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Winter running has few heroes.

Posted Jan 06 2011 12:00am

I’ve learned that the hard way as I struggle to get through my first winter running without shoes. My friend Lou Rantin has been someone I’ve turned to for great tips. I asked him to write a guest post about how he survives barefoot running through Canadian winters. One of the things I love about Lou is that he has never run in shoes. Ever. He wasn’t a runner turned barefooter – he’s a barefooter turned runner. His tips have been invaluable to me, and here he shares some of them:

by Lou Rantin

Another winter is upon us and I will try again to continue running through it. The last two years didn’t work out for me, with the frostbite in January 2009 and then the fibula fracture in the December of the same year. I’ve really been trying to play it safe this winter.

This winter I am open to experimentation and will try different ideas to facilitate a healthy winter running season. I have been experimenting with different minimal footwear and training options. Some of the things I am incorporating are niacin (vitamin B3), gravel bucket training and a few different minimal shoes or foot coverings.

Niacin at the right dose produces a “flush” caused by dilating the small blood vessels in the skin and giving a feeling of warmth and a slight skin flushing.

The gravel bucket training is a way to maintain the thick skin on the soles of the feet by stimulating the nerves that trigger increased cell production. I got a couple of Rubbermaid bins and half filled them with some round “pea gravel”. I walk, march or jog on the spot in the bins of gravel barefoot while I watch TV. So far about an hour is all I can stand, but I hope to increase that as I do it more.

I have Feelmax shoes , VFFs and Zem Gear shoes I can go to when the winter running conditions get to be too much for my bare feet. It depends on whether the problem is cold salted snow/ice or cold rough surface, what foot covering I go to. The Feelmax are good on cold rough surfaces and I can fold them up to carry with me. The Zems are a neoprene sock that covers my ankle for more warmth in the cold salted snow/ice or slush. The VFFs are good for short runs but with very rough terrain like sharp gravel.

I have gone out a couple of times barefoot, but I now have some backup footwear with me. I let my feet get cold and even uncomfortable, but when they start to feel real pain I don’t push it any farther barefoot.

I have realized that the risk of frostbite while running barefoot has more to do with the surface temperature than the air temperature or wind chill. I have an IR thermometer that I use to check the surface temperature, but the surface changes over the course of the run and each surface can have very different temperatures, like dry roads compared to salty ice/slush on a sunny winter day.

I have signed up to run the Peterborough Half Marathon and the Around the Bay 30k so I will not only have to get through the winter uninjured, but I will have to increase my running to train for these races.

I have signed up with the Barefoot Runners Society . This is a good website that helps the few barefoot runners out there meet up and not feel so much like outcasts. So when a couple of members said they were going to run a race in Whitby I jumped at the chance. It would be the first race I have run with another barefoot runner.

The morning was -8ºC wind chill and even the walk from the car to pick up our race kits was uncomfortable. The terrain was mainly a rough asphalt trail and the cold temperatures made it feel even rougher. This race for me was not about time, but about teamwork. It was truly the company of my fellow barefoot runners that made this race a success for me. I finished in the humble time of 1:38 and my feet were in good shape.

This was the farthest race I had run in that cold of temperature. So in the end, I had a good long barefoot run and a sense of accomplishment. Going out for lunch and socializing with my new friends made this a very good day for me.

At this point I want to repeat some information from a couple of my first posts to reflect on where I started and how far I’ve come so far.

When I was a child I enjoyed going barefoot but my feet were soft and sensitive. Unfortunately this meant I would wear shoes more than I wanted.

I found that I would sometimes get sores just from rough surfaces in the early summer but by the fall my feet were tougher, just in time to be wearing shoes permanently again. It seemed like a never ending cycle.

As I got older I realized that the shoes were “a crutch” and were really just keeping my feet weak and prone to injury. I searched the internet for information on the benefits of being barefoot and found a few good sites (more are popping up now that more people are discovering the benefits). One site I found promoted a book about barefoot hiking . I bought the book and decided to try that. There are a few rules to barefooting safely and you either learn them the easy way or the hard way.

1. Start with a few steps on a soft surface then build up from there, walking further and on rougher surfaces gradually.

2. Always look where you are going to step.

3. Step straight down, don’t scuff or drag your feet.

I was enjoying the hiking and the muscles in my feet were getting stronger. I noticed that my feet seemed more aware. The changing surface textures and obstacles were not only thickening my soles, but also awakening a part of my brain that had been suppressed by wearing shoes. I also started to feel the spiritual Earth connection I had read about.

After a couple of years of barefoot hiking, a co-worker was telling me about the running she was doing. I was interested in a new challenging experience so I started looking up information about running and specifically barefoot running. My main concern was about injury (but not specifically foot injury), since pretty much any runner I had talked to in the past had been injured and had to stop running.

I read a book called Chi Running by Danny Dreyer. Danny is an ultra marathoner and his running form uses concepts from tai chi. It is promoted as an effortless injury-free running technique. It does not require the runner to be barefoot, but does involve a mid-foot landing that is more easily achieved with minimal footwear. I found barefoot and chi running to be a good match. So unlike most barefoot runners I talk to, I have never run in shoes and have never had to make a “transition” to barefoot running.

To address the question that almost everyone has when they see me running without shoes I composed a top 10 list to answer the question of “why do you run barefoot?”

1. Most commercially available footwear is bad for your feet (I have many references to support this statement).

2. It allows natural development of the foot (bone, joints, tendons, muscles, etc).

3. The more you do it, the more comfortable it is.

4. Your feet will adapt to almost any terrain so you can save money on shoes and boots.

5. More friendly to the environment.

6. Shoes promote heal striking and rob your body of the valuable feedback of feeling the ground and making minor adjustments for optimal efficiency.

7. Better for blood circulation in the feet so they are cooler in summer (and sometimes even warmer in winter).

8. Provides a better sense and connection to the Earth both physically and spiritually .

9. Don’t have to worry about not having your running shoes when you want to go running.

10. An even bigger sense of accomplishment after finishing a race.

You can follow Lou on his barefooted winter adventures here .

Also, my full article on natural sport nutrition is now posted. You can view it here: Part 1 , Part 2 , Part 3

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