Long distance thru hikes and feet growth / swelling
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Dec 22, 2013 at 1:52 pm #1311318Mario CaceresBPL Member
@mariocaceresLocale: San Francisco
I read is expected for your feet to grow while doing a long thru hike like the PCT, etc. I’m curious about a few things
1) Will the growth be permanent or temporary. If temporary, how long it would take for the feet to return to its regular size?
2) Is this only for really long thru hikes (i.e several months) or also for shorter ones (i.e 2-3 weeks weeks like John Muir Trail)
3) Is there any rule of thumb as to the magnitude of the size increase?. It would be great if that rule links ½ size increments to number of miles.
Thanks in advance
MarioDec 22, 2013 at 5:54 pm #2056959Buck NelsonBPL Member
On my first thru-hike my foot size went from about 9 1/2 to about 11. I think most people's feet increase in size from long distance hiking. I still wear an 11 or so even during and after more long hikes. I think that general pattern is pretty common.
I think most people's feet swell during the day, also, especially when it's hot, and people will often buy larger shoes to allow for it. My feet don't swell noticeably.Dec 22, 2013 at 7:00 pm #2056975
Actually, feet continue to grow for all your life. Spending years in confining street shoes may make it seem as though your feet are not changing, but I suspect it just means that the tendons and ligaments are shrinking to allow the bones to grow. Once you start exercising your feet on a long walk, they reassert their rights!
1) The growth is permanent. No question.
2) Proportional. Especially noticeable on very long hikes when your feet really start to bitch about the stupid under-size shoes you have inflicted on them (so to speak).
3) No simple rules. Monitor how happy your feet are, and be prepared to change shoes and sizes.
The saddest thing I see is people complaining that their feet hurt/blister/whatever, while being unwilling to accept this general principle. 'Oh, but I paid so much for these boots; they have got to be good ones'. Their feet: their suffering. Darwin.
A side benefit from wearing light joggers, apart from all the obvious ones, is that they make it mentally (financially) possible to change your shoes when it's needed.
CheersDec 22, 2013 at 9:52 pm #2057001Billy RaySpectator
@rosyfinchLocale: the mountains
My experience is different.
I have worn the same size shoes and boots for the past 40 years of backpacking/climbing/skiing.
I have never noticed my feet swelling on any hike, no matter the distance.
Oh sure, they will get hot and a little puffy on a hot day hiking, but not enough to even make 1/2 size difference.
Perhaps I am the only human being with feet like this. Or maybe there are one or two others out there?
I only heard of this 'growing foot' issue from a friend a couple of years ago. I was as amazed that his feet have grown as he was amazed that mine have not. Strange variation in humans.
BillyDec 22, 2013 at 10:47 pm #2057009Brian LewisMember
@brianleLocale: Pacific NW
I incline to Bucks view on this point too.
I think part of the issue is how your foot changes; I think it's not necessarily just a change in size, it could also be a change in shape. And also in expectations and a sense for what's comfortable. I'm a nominal size 10, but ever since my first long trip I've been happiest in size 11-1/2 trail runners, and in have slowly sized up some other footwear too (not always all the way up to 11-1/2).
I don't think my feet are that much bigger than they ever were; perhaps wider. I think that few if any take precise measurements of their feet before, immediately after, and then months/years later to establish anything more than a "feel" for it, and a sense for how old shoes that used to fit well feel now. That sort of thing. So I suspect most feedback you can get is at least somewhat subjective.
Feet are complicated and vary a lot between individuals. I'm confident in buying 10 pairs of shoes at once, but wouldn't be so before a first long distance hike. It's a challenging issue.Dec 22, 2013 at 10:57 pm #2057011Christopher *BPL Member
@cfrey-0Locale: US East Coast
On my thru hike my feet went from an 10.5US to about a 12US. Someone we hiked with mentioned that it was a result of a partial collapse of the arch from repetitive stress, but I don't know if that statement is valid.
I carried a moderate skin-out load and I noticed the length and width of my feet growing beyond expectation after about 500 miles. I was one of the obtuse ones Roger mentions and I did not catch it in time. I lost a few toe-nails before ejecting a brand new pair of shoes into the hiker-box.
After my hike, by the time 4 months had passed I was back to my original size shoe.Dec 23, 2013 at 5:30 am #2057027Hiking MaltoBPL Member
This is one the hottest debated topics with thru hikers. Here is where I came out. For folks with significant miles under there belt, there wouldn't be foot growth. Many relatively new hikers will claim to experience it. Much of this is due to temporary foot swelling as well as folks learning how to properly size shoes. My son is halfway through Ranger School (US Army) and when he hit the mountain phase his winter boots no longer fit and he had to get a full size larger. But his pack weight that he was carrying around was considerably heavier than any sane person would use for backpacking.
I bought five pairs of shoes prior to my PCT hike. I had no issues at all with "foot growth." But I also had several thousand mile of previous hiking and had my shoe sizing nailed down. After getting properly fitted several years ago my shoe size went from 10.5 to 12-12.5. So maybe I did have foot growth after all. Hmmm.Dec 23, 2013 at 12:40 pm #2057120Mario CaceresBPL Member
@mariocaceresLocale: San Francisco
Thank you all for sharing your experiences on this matter.Dec 23, 2013 at 11:53 pm #2057269
> On my thru hike my feet went from an 10.5US to about a 12US. Someone we hiked with
> mentioned that it was a result of a partial collapse of the arch from repetitive
> stress, but I don't know if that statement is valid.
That 'someone we hiked with' is a total ignoramus – and a bit stupid to boot.
What happens to leg muscles and arm muscles when you exercise them regularly? Do they collapse – or grow bigger?
CheersDec 24, 2013 at 7:03 am #2057291Billy RaySpectator
@rosyfinchLocale: the mountains
Yea… my muscles get larger when I exercise a lot. And they also shrink back to where they were when I don't exercise for a few weeks.
So, if increased foot length is due to foot muscles getting larger due to exercise, it would seem we should expect your feet to shrink when you don't do a lot of walking for several weeks. No?
BillyDec 24, 2013 at 12:51 pm #2057370
> So, if increased foot length is due to foot muscles getting larger due to exercise,
> it would seem we should expect your feet to shrink when you don't do a lot of walking
> for several weeks. No?
It's not that simple.
First of all, what seems to be muscle growth in arms and legs from exercise has two components: actual muscle growth, and 'pumping'. You will increase your muscle size by adding cells to the muscle, as well as making the cells larger, by exercising. Body builders do this to an extreme. But normally those cells are 'in repose' as it were, and slim. When you do a vigorous workout the cells swell up a bit by fluid absorption. That is why body builders always do a hard workout before posing in a competition: to bulk their muscles up to the max.
Second, a lot of what is in your feet are not muscle cells but ligaments and tendons. These will grow from exercise (think 'reinforce'), but they don't shrink very easily. OK, spend 6 months in a concentration camp and muscles, tendons and ligaments will all shrink from malnutrion, but we are not talking about that.
Third, your feet grow in size over time by bone growth. Bones are not dead: they really are alive and growing, and (as far as I know) they do not shrink in size.
Summary: Your feet will grow in size over the years, and this will be permanent. The growth will be especially noticeable during and after a long walk. In addition your feet will pump up a bit more after a day or so of walking, but this extra growth will fade after a few days of relaxation.
CheersDec 25, 2013 at 6:41 am #2057465Christopher *BPL Member
@cfrey-0Locale: US East Coast
"That 'someone we hiked with' is a total ignoramus – and a bit stupid to boot."
Actually, he was a doctor who graciously helped quite a few hikers that year.
Plantar Fascitis is a common long-distance hiking malady, which as I understand results from over stretching of the Plantar Fascia. That this could lead to partially fallen arches did not seem like such a stretch. Get it. Stretch.Dec 25, 2013 at 8:08 am #2057470M BBPL Member
it happens, its permanent, and it doesnt take a long thru hike, even a much shorter time will begin to cause changes.
When I was 22 I wore a 9.5, now I wear a 11.5, and a 12 in hiking shoe.
After a week hiking, my shoes are noticeably tighter from foot swell.Dec 25, 2013 at 8:29 am #2057476Larry SwearingenBPL Member
@larry_swearingenLocale: NE Indiana
No wonder not many women like to hike. :>)
Larry (Hoosier Daddy)Dec 25, 2013 at 9:37 am #2057483Greg MihalikBPL Member
"While plantar fasciitis shows many similarities to chronic tendon injuries, there are no scientifically-supported strengthening exercises to prevent or treat plantar fascia injuries. Foot exercises like towel-grips are occasionally recommended by physical therapists or websites, but seem woefully inadequate given the magnitude of the forces the plantar fascia handles during walking and running."
Read it and weep…
Virtually no aspect of Plantar Fascitis is well understood.Dec 25, 2013 at 12:08 pm #2057499
> > "That 'someone we hiked with' is a total ignoramus – and a bit stupid to boot."
> Actually, he was a doctor who graciously helped quite a few hikers that year.
Does not change my opinion. It simply means he has no idea at all about how feet work, medical degree notwithstanding.
Greg – fascinating article. I read it right through. Summary: "We haven't a clue", but we have plenty of quacks.
CheersDec 25, 2013 at 1:08 pm #2057507Greg MihalikBPL Member
If you are going to start calling people names maybe you should move over to White Blaze.Dec 25, 2013 at 1:26 pm #2057509Bob GrossBPL Member
@b-g-2-2Locale: Silicon Valley
In contrast to some people who think they know how all feet work, I know only my own.
My feet were constant in size until 20 years after reaching adulthood. Then they decreased in size, and that has remained permanent.
Some people hike a great deal with a heavy load for which they are not prepared. The case in point is military basic training. Trainees often present with foot problems which are ultimately traced to fallen arches. Basically, the feet were not strong enough to properly support the load, and the feet spread downward. Sometimes this means that they spread outward, and that generally means a wider size is necessary.
The bottom line is that everybody has feet, but they all react differently.
–B.G.–Dec 25, 2013 at 5:07 pm #2057552
Well Roger, I hate to tell you this, but long bones do not grow in length once your growth plates close in your teen years. Yes, they break down and remodel constantly, but no, bones do not grow as as you age. Why don't you keep getting taller?
The MD is correct in that the arches DO fall…to put it colloquially. It's far more complicated than that, but that's basically what happens. Your arch is a mix of dynamic and static supports that are supposed to collapse as you step (it is your natural shock absorber, and you are NOT supposed to put stuff under there like "arch supports" to keep it from collapsing. It's SUPPOSED to collapse. The key is that then it is supposed to spring right back…when it doesn't, that's the problem: your feet are always flat – no arches – when there is no weight going through your legs, or the arches don't move at all when you step down.
Ideally you should be in the middle…have a nice arch when you aren't putting weight on it, and the arch collapses (under control!) when your foot absorbs weight. So under certain unusual stresses, such as significant weight gain in pregnancy and the relentless walking of a thru hike, the arch may not spring back as much as it did. It can also swell and maintain the soft tissue increase (connective tissue infiltration) once the trauma is gone (think of a kind of scar tissue…).
As far as plantar fasciitis and other foot problems, yes, there is soooo much quack out there it's embarrassing. What we DO know is that you need a multi-modal approach to fixing them. A good clinician should look at each joint of your foot and ankle (there are a lot!!) and how each joint moves in relation to the others. Many times you have good movement in one plane and limited movement in another, and that may be the underlying stress exacerbated by overuse. So we should look at joint mobility throughout the whole foot and ankle, how limber your calf is, and how the foot adapts to load. It needs to absorb that force, then return to normal to absorb it again for the next step.
You also have to pay attention to the whole leg…if your hip muscles are weak and can't control the rotation of your leg when you stand in it, then you can't control what happens at the arch DYNAMICALLY (stand on one leg in your bare foot and slowly rotate at your hip…watch what happens to your arch…)
Anyway – that's my 2 cents.Dec 28, 2013 at 4:46 pm #2058325Diane “Piper” SoiniBPL Member
@sbhikesLocale: Santa Barbara
In my opinion, this is what happens:
– On a long distance hike, if you were a person who wore relatively close-fitting shoes, you will come to not tolerate this. Any pressure or rubbing on the outer toes or wherever will not be tolerable 20 miles a day, day after day. So you will adjust your shoe-size to what it should have been all along.
– On a long distance hike like the PCT, the desert is hot and your feet get moist and swollen. This contributes to the above problem already mentioned.
– On a long distance hike, you build muscle in your foot. Shoe sizes are different by only a couple of millimeters so if you gain just a millimeter in muscle you might feel it in your shoes.
– On a long hike you'll build tougher skin as your feet rub back and forth on the bottom of the shoe. On a dusty trail, there will be the added abrasion of dirt and sand in your socks. Just a millimeter or two of new skin will change your shoe size.
So now you have larger shoes because you want them to be more comfy like slippers and to fit your swollen, muscular, calloused feet. You could easily gain 2 sizes or more this way. When you get home, it might take several months to lose the thick skin and added muscle. Eventually you may go back to wearing smaller shoes, but if you started out on your hike with shoes that were small enough to lose your toenails, you might never go back to that much too small ever again.Dec 28, 2013 at 11:51 pm #2058415
Well, you have my respect in this area, but …
> long bones do not grow in length once your growth plates close in your teen years.
> Yes, they break down and remodel constantly, but no, bones do not grow as as you age.
When Sue and I started doing really long walks (over 6 weeks continuous), starting at age 50, both of us gained about 1.5 sizes. Prior to that we had been limited to about 1 week at a time (work, children, etc), and we would have had no more than about 1/2 a size growth between 40 and 50. Both of us have since had to buy new bigger shoes during a 2-month walk. That's observed fact. (Sadly, this also means our old XC 3-pin ski boots bought way back then and still in excellent condition no longer fit us. Not a chance, even after the leather stretched a lot.)
Whether that means neither of us reached adulthood until our 50s … good question.
> Your arch is a mix of dynamic and static supports that are supposed to collapse as
> you step (it is your natural shock absorber,
Understood, but I would use different terminology. Of course the arch on my foot flexes when I walk. But I say 'flex', not 'collapse'. When a bridge collapses it tends to be kinda permanent.
> So under certain unusual stresses, such as significant weight gain in pregnancy and
> the relentless walking of a thru hike, the arch may not spring back as much as it did.
But is a thru hike really an 'unusual stress'? For someone who has reasonable fitness, I think not. Our ancestors walked everywhere, up until the motor car. Armies marched across Europe for months on end – mostly in sandels. No problem.
OK, take someone who is seriously jelly-baby unfit and put him thru harsh military basic training, and you may create too much injury and scar tissue in his feet. Yeah, guess so. Outside my knowledge.
> if your hip muscles are weak and can't control the rotation of your leg when you stand on it,
Um … OK, that is seriously unfit stuff, and I may be out of my depth there. I am used to dealing with people who are moderately fit, but I gather you get the full spectrum in your work.
Just by way of reference: both Sue and I go barefoot almost all the time when we are at home.
CheersDec 29, 2013 at 5:33 am #2058428Buck NelsonBPL Member
But is a thru hike really an 'unusual stress'?
Do most people walk more than usual on a thru-hike? A lot more maybe? Then there are unusual stresses.Dec 29, 2013 at 7:50 am #2058457Hiking MaltoBPL Member
"But is a thru hike really an 'unusual stress'?"
Either you have a different definition of a thru hike or you are walking 20+ miles a day everyday. It took months for my feet to back to "normal" after my thru. If that is not unusual then I'm not sure what you would call it.Dec 29, 2013 at 8:21 am #2058468
Thanks for being nice Roger :)
Granted, our terminology is a bit different and I use the term "collapse" as a dynamic one, not necessarily permanent. The reason your feet grow as you age is because your arch IS dynamic and does fall a bit as the years of standing on your feet accumulate. Your forefoot also widens, your toes develop crazy osteophytes from years of wearing shoes, etc. As far as muscle growth, there are VERY few muscles of any consequence in your foot itself. They are called intrinsics, and while they are certainly very important, they are relatively inconsequential in terms of foot bulk.
But long bones absolutely do not grow in length once growth plates are closed. It is impossible.
As for the hip muscles not controlling the rotation of your leg, I again beg to differ Roger. It is NOT the realm of the unfit…it is the primary impairment of marathon runners. Most of you who have knee pain after running or hiking have pathologically weak hip rotators. And if your knees start to bother you at the end of a hike, or a run, then your hip rotators and abductors simply don't have the endurance they need. It's because they are relatively small support muscles and are not worked very much during forward motion activities. So if you're a runner, or a hiker on somewhat tame surfaces, those frontal plane stabilizing muscles don't get much of a workout.
And the end of a hike, or a long run, or a long walk, then try to do a single leg squat and see where your knee goes. Does it fall in a bit? It's your gluteus medius and the external rotators of your hip that control that. And continuing down the chain, those muscles also play a major role in the support of your arch.
As for our ancestors marching around in sandals or barefeet…those would be some nasty looking feet. Very flat. Calloused. Broad in the forefoot. Calves would be huge (that's where the muscles that control your feet are). People who grew up wearing shoes outside, and most of the time in general…we have nice dynamic arches that absorb force when you bear weight (by literally sinking closer to the ground, thus lengthening your foot) and returning to neutral when you are not. Over time of yes, very unusual stress of a thru hike (very few people in modern day western culture walk that much – I am on my feet literally ALL day and I walk maybe 8 miles a day). So walking with increased weight on your back, day after day after day after day…for months – yes, that arch is going to get quite a workout and some people are not going to recover from the increase in stress, the broadening of the space between bones in the forefoot.
Does that make sense?Dec 29, 2013 at 8:36 am #2058473
Here's a nice piece from the LA Times that says pretty much the same thing:
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