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Thursday, September 15, 2011

Some Tips on Cold Weather Barefoot/Minimal Running

We had our first frost warning of the year last night in my neck of the woods.  So I figured now would be a good time to talk about my favorite running season: fall.  It's the time of year when the air reaches that perfect temp for running outside again.  The scenery is breathtaking.  And it's alsos the time of year when I watch a ton of noobies freak out over the impending winter. 

This is the time of year when those crappy Vibram Fivefinger Flows start flying off the shelves.  You thought they were ridiculous when you first started minimalist running.  Now they look very practical.  All the while, minimal shoe makers do this:

I'll sell you an ugly neoprene foot glove.  For.....ONE MILLION DOLLARS!!! 

People start looking for all sorts of crazy solutions to keep their feet warm as the weather cools.  There was a guy on the Runners World chat rooms that used to swear by scuba booties for cold weather minimal running.  I've also heard of sticking porrtable hand warmers down your socks, or buying a bigger size of minimal shoe so you can wear four pairs of socks simultaneously.

Come on people.  The winter isn't the apocolypse for barefoot running.  Yeah, it sucks.  But you don't need to go nuclear.  And to help calm you down, I'm here with a few common sense tips to get you through this change in seasons.

Tip #1: The Shoes You Have Now Are Fine

I know what you're thinking.  The only thing between my feet and the cold on these Vibram KSOs is a thin piece of fabric.  You're thinking, "Oh my god!  It's 50 degrees and my feet are already freezing!"  Yes, that's probably true.  At the same time, you don't need to go buy Vibram Flows, or scuba booties, or thermo-regulated ski boots, or anything else some nut on a chat room says you have to try to keep your feet warm as it gets colder.  You need to be patient, and let your body adapt. 

Have you ever noticed that when the temperature first hits 50 degrees in the fall, it feels cold?  But then when it hits 50 degrees again in the spring, you're running around with shorts on?  Your body is more than capable of adapting to cold weather, and that's just what it did.  The same goes for your feet.  They will adapt, and they will adapt very quickly.  It varies for everyone, and depends on how much experience you have with cold weather.  But for most people, I'd say you'll be fine in about 1-2 weeks.

And you will be able to (eventually) run in very cold temperatures with very little on your feet.  I've run the last couple of years running into temps as low as -20 F wearing nothing but a pair of Vibram KSOs and some Injinji socks.  For most runs, you'll be able to run with just minimal shoes. 

If you do need something warmer, for heaven's sake buy a pair of wool socks for $12 instead of a new pair of goofy-looking shoes for $100.  The Flow is a horrible shoe.  Fight the power...

Tip #2: Expose Your Feet to the Cold

I said in the first tip that your feet will adapt to the cold.  That presumes that you're actually exposing your feet to it.  I know that it sucks to do that, because....well....it's cold!  But the more you expose your feet to the cold, the faster your body will adapt. 

When I talk about "exposing your feet", I don't just mean go outside.  I mean actually exposing your feet.  Get them out of those shoes.  As the weather gets colder, I make it a point to do everything I can outside either barefoot or in minimal shoes.  I get the mail barefoot.  I drive barefoot.  I let my dogs outside barefoot.  I go for walks barefoot. 

Regardless of what the temperature is, get outside with as little on your feet as possible.  Even if you're not a barefoot runner normally, kick those shoes off and get outside.  You'll adapt faster that way.  Don't go crazy and hurt yourself!  Get back inside or put something on your feet if they start going numb.  But spending time getting used to the cold now will pay dividends in the coming months.

Tip #3: Keep Your Core Warm

When you do decide to go for a run this fall, you'll probably notice something.  You'll notice that as you start running your feet will feel cold.  Then after about ten minutes or so, your feet will start to warm up and will feel fine.  Then, maybe a half an hour or so later, they might feel cold again.  But a few minutes later they will warm right back up.

What you are experiencing is a little thing called Cold-Induced Vascodilation (CIV).  Here's a great article from the Society for Barefoot Living on the topic.  The short version: CIV is the phenomenon whereby your body tries to heat your core before it heats your extremeties in an effort to conserve energy.  While your body is trying to heat your core, it's not sending much blood to your feet.  As a result, they get cold.  However, if your core is warm enough, your body will send more blood to your feet and warm them up. 

CIV is the reason why crazies like me are able to go barefoot well into the winter.  It's also what is going to enable you to keep those Vibram Flows on the shelves with all the other nonsense solutions to winter. 

CIV generally happens after about 8-10 minutes.  But there are a few things you can do to speed up the process.  One, you can teach your feet to adapt to the cold, in which case CIV will happen faster. 

The easier thing to do dress more warmly than you think you have to, especially around your core.  My rule is to wear one more piece of clothing than I would need if running in shoes.  Usually wear a long-sleeved shirt and shorts in 55 degree weather?  Add a vest.  The warmer you dress around your core, the faster CIV will happen.

Tip #4: Warm Your Feet Ahead of Time

In addition to dressing warmly, it also helps to warm up before you expose your feet to the cold.  Some of that heat will stay with you, and tide you over until CIV kicks in.  There are sevearl ways to do this, but here are a few of the better ones: 
  • Stand in front of your heater for a few minutes before leaving your house for your run
  • Jog around your house for a few minutes and work up a sweat before leaving your house
  • Leave your house with more clothes than you intend to wear, and take them off after 10 minutes
  • If you're going barefoot, run the first 10 minutes or so of your run in shoes
Tip #5: Be More Careful

I always try to stay barefoot as long as I can during the fall and winter.  But at some point, the weather gets just too cold in Minnesota, and I end up in shoes.  If you do intend to go barefoot or minimal outside as the weather gets colder, remember this saying: "Numb feet are dumb feet."

Your ability to run barefoot or minimal successfully depends in large part on your ability to feel the ground and react to it.  Even with CIV, your feet will start to numb up more and more as the temperature drops.  I think the level of numbness varies by person.  But for most people, I think once it gets below 50 degrees, your feet start to lose some sensation.  When temps are in the low 30s, your feet are pretty well useless blocks of flesh. 

This gets dangerous because as your feet get numb, you're no longer able to feel whether your form is doing a number on the bottom of your feet.  You're more suseptible to blisters, abrasions, and puncture wounds.  I ran for 14 miles once in 35 degree weather once not knowing that the bottom of my feet looked like this (GROSS FEET PICTURES AHEAD!):

That there is a hole in my foot.  This is a picture of it three weeks into healing.  Right after the run it looked like the Seventh Level of Hell.  And all it felt like during the run was a little hot spot.

Since your feet aren't as sensitive to their surroundings, you need to use your other senses to check on them more.  You need to pay more attention to where you are running.  You need stop and inspect your feet for blisters and cuts often.  You need to be extra alert to what other parts of your body are telling you. 

Keep these tips in mind and you're sure to have a great fall running season.  Get out there and enjoy the changing seasons citizens!  Cheers to fall!


  1. Thanks MGBG!! Really until it gets below 0 and with wind chills-normal socks and min shoes are all you need.The key is keeping them dry when it is below freezing. But minimalist shoes and socks are plenty. I go thru most of winter running in Mn taking my mittens off after 5 min too. The key is as you said keeping your core (neck,chest) and head warm-the rest will be fine. AND adapting starting now to cooler weather-force yourself to keep going outside as the weather is changing.Thanks again!

  2. There has been a small amount of research on the role that circadian rhythm plays in acclimatizing to the cold. Basically the theory is that if you keep the lights low when the nights are longer you trick the brain into thinking it's winter (hey Sherlock it is winter). Most people trick their brains to think it is summer when it is actually winter out outside. If the brain thinks it is winter it will acclimatize to the cold faster.

    There does need to be more research on this unfortunately.

  3. My mom always calls me crazy because in the dead of winter Ill take out the trash in a foot of snow barefoot. Doesnt bother me that much though XD

  4. Eat red meat... Red Meat helps your body create heat. I have been on a liquid diet twice in the past year do to a wired shut jaw and both times I am not able to eat red meat and my core body temp has a horrible time creating heat. I am cold all the time and the exposure of my feet to the ground only makes my core colder faster. The first time this happend in the spring, once I was able to add the meat back into my system my core warmed up and I was a much happier runner, and shed the shoes easier. Just "food" for thought.



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