November 21, 2018

The Pretty Definitive Guide to Toughing Up Your Feet


That which grows fast, withers as rapidly. That which grows slowly, endures. — Josiah Gilbert Holland


DISCLAIMER: I’m not a doctor. Heck, I don’t even play one on TV. The advice in this post is my experience along with the experience of some people that I trust. This works for me and them but results may vary. If you have any doubts whatsoever, don’t do it. Toughing up your feet takes patience and lots of time. There are no quick fixes. So all you hard chargers out there, relax and take it slow.

UPDATE: I added a few more words of wisdom after completing Kokoro 32 since I ended up losing both big toe nails due to boot problems. You’ll find those additions after Workout in minimalist shoe.

Feet take a lot of punishment.

It’s no wonder that those of us who do endurance events are always taking care of our feet. This constant battle can be frustrating to some and limit the performance of others.

The best way I have found to deal with foot, knee, ankle and leg issues is to toughen them up. This guide is how I went from chronic foot (plantar fasciitis, blisters and soreness) and knee problems to feet and knees that can outwit and outlast with the best of them.

1% Inspiration and 99% Perspiration

This post was inspired by an excellent article on foot care by Cadre Garrett over at the Goruck Training site along with countless friends who have had foot problems.

Toughing up your feet takes time. It’s not something that you can do in a month or even a year. The simple fact is that most of us have been protecting our feet our whole lives and that history needs to be reversed.

Don’t get me wrong. You will tend see results in months but the big gains will take much longer and more effort than simply buying a pair of minimalist running shoes or running barefoot on the sand.

These Feet Were Made for Walking and Running and Jumping

Humans have a unique physiology that is ideally suited for endurance activities like running. Part of that unique physiology is in our feet.

Our feet have short toes compared to our closest ancestors and our big toe is in alignment with the rest of them. This is an advantage since our big toe is the last toe to leave the ground. If it was longer or misaligned, it would require more energy to lift off.

Our feet also have springlike ligaments and tendons (like our fully developed achilles tendon) that propel us along and absorb the shock of walking, lifting or running.

All these factors (along with our narrow waist and big butt muscles) make us able to run long distances and for our feet to take a tremendous amount of abuse if they are trained properly.

Stress and Strain is a Good Thing

In order to toughen anything up, it has to be put through a disciplined series of stress, strain and recovery cycles.

Feet are no different.

The problem with how we deal with our feet is that we tend to protect them in shoes that try and correct our natural gate. This correction, for most of us, is making our feet, knees and ankles weaker.

When you wear corrective shoes or stability shoes, your feet, ankles, knees and legs can’t really sense the environment. They are isolated from the uneven ground or rough terrain that we evolved to correct for.

This weakens them since the main correction mechanism when we run, our feet, are isolated from the sensory feedback required to slow our speed, change our gate or absorb a rut in the road.

As all of you know, that which is not used decays and so our feet decay and lose their toughness along with our bodies ability to correct for less than perfect operating surfaces.

The Pretty Definitive Guide to Tougher Feet

Toughing up your feet is just like any other type of workout — you need to assess where you are at, come up with a plan that works for you and stick to it.

This guild will take you through the techniques that I have used to toughen up my feet.

One of the most common mistakes people make when starting to toughen up their feet is to jump right in to either minimalist shoes or barefoot running or walking. That’s a real bad idea. Trust me. I know since I did the same thing and it set me back months.

The best way to build foot endurance is to take it slow and find the combination of things that work for you. Again, this takes time. Remember, you have been coddling your feet your whole life and that’s going to take some time to undo.

Listed below are the techniques I used to toughen up my feet over the last 2 years:

  • Gradually reduce shoe stability: Shoe stability makes your feet weak. It prevents your muscles from adjusting to the changing terrain. This was my major problem that took me a decade to figure out.

  • Trail running or hiking: Any kind of uneven surface will allow your feet and legs to build stability and strengthen your muscles. Don’t get too Gung Ho about climbing a mountain. Gradually mix it into your workouts.

  • Hill Repeats: Hills force you to get up on the balls of your feet. That’s the way we naturally evolved to run when we had no shoes. By doing hill repeats, you can build those muscles up as you reduce the stability of your shoes.

  • Rucking: Putting on a backpack full of bricks and going on a hike will stress your feet and accelerate the formation of hot spots (places where blisters will form). Tough feet will build calluses over those hot spots so they won’t bother you any more.

  • Barefoot walking or jogging on grass or sand: After a workout, it’s great to take your shoes off and go for a brief walk or job on a soft surface like grass or sand. Doing this will develop the foot and leg muscles related to stability. Most track and field coaches will do track infield barefoot workouts after their normal workout.

  • Calf lifts: Reducing shoe stability or going completely barefoot will tax your calves. It’s important that your calves are strong to absorb the additional shock. Minimalist or barefoot running feels like you’re always running up a hill, which will blast your calves.

  • Improve core strength: Your core strength has a lot to do with how your foot strikes the ground. The stronger the core, the better able your body will absorb shock and adjust to changing surface conditions.

  • Feel the ground: Make it a point to walk barefoot as much as you can. Do it around your home or office. When you do this, you start to feel the ground and how your feet react to it. This also builds up the support muscles in your ankle, shins and knees.

  • Determine your swell factor: Feet swell during rigorous activities. This swelling will create new hot spots and pinch points. That’s why it’s good to know how much your feet will swell so that you can either adjust your shoe size or adjust your sock thickness.

  • Switch between socks and no socks: Socks can mask problems until it’s too late. Switching between socks and no socks will allow you to figure out where your hot spots will be and how your shoes will feel when your feet swell.

  • Workout in minimalist shoes: Weight bearing exercises will increase your foot strength as well as improve stability. If you do these exercises (like squats, box jumps, burpees, etc), your feet will learn how to adjust to different loads and get tougher.

  • Break In Your Boots: If you wear boots for an event, make sure to break them in. New boots will rub you in all the wrong ways during an event. I have heard of or seen countless people suffer because of this.

  • Boot Break In is Still Not Enough: Even after breaking in your boots, you’ll need to determine if you have the proper boot fit. The problem I had at one event was that the front of my foot did not fill up my boot enough. This caused both feet to move forward too much thus causing my toe nails to hit the front of the boot.

  • Find Your Sock System: Socks play an important role in foot toughness and comfort. There are many ways to wear socks so experiment with what works for you. I have found that a light inner and a heavy outer sock work great for reducing blisters but make your foot slide forward too much.

Know Yourself by Knowing Your Feet

All of the techniques above are ones that have allowed me to run marathons, ultra-marathons and do GORUCK Challenges in either sandals or minimalist trail shoes with little to no feet problems. I do get the occasional blister or cut but nothing that has prevented me from finishing. Strong feet have also eliminated my knee and ankle issues which I used to get every year.

Do you have additional techniques to toughen up your feet? Feel free to leave them in the comments.

Exploring Further

Take a look at these resources to better understand your feet, take care of them and how to toughen them up: