Barefoot Trail Running 101

by Summer on July 1, 2010

Once you have the fundamentals of barefoot running down, notice that your stride and cadence are changing, and can feel that your feet are tougher and your eyes are more alert to where you step, you might be tempted to get off the sidewalk, the treadmill, or the track and onto the trails. There’s no reason not to, but barefoot running off road takes a different approach.

There are three simple rules – slow down, slow down, and slow down.

Rule 1. Slow down your pace.

You may begin to find that you are getting faster with running barefoot, and your cadence is starting to pick up. Leave that for the familiar surfaces, and slow down your cadence on the trails. Your eye will need a little more time to take in all the different hazards underfoot, and you will want plenty of time to think about where you are going to place your foot. Unlike on the sidewalk or the road, even the best trails have uneven surfaces and little bumps and pits, all of which will feel very different under your feet. Rougher trails will have holes, roots, and rocks, maybe puddles, and almost all trails are more hilly than roads or sidewalks. Don’t be tempted to take longer strides to keep up your pace; just slow it down until you get used to thinking fast about where to put your feet.

Rule 2. Slow down your mileage.

Once you step on to the trails, you will have to start over a little with your barefoot running. Your feet may be able to handle the concrete of sidewalks or the asphalt of roads, but trails come with all kinds of unforgiving surfaces. Your feet may get sore, your legs may get tired, and even your brain will quickly become weary of constantly looking for the perfect place to step! When you switch to off-road, take your mileage back down to just a mile or so. If you can’t get to a trail in such a short distance, bring your shoes so you can run a section barefoot and when you’ve had enough for one day put your trail shoes on and trot home. You can raise your trail mileage gradually, but take it slow. You feet, your legs, and your brain will tell you when you are ready to go further.

Rule 3. Slow down your expectations.

Don’t think that just because you’ve been running barefoot for months you can scale a mountain summit barefoot. Look for the gentlest surfaces to start with, not the toughest, no matter how scenic they may be. The temptation with trail running is to ‘get away from it all’, and that often means steep, rugged, and sometimes remote trails. While you will eventually be able to handle such surfaces, especially if you follow a careful transition plan as described in the running barefoot book, start out soft. Run around a grass soccer field for example, because even there you will need to be alert to pits, holes, and the uneven surfaces underneath your feet. If you really crave the mileage, the solitude, or the brilliant views of trail runs, then try the combination approach – do part of your run in shoes, and go barefoot when you find a section of smooth trail.

Many barefoot runners have been devoted trail runners, and just can’t wait to make the transition to going barefoot off road. For some, it becomes an endless frustration, especially if the trails they love are rocky, rooty, or steep and just too tough for going barefoot. More and more barefoot runners are venturing off road, and some are tackling the toughest trails around, so be persistent – you can do it. If you really find it hard, then you may be a good candidate for a minimal shoe – Vibram FiveFingers makes a model (the Trek) specifically for trails running. Having that extra layer between you and the rocks may make all the difference, even if you don’t use a minimal shoe on the road.

Running on trails is liberating – you can go places where other runners don’t go, see wildlife that won’t venture near roads, and find a peace in nature that you won’t get running around your neighborhood. If you’ve taken up barefoot running because you want a more natural approach to running, then go to the next level and take your bare feet onto the trails!

Photo Credit: akunamatata on Flickr

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

stack August 12, 2010 at 3:01 am

what if you have unfortunately stepped on a random stone and hurt the ball of your foot? I’m icing and cutting back on running/mileage and wearing sandals for walking around (since the cushion feels better) but wanted to know if anyone can recommend anything to help with this or is time off the best remedy?

Fazia March 12, 2011 at 11:34 am

One of the best remedies is probably ice and light massaging should help. I recommend using a natural balm and not any type of oil or lotion. You are going to have to take some time off away from trails, but don’t be afraid to do some barefoot walking on a dirt-based, debris-free path and trail. Once it starts feeling better, start running a few minutes again to see how it feels. A bruise, like anything else, just takes time to heal. Running on trails barefoot has a few greater risks than on flat, hard surfaces. Bring your shoes along with you on such runs just in case, especially at the beginning.

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