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Friday, November 18, 2011

Ask MGBG: Winter Foot Conditioning

Winter presents us barefoot runners with a bit of a quandary. We just spent the last several months building up our precious hurt-layer. You know...that smooth, leathery skin on the soles of our feet that makes them a little less sensitive to rough surfaces under-foot. Now we face the proposition of several months cooped up in a pair of shoes to avoid losing a digit or two.

"What will become of my precious foot skin?" you might ask. Actually, you did ask. That's why this is an "Ask MGBG" post. Here's my answer:

Unless you live in a climate that does not experience the four seasons (also known as California, or anything below Missouri), you're probably not going to be able to keep that hurt-layer intact all winter long. Just as it grew in response to your more frequent forays into the world sans shoes, it will go away as you wear shoes more often. Often times, it goes away a lot faster than it grew. It's just the nature of the beast. You have to use it or you lose it. So since you can't go barefoot nearly as much in the winter, it might be a good idea to say your goodbyes.

But there are some things you can do to slow down the inevitable. Here are my tips:

Stay away from the roads

If you're a dumbass like me who runs barefoot in the snow, you don't have to worry so much about the "use it or lose it" thing. Snow is actually very abrasive, and does a good job maintaining your foot conditioning. You have to be more concerned with the stuff that will be mixed in with the snow. Namely, road salt and other melting chemicals.

When running in the slush during the winter, you may experience a burning sensation in your feet. That burning sensation is your precious plantar skin melting off of your body. Salt has been used for centuries as a meat tenderizer. When you run barefoot on road salt, that meat is your foot. And the other chemicals that are thrown on the roads along with the salt will burn the skin clean off your foot. Last year all of my plantar skin peeled off from running on that crap, leaving me with baby soft foot skin. Great image, I know.

So if you insist on running barefoot in the snow, stick to the paths and sidewalks. Many cities do not use harsh chemicals on those paths. In Maple Grove, the city stopped using chemicals on the paths in my area when residents complained about what the salt was doing to their dogs' paws. You'll probably still encounter some of this stuff, but this tip will help you hedge your bets.

Time to find your local indoor track

The weather during the winter forces a lot of us indoors for a good majority of the time. On the bright side, at least we can all run barefoot comfortably inside year-round. On the not-so-bright side, treadmills aren't really textured enough to build or maintain foot conditioning.

However, a local indoor track can be a great alternative. I'm not talking about the track at your health club made of wood, carpet, or linoleum where 50 laps equal a mile. I'm talking about indoor tracks that track athletes use during the winter season. Those tracks are usually made up of a special kind of flooring; a kind of textured rubbery material. For barefooters that material does a great job of mimicking the effect of running on a chipseal path.

Of course you might get kicked out for being barefoot, but that's another post.

Gravel buckets and other gizmos

I consider myself to be one of the more ridiculous barefoot runners in terms of the kinds of extreme acts of barefoot bravery/stupidity I attempt. Several steps above me on the bravery front is my friend Todd Ragsdale. Todd is the current record holder for distance covered barefoot in 24 hours. 102 miles....ouch man!

One of the ways that he prepared his feet for that much torture was "gravel bucket marching". As in...he put some gravel in a bucket and marched on it. Here's him explaining the concept:

Here's how I feel about gravel buckets...or any of the tips I just mentioned. Do the methods work? Absolutely. Are they necessary? Probably not. Here's why:

It's a mental game

Just because you lose some or even all of your plantar skin over the winter doesn't mean you'll have to start from square one in the spring. That's because barefoot running is more of a mental game (as Jason Robillard does a good job of explaining here). When spring comes, you certainly won't be able to go as far as you did in the summer and fall. At least not right away. But because you already have the mental chops from last year, you will progress faster. My first year of barefoot running, it took me all year to get my feet conditioned enough for a marathon. My second year, it took me one month.

You don't actually have to follow any of these tips this winter. You could not run a single barefoot mile this winter. You could file the bottoms of your feet down with a bandsaw for all I care (please do not file your feet with a bandsaw). The fact that you ran barefoot this year is your best weapon in getting going again next year. The above tips will just grease the wheels a little bit. They are more important for people who are looking to run an early barefoot race.

So let's raise a glass to that plantar skin. We barely knew ye. Cheers!


  1. Thanks for the knowledge, CP. You make my brain bigger every time. Plus, now I can abandon my plan to have my wife whack my feet with a wire hanger over the winter!

  2. Wow, that bucket training is pretty intense! Jonny over at the BRS always talks about bucket training and I couldn't figure out how your feet fit in the bucket and it stayed balanced. Guess I was thinking of a 5 gal bucket, not the flat plastic bins like that. May have to see if I can convince my wife to let me do that this winter.

  3. I started so late in the year, that I'm not sure I got that much built up! Oh well.. will just keep churning away in my huaraches this winter (with socks on the nasty cold days). So a treadmill really won't help that much? My wife wants to get one, and I figured I'd try it.... maybe if I glue sandpaper down on it :-)

  4. Erik a.k.a. Bare LeeNovember 19, 2011 at 8:56 AM

    As someone who’s more of a barefooter than a runner, I’m used to the idea that the pads tend to come and go as part of nature’s seasonal rhythms here in the Northland. This winter, however, I’m determined to keep ‘em, using the following methods: 1), as you said, stick to asphalt paths around lakes or along rivers if possible (in the Twin Cities, that’s usually just a 10-to-15-minute drive away); 2), if you can run barefoot in the twenties, and can run in the afternoon, then it shouldn’t be a problem finding enough days to run barefoot and maintain your pads. In St. Paul, for example, the average temp in January is 19 degrees, which means roughly half the days are 20 or above in the afternoon; and 3), as you’ve also suggested, bring along a shoe that’s easy to slip on and off. Even if it’s too cold to run your entire route barefoot (I only run 3-5 miles, so I have no idea what it’s like to run longer distances in the cold), you may be able to squeeze a mile or two in the middle of it, after you’re warmed up, before your feet get too cold. Just a mile or two here and there should be enough to maintain the pads in reasonable shape.

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  7. Awesome post MGBG! Although a big fan of your work but still not be brave enough to do this man. It seems too dangerous to me, what if we hit anything sharp on the road and get bleeding?



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