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Friday, October 14, 2011

The MGBG Guide to Barefoot Running in the Dark

This picture clearly illustrates that more gear is not necessarily better. 

Well citizens, it's that time of year again.  The days are getting shorter and the nights are getting longer.  Unless you run over the lunch hour, you're probably stuck running in the dark.  Running barefoot in the dark is a strange experience.  A barefoot runner gathers a lot of information with their eyes to avert potential dangers in their path.  The dark takes away most of that information.  The result is a feeling that I find simultaneously liberating, and scary as all hell.  Okay...at first it's scary.  Now that I've done it for a while, it's pretty fun.  But I bet a lot of you new barefoot runners don't feel that way.  So here are some tips to help you have some success.

1. Know your route

Yesterday I took a quick little four mile run down a trail that I've used for years, but hadn't run on in quite some time.  About a mile into my run I stepped on a large, irregular piece of debris.  I looked down and noticed I had just stepped on a piece of rebar.  I looked up the trail, and saw that the road I wanted to run over was no longer there.  And the trail I was on was littered with pieces of it.  That area had been under construction for months.  But since I hadn't been there in a while, I hadn't known.  I didn't go any further.  Who knows what kind of crap was just waiting for me.  That's a receipe for a puncture wound.

A barefoot run in the dark is not the time to blaze new trails.  It's time to go back to old reliable.  We barefooters know a lot about the terrain on the paths we run a lot.  I know where path is rough or smooth.  I know where to expect debris.  Since you can't rely on your eyes as much in the dark, your mind needs to fill in so that you can make decisions about where to place your feet.  You won't be able to avoid everything that can cause you trouble, but you can at least limit your exposure by making the best choices with the information you have.

2. Trust your body

I remember someone sharing a story in the Runners World forum about a particularly strange barefoot run in the dark.  While going along one of her favorite routes, a car drove by and illuminated her path.  She looked down and realized she had been running on broken glass for quite a while.   She did so without any pain, and her feet were perfectly fine.  Had she seen the broken glass before running on it...probably not.

When I first started barefoot running, I thought that not seeing the debris ahead of me would freak me out and cause me to tense up.  The opposite is usually true.  Your feet are more relaxed, and you'll find that the debris you do encounter won't hurt very much.  My theory is that seeing debris makes you tense up unconsiously whether you step on it or not.  Without that information, your body is naturally more at ease.

That is, it is more at ease as long as you don't freak yourself out.  The worst thing that you can do while out on a night run is think about all of the things that could go wrong.  All the stuff you COULD step on.  That sort of thinking is self-fulfilling.  You will tense up.  And when you do step on debris, it will hurt. 

If you've been barefooting at all up to this point, you know what happens when you step on something.  Your feet sense and react to it within milleseconds.  It hurts, but you get over it and keep going.  It's never really that bad.  So trust your feet to do their job in the dark and you'll enjoy your run a lot more. 

3. To headlamp, or not to headlamp

As shown in the picture above, I wear a headlamp when I run at night.  However, the reason that I do it is so that cars and bikers can see me.  I don't really use it to watch the path in front of me all that much.

I choose not to use a headlamp  mostly because of tip #2.  I like running barefoot without having to rely so much on my vision.  It's kind of a fun.  It's a good way to practice having that good "barefoot feeling".  I also find that headlamps aren't all that great for providing visual feedback to barefooters.  The light from a headlamps or hand-helds will never give you very accurate information .  They only illuminating objects from one direction, from a source very close to your body. 

That being said, it's nice sometimes to have that security of knowing what's on the path ahead of you.  A headlamp is good for identifying large obsticles in your path, and giving you a basic idea of the debris on the ground.  The choice to wear one depends on personal comfort, just as long as you know that it's not a crutch.

If you feel that you need some light, but find that a headlamp isn't enough, try a handheld.  Or use both.  You'll look like Miner 49er, but at least you'll feel more comfortable.

4. Err on the side of safety

For many new barefoot runners, pushing your limits kind of becomes second nature.  This is all a new experience.  You want to see what you're capable of doing.  For the most part you don't know.  And that's exciting. 

I've been there.  I've done a ton of stupid things I shouldn't have done; especially in the dark during the fall and winter.  And I've also gotten a ton of rather serious injuries doing it that put me out of running altogether.  One of them had me cooped up in shoes for 4 months.  I'm surprised sometimes that I still have feet.

When fall and winter roll around, it's time to put away your egos.  We are entering the time of year where the potential for injury as a barefoot runner is rising.  Danger is harder to see and the weather is getting harsher.  This is not a time to push your limits and hope for the best.  Although I generally encourage barefooters to challenge their limits, during the fall and winter I put safety above bravery.  More can go wrong that you can't foresee or control.  And the last thing you want is to end up sidelined with an injury and unable to run altogether.

You're never going to be sure whether you can safely barefoot in the dark.  You don't have enough information.  But if you're worried about whether you can in a particular circumstance....don't go barefoot.  Put on shoes, or avoid the situation altogether.  You're not an less of a barefoot runner because of it.  If anything, you're more of a barefoot runner.  A true barefoot runner knows their limitations and respects them.

Get out there and run before the weather gets too cold citizens!  Cheers and dark beers!


  1. Excellent post Christian. I actually spend most of my time running in the dark. Mainly because no one wants to run barefoot in the 110+ farenheit heat of oklahoma. So I'd commonly just be starting my run at 8:30 or 9:00 pm on weeknights. I agree with evertyhing you said. I'd be very reluctant to try out a new path at night. I especially agree that if you can see what you might step on, you become innately more tense and afraid of stepping on it. Nothing like not knowing that pebble is there, then barely feeling it when your foot molds over it.

  2. Thanks for this post Christian. I have been having a lot of trouble with my in the dark runs, even on the paths that I normally run. Walnuts and acorns were killing me and I was running all tensed up, causing a lot of metatarsal pain. I started to use trail gloves at night and that has helped, but my weekend BF runs are more difficult because my feet got sensitive again quickly. I guess it is time to man up, relax, and trust my feet!

  3. Acorns are killer! I don't blame you for being nervous on trails with a lot of acorns. I tend to Stay off of heavily wooded trails in the fall for that very reason.

    Nothing wrong with wearing shoes to get over that pain. I don't know anyone that reacts to that kind of debris well.

  4. I'm a bit paranoid about being visible at night. RoadID sells nice little strobe lights (http://www.roadid.com/Common/Catalog.aspx?C=Firefly#12). I clip a red and white one to each side the upper brim of a cap and a red one to the back. Twist them on and I look like a human fire truck from a distance. They are lightweight and not too noticeable. Since they are on the top and back of the cap the light is not distracting.


  5. I run with a small handheld flashlight because headlamps make the ground look featureless. Although the terrain does cast shadows, you can't see them because the headlight is almost perfectly lined up with your eyes.

    Quick question though: why do you say running barefoot in the colder months is dangerous? It gets cold here but doesn't dip below freezing. My biggest fear would be running on wet pavement, softening up my calluses and rubbing them off instead of toughening them. I suppose one might roll an ankle in a pot hole but that's not a concern on familiar paths. Anything I'm overlooking?



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