Winter Barefoot Running – Is it for You?

Winter barefoot running. Just the name evokes absurdity and foolishness in some people’s minds. For those who might not immediately dismiss it as insanity, there might come the question “why?” Well, in response to that I say “why not?” Some people can’t understand why people climb mountains or why others jump out of perfectly good airplanes. Most of the time I simply tell people who ask me “why”, is because “I can”. Most choose not to do so, for whatever reason, which is fine with me. I like doing things no one else chooses to do.

For those of you who fall into this select minority of runners who choose to defy convention, then you’re probably still reading this and would like to find out more regarding cold weather barefoot running. For the others, I have nothing but good will toward you and wish you well as you plow through the snow and frigid temps with your “portable earth”. However, the remainder of this short article is for those who “dare to go bare” in cold extremes.

First and foremost, please understand that EVERYONE is different and EVERYONE will have different thresholds of tolerance to the cold. I have heard of some who can’t run in below freezing temps which is perfectly understandable. While others, including myself, have the ability to run in single digits with snow does not mean that everyone will be able to withstand these conditions. (By stating this, I release myself from all liability that others might inflict upon themselves by unwise judgment in this regard!) My thermal body make-up has always seemed on the high end. What I mean by that is that I get overheated quite easily. I perspire profusely in the summer time, and have been known to sweat in the winter time shoveling snow. So, I believe I have that in my favor when it comes to generating heat. Everyone will produce heat quicker or slower depending on their bodily chemistry. The trick is learning how much heat one can generate.

My first piece of advice when someone wants to start running in the cold is … start running in the cold, whatever that may be. Don’t wait for a 20 degree F morning and decide to go out and run in the snow barefoot. That is a recipe for disaster! Probably a couple of months earlier, one should be running in 40 degree F temps, then the next month in 30 degree F temps and so on until one works DOWN to the 20s. Furthermore, if one has never ran in snow barefoot they should NEVER try it when it is below freezing. Wait for a day when the sun is out and the temps are in the mid- to high 30s F and then go out and “slop” around in it. See how it feels and see if your feet will warm up fast enough. People ask me continually, “How can you run barefoot in snow?” “Simple” I tell them, “Cause my feet are working.” Hands get cold cause they’re just along for the ride, so make sure you bundle up before you go out!

Which leads us to discuss how to dress including the preparation for the run. What I wear depends a lot on the time of the winter season. If it is the beginning of winter, say November/December, then I may dress warmer. Remember, we want to create as much heat as possible. Dress head to ankle as warmly as you can. If possible, put your feet next to a heat vent in your house or that of your car and get them nice and toasty. (It’s kind of like giving them a head start to warmth.) Then, it’s just a matter of heading out. At this point, you need to listen to your body. If initial numbing occurs, pay special attention to that and stick close to your house or car so you can duck back in if things don’t improve within a mile or a mile and a half. For me, I usually start generating my own heat after about a mile. After that, I am usually fine. However, like I said, everyone is different. For me, my feet can’t seem to generated enough heat in snow that covers my feet IF the temps are below 20 degrees F. Snow is a huge factor in the equation and one must figure out the depth they can run in. When conditions are dry, I can run down to 5 degrees F if there isn’t wind. Zero degrees F wind chill seems to be my limitation. At least it has been in the past seven winters. It seems like I can do a little more each year. Like I said, it will depend on the person. “To thine own self be true” as Shakespeare said. Never were there truer words spoken when it comes to winter barefoot running.

So far I’ve covered the basic essentials in what I believe makes successful winter barefoot running and some of my own personal experiences. There are some particular “don’ts” that folks should be aware of also.

  1. Don’t run through puddles at below freezing temps. I found out the hard way that saline compounds they use to melt snow and ice are very hazardous and caustic to human skin. This was the reason for my worst case of frostbite.

  2. As already stated, don’t wait until January to start winter barefoot running. If you haven’t started acclimating yourself early in the season, put it off for another year.

  3. Don’t assume that people will understand why you are doing it. You will be labeled a “nut”. Get used to it.

Winter barefoot running can be just as enjoyable as warm weather barefoot running. However, it takes a desire to learn it properly and within the limits of one’s own capabilities. None of us are the same so we must learn to adapt accordingly. With a little practice and a lot of patience anyone of us can run in temps that we thought were “undoable”. We must simply have the desire and then the gumption to get out there and try it. If barefoot running consists of only a small percentage of the running community, think what percentage winter barefoot runners make up? If you “dare to go bare” this winter just know that you are part of a very small group of dedicated barefoot runners that have chosen to explore their own possibilities by venturing out on a cold romp on the snowy or frozen byways.

For more on my winter barefoot running experiences, go to http://www.barefootrunner.org/winter/winter.htm

Your Barefoot Servant,

Rick

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