The Blog

Bursting the Blister Bubble

As an ultra runner who has trained with the Royal Marines I reckon I know more about blisters than most (I have sported some humdingers in my time) so here is my take on those ubiquitous pustules of pain that inflict us all - whatever gender, age, race or creed.

I hate to burst the bubble but the latest news that scientists have solved the age old problem of foot blisters leaves me decidedly underwhelmed. These boffins, brainy coves the likes of whom have put men on the moon, split atoms and cloned sheep, have discovered that, after 40 years of intensive research, binding the feet with sticky tape is the most effective way of stopping blisters from forming. Really!

Ask any Royal Marines Commando - the ultimate foot soldier - about blister management and he will tell you about the sticky tape option (day one, lesson one of basic training) but he will also tell you that it is far from foolproof. Marines are famous for their ability to "yomp" over rough ground for staggering distances carrying heavy weight so they know what they are talking about when it comes to "foot admin'". For them this is not just about comfort - it's strategic.

As an ultra runner who has trained with the Royal Marines I reckon I know more about blisters than most (I have sported some humdingers in my time) so here is my take on those ubiquitous pustules of pain that inflict us all - whatever gender, age, race or creed.

Let's start by taking a straw poll. Let he or she who has never suffered a blister stand up now....

There. My point is proved No one has risen. But it is the very fact that you could stand up if you wanted that is the main issue here.

Our ancestors first started walking upright, possibly a little unsteadily, about 6 million years ago but by two million years ago our Australopithicine cousins had pretty well mastered the art of walking and running without the deployment of hairy knuckles as balancing outriders. Homo Erectus was a bipedal show off - and could no doubt hop, skip and jump in addition to walk, run and boogie but he must also have been one of the first hominids to consider the issue of foot care. After all the entire weight of his body, in addition to the leg of mammoth or captured floozie he might have had to carry as part of his daily stone age routine, was now concentrated on two plates of meat rather than spread evenly over four limbs and feet.

The paleontologists and anthropologists are still arguing about what prompted bipedalism. Theories range from the need to free the hands for protection, the survival advantage in being able to see further from an upright position, the value of being able to stand taller and reach for the fruits and nuts or the benefit of raising more of the body surface higher off the ground to aid heat dissipation.

Whatever the reasons this remarkable evolutionary process has led, on the one hand, to the ultimate in bipedal achievement in the form of one Mo Farah but, on the other hand to the dreaded, puss filled bubble of pain we all know as the blister. Of course blisters have been more accentuated by the process of cultural evolution leading to shoe design and manufacture. In the early days shoes would have been slivers of leather attached to the feet as protective covering against thorns and the like. Gradually, as civilization advanced, shoes became fashion accessories and, for many, I would venture to suggest, represented a backward step.

Take my wife. She is a gifted bipedal primate who has mastered the art of upright locomotion on dainty feet and shapely legs. She is, furthermore, far more intelligent and sensible than her chosen mate in life except in the matter of footwear. She, like many females of my acquaintance, has a "shoe thing". This preoccupation translates into a passion for beautiful shoes of all shapes and sizes but the beauty and expense of these designer items seems to be inversely proportional to their comfort and practicality. Not only are these high heels, kitten heels, wedges, pumps, peep toes and sling-backs , really only good for standing still in one place but, should walking be inevitable , the binding of the foot with tape, as the scientists suggest, would defeat the object of looking beautiful. No shoe, however fashionable, desirable or expensive is going to benefit from encasing a foot bound in sticky, surgical tape.

The dictates of fashion are one thing but even those of us who invest in the latest and most comfortable of shoes actually designed for walking and running are still susceptible to the dreaded blister. Last summer I took part in a non stop charity yomp over the South Downs Way - 104 miles in 36 hours. I taped my feet just as many of those with me did - many of them being Royal Marines. Eventually, we all started to feel the tell tale burning sensation of 'hotspots' - the first signs of blistering. Extra tape or a change of socks helped but the constant motion, friction and abrasion took its inevitable toll on most of us resulting in throbbing, burning and excruciating vesication of heel, toe, arch and sole. At the water checkpoint medics were there to help - usually by bursting our ballooning blisters with a razor blade and re dressing them. By the end of the yomp my feet were a mess of dead and shredded skin, dripping puss and blood soaked surgical tape. And then came the worst bit. When pulling off the tape most of the surface skin came away with the tape leaving red, raw, suppurating feet that I could no longer place on the ground. I was in a wheelchair the next day and on crutches for a week.

So much for the wonders of sticky tape. Scientists - back to your drawing boards or better still, give up altogether. My advice to my fellow bipedal primates when faced with a blistering foot - grin and bear it

Blisters are a fundamental part of the human condition and always will be until evolution decides otherwise. And there's the rub.