Getting My Flat Feet Ready to Hike 2,650 Miles

Guest post by Kelly Ellzey: It all started when we made the decision last year to check off one of our “Bucket List” items and hike the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT). For those of you who don’t know, the PCT starts at the Mexican/Californian border, follows the crests of the Sierras and then the Cascades, ending up at the Washington/Canadian border. It’s 2,650 miles of 90% Suck, but that 10% WOW more than makes up for it!

PCT_2014

The reason it seems so urgent to do it in 2014 instead of putting it off until “someday” is because our daughter, who is 24 years old, will be joining us. We figure this is really the last chance we will have to share this unbelievably bonding experience with her.

But there are some major hurdles we have to conquer before we can take that first step. One of those is I have flat feet. I’ve had painful feet ever since I was a kid. In the 5th grade I saw a specialist who told me I had flat feet, that I would always have flat feet and they would never get better, and the best we could do to manage the pain was to wear custom orthotics. So I wore custom orthotics the majority of the time I was awake. It was exceptionally rare to see me barefoot.

I wasn’t really managing my foot pain, it was getting worse. By the time I hit my 40s I was waking up in the middle of the night 3-6 times a week because my feet were hurting so much. Usually I would pop two Aleve, massage my feet a little bit, and try to get back to sleep.

Not Taking “No” for an Answer

I’ve been to several podiatrists over the years and asked them about this and pretty much the consensus I got was I was getting older, so get used to it. And again I was told that there was nothing I could do to fix my flat feet. All I could do was wear the orthotics to manage the pain.

Well – I have a big hike coming up, so “just deal with the foot pain” was not an acceptable answer. I have done a lot of section hiking in California and because my orthotics were causing my foot to bump forward in my hiking shoe, it would eventually cause me to lose toenails! In case any of you don’t know, the process of having your toenail ripped from your toe slowly over a period of days is excruciatingly painful! So far I’ve lost about 24 toenails!

Kellys Toes

So you can see why I was desperate to fix this problem before hiking the PCT! I searched the internet and came across Brian’s article on how he fixed his flat feet. Needless to say I was exceptionally impressed by his spectacular results and started to have hope that I could fix my feet before the hike.

I contacted Barefoot Science Company and told them of our big family hike coming up and how I was desperate to fix my flat feet – it was either that or have my toenails surgically removed! They gifted me with Barefoot Science inserts! Before the inserts arrived Patrick Malleret from Barefoot Science told me I had to immediately quit wearing my orthotics. He said that the orthotics essentially acted like a cast for my feet and all the muscles in my feet had become terribly atrophied.

I had to admit, I knew he was right. I had exceptionally weak feet. Every time I took an exercise class like yoga or Body Pump my feet would cramp up so much I’d have to stop for a minute to give them a break. No one else in the room ever seemed to have that problem.

But I have to tell you, that first week of not wearing any support under my feet was exceptionally painful! I was on Aleve around the clock and my sleep was getting interrupted about 3 times a night!

Finally the Barefoot Science inserts arrived! The Barefoot Science inserts are essentially a foot strengthening system. It comes with the inserts and a set of 7 “plugs” if you use the “Therapeutic” model and 6 “plugs” if you use the active model. Patrick told me to start with the Therapeutic model because I was using them for backpacking and would be carrying @ 30-40 pounds on my back.

An Very Impatient Patient

You are supposed to start with just the inserts – no plugs – the first week, then after your feet acclimate to the inserts, move up to the Level 1 plugs, then Level 2 and so on. This is supposed to happen very gradually – 2-3 weeks for each level, but I’m a pretty bad patient! I was in so much pain from not having any support under my feet – which is what my feet had come to depend on – that I think in the first 2 weeks I jumped up to Level 4 or 5 to give my feet some relief!

When Patrick asked how I was doing with the inserts I sheepishly told him what I had done – and he of course chastised me! He told me that I was treating these inserts like orthotics and my feet would never get any stronger or better that way. “Ok, fine. I’ll do it your way!” and I started over again with Level 1 and did the program correctly – the way it says in the directions.

For the next 3 months I didn’t feel much difference in my feet – and they certainly didn’t look much different. I didn’t experience any of the pain with using the Barefoot Science System that Brian talked about in his article, perhaps because my feet were so used to wearing orthotics is my guess. Until I hit Level 4 or 5, then my feet became pretty painful and I was waking up a lot at night. I’m guessing that was because my feet were starting to change – if you’ve ever worn braces you can relate to that feeling of your bones shifting. That might be a little dramatic, but I felt I the reason my feet were more painful was because they were changing – getting better – and that helped me to view the pain as more of an annoyance instead of actual pain.

Comparison Footprints

By the time I hit 5 months I was up to Level 7. Waking up in the middle of the night was becoming a very rare occurrence, so I thought I was doing pretty well until I decided to take comparison photos and footprints…

7_26_12 to 1_13_13

That was surely disappointing! I wasn’t anywhere close to the kind of improvement Brian experienced – and I had been using them for a lot longer! I consoled myself that there was some visible improvement even though I had been told by multiple podiatrists over the years my feet would never get any better – and the biggest difference is my feet were a LOT less painful! Before my feet always hurt, it didn’t matter what I did – whether I went for a long run or sat on my butt all day in front of a computer – they always hurt. Now it was a rare occurrence! Well! That was saying quite a bit! I DID experience a huge improvement after all!

So with my newfound determination to fix my feet, I decided more had to be done! Both my husband and daughter were into wearing Vibram Five Fingers toe shoes. Wearing those were pretty much like being barefoot. So, if wearing orthotics all the time had gotten me into this mess, and if the Barefoot Science inserts were training my feet to support themselves while simulating walking barefoot; then I reasoned that wearing the Barefoot Science inserts in Vibram toe shoes (the ¾ Active model) would take away the structure and support of a shoe and force my feet to get stronger faster.

I told Patrick from Barefoot Science my plan, he was very sketchy about it at first. He warned me I should only wear the toe shoes for about 20 min. a day until my feet got used to it, and that I should only use a Level 1 plug.

Did I mention I’m a very bad patient? I did start with the Level 1 plugs, but I started wearing the toe shoes for about 2 hours a day. I increased the time each day until now I wear the toe shoes with the inserts in them pretty much from the time I get up to the time I go to bed. I did the whole Barefoot Science program over again as directed – wearing each new level for 2-4 weeks depending on how my feet felt before going up to the next level.

Here are my Results

Comarisons Jul 12 to Sept 13

And for even more proof that the Barefoot Science System works – even for hopeless cases like mine, I think photos tell a better story than footprints: Here is what I started with (taken 7-26-13):

Before Side View 7_25_12

Here is what my feet looked like as of 9-20-13:

Side view Sept 13

Here are front and back views from before (7-26-13):

Before_7_25_12

Front and back views as of 9-20-13:

Sept 2013 Photos

As you can see, my ankles are straightening up a bit and I have the start of some very pretty arches – even on my left foot which was always the worst one. Are my flat feet “fixed” yet – no, but there is significant improvement. I have a little over 5 months to go before we hike the PCT, so they have more time to get stronger before our big adventure. At least now I feel very confident that I don’t have to have my toenails surgically removed to complete this hike!

See you on the trail!

Kelly Ellzey

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  • Kelly, it is very cool to see the good progress you are making! Any thoughts on what kind of footwear you will be using on your trek? Since you are training your feet barefoot and building their strength, it might make sense for you to go with a (somewhat) minimalist shoe.

    • kellyred

      Thank you, the most important progress is what you can’t see – my feet aren’t waking me up in the middle of the night anymore because of pain!

      As for shoes, I’m really not sure yet – that’s what training hikes are for. Right now I’m training with Salomon trail running shoes – and I’m considering using trail running shoes the entire hike. Before I thought I would need to go with a hiking boot through most of it – especially walking through shale or volcanic rock, but my feet are stronger now, so maybe I can get away with trail running shoes. I plan to also bring toe shoes as a camp shoe and a backup in case my toes/feet get so injured/swollen I can’t stuff them in a shoe.

      The good news is we will get our base weight down pretty low – hopefully 10-12 pounds – then add another 10-15 pounds to accommodate for food/water – but still overall pack weight should be fairly low – allowing me to get away with a lighter shoe and hopefully avoid injury.

      • I think that if you are currently training in trail running shoes and having good results, that you should stick with that for your hike. Stick with what is currently working, rather than change just before you leave. Changing back to a heavy duty hiking boot could actually do more harm that good. That’s my 2 cents anyways :-)

        • kellyred

          I understand what you are saying – I’ve been primarily wearing toe shoes since last March, and now I that I started wearing trail shoes my feet are hurting again!

          However, I remember hiking through shale rock a couple years ago on a 150 mile hike in the High Sierras and my feet hurt for days – they felt like someone had beat them with a stick! I was wearing trail shoes then so I feel cautious.

  • fabian sandoval

    Kelly, look up a review on Dr Richie in Seal Beach CA, he is a podiatrist who fixed my friends flat feet and I also saw him for a broken foot, he is excellent. He’s a surgon and even does medical journals.

  • edc

    How about re-doing the whistle test with the dB meter set correctly?

    • #Ouch! I’ve thought about it, but the decibel meter that I had borrowed is no longer available to me. If anyone has one that I can use (the iPhone app version stinks) I’d be happy to try and do it again properly.

  • Backpacking Engineer

    I actually started using the Vibram Five Fingers for everyday use, road running and trail running. I love them for most situations. However, I tend to revert back to traditional trail runners for extremely rough terrain as I stub my toes way too much!

    • That’s a smart move actually. In my experience there is no such thing as the perfect pair of shoes for everything. Listen to your feet, they’ll tell you if you’re going to hard or fast on rehabilitation. Also consider some simple exercises that you can do when your sat at home watching TV or at work sat at a desk – it’s amazing what a few extra minutes with a tennis ball or lecross ball can do to improve your feet.

  • Michael Nunez

    Its been a few years since this post was uploaded. What is your foot situation now? Did you have to continue wearing those inserts? What would be the major difference between wearing these inserts and wearing others that are made to reduce pain from where you currently are?