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Thursday, October 20, 2011

The MGBG Guide to Winter Barefoot Running

You are about to go where few of us have ever gone before.  You are not crazy.  Okay...yes, you are crazy.

Snow was in the forecast a few days ago.  That means it's almost time for my favorite season: winter!  You might not be excited, but I'm stoked.  I'm not sure why I like winter running so much.  I think it's because everything outside is so quiet and still.  I'm usually the only one out on the trail running. 

And yes...I'm sometimes barefoot.  I have a few loose screws.  If you're seriously entertaining barefoot running this winter...so do you.

Here's my opinion on barefoot running in the winter.  For all but the incredibly brave/stupid (a club of which I am a member), it's just not worth it.  The risks of injury are incredibly high.  The damage done by those injuries can be permanent.  It's not for the faint of heart, and it definitely isn't for the newbie.   

I came to that opinion from an observation over the last few winters.  That is that nobody runs barefoot in the winter successfully and consistently without lots of experience.  Those who can do it (Rick Roeber for example) are able to because of a lot of experience doing it UNSUCCESSFULLY.  Either that, or they live in a warmer climate and running through the winter barefoot doesn't literally risk life and limb.  Everyone else I know has been hurt in spectacular fashion, myself included.  Even when they don't, I feel that people don't so much complete their barefoot runs in the winter so much as they survive them. 

So this post is going to be a lot like the book "If I Did It" by O.J. Simpson.  I'm going to emphatically tell you not to run barefoot in the winter.  Then I'm going to tell you what to do so you don't kill yourself if you're too stupid to listen to my advice.  Because I know some of you will.  And if you try anything in this post, I wash my hands of you.  You're on your own buddy. 

Don't run barefoot in the winter.


1. Get the itch out of the way early.

A lot of people who are still considering winter barefoot running, even after my emphatic plea, are those who just want to say they've done it.  Okay fine.  I know curiosity killed the cat.  So if you're going to be one and done, do it around the time of the first snowfall in your area.  That way you avoid a lot of the nastiness that I'm going to talk about later on in this post.

It's not just that the temperature will get colder.  The paths will also get less conducive to barefooting.  The snow will build up.  It will melt and refreeze.  And road crews will turn snow into a salt-lick slushie.  Get your daredevil thing out of the way and then go back to more sensible behavior.

2. Get warm, not hot

It wasn't too long ago that I was writing posts about the impending fall, and the need to keep your core warm as a barefoot/minimalist runner.  It's even more important in the winter.  If your core isn't warm, then your feet won't be warm.  The result won't be pretty.

This is doubly important as the temperature drops because of a bigger threat: hypothermia.  If you don't stay warm during the winter, you won't just have cold feet.  You'll be dead.  No joke.  So it's extra important that you do many, if not all of the tips I suggested in the above post, which include:
  • Wear more layers than you think are necessary
  • Stand under a heating vent for several minutes before heading out the door
  • Drink something warm prior to leaving, and consider taking warm liquids with you on your run
  • Run for the first 10-15 minutes in shoes
  • Keep moving at all costs....heat escapes quickly from your feet while standing
That being said, in the winter too much warmth isn't good either.  Put on too much and you'll start to sweat, which will eventually give you cold feet and hypothermia just the same.  Dressing for the winter is a balancing act that requires a lot of practice.  If you don't have much experience dressing for cold weather running, I suggest you both read this post I wrote last year, and follow the next tip.

3. Keep it short

There won't be a whole lot of runs this winter where you'll have a perfect temperature and trail conditions such that you'll be able to go forever.  Usually a combination of the ambient air along the snow, road salt, and slush will put you at risk of overexposure. 

The biggest worry of any barefoot winter runner is frostbite.  Frostbite from the ambient air alone can occur in less than two hours in temperatures under 32 degrees.  That's for dry, exposed skin with no wind.  Your will be covered with snow, slush, and road salt.  All of those reduce safe exposure times, as does wind chill. 
I'm not going to tell you what a safe exposure time would be, because there are too many variables.  You need to develop your own guidelines based on experience.  You can develop those by doing the following.

4. Check your feet often

If you're going to run barefoot this winter, you need to know the basic signs and symptoms of frostbite.  No ifs, ands, or buts.  That's Winter 101. 

But you shouldn't let your feet come anywhere near that level.  Your body starts putting out danger signs well before your skin starts to freeze.  Before frostbite comes frostnip, which is still potentially dangerous but not nearly as bad.  During frostnip your feet will start turning red and/or blue, they will start tingling, and they will go completely numb (not necessarily in that order).  Be like me and never let your feet get close to any of those. 

I do that by stopping to inspect and manipulate my feet frequently.  When I check them I inspect the tops of my feet for color.  Pink is usually fine.  Red is bad.  Blue is worse.  Purple, black, or yellow is too late.  I also feel the tops of my feet with my hands to check for numbness and pain.  The bottoms of your feet are not a good indicator of your foot temperature.  They get numb within a few minutes of being outside from ground contact.  On the other hand, you should always have sensation in the tops of your feet.  If not, or if you feel pain, it's time for your warm-up plan.   

5. Have an emergency warm-up plan

Even if you're regularly checking your feet and body to make sure they are okay, there will be times when things awry.  If that happens, you need to have a back-up plan.  If you're not, you're going to lose a fricken toe...or die...or both. 

I use a three-pronged emergency method in the winter.  First, I always carry a kit to help warm up my feet and body immediately.  This kit MUST, MUST, MUST includes socks and shoes...the kind that I'll be able to put on when my feet are numb or in pain.  It's up to you, but I suggest those shoes not be Vibrams.  Putting your numb stump toes into those is like putting toothpaste back in the tube.  They also aren't big enough to put in chemical heat packets (like Hot Hands)...which I use when I feel like I need more heat than shoes and socks will provide. 

Second, I always stay a safe distance from my house.  A safe distance means a distance that, given the conditions, you can make it back home without assistance.  This isn't the distance you think you can run back to your house at your normal clip.  If you're in such danger that you're going to need to get inside, you probably won't be running normally.  You'll be walking, or hobbling, or worse.  It's also going to vary depending on the weather.  In 30 degree weather, it might be two miles.  In -20 degree weather, it's probably not going to be more than a 1/4th mile. 

Third, if all else fails and I'm stranded, I carry a cell phone.  And not just so I can call if I'm in trouble.  If you're in that much trouble, you might not be able to call.  I do one better.  I have an emergency contact...my wife.  Before I leave I tell her how far I am going, the exact route that I'll be taking, and how long I think it will take me.  After that time is up, she usually calls me to see where I am.  If I don't answer, she's coming to look for my ass, or calling the police.     

6. Run on cleared paths or trails

One reason that people go barefoot running in the winter has to do with the sensation.  Running on snow is a very interesting experience.  You'd expect it to be extremely cold.  But after a certain point, it's really not.  I'd compare the experience to putting an ice pack on your skin.  At first, your skin cools off very quickly.  After that, it seems to reach an equilibrium with the ice, and the ice is much more tolerable.  Even pleasant.

Because of this, you can run on lightly-packed, newly-fallen snow for quite a while without your feet getting too cold.  Snow doesn't seem to lose heat in the cold the same way that the earth or pavement do.  It stays a pretty consistent (albeit cold) temperature, and even provide some insulation when the air is colder than 32 degrees.

Once snow been on the ground for a while though, running on it turns a bit more dicey.  As it gets packed down, it melts and refreezes creating sheets and chunks of ice.  Road salt gets mixed in and turns it to slush.  No amount of barefoot conditioning can save your foot either.  Ice will slice your foot wide open.  Road slush can get so full of salt that it causes chemical burns to your feet within seconds of contact.  And if the snow keeps falling, you might not be able to see any of that. 

I only run barefoot on freshly cleared paths or those with newly fallen snow.  Anything more and you're just asking for trouble.

Scared yet?  You should be...

Don't run barefoot in the winter citizens.


  1. glad to see a lot of the same ideas here that we came up with in our post-mortem article from last winters BRS Winter Challenge (especially since you might have a wider audience than our article had!). Great minds think alike, eh? ;)

    I especially agree with the "don't use VFFs as your emergency shoe"! I ran into that problem last winter which was the main motivator in my purchase of Trail Gloves as soon as they hit the shelves here in Michigan. Numb toes do not play nice with the pockets and if you do manage to cram your toes in there you are likely going to be hobbling home at barely more than a walk. I can't stress this enough to anyone who ever asks about BFR in the cold/winter.

    I also got a lot of winter miles in last season by doing many short BF runs instead of a few longer ones. I would rather run a mile BF in the winter 25 times (the feet don't get a lot of time to get too cold) than one 25 miler (plenty of time for frostbite to set in).

  2. I did look at that thread to make sure I covered thenimportant points. There are so many little tips for winter running it's hard to hit them all.

    I'm probably not going to do too many barefoot miles this winter. Too many cool shoes to test.

  3. Troy, another point of advice should be "don't participate in the BRS winter challenge". I think a few people got hurt last year trying to break the cold record.

  4. A great option for "barefoot-like" winter running is any Soft Star Shoes product. The RunAmocs and Moc3s give a great barefoot feel without the cold. Only downside is they're not waterproof, so snow could still cause a problem.

  5. Great post Christian!! Especially for us Minnesotans! I want to add that I also got frostbit last yr with min shoes on b/c wet snow or ice somehow got into my toe area early in my run and just kept going...but the key was that the wind chill was horrendous so my body heat never warmed up my toes-they were nasty black (skin only-not all the way thru) for a long time. I highly recommend wool winter running socks in Mn if your min shoes are not water proof.Any amount of frostbite is not worth the risk and not worth curtailing your running all winter. I run all winter in Mn and wind chill is prob the single most dangerous aspect of winter running (and visibility-ok that is two) ..anyway-always better to stay safe to run another day!!

  6. ifs ands and buts aren't spelled with apostrophes. It's not that hard!

  7. As long as we're dispensing advice. If you're going to correct me, at least be polite about it. Best practice, email me and tell me about the error rather than callin me out. I already knowy posts have errors. Kthanksbye!

  8. I am tempted to fill this post with grammatical errors! :-) Great info on winter running... winter is hitting at a tough time for me since I want to keep working towards barefoot running. Where I run now, I am going to have to revert back to shoes so I can attach YakTrax for snow and ice safety.. ah well..


  9. Great tips, and I won't correct your grammar. I would hate it if you did that to me. Congrats on winning the Adams as well. I am going to go buy a pair just for times when it gets too cold. I'm in Portland, OR now so here we don't get too many bad days thankfully. I was born and raised in MT though which garnered me a healthy respect for winters, especially after getting frost nip and not being able to feel my toes for two months. Good stuff and keep it up. Oh ya and your 1 year yesterday of blogging is on my bday!

  10. yeah dude, I think we lost a couple people over the course of The Challenge to conditions-related injuries, and I know I had a close call or two early on before I got a handle on where my limits were. I would say it's not something for beginners for sure, and you're right that there are some pretty hefty risks involved with BFR below freezing.

  11. Great summary. I think one more tip that Rick brought up in his post on winter bfr is that it may only be feasible for those of us who tend to have hot metabolisms in the first place. ‘Know your own body’ was Rick’s advice. I read recently on the Barefoot Running Facebook page that a bf runner in Denver got numb feet after half a mile in 52 degrees. I can walk a half mile to the post office in 20 degree temps no problem, but I’ve always been hot like that. Also, for those who can’t run barefoot in winter, or for those of us who will not when conditions get too nasty, a useful way to frame it is to adopt a more ‘natural’ approach in the first place. As a long term barefooter, I’m used to the natural rhythm of losing most of my pads over the winter and then regaining them in the spring. I’ll try to maintain them this winter by running when conditions are favorable or risk-free (20+ degrees on dry or freshly snowed asphalt), but it’s no big deal if they fade a bit; they’ll come back quickly in the spring. I like to think of the combined barefoot/minimalist running style as simply ‘natural running’, and accepting the natural limitations of the seasons can be part of this approach. Finally, thanks for your tip of not using Vibrams, which appeared in a previous post too. My brother got me some Vibrams as a thank you for turning him on to barefoot walking/running, but I ended up returning them and ordering some RunAmocs, which are really easy to slip on and off but, unlike my trusty moccasins, have tread.
    Bare Lee

  12. I'd like to add a warning about using conventional shoes in the winter. I developed PF and other tendonitis issues after reverting to conventional Addidas because I didn't have a good winter minimalist shoe. Not sure if I'll try the barefoot in fresh snow thing. Maybe for a special Christmas or New Year's Eve run. I am going to ask Santa to bring me a good minimalist winter shoe. I'm looking forward to your reviews.


    I'm so glad that I don't have to figure this out by myself...I can just take your advice (whew...)

  14. Great tips! Thanks!

    I had once bare feet frostbite at -5°C, whereas I had been barefoot in colder -10°C weather without problem. I remember that 1) the snow was wet and 2) I actually didn't feel into getting barefoot and experienced it as cold, unpleasant, while I usually enjoyed it.

    So now I consider the "how I'm feeling" factor before going shoeless in winter.

  15. MY attempts in this direction are maybe a bit extreme. And I'm still working on improving my capacity.

    All of these are risky/dangerious.
    I'm trying running wet in about 3C I started submerging myself in a melt water river repeatedly as I was running. I.E. run 3k then 10 meter in waist deep water, run 1k then 20 meter in waist deep water, run 2k then 80 meters in waist deep water, etc.. I started doing this in Vibrams speeds and track suit. then progressed to Vibrams and compression shorts and light windbreaker top. then started doing it completely barefoot. Then I had a bad day and got frost bite. My current experience indicates that frostnip/frostbite although painful is benificial, basically I don't tend to get frostbite in the same place, it seems progressive. So after a part has been frostbitten it seems to be tougher.

    Now to maybe scare inform you a bit.
    Make sure you know how to treat blisters and open wounds and are ok cutting off dead skin/flesh. I have a full triage kit at home now with scalpels, wound dressing, disinfectants cremes. I don't personally use painkillers but if you do also make sure you have some strong ones ready and take them before you start to thaw your feet out, because it will hurt, with frost bite it really hurts for the first hour or so, then become dull ache for about 24hours, then sensitive for couple days.
    A good tip is that scalpels can be a real pain to use on your own feet/toes so I now use safety razor blades.
    Do learn how to dress an open wound and make sure you know how to recognize dead skin/meat. Learn how to treat frostbite and don't artificially heat the area, I just put on warm ski socks for the first hour or so and ride out the pain, only then can you really assess the damage. Make sure you know your local doctor/emergency room. Make sure you have your tetanus jab.
    So all this because it will happen you will get forstbite if you run regularly in the winter, and the only one you should have to rely on for triage treatment is you.

    If your luck you may just get the worst blisters of your life. I treat them by using a hypodermic needle and syringe to extract the fluid, then oiling/creaming the whole foot and binding the foot lightly. I then repeat this ever hour or so until the blister stop filling back up. It is a bit laborious but it means you can keep the skin, so its worth it.



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