You’re a morning person, active, and live for the trail. You’ve been perfecting the optimal carb-protein balance, and practicing visualizing each and every turn in the lead-up to the finish. The only thing holding you back from registering for the triathlon (or investing in the gym membership you thought about last year) is the fact you’re tired of getting blisters from exercise.
Workouts should leave you vitalized and energized, not limping from blister pain. Several factors contribute to blister formation – even with the perfect shoe fit, your feet will rebel with the right (or wrong) combination of friction, dampness, and heat. Prevention is key, though it’s always a smart idea to keep a blister pack handy for a day of riding the trail or running the track.
This article covers the main causes of workout-related blisters and offers ways to prevent blisters from forming and treat them to speed up the healing process.
What Causes a Blister?
Blisters commonly form on the feet due to friction caused by the shoe or boot against the skin. This friction causes damage to the top layer of skin, the epidermis, and as a result, the body fills the space between the dermis and the damaged skin with plasma-like fluid. Wet, soggy skin is particularly sensitive to friction and blisters easily.
Blood blisters are similar, but are caused by an intense pinch, rather than friction. Sometimes people mistake warts for blisters – but unlike blisters, warts are not normally painful and cannot be popped. To remove a wart, try a wart removing solution or antifungal cream instead.
Activities that Cause Blisters
While up to 39% of marathon runners fall victim to blisters during competition, they are by no means alone. Hikers, basketball players, skiers, skaters, and football players are no strangers to the blister – nor any athlete who practices quick footwork with rapid changes of direction.
Gymnasts, rowers, and regular weightlifters also experience blisters – on their hands. For these sports, a proper pair of gloves is usually all that’s required, along with chalk for the pommel horse or rings.
Is It OK to Pop a Blister?
As a rule of thumb, it’s better to let blisters heal themselves. While it can be tempting, popping a blister can lead to infection, prolonging the time it needs to return to normal. If the blister is large enough that it affects your ability to walk or wear shoes, it makes sense to drain it by following a few steps for hygiene:
- Wash your hands, and also clean the blister with rubbing alcohol before draining.
- Sterilize a needle with alcohol or over a clean flame.
- Poke a hole in the blister at its edge, away from the side most likely to experience friction (i.e. poke the blister on the side away from the sole of your foot)
- Apply antibacterial ointment to the blister, and cover with a bandage.
- Cut away the dead skin after a few days, and reapply the ointment (step 4)
Tips to Prevent Blisters
While there’s no magic bullet to stop blisters, the following recommendations can go a long way to prevent them from cropping up. Keeping your skin cool, dry, and friction-free is the name of the game during your workout.
Choose the Right Shoes
If you’re getting blisters regularly, your first suspect should be your shoes. Shoes that are either too tight or too loose can cause unwanted friction, leading to some seriously unhappy epidermis. If you’re planning on some serious training, have someone at a storefront help with finding the right fit.
To be safe, try wearing them (along with your running socks) around the house to get a sense for any areas that are rubbing or feeling uncomfortable. Expect any problem you spot in a low-pressure environment to be magnified exponentially on a double-digit trail.
Wear Socks That Perform At Your Level
If your shoes are the first line of defense against the ground, your socks are what shield your feet from friction in your shoes. Double-layer socks can help wick moisture away from your feet, and the right toe separating socks keep your feet dry and bacteria-free while also eliminating inter-toe friction.
For long rides or hikes, carrying an extra pair of socks can be well worth the effort. Even a relaxed jog through wet – or damp – streets can lead to blisters.
Keep Your Feet Dry
Wet, clammy skin is more susceptible to friction and blisters easily. Moisture-wicking socks are great, but if you’re a heavy sweater, you might need an extra line of defense. Adding talcum powder or even corn starch to your socks can help absorb excess moisture. The antifungal powder has the same effect while also offering protection against athlete’s foot.
If you’ve tried keeping your feet dry but are still plagued by blisters, try the lube route. Applying petroleum-based jelly like Vaseline to your feet allows them to slide in your shoes while reducing friction. Particularly if you’re experiencing blisters between your toes, using an athletic lubricant could be your best bet.
Don’t Shave Away Calluses
More accurately – shave them down as needed with a pumice stone or gentle file, but don’t hack them off. Calluses are your body’s natural way of defending itself from friction points (and blisters!), so pair them down with some degree of respect. They look better than a blister and certainly don’t hurt as much.
Choose a Non-Sliding Orthotic Insert
If you use a plastic insert, switch to a gel or foam alternative. Plastic is slippery and could be contributing to your foot sliding back and forth during your workout. An insert that keeps your foot in the same place not only prevents blisters but is more effective in providing support to the intended area of your foot.
Prevent Blisters with Adhesives
When all else fails, grab some Moleskin or other anti-blister tape and apply to especially-prone areas before you hit the trail. For any long-distance race, consider bringing a blister pack with tape, powder, bandages, and lube to apply or reapply as needed to see you through to the finish.
Leave Blisters Behind
A blister is a badge of honor for any serious athlete, though after a few they have a tendency to lose their appeal. Choose the right footwear and preventative strategy to keep your feet cool, dry, and happy from start to finish line.