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:
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:
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!