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Barefoot and Minimalist Shoe Running In The Winter: A Concise How-To Guide

Posted by on Dec 17, 2011 | 9 Comments

Winter presents many problems for the barefoot runner.  Okay, it’s really just one problem.  It’s damn cold!  And for those of you in the north- snowy.

I’m well-versed in the issues facing barefoot runners in the winter.  I grew up in Northern Michigan, went to college on the shore of Lake Superior, and spent my early barefoot days in the snowbelts of West Michigan.  Throughout the years, I had ample opportunities to experiment with every possible option.  Here are some options for the barefoot runner in the winter:

1. Snow and cold be damned!  Keep running barefoot.  This option can work in many climates depending on temperatures and snow conditions.  I found I could run in temperatures as low as about 22-24°F if I kept moving.  The muscle contractions in my feet promoted circulation which kept my feet warm enough.  The serious limiting factor was the need to remain in motion.  If I stopped even for a few seconds, my feet would quickly become numb and not recover. I couldn’t run effectively when tactile sensation was interrupted.  The surface also mattered.  Snow was okay as long as it wasn’t the hard, crusty type.

Running in extreme cold does take some adaptation, so start slow and work your way down to colder temperatures. As soon as you lose feeling, get inside!  The danger of frostbite is real; don’t be a hero!

Also check out this article I wrote last year.  It has a few more winter barefoot running tips that address specific issues:

http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2010/12/07/barefoot-running-in-snow-random-tips/

2. Wear good minimalist shoes.  Shoes serve a great utilitarian purpose- protection.  The trick is finding the most minimal shoe you can so your form isn’t interrupted.  There’s a few things to consider.  What model do you choose?  Should you wear socks?  What about traction?

First, find a pair of shoes that fit YOUR feet.  Don’t rely on the staff at your local running store unless you are confident they’re experienced barefoot or minimalist shoe runners.  I would suggest following the steps outlined in this post.  Once you find a model that fits, you have to decide on the sock issue.

I prefer to go sockless, even in bitterly cold temps.  As I mentioned above, my feet stay warm as long as I’m moving.  With shoes, I can stop for longer periods of time.  If your feet usually stay warm when running barefoot, you probably won’t need those cloth foot bags.  If your feet DO get cold, buy the socks first, then buy the shoes using the same fitting guide from above.  Another option is buying an insulated shoe like the Merrell Embark.  I prefer to go with a more minimal model for the flexibility and weight savings, but it’s a personal preference.

Finally, find a pair of shoes that will provide adequate traction for the terrain you’ll likely run.  If you are running on flat ground, any traction will work.  Good form results in great balance.  I describe the idea here.  If you plan on running trails or up and down hills, some traction will be required.  If you run in a mixture of terrain, a trail shoe should suffice.  You can get my opinions on many of the shoes on the market today in my review section.

3. Run inside on a track or treadmill.  Indoor tracks are hard to find.  Finding a track that will allow you to run barefoot is even more difficult to find.  If you’re lucky enough to have this resource, USE IT!  If not, you can always try a dreadmill… er, I mean a treadmill.

Those medieval running machines, as much as I hate to admit it, can be a decent winter running option.  The tricky part of treadmill running has to do with the nature of the moving belt.  It requires a slightly different running technique I like to call pawback.   Heat can be another issue.  Finally, accidentally stepping on the non-moving edge can be disastrous.  I discuss all three in detail here:

http://barefootrunninguniversity.com/2011/02/05/4-tips-for-barefoot-running-on-a-treadmill/

If you choose to use a treadmill, you can use commercial models at the local gym or purchase your own.  Should you decide to purchase your own, test them out first.  The cheaper home models tend to generate A LOT of heat, which will make barefoot running impossible.  Consider buying a used commercial model from a gym.  They’re easy to find using Craigslist or your local classifieds.

4. Don’t run at all!  Okay, for the vast majority of us this isn’t an option.  If you are running for fitness and not training for a race, you can get the same fitness effect from other forms of exercise.  There are a ton of options, like yoga or kickboxing.  If you’re looking for my personal recommendation, I would suggest functional fitness.  It’s sort of like high intensity weight lifting mixed with gymnastics.  There are some good programs out there like Crossfit or P90X, but I’d recommend Kemme Fitness.  It is the single most well-rounded comprehensive exercise program in existence today.  The exercises Shelly and I do are derived from Pete’s crazy workouts.

5. Move to a warm climate.  This is the approach Shelly and I decided to take when we quit our teaching jobs and started traveling around the country in an RV.  Sure, it may not be entirely practical for everyone.  However, many of the things we think are impossible are actually within our reach.  We just need the courage to actualize our fears, create a plan, and make it happen.  ;-)

What do think?  What winter barefoot tips do you have? Leave your questions or suggestions in the comments section!

Do you know someone that lives in a northern climate and is stuggling with winter barefoot running?  Send them this link!

 

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9 Comments

  1. barefootCourier
    December 19, 2011

    I find the move from fall to winter and the spring to summer tricky for the first couple of weeks. I think it takes the body a little while to adapt. maybe even the structure of the sole of the feet adapts to each?

    This winter I managed to avoid shoes pretty much. I did experiment with using a strip of duct tape on the parts that were most sensitive. It seemed to work well in the coldest snaps in taking just a little of the feel of the road away.

    Live Smart Run Smart

  2. Thomas
    December 19, 2011

    I live in Sweden, a climate pretty much as Janice described it from Ontario with cold and snowy winters. Since this is my first winter using Vibram fivefingers I dont have much experience…
    But I had a run yesterday, app +2 C. It was snow, snow-slush and deep water, an interesting combination. But despite that my shoes and feet was all soaking wet, I was not really cold.
    But the traction is tricky – better to run carefully. Water on ice is extremely slippery :-)

  3. Barefoot Josh
    December 19, 2011

    Just socks! Cheap cotton socks work great at retaining heat, even when the soles wear out (for maximum “groundfeel”). Not so great in wet or snow, of course.

    • Erik
      December 19, 2011

      Funny, I’ve never thought of that. Thanks.

  4. Erik
    December 18, 2011

    Reading your previous blogs, as well as Barefoot Rick & MGBG’s stuff on winter BFR, really helped prepare me for winter BFR. So I’d like to add a few of my own tips in case this helps someone else.
    I think it’s important first to determine one’s limits under ideal conditions: dry, smooth asphalt with no wind. This means going out in the fall early in the morning, before snow begins to fall, and documenting your coldest temp tolerances. Once you’ve done that, you can factor in wetness, different terrains, and wind-chill. Until you’ve determined your limits, always bring along a back-up pair of minimalist shoes while you’re testing. Even after you know your limits, it’s probably good to bring along shoes if you’re the least bit doubtful, because wind, wetness, and terrain (like smooth asphalt vs. concrete vs. chip-and-seal asphalt) don’t always add up the same way. I find I can also run on salted pathways once the surface has dried, but damp salted surfaces are much dodgier.
    In my case, I’ve determined I’m good down to about 20 F on dry asphalt with no wind. I could probably go a bit colder, but under these conditions I am comfortable and feel confident that I’m not risking frostbite. Add in some wind-chill and dampness on concrete, and I might be lucky to run when it’s 32 F. When it’s below freezing and the conditions are less than ideal, I always bring along shoes. Sometimes you end up carrying them the whole way. But sometimes you find yourself needing them really quickly. When it becomes difficult to feel the textures of the running surface, or little pebbles and sticks, I put on my shoes right away. I don’t wait to see if my feet will warm up. For this reason, I prefer the Moc3s, as MGBG recommended, because they’re very easy to take on and off. Another technique, which I haven’t tried yet, is to start off with minimalist shoes until you’re good and warmed up, and then see how far you can go barefoot.
    It also helps if your schedule permits you to run during the warmest part of the day. Even in Minnesota during the coldest month, January, the average high is 19 (in St. Paul), which means on roughly half the days, I may be able to run barefoot if conditions are good. I enjoy barefoot running outside so much more than shod running or running BF on a treadmill that it’s worth it for me to go through all this rigmarole, but I put a premium of safety.

  5. Mo
    December 18, 2011

    Also, I would add the option of (gulp) hiking! Last winter I found that my BFR form wasn’t dialed enough to run in shoes. Therefore, I just put a kid or 2 on my back, my VFFs on my feet, and took a hike on my favorite running trails… Quite nice, actually. Hopefully this winter, I can get away with running in shoes!

  6. Pete Kemme
    December 17, 2011

    Hey thanks for the kind words. Maybe Santa will put a homemade Clubbell in your stocking this year!!

  7. Janice Nicholls
    December 17, 2011

    I live in Ontario and run outside in temperatures that often dip to -20C. I also run on roads in the winter that are not ploughed and are slushy, icy under the snow and where the snow is deep. I think traction is far more important that your post suggests. In fact, other than the shoe being true minimalist, the second most important aspect in a shoe for me in the winter is traction. The Merrell Pace Gloves have a good tread for winter. Right now I’m also trying a pair of Soft Star moccasins & so far so good for the tread.

    I think you may be unusual in terms of your ability to withstand the cold. I can’t even run in Vibrams once it’s below about 5C (tried the other night and couldn’t feel my toes by the end of my run). I have heard similar comments about Vibrams and running in the cold.

    I would encourage anyone in a cold climate to try and get outside and run. I’m using a treadmill this year for longer runs, but there’s nothing like fresh air and snow falling!

  8. Tuck
    December 17, 2011

    One other point: wear a pack and bring some shoes and socks. along if you’re running barefoot is weather cold enough to risk frostbite. A warm jacket isn’t a bad idea either.