Blisters are one of our biggest complaints as walkers. But are blisters inevitable? Can you make it through a marathon without painful blisters? Can you survive a multi-day walking event with intact skin? Yes, there are ways to toughen your feet and to prevent most blisters. We’ll review the top ways to prevent blisters both before and during your walk.
Tip 1: The Right Shoes to Prevent Blisters
A common source of blisters are your shoes themselves. Everybody has feet of different shapes and sizes, and no single shoe will be right for everyone. Getting the right size and shape of shoe can help prevent blisters.
Cause: New Shoes. If you take new shoes out for a long walk, you may get a blister. Any pair of shoes may give you a blister in its first few wearings—before your feet and the shoes have grown accustomed to each other.
Solution: Take it slow, and only go on short walks with new pairs of shoes, even if they are the same brand and model you have been wearing. Build up your mileage and speed in each pair of shoes.
Cause: Cramped Shoes. With a cramped toe box, toes rub against sides or end of shoes. This can even lead to blackened toenails or losing the toenails after a long walk.
Solution: Your walking shoes should have a finger’s width of length between the end of your toe and the end of your shoes to allow your feet to expand while walking. Select shoes of the proper width for your foot, so toes have enough room. Do you need bigger shoes?
Cause: Feet Sliding Around in Shoes. If your shoes have a sloppy fit and your feet slide forward and back within the shoe with each step, you are adding extra blister-causing friction. You may also get a black toenail.
Solution: You want your feet to have enough room to expand when you walk but not enough to slide around. Wear a thicker sock to take up some of the extra space. Learn how to lace your shoes to keep your heel in the heel cup with each step rather than sliding forward. If you still seem to have too much space, buy shoes that fit better.
See our Walking Shoe Guide for tips on getting properly fitted for your walking shoes.
Cause: Rough Edges in Your Shoes. The seams and the edge of the insole can rub against your foot or toes.
Solution: You can change styles of shoes or insoles. Some shoes are designed to be seamless inside. But generally, the solution will be to lubricate or cover the area that is getting rubbed.
Tip 2. Toughen Your Feet to Prevent Blisters
They don’t call a newbie a tenderfoot for nothing! Your soft, pink feet will have fewer problems with blisters if your skin gets a little tougher.
Calluses Are Your friends: As your feet get more of a workout, they build up calluses. These are your friends—you want calluses, which act as a natural pad against the friction that forms blisters. Do not give in to beauty and shave off or pumice down the calluses, at least not until after the long walk.
Tannic Acid to Toughen: Marathoners and long-distance walkers may want to toughen the feet with 10% tannic acid or a tea soak. Apply the tannic acid to your feet, or soak in strong tea, twice daily for two to three weeks.
Moisturize Away Heel Cracks: To prevent your calluses from drying out too much and developing painful cracks, moisturize your feet after each bath or shower with a good foot cream or hand cream.
Tip 3. Sock Strategy
Forget the cotton socks—stick with synthetics. That’s what the experts say when it comes to preventing blisters. Cotton retains your foot sweat, which then softens the skin and leaves it more prone to breaking with friction, and blisters form.
Wick it Away: Synthetic socks made of acrylic, polypropylene, or Coolmax fabric wick moisture away from the foot, keeping it dry. These are available at sports stores.
Double layers: Double-layer socks may be the answer to preventing blisters. The inner layer should be of a wicking fabric. The two layers work to prevent friction on the foot itself. Some double layer socks, such as Wrightsock, even come with a no-blister guarantee. You can also wear two pairs of socks.
Padded Socks vs. Thin Socks: From a blister standpoint, experiment with the thickness of socks. If your socks are so thick that your toes have no room, you need bigger shoes or thinner socks. When having shoes fitted, bring along the thickness of sock you plan to wear to ensure a correct fit.
Change Your Socks En Route: Many marathoners recommend changing socks whenever their feet get wet due to rain or at the halfway point of a marathon.
There’s the Rub: Check where the sock seams are hitting your toes—is that where you’re getting blisters? Some running socks are specially designed to keep the seams away from the feet. Tube socks are not recommended, as your feet are not tube shaped, and they simply won’t fit right.
Socks as an Investment: With some athletic socks running from $7 – $20 a pair, it can be painful to stock up. But good socks can last much longer than the cheap ones and save you money in the long run. I have Thorlo socks that are still in good shape after 10 years of constant wear.
Tip 4. Lubricate Your Feet
Friction—the rubbing motion between your foot, sock, and shoe—creates heat and tearing forces, which make the skin prone to blisters. Reduce the friction; reduce the blisters. One way to reduce friction is by lubricating your feet, so they slide rather than rub.
Petroleum Jelly: A Leukemia Society Team in Training coach recommended slathering your feet thickly with petroleum jelly for long-distance walks and marathons.
I did that for the marathons I walked, and it seemed to work until mile 18. This is an inexpensive, readily available option—Vaseline is the name brand. At most marathons, it’s available at the rest stops, so you can reapply it. The cautions are that it won’t easily wash out of your socks, and it makes dirt cling to your socks. That can mean there is more grit in your shoe to irritate your foot.
A&D Ointment: Thicker than petroleum jelly and available wherever baby diapers are sold, this can also do the job. Again, more is probably better.
Body Glide, Sportslick, Hydropel, SportShield: These products can be found at running stores and go on like a stick of deodorant or come in a handy tube. In my experience, they work well on the feet for distances of 10 miles or less but above that have failed. It would be a good idea to re-apply them during the walk. But keep these around to use to prevent chafing of other body parts.
Teflon: Some socks are incorporating Teflon to prevent friction.
Tip 5. Dry Your Feet
Keeping your feet dry starts with wicking socks, but you can also use other strategies:
Corn Starch and Talcum Powder: First, plain old corn starch (yep, just like you use in cooking) in your socks and shoes can keep your feet dry. Reapply it at least once in a long-distance event. Baby powder or talcum powder smells nice and also acts to keep the feet dry.
Antiperspirant: A military study showed that using a special heavy-duty antiperspirant on the feet reduced the incidence of blisters. While regular antiperspirant is less concentrated, it might be worth trying.
But Drink Up: Keep your feet dry, but don’t let the rest of you get dehydrated. Keep drinking water for the first hour then a sports drink with electrolytes (salts) to keep your body fluids in balance. Getting dehydrated can contribute to blisters.
Tip 6. Cover the Problem Spot
When you consistently get blisters in the same place despite trying all the tricks—shoes, socks, drying agents, lubricants—the best thing to do is to cover those areas before you start walking. Also, carry some supplies along to use if new hot spots develop en route.
When you begin to feel a hot spot on your foot while walking, stop immediately and apply a covering to it in order to prevent a full-scale blister.
Bandages: A simple adhesive bandage can often do the trick. But for larger areas or already blistered areas, a blister-block bandage with Compeed gel or a similar gel can protect the area even further. Band-Aid produces Compeed blister bandages, and Dr. Scholl’s has its own version, the Cushlin bandages.
These are expensive but work very well. You usually find them in the footcare section of the store rather than with the regular bandages.
Moleskin and Molefoam: You can cut these self-adhesive products to fit the area you want to cover. They are available from Dr. Scholl’s as well as other producers and can be found in outdoors stores or the footcare section of stores.
SecondSkin and New Skin: These products come in a couple of varieties. One is a liquid that dries to form a protective coating over the area. It is often used in tandem with another covering. The other product is a moist pad containing the gel product. You cover it with a dry dressing, and tape over the area.
Sports Tape: Tape the affected areas with sports tape, such as Leukotape, to prevent the friction.
Golfer’s grip tape can work well. Ultrarunning foot care expert John Vonhof did a comparison test on an ultrarunner’s feet and validated that Kinesio Tex Tape worked better than Elasticon or duct tape.
It takes some skill and experimentation to see which of these works best. It is important to cover enough area, so the bandages and tape don’t pull on the surrounding skin and create even larger blisters.
The key to long distance walking is to experiment constantly with the various products on your longer walks, to see which ones work best. It’s very important to do this before the “big event” if you are attending a marathon or a multi-day walk.
Tip 7. Unusual Remedies
Duct Tape: A walking friend of mine uses duct tape on his feet to prevent blisters on the ball of the foot. He says the key is to get the soft tape that doesn’t have the strapping threads in it, and to always use it whenever you walk, not just on long walks. Benefits are that it is cheap—a giant roll doesn’t cost much, and you may already have some in the house. The drawback could be getting a skin allergy to the adhesive. Be alert for signs of redness and itching, and discontinue use if these develop.
Duct tape can also work by making it into a bandage, so the adhesive is not over the sensitive area. Take a piece of duct tape and trim it, so it is slightly larger than the sensitive area. Then stick it on a larger piece of duct tape, the sticky sides together.
Now apply it over the area—you have the slick, non-adhesive side next to the skin, with the larger piece sticking it all in place. Sounds like a complicated way to make a Band-Aid, but it works in a pinch when you don’t have a Band-Aid or don’t have one large enough.
Cautions: The adhesive on duct tape has NOT been tested on human subjects, and you could have a nasty reaction to it. Likewise, using it on open wounds may mean that the chemicals in the tape can enter your wounds and may contribute to infection or a bad reaction.
Dubbin: This is a waxy product used on hiking boots to keep them soft and waterproof. A walker wrote to me about her friend whose feet were so blistered after long walks that they “looked like bubble wrap.” Ewwwwwww!
While on a two-day (80km) charity walk on the Comrades Marathon route, someone told her to rub Dubbin on her feet. Guess what? Not one blister! I give this the same warning as duct tape: Try it if you must, but look for any signs of skin irritation as this is not approved for human use.