Rucking is the latest new trend in exercise. And It’s simple. All you need is a backpack, with something to add weight, and a pair of sturdy shoes or boots. I know it sounds like backpacking, but instead of doing it in the mountains you do it in an urban setting. Rucking can burn up to 3x more calories than just walking, so it’s great for weight loss, but also cardio and endurance. This new form of cardio has old roots. Called the military ruck march, it’s been part of army training for militaries worldwide for many years.
It sounds great, but is it safe? Just like hiking in the mountains, there are precautions you need to take to ensure you don’t injure yourself. Here are some sure-fire ways to prevent foot and ankle problems when rucking.
5 Most Common Foot Injuries From Rucking
While many foot and ankle problems can develop because of rucking, today I’ll discuss 5 of the most common foot injuries ruckers experience. Two of the biggest reasons for many rucking foot injuries are adding too much mileage too quickly and carrying too much weight. Our bodies tend to adapt slowly to changes. The third reason is wearing the wrong shoes and socks. Learn more about specific risk factors for different foot conditions here.
One of the most common foot problems people experience when rucking is blisters. Fifty percent of soldiers in the military who ruck get blisters. Blisters form as a result of moisture and friction. When we walk for many miles, our feet heat up and sweat. While we try to get a perfect fit with shoes and boots, there will inevitably be places that rub or where hot spots develop (where more pressure is caused by the way we walk).
Because blisters can be extremely painful, it’s important to know what causes them and how to prevent them.
We already mentioned three major causes of blisters—a combination of moisture, rubbing, and pressure. If you can control these three factors, you can start to eliminate or greatly reduce your risk of blisters.
Shoes and Boots
First, make sure your shoes or boots fit properly. Shoes that are too tight or too loose can cause rubbing and blisters. Next, purchase the right footwear for the terrain you’re walking on.While most people in the military wear boots, you won’t need them unless you’re rucking on rougher terrain. Most people who are rucking in town will only need walking or trail shoes. However, if you want to wear an actual rucking boot you can find them here.
Here's how to ensure you get the proper fit.
- Get your feet measured (both length and width) at a store like REI or Nordstrom.
- There should be one thumb’s width of space between the top of your longest toe and the top of the shoe or boot.
- Go shopping in the afternoon when feet tend to swell.
- The footwear should be comfortable—unless you’re buying a heavy-duty hiking boot (which you shouldn’t need) your shoes or boots should feel comfortable when you first put them on. If they don’t, do not buy them.
- Provide traction—if you’re planning to ruck on wet or slippery surfaces make sure your shoes or boots have adequate traction.
- Test your shoes to ensure they are supportive - while shoes or boots may look supportive, looks can be deceiving. Learn how to test your footwear before making a purchase.
- For those who have trouble keeping their heels back in their footwear, use heel lock lacing for shoes and a Surgeon’s Knot for boots.
Wear the Right Socks
Don’t wear cotton socks. Cotton absorbs moisture. You need socks that will wick away moisture. These are typically made from synthetic materials. Check out my article on best socks for runners and hikers.
Protect Your Feet Using A Proper Barrier
Most of us have areas of our feet that are more vulnerable to blisters. Taping those areas of your feet with moleskin or surgical tape ahead of time can help. For more information about blister prevention and treatment, visit my blog, “How to Prevent and Treat Blisters When Hiking”.
Metatarsalgia or ball of foot pain can develop in ruckers for multiple reasons:
- Biomechanical foot problems-high arches or flat feet that pronate can put you more at greater risk
- Extra weight (too much weight in pack or being overweight)
- Pre-existing foot conditions like bunions
- Improper shoes (e.g. shoes that are too tight particularly in the ball of the foot.)
To prevent metatarsalgia:
- Wear over-the-counter inserts like Redi-thotics if your condition is mild or visit your podiatrist to get fitted for custom orthotics. Both of these should have a metatarsal pad to be most effective.
- Shoes or boots should have enough room in the toe box so you can wiggle your toes.
- Replace any shoes you use for rucking every 500 miles.
- Start out with lighter weight in your backpack and don’t increase by more than 10% a week.
- Don’t increase your distance by more than 10% a week.
- Avoid wearing high heels when you’re not rucking
- Read the information above under Shoes and Boots to learn how to shop for footwear.
Anytime you increase the amount of weight you’re carrying and the distance you’re walking you’re increasing your risk for plantar fasciitis or heel pain. Other factors that will put you at greater risk for plantar fasciitis include:
- Higher arched feet or feet that are flat and overpronate
- Tight calf muscles
- People older than 40
- Unsupportive shoes
- Participating in other sports such as running, adding to the amount of repetitive force on your feet.
Prevention for plantar fasciitis includes:
- Wearing over-the counter inserts for a mild case and getting fit for custom orthotics for moderate to severe cases.
- Buying the right footwear (see above)
- Stretching your calf muscles--for athletes with very tight calf muscles we recommend using an Achilles splint for 30 minutes twice a day. In addition, perform wall stretches for a least 30 secs before going rucking.
- Use of a heel lift to relax your calf muscle and Achilles tendon.
Stress fractures are tiny cracks in the bone caused by repetitive force on the feet and ankles. While it sounds minor, if left untreated stress fractures can lead to a complete bone break. People who have just begun to ruck and increase their weight and distance too quickly are most at risk for developing this condition.
If you notice pain or swelling at the top of your foot or pain that comes on quickly that goes away with rest, you should get your foot assessed by a podiatrist.
Other risk factors for stress fractures are:
- Low body weight in women
- Post menopausal women and people with low levels of calcium (these can both make bones more vulnerable).
- Poor foot mechanics such as high arches or flat feet.
- Worn out or non-supportive footwear.
Prevention of stress fractures includes:
- Proper nutrition including foods rich in Vitamin D
- Use of over-the-counter inserts or custom orthotics to realign feet
- Supportive shoes or boots
- Adding strength building exercises to your workout
- Don’t increase the amount of weight you carry or the distance you walk by more than 10% a week.
Shin splints (pain below the knee in front of the leg) are another common occurrence when rucking, particularly if you’re new to the sport and are carrying too much weight and walking too far. Sound familiar? Many of the same risk factors for stress fractures will also cause shin splints.
But how much weight is too much? It’s important to keep the load you carry to 10% or less of your body weight or you risk developing musculoskeletal injuries. That includes your feet and ankles but also your knees, hips, and back.
Prevention of shin splints includes:
- Developing a strong core to support the extra weight you’ll be carrying (specific exercises like plank and bridge pose can be extremely helpful)
- Purchasing proper footwear
- Wear inserts or custom orthotics if needed
- Be sure to do warm-up exercises like dynamic warm-ups to your routine
- Take breaks and a day off to allow your body to recover
Ruckers often have many of the same foot and ankle problems as hikers. Here are some other articles for hikers that could also be helpful for ruckers. Also, if you’re new to the sport, you can find a GoRuck club in your area.