doctor or local clinic and have them check it out so that it does not get any worse.
Question: Coach, I ordered a fresh set of boots off Amazon.com and they were delivered the day before my GORUCK event. I even tried them on in the parking lot right before we started the overnight event. After about an hour of calisthenics and running my feet were getting blistered. At hour two I could not take it any more as my feet were toast. What did I do wrong with my new boots?
Answer: Good job signing up for the GORUCK event. Next time break in the boots slowly over a longer period of time. Wear them to the grocery store and even to mow the lawn. Once your boots are properly broken in you will not have as many blisters.
Question: Do you ever use a product called Tuf Foot? I have heard this product works to toughen skin?
Answer: Check out reviews for Tuf-Foot product here.
QUESTION: What is the book about the barefoot running tribe from Mexico?
ANSWER: The book is called Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. Check it out as it gives a great perspective on how they live, run and how well-adapted their feet are.
ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Brad McLeod knows first hand about mental toughness. After passing Hell Week and Dive Pool Comp at BUD/S, he failed a math test and was kicked out of training.
A year later, he returned, graduated, and served as an operator on the Navy SEAL Teams.
Today, he is one of the most sought after mental conditioning coaches in the world. SEALgrinderPT audios and ebooks have been downloaded in 20 different countries around the globe.
Check out SEALgrinderPT Coaching to help you step up and take hold of your dreams and realize your goals.
Jeff Grant’s passion is in coaching–in helping people unlock their potential and break through cycles of stress, overload, and inaction. Jeff is a specialist mind training and running coach and currently lives in Switzerland. He is constantly finding new ways to challenge himself—such as completing an event to honor D-Day and raise funds for the Navy SEAL Museum, where participants swam to France from 10KM offshore and rucked 25 miles inland.
You can find out more about Jeff at his website Hillseeker.
Should I Be Running in Boots to Get Ready for BUD/S?