Variety is the very spice of life,
That gives it all its flavor.
-William Cowpers, from “The Task” (1785)
A barefoot run is flavored better
With much variety of terrain.
-Andrew, from “Flavor Your Barefoot Run With Variety” (2016)
Let me start by confessing I’m not a barefoot running guru, doctor or scientist, so I won’t be showcasing elaborate charts on ground reaction forces or anything like that. For me that sort of pedantic study dampens the whole fun in running, turning it into a very grown-up study of biomechanics instead of what it should be: something more carefree and almost child-like.
One way to stay tuned into this enjoyable state is to sample as many different terrains as possible on every run. Switch it up whenever you want; in most areas, there’ll be plenty of opportunities along your way. Each new surface will give your feet a certain respite from the last, and by changing the terrain frequently, your feet will strengthen, your reaction time will be quicker, your mental awareness will be heightened.
If you’ve gone on a barefoot run you’ve probably already noticed the vast medley of terrains around you. Resist the urge to label any of these these surfaces as “good” or “bad”; each has it’s own unique character that you can use and enjoy.
Concrete and Asphalt
If conventional wisdom says anything, it says this: concrete is pretty good for speed but tragic for your joints. It may or may not have been invented by the devil, and should be avoided as much as possible just in case.
The experiential wisdom of a great many barefoot runners (myself included) takes a much different view. These hard, artificial surfaces, far from encouraging injury, are far more useful and safe than most people think.
Concrete and asphalt are ideal for:
- Covering a lot of ground. Once you learn to run properly, it takes far less effort to run on asphalt and concrete compared to all other surfaces, except perhaps running tracks, dry, soft dirt trails, and the surface of the moon.
- Avoiding pointy things (I told you I’m not a scientist). Concrete and asphalt are relatively smooth and level, so debris has no place to hide, if it hasn’t already been swept away by wind, water or broom.
- Teaching yourself to avoid overstriding. Overstriding is one of the most insidious habits runners can have because of the real harm it can do to your joints over time. If you overstride on grass, you won’t get the negative feedback you need to break the habit; grass is just too soft and forgiving in that regard. Overstriding on hard surfaces, however, will give you hot spots and blisters, feedback that’ll encourage you to polish your form in a way that few other things can.
But be careful of:
Going too far, too fast. On my first barefoot run, I found concrete liberating and adventurous, perhaps because I was always told that I couldn’t do it without good running shoes. Yet here I was, running barefoot on concrete, feeling as free as an uncaged canary. Though I only ran a mile that first time out, I discovered that I had blistered the bottom of my feet and turned my calves into solid granite. I could barely hobble up the stairs for a week. Even one mile was too far, too fast at first, and I learned it the hard way.
TIP: Make sure you go a very short distance at first, so you can see how you feel the next day and make the proper adjustments to your technique. For most people, a quarter mile or less is an ideal distance to try on your first day. If you feel like you can run further, resist the temptation! Form issues may take a day or two to show up, so if you feel good the next day, run just a little further. If on the other hand you’re sore after just 400 yards, then you’ll feel like a genius for not crippling yourself by doing a full mile.
Gravel and Playground Bark
Running barefoot on surfaces like gravel and playground bark is uncomfortable, especially at first. You’ll adjust to them over time, but they’re never going to be as comfortable as smooth surfaces like concrete or soft surfaces like grass or mud. Gravel and wood chips, as uncomfortable as they can be at first, do have their uses, however.
Gravel and playground bark are ideal for:
Training your foot muscles on how to relax. The estimable Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton advises beginning runners spend a lot of time getting used to this rougher terrain, so their foot muscles learn to almost mold itself to the surface of the ground. If you can’t run or walk comfortably on these surfaces, he recommends just standing on them at first, with knees slightly bent, foot fully on the ground, and torso upright.
But be careful of:
Getting stuck on one of these surfaces. You might find yourself on a barefoot run, brimming with confidence, and decide to start running onto gravel or wood chips or something like it. Your confidence will power you through the first fifty or hundred feet and then all of a sudden it will dawn on you that this was a really stupid idea… and you’ll end up hobbling slowly and ingloriously the nearest different terrain you can find.
TIP: Like all surfaces, start with small doses so your foot muscles have a chance to adapt at their own pace. Try to keep your feet muscles relaxed, and when running, think about picking one foot up before the other one comes down. This can help you keep your stride quicker and softer, and that makes this terrain easier.
I’m a Coloradan, so you’d think I’d love burning through grass. (Cue rimshot here). But seriously folks, running on a grassy surface definitely has its benefits, but in my opinion, injury prevention is not one of them. Yes, cool grass feels lovely in the summer, but like sand, it won’t really teach you proper barefoot form because it’s too soft to give you the right feedback. Personally, I see grass-running as more of a dessert, not the main course, and I tend to run on grass for stretches of 100 yards or less at a time.
Grass is ideal for:
- Cooling your feet in the summer after running on hot surfaces
- Cleaning your feet as you run. No, your feet won’t get sparkling clean, but I find that shuffling through the grass once in a while can wipe dirt and small particulates off your feet without having to stop.
- Training your feet to adapt to hidden, slightly uneven terrain.
- Strengthening your leg muscles by giving them more resistance with each stride.
But be careful of:
- Hidden debris, either natural or man-made. Debris is much tougher to spot in grass.
- Grass in cooler weather, which can be FREEZING cold, and needs to be treated with the same caution as running barefoot through snow.
- Self-limiting dependence on the soft surface. Some people only run barefoot when they’re on grass, and to each their own, I suppose. To me, I see it this way: running only on grass when barefoot is like only riding a bicycle only with training wheels. Yes, technically you are riding a bike, but shackled to the self-limiting belief that you need training wheels to stay balanced on a bike. The same is true with limiting yourself to grass, which stems from the same belief that you need something soft underfoot to avoid injury.
What can I say about hard-packed dirt trails? Just this: I love them. They have just enough variety in their textures and terrain to make for a very enjoyable run. This type of surface is stimulating without being dangerous. For me, it is the best of all worlds.
Hard-packed trails are ideal for:
- Observing animal tracks.
- Letting your feet enjoy the different sensations of the earth underneath you, and having one helluva good time in general.
But be careful of:
- The usual debris that could lurk anywhere…
The Unbeaten Path
There’s a dry creek bed that runs along a path near my house. It is about three feet deep and about as wide, and has a number of foot bridges thrown across it about every quarter mile or so to give neighborhood residents easy access to the path. Typically I do not run barefoot in such terrain because it contains Nature’s version land mines and Punji Sticks. But on this particular run I figured what the hell- the world is my playground! And so with a heart full of adventure, I leaped in.
Unbeaten Paths are ideal for:
- Keeping nimble
- Training your feet and legs to be more responsive to bumps, branches, and dips.
- Feeling slightly feral.
But be careful of:
- Debris and obstacles! Debris is much tougher to spot on an unbeaten path, and there’s plenty to stub or scrape your foot on, like sharp sticks, hidden rocks, fallen branches and beer bottles.
Case in point… After picking my way over about a mile’s worth of the dry creek bed, I scrambled out. I didn’t want to overdo it. When I checked my feet, it turns out one of them had gotten into a scrape with one of the neighborhood ruffians I call the “Creek Bed Twigs”. I knew the risks, and had brought sanitary wipes, band-aids and Xero huaraches in my backpack just in case something like this happened. I felt prescient and a little foolish at the same time.
TIP: Be light on your feet and keep a sharp watch on the ground about ten to fifteen feet front of you. I suggest bringing moist towelettes and some shoes with you, just in case. I recommend Xero Shoes;* they’re very light and easy to carry and will protect the bottom of your feet from things like what you see above, but still give you an “almost barefoot” ground feel.
Mixing in a variety of terrains on each run will help you spot major errors in your form, fine tune your technique, and inject a sense of curiosity and playfulness in your runs. They’ll keep things from getting monotonous. Listen to your footfalls as your run across a wooden bridge, and try to be as quiet as possible. Use playgrounds and outdoor exercise stations that might be along the way. Use this variety to stay mentally connected with your surroundings as you run.
Feel free to comment on what works for you– it may be different than me, and if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that barefoot education is never quite finished.
The Running Llama
*Full disclosure: I am employed by Xero Shoes, but the opinions expressed on this blog are my own, and do not necessarily represent Xero Shoes. It’s not in my job description to reference them in my blogs, and I am not required to wear them, but I can honestly say that unless I am at a funeral or wedding, they’re the only thing on my feet.†
†Oh, like you’ve never thrown in a shameless plug once or twice in your life…