Appalachian Trail Part 1: Injury Prevention

I’ve been an athlete my entire life. Started team sports in 5th grade with my go-to favorite, basketball, and played until graduating from high school. I also participated in soccer, track & field, and even, to my mother’s chagrin, a year of varsity football during my senior year. I think she attended one game, and of course it was the one where I got knocked out cold by the defending safety while running a post route and missing a catchable throw. Dang.

As an adult my main sports have been yoga and running. I’m happiest when my body is moving, sweating, and to some degree, competing. Such activities are the best mental therapy I could ask for.

Fortunately I’ve never had to deal much with injuries. A few stitches here and there, some pulled or strained muscles on occasion, but no regular sideliners to hinder my body’s need for activity. I attribute some of this to luck, but as I’ve gotten older, a lot of my good health has resulted from deliberate and mindful old school injury prevention.

As a young athlete I took my body for granted. My willingness to take physical risks often led to eye-popping highlight reels. The resilience of youth was definitely on my side. It wasn’t until I started doing ultra-distance running that minor tweaks and twinges started making me think about otherwise foreign concepts such as stretching, massage, and visualization.

During one of my million painful trigger point sessions back in 2005, a PT told me, “Tom, you are mentally stronger than you are physically able.” Essentially telling me that no matter what I did, my body was going to take a beating. I interpreted his comment as a challenge. I now believe that most injuries are fully avoidable when proper steps are taken.

On the Appalachian Trail, barring any traumatic or acute injuries resulting from a fall, misstep, or animal attack (gah!), injuries such as chafing, tendinitis, cramping, and foot issues are commonly believed to be par for the course. I disagree! I believe all of these conditions are 100% avoidable.

Let me break it down:

Chafing: Chafing is essentially the result of one body part rubbing against something else (another body part, a piece of clothing or shoe component, etc.) which results in a rug burn sort of irritation at best, or a raw, bleeding, painful open wound at worst. When undertaking long walking/hiking/running days, chafing can occur in the least likely places. Between legs, under arms, and any place a backpack hits are obvious areas for potential chafe. But really, it can happen anywhere there’s even minor rubbing. Every day I’m on the trail, part of my morning ritual is to apply Body Glide (a non-petroleum based skin lubricant) to the following parts: armpits, nipples, feet (toes, ball, heel), and butt crack. The result – zero chafing and zero irritation. One application per day has been sufficient.

Body Glide’s gendering of products is SUPER LAME and for marketing purposes only

Tendinitis: Tendinitis, by definition, is the inflammation of a tendon (a tendon connects muscle to bone and serves to move that bone). Generally speaking, tendinitis results from overuse – the body doing too much, too soon. It may also result from suddenly doing a common activity in a newish way (i.e. shifting from walking on trails to paved roads without much of a “break in”). The body functions best when weening into a new activity. To avoid overuse issues on the AT, I trained a lot in advance. I walked many, many miles around my hometown with a full pack on to simulate, as best I could, a long day on the trails. Of course I couldn’t perfectly mirror the coming demands of the AT, but I did what I could. And it made a difference. Additionally, while on the AT, at beginning and end of each day I spend time stretching out a bit. Long, shallow holds in various positions to increase blood flow to crucial body parts. For the past 2 years I’ve have a daily yoga practice that I continue to adhere to while on the trail.

Cramping: Cramping may not sound like a big deal, but it’s an integral part of the body’s warning system. If a body part cramps, 2 things are likely true: 1) You are dehydrated, and 2) that particular body part is excessively taxed. Cramping is your body’s way of telling you to stop and take care before an actual injury occurs. Cramping tells you to rest, replenish water and salt, stretch out, and/or eat. All or some of these factors may be the culprit for cramping, so it stands to reason that they are also what prevents it from happening in the first place. NOTE: As for staying hydrated – it’s way more than just drinking a bunch of water. When the body sweats, it loses crucial salts and electrolytes that must be replenished. Any rehydration plan must incorporate electrolytes. If it doesn’t, no matter how much water you drink, you may still dehydrate! [Click here to see some serious muscle cramping that resulted from severe dehydration]

Foot Issues: The gamut of potential foot issues on and off the trail is too long of a list to address here. The likes of blisters, hot spots, callouses, plantar fasciitis, etc. But the foundation of foot issue prevention starts with shoes, insoles, and quality socks. Here’s the scoop:

SHOES: I’ll keep this simple with a series of don’ts. Don’t buy shoes just because your friend to favorite athlete swears by them. Don’t buy shoes just because you like the fun color scheme. Don’t buy shoes because they are on sale. And don’t buy shoes because the magazine or blog article rated them highly. I am here to tell you that none of this matters. What matters is how your foot works in a particular shoe, and odds are you’ll need to be professionally fit by a shoe/anatomy expert to ensure this happens. The goal is to match your foot’s shape and flexibility with shoes constructed for your specific needs. I suggest visiting your local running shop and going though their fitting process. They may have the right shoes for you, but if not, they’ll be able to tell you about your foot’s nuances that should be accommodated. And don’t forget – your shoes should be at least 1 full size larger than your foot size (i.e. my feet measure 10.5, but I rock size 12s on the trail).

AT shoes #2! Why do I like these? Because they match my foot shape and biomechanics needs! Yay!

INSOLES: I also suggest that you invest in some quality insoles to replace the shoe’s useless sockliner. I am a HUGE fan of the Superfeet line. This is a brand who gives a damn about your body’s biomechanics and has developed options to meet most everyone’s needs (preventative and accommodative). Very few people need an insole, but nearly everyone will benefit from using one! Don’t hit the trail without something that matches your needs (again, let the experts help you determine which one is best for you).

Fresh Superfeet for my new kicks

SOCKS: If you are on the trail in cotton socks, you haven’t done your homework. I get it, they are comfy. But make no mistake, they are a poor choice for any sort of athletic endeavor. Why? They don’t manage moisture well! Which means that when you sweat in them, they stay wet all day, which is a perfect environment for issues such as blisters, hot spots, and toenail fungus (yikes!) to arise. Your best bet is to stick to a well-made technical sock. They are made of synthetic or natural materials, cost a bit more than your 12-pack from Walmart, and generally do the following: 1) Their materials manage moisture well, 2) They are seamless and don’t cause friction, and 3) They have 3D-constructed heels to prevent the sock from slipping.

My personal favorite is CEP’s merino quarter length. I plan to use one pair of these amazing socks for all 2100ish miles of the AT. After walking more than 3000 miles in one pair as I crossed the USA, I am 100% confident this is possible.

Big love to Robyn at CEP for the sample socks!

And one last thing…VISUALIZATION.

I’d be remiss not to include the importance of positive self-talk and visualization as a way to actively prevent detrimental physical and mental situations from arising. Bottom line, your brain doesn’t know the difference between a real and imagined experience, so you may as well feed it with what you want to happen. What you pay attention to will grow!

A daily dose of positive sentiments will prime your brain to do the hard thing you’re asking of your body. I am strong. I am a good climber. I can walk for 10 hours straight. My body is a wonderful and brilliant machine. I am well prepared for this. I am positive. I respect the trail. I listen to what my body needs. I have a great attitude. Etc.

Every morning, before and during my AT experience, I wake up and immediately feed my brain with such statements. I either speak them aloud or silently run them through my mind. This sort of radical self love and affirmation, in my opinion, is as integral to a healthy outcome as is any sort of physical training or prevention I could possibly do.


Just my two cents on things that matter as I continue along this amazing journey. Thanks for reading and for following along! I love and appreciate you all!

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