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Monday, March 12, 2012

The MGBG Guide to Your First Barefoot Race

All we do is win bitches!  Some awesome barefoot runners (myself included) after finishing the 2011 Med City Marathon barefoot.

Well citizens, the winter is slowly giving way to spring.  If you're anything like me, you're probably gearing up for race season.  And for those of you who have become more seasoned as a barefoot runner, you might be considering doing said race barefoot.

Barefoot racing can be very exhilarating and rewarding.  Where finishing a marathon is pretty badass, finishing a marathon barefoot puts you a step above in the badass department.  That being said, it also comes with its own unique set of challenges.  Here's a few tips that will make your first barefoot race a success.

1. Do your research.

Nothing ruins a good barefoot run faster than rough surfaces underfoot that you can't handle.  They slow you down, zap your energy, and just make you downright miserable.  Those are three things that you really can't afford during a race, where finishing and doing it in good time are priority number one. 

Unless you're comfortable on rough surfaces and do it frequently, I recommend that the first race you barefoot be "barefoot friendly".  That means that your first race should probably be held on a non-technical trail or on smooth blacktop, and not on a more abrasive surface like gravel or chip and seal.  Though encountering poor surface conditions can't necessarily be avoided altogether, you can increase your odds of finding a barefoot friendly race by doing a little scouting ahead of the event. 

Your best bet to determine whether your chosen race is barefoot friendly is to run the actual course and feel for yourself.  In this era of Internet race registration, most races have their course maps posted ahead of time.  Do a dry run of your race and find out how the course runs, and where any problem areas occur. 

But what if you're planning to do an out of state race, or can't otherwise scout the course?  Well, even if you can't see the course in person, you may be able to see at least some of it through event photos on the race website.  Or you could pop onto the Barefoot Runners Society or Runners World Barefoot Forum to see if anyone has done the race before.  Of course, if you follow that route you're taking someone else's word for whether the course is barefoot friendly.  But it should at least give you a rough idea of what to expect.

2. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.

Another important issue to research: are barefooters even allowed?  I've had a friend pulled from a race course and disqualified for not wearing shoes during a triathlon.  You don't want all your hard work and entry fee going to waste like that? 

If the race rules are posted online, take a look to see if there is a section dealing with shoes.  It's my understanding that US Triathlon rules prohibit bare feet, though I've run a duathlon under those rules without issue. 

If there is no rule, or the rules are ambiguous, my general rule is to just run the race barefoot.  In my experience, when folks ask a race director whether barefooting is allowed ahead of time, they are more likely to prohibit the practice.  If you show up to the race, they are less likely to insist on shoes...if they even notice your bare feet at all.  Bring a pair of shoes just in case in case the RD decides to be a dick 

3. Practice like you play.

If you're still relatively new to barefoot running, you probably haven't done much running outside of your every day training pace.  Those that have gone faster realize that running fast barefoot is a different animal than running slow.  At least until you get more efficient going fast, your form is somewhat different.  Your feet get hot and sore quicker.  And you strike the ground with more impact.

Your first barefoot race is not a good place to find all of this stuff out.  The last thing you need is to get injured because you pushed yourself too hard.  So do yourself a favor and practice your intended race pace ahead of time.  You don't have to do the whole boat before your race.  Doing shorter tempo runs, or a series of interval runs will be sufficient.  I find that shorter distances at a faster pace will condition your feet sufficiently to handle the same tempo at a greater distance. 

And when you're doing all this stuff, you need to train on a surface similar to that of your race course...if not the race course itself.  For example, all the foot conditioning in the world on blacktop won't prepare you for gravel. 

4. Don't be a tough guy/girl.

You might think yourself pretty awesome for your ability to easily handle rough surfaces barefoot.  While those abilities are certainly admirable, race day is no time to show them off.  Regardless of how long you've trained on them, rough surfaces are harder to run on, and will slow you down.  If your goal is to get the best time possible, you should be running on the smoothest surface possible.

During my last barefoot race (the marathon described above), the first 9 miles of the race was on a fairly smooth concrete county road.  Yet I still ran on the white line on the side of the road.  Why?  Because it's smoother.  Even though I could handle the concrete just fine, I saved my feet.  The result was that I went faster, and I was better able to deal with the chip and seal that became the bane of my existence once we hit mile 12. 

Don't feel bad about using any and every foot-saving trick in the book during a race.  Run on the white line.  Run on the grass.  Run through puddles of water to refresh your feet.  Anything that makes your run easier will result in a better race experience.

5. Plan for the worst case scenario.

In that same marathon at around mile 18, I kicked my big toe against the pavement.  I was lucky that I didn't kick my toe open and start bleeding all over the place.  Luckily, had it happened, I was prepared. 

During every race, regardless of distance, I carry with me a small "barefoot repair kit" (see stupid fanny pack in picture above).  My kit includes a small medical kit including bandages, tape, antibiotic stuff, and so on.  It also includes a pair of "rescue shoes".  In this case, I carried a pair of huaraches along with me in case something happened to my feet.

Like I said, I didn't have to use any of this stuff.  But it's important to bring it along anyway just in case.  If you blow out a toe, there's usually not a medical tent nearby to fix you up (if they carry the materials necessary to do it anyway).  If a race official catches you bleeding all over their course, they might disqualify you.  And what happens if you get a blister or your feet get too sensitive?  I'd much rather suck up my pride and put on shoes than painfully gimp my way to the finish line.  There's nothing wussy about being prepared.

Hope your first barefoot race is a good one citizens!  Cheers!


  1. Just finished my first 15k barefoot this past weekend (Gate River Run in Jacksonville, FL)! Although I've run the race before, I couldn't remember how much chip and seal was on the course, so I used Google maps street view to check it out. Luckily, they had repaved the part I was dreading and that ended up being the best part of the race (like but-ta!). Just wanted to share my method of finding out the surface; it won't always work, but it can get you part of what you're looking for, if you can't find it someplace else.

  2. Great stuff! I've only ever done a 5k race barefoot (my opportunities for entering races being severely restricted due to location and family) but am contemplating running a barefoot marathon in May. I'd pretty much thought of all the stuff you mentioned, but it's nice to have it spelled out and to feel like I'm not missing something important.

  3. That's the great part about blogging Miranda. All you really need to do for the most part is state the obvious :)

  4. I JUST ran my first barefoot 5K race Sunday... and uhhh, yeah, the road was almost oil and chip-ish, but not quite. Lots of loose rock & potholes. ouchie. HUGE blood blister on my big left toe. The bright outcome was that I nearly PR'ed!

    Had I been able to practice running in my huaraches, I'd have run in those instead. I start 5K huaraches training soon.


  5. old n slow BF runnerApril 6, 2012 at 11:09 AM

    "Run through puddles of water to refresh your feet."

    I'm going to disagree with this one. Every time I step in water, for the next 20 steps, every spec of sand and tiny piece of gravel sticks to my feet, and results in MORE abrasion to my feet. I step in water as a means of increasing the abrasion to my feet when I feel that's what I need, not as a means to refresh my feet.

  6. Then don't run through puddles. But it doesn't make it a bad tip. It means it doesn't work for you.

  7. You don't have to do the whole boat before your race. Doing shorter tempo runs, or a series of interval runs will be sufficient. I find that shorter distances at a faster pace will condition your feet sufficiently to handle the same tempo at a greater distance. www.rx247.net/coumadin.html

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