Having run barefoot as an adult for almost 15 years now and as a youth every summer from ages 2 till 15, I know that different surfaces pose different challenges. Thus, I decided to compose a blog dedicated to this. Here goes…! There will be a number of surfaces both natural and human-made highlighted with me running barefoot over each. My purposes are:
1. to lay out the benefits of running barefoot over such surfaces
2. how to do so SAFELY
Here goes…!!! Interlocking brick can create unique challenges depending on its condition. Being a man-made product, it does NOT have the activation/energy properties of a natural surface. I find that staying lower than my Squat-Scoot normal position (knees more bent), I can glide over these without much difficulty. The key is to avoid ridges that can mess up your toes as you can see from my discolored big toe in the photo above.
Another man-made surface that can be troublesome for a city barefoot runner is VERY old, beaten up asphalt roadways – especially if they have what I call ‘seam cracks’ (see photo below).
The soles of my feet are generally not calloused enough to run aggressively on a surface like this. I adapt by shortening my stride length barely lifting my feet off the surface. My whole core MUST be fully engaged – otherwise, I will hit too hard.
The next man-made surface that presents a unique challenge is chewed-up road asphalt that has been put down on pathways. These are seldom maintained, leaving sharp, small fragments that can ripe the skin wide open. As you can see below, this is an unforgiving surface where I usually must CUP my feet and lift them higher than normal. I almost do a body tuck and lift to take away some of the downward force against such a rough surface. I do from time to time encounter fresh, smooth asphalt surfaces and crack-free concrete slabs that are literally heaven for barefoot runners. I can let lose with a full-on Squat-Scoot style at a rather quick cadence (a sub-5 minute per kilometre pace) – see photos below.
Once I get onto the trails of the Heritage Forest, it is a totally different barefoot running experience. Even though there is still the odd section of man-made material (which is generally rough to say the least!) as in the photo below where I must slow my pace AND lift my feet straight up to ‘survive’,the natural surfaces are more prevalent. These range from plush grass which, of course, is literally NIRVANA to a barefoot runner (anybody can run safely barefoot on this!)The natural ‘debris’ (twigs, branches, leaves, small stones) on a forest trail is actually difficult to run fast over BUT it more fully activates my body from the feet up. I can feel positive energy flowing through my whole body that helps keep me alert and balanced. I need to brace especially through my chest and upper back whilst visually focusing on each and every stride to prevent a mishap. In other words, pay attention to detail!!!At some points on trails, there are sections of crushed stone over rock hard clay. It is actually rather easy to run barefoot fast on a surface like this IF you cup your feet and quickly flick from the heels to prevent too many of the pebbles getting up to the softer arches. Once you get onto this, the surface is easy to handle – so he says!!!
Once deeper into a forested trail, I normally encounter boulders, sharp-edged rocks, logs, large exposed tree roots and hardened mud. The ground cover is usually smooth or soft generally.
Thus, even though my attention to detail MUST be at 100%, these are my favourite surfaces on which to run barefoot. To prevent jamming a toe or actually falling down an embankment, I find that shifting directions, widening my running gait and lifting my feet higher than normal keeps me safe and running strong.The other particulates that I often find on the floor of a forest trail is cedar wood chips laid down by conservation authority personnel to absorb excessive water in low lying areas. Depending on the type, it can be quite harsh on bare feet BUT a most forgiving surface for the body. I love scooting over areas like this – the best method is to lift the knees higher than normal and have the feet land slightly ahead of the hips. This keeps me moving fast AND light with virtually no discomfort. These often lead into wooden slat ‘benches’ that traverse gullies and are put in place by the local conservation authority as a safety precaution. I am NOT a big fan – running barefoot over these forces me to be aware of getting slivers and cuts in my feet. I adapt yet again by staying on my mid feet and literally caressing the surface. Less contact time, less risk of trouble! Further, the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, will construct bridges over creeks and rivers (I certainly get THAT!) along with wooden stairs to negotiate particularly steep hills (I certainly DO NOT get THAT!).
Running barefoot over and up these is basically a piece of cake. I just get into my zone and hold pace. Level of fitness going UP the steps and OVER the bridge is the most important factor for a positive result.
The odd time, I will encounter soft, smooth P-gravel that has been spread along the edge of a trail for water absorption and prevention of erosion. These are easy to run barefoot over and also provide full proprioceptive activation from the soles of my feet up to my shoulders and neck. I simply run as if doing my Squat-Scoot over a flat, smooth surface with the one exception – I lift my knees higher than normal to overcome the natural ‘give’ of the pebbles.
My all-time favourite surface to run barefoot on is NOT found in a forest. It is SAND on a beach in cottage country – if you are so lucky to have access!! Notice in the photo below that I must push offstrong from my rear foot and lift my lead knee to just below hip height. I also must lean forward more than normal to keep my forward drive phase powerful. If I stay TOO low, my feet will catch in the sand and I will do a face plant!! The soft sand pushes up into my arches, providing a most powerful proprioceptive activation of my whole body. All GOOD!!!
ALWAYS upon finishing my barefoot runs, I look down at my feet. It never ceases to amaze me how muscularly developed they appear – blood vessels popping out, tendons and ligaments clearly visible and toes splayed out in full-on grip mode. Of course, as an Exercise Physiologist, I DO know exactly what is occurring – running barefoot leaves no room for error. The neuro-muscular activation from the soles of my feet stimulate my circulatory system to pump blood more efficiently and in greater volume to and from the heart & extremities. This in turn promotes better oxygen-carbon dioxide transfer and energy exchange with the muscles of my feet. The enhanced strength and blood flow create a better foundation to keep the rest of my body balanced and aligned when running. This results in NO ‘itis’ related running injuries – ever!!
It is IMPOSSIBLE to reap these rewards if you run in ‘coffins’ – simply cannot happen. Is it any wonder that those running regularly in MOST types of ‘coffins’ injure themselves repeatedly AND complain of ‘weak’ feet? I think not…!!
At the end of all of my barefoot action, I have the luxury of coming home to THIS. Our backyard paradise on the fringe of the heritage forest with the calming flow of the water feature makes me realize our lucky I am to not only live here but THRIVE here.
Even if you will not run barefoot on ANY of the above surfaces, at least treat yourself to the power of foot activation on the floor of your home OR the soil of your garden…AND get to be an INJURY-FREE runner!!! You will NOT regret it.