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
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.