A Barefoot Runner’s Guide To Gravel

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

It may seem counter-intuitive to new barefoot runners, but the best surface to run on isn’t grass. As you may have guessed by the title, the actual best surface is gravel! But why?

Running on grass is a pleasure. It’s soft and yielding, feels nice underfoot,  and doesn’t make your feet too dirty. In fact in most ways it’s like wearing a pair of running shoes.

Of course, for many of us, the reason that barefoot running is so appealing is that it’s exactly not like running in shoes. From there it follows that we should be seeking out terrain that’s as unlike a shoe as possible. Hence, gravel.

I’ll be honest, the first couple dozen times I tried to run on gravel, it was agonising and unpleasant. I think I ‘ran’ about 20m all up over all these sessions, and swore through most off it. Luckily, learning to run on gravel is as much about practice and patience as it is about having tough feet.

Types of Gravel

Just as the Inuit have several dozen words for snow, barefoot runners can learn to recognise a dazzling array of gravel. Once you get used to running on it, you’ll probably start to wonder how it can all be lumped into the same category.

When you first start out with gravel running, it’s best to find a spot that has what I like to call ‘smooth gravel’. Smooth gravel is basically made up of sand and stones with few edges. These can be rounded, water-eroded stones, or gravel that is well-trodden, such as can be found on walking paths and unsealed roads.

Smooth gravel is still harder to run on than pavement and will give you bucket loads of feedback, but it’s not so sharp that you’ll end up crying your way back home.

Once you’ve mastered smooth gravel, you’re ready to try ‘Mixed Bag’ gravel. This type is what you will likely encounter on forest trails and the like. Mixed Bag is tricky because you don’t know what you’re going to come up against. It could be sharp stones, twigs, thorns, you name it. The name of the game here is not foot-toughness, but visual acuity.

When running on Mixed Bag gravel, it’s really important to make sure you have ample light to see by and that you are fully present while running. This means leave the iPod at home, scan the path 4-10 feet in front of you, and do your best to avoid the sharpest bits you see.

In my experience, Mixed Bag is the most common type of gravel, takes the most effort to learn how to run on, and is the most rewarding. It gives you heaps of feedback, and you will be really exercising the full range of leg and feet muscles as you dodge and weave around obstacles.

Lastly we have ‘Never Again’ gravel. This type of gravel is the worst. It pops up from time-to-time in the unlikeliest places, from city streets, to park paths. You will know it the instant you set foot on it (even if you’re walking). It’s incredibly sharp, unforgiving and torturous. Even experienced barefooters wish they wore shoes for this stuff.

Unless you’re Ken Bob Saxton, I’d recommend avoiding this type of gravel for awhile. It’s way too hard to run on for beginners and will demotivate you from running at all. Luckily this is also the rarest form of gravel, and you may never even encounter it.

Tips For Running On Gravel

Regardless of what type of gravel you’re running on, there are some things you can do that will make it a more pleasurable and educational experience.

  1. Slow Down: Hitting gravel at full-tilt is a sure-fire way to experience a lot of pain, fast. When you come to a gravel section, slow down to a light jog. Once you’re on it, you can pick up speed as you adjust, but start off slow.
  2. Step Lightly: Use gravel as an opportunity to teach you how to run more lightly. Focus on your form and lifting your feet. Step down carefully and gently.
  3. Step More: The less time your feet spend on gravel, the less it will hurt. This works on a step-by-step basis, so the faster your feet go, more painless it will be. Increase your cadence by 25% if you can, and your soles will thank you.
  4. Scan Your Path: Half the battle with running on gravel is avoiding the worst of it. Scan the ground in front of you and step around the biggest and nastiest looking pieces.
  5. Know When To Quit: Somtimes it can all get a bit much. There’s no shame in discovering your limits, so don’t push yourself through agony just because you want to run on some gravel. If it’s becoming unbearable, then slow down, walk, or step off to the side and give yourself a break.
  6. Keep At It: Most importantly, keep trying. It’s tempting to seek out the most comfortable paths, but if you want to improve as a barefooter, then you really need to be constantly challenging yourself.

Have you tried running on gravel before? How did it go? Leave us a comment and share your experience!


So You Want To Run In Minimalist Shoes

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

So I spent most of this weekend fielding questions, comments, tweets, and emails about the recent Art Of Manliness article that came out last week. There were some excellent points raised, and I got the feeling that this is a topic that interests a lot of people.

One of the major themes that came up over and over was the question of injuries related to running in minimalist shoes. If you read the comments you will have seen a number of anecdotes from people who have hurt themselves learning how to run in them.

To address these comments, and in an effort to make it easier to understand the risks involved in minimalist running, I’ve put together this post, which I hope will help new runners avoid making injury-inducing mistakes.

Minimal Running Isn’t Barefoot Running

I think first off, that it’s important to make a distinction between minimalist running and barefoot running.

Barefoot running means that your bare feet are touching the ground as you run. This means no socks, no shoes, nothing.

Minimal, however can mean pretty much anything else. If we go by what the shoe companies tell us, minimal shoes can range from those made from the thinnest materials, such as paper all the way up to padded shoes that supposedly mimic barefoot running (such as the Nike Free).

When you run barefoot, the amount of sensation that you experience is huge, and though you get used to the signals and what is felt as pain initially dwindles, you will always retain the full range of sensation, no matter how long you run barefoot for. This increased sensation acts as a built-in checking mechanism that ensures that you don’t overdo it and cause yourself serious injury.

Similarly, when you slip on minimalist shoes for the first time, you will feel a whole new world of sensations. You may be able to feel the individual pebbles beneath your feet and get a range of motion that was impossible in regular running shoes. The problem is though, that this newfound sensitivity doesn’t last.

Before long, minimalist running can lull you into a false sense of security. They knock off a few of the rough edges and allows you to run further and faster than you would in bare feet. This may seem to be a great advantage, and treated with care, it is, but complacency breeds bad habits. Once you grow complacent, it’s easy to push yourself a bit too hard, or run a bit too far, and this is where injuries happen.

Avoiding Injury

It’s because of injuries and the reduced sensation that comes with minimal shoes that a lot of ‘true’ barefoot runners avoid them, and actively discourage people from using them. Exchanges can become heated, but largely this is an effort by barefoot runners to try to save people from themselves.

It’s human nature to push boundaries, and to (over)indulge in experiences that feel good. Minimalist running allows us to do both, which is where the problems start.

So can you run in minimalist shoes without getting hurt? Sure! But you have to be sensible. One of the major tenets of this site, and what I tell every new barefoot or minimal runner is to listen to your body. You really have to make a conscious effort to do this on every run.

On top of this, you will need to pay extra attention to keeping your feet strong. Walk barefoot as much as possible. Do feet and lower leg exercises regularly.

Most importantly, know your limits. If you can’t run a distance with perfect form, you shouldn’t be running it. This is where a lot of minimal runners get into trouble. It’s fun to sign up for races and push yourself to the limits. Everyone who has completed a race knows that they go a little faster on race day, and push a little harder. This is true of barefoot running, as much as anything, but the key difference is that in minimal shoes you can exceed your body’s limits a lot easier than you can barefoot, and this puts you at risk of injury.

The Second Transition

This site is targeted mainly at beginning barefoot and minimalist runners, but since we’re talking about the risks involved in minimal running, I think it’s a good place to bring up something that’s very common, yet little-discussed. I call it the Second Transition, and for most minimal runners, it seems to occur around the two year mark.

What happens is that the runner makes it through the initial transition into minimal running, and it becomes a habit. They will be running regularly, racing regularly, and generally having a great time of it. Encouraged by past successes, they will slowly begin to ignore the warning signs, and before they know it, an injury hits.

The injury involved will often be quite serious because of the distances and/or speeds that have been reached by the runner. I’ve heard stories of metatarsal fractures, ruptured Achilles tendons, and even plantar fasciitis.

This seems to be a turning point for many minimalist runners. It is here that they will either give up minimal running, be forced to take a break due to injury, or else take the next step and transition to barefoot running.

I lucked out in that I had heard of this phenomenon and transitioned to barefoot before it happened to me, but many people aren’t as lucky.

I don’t mean this to frighten you, but it’s important to highlight the dangers of becoming complacent and over-reaching when wearing shoes, even when you’ve become an experienced runner.

It’s Not All Bad

I don’t want to end this article on a down note, and deter future barefoot runners from giving it a go. Minimal shoes are an excellent way to give you the confidence to try out a new sport in a more familiar and comforting way.

Used correctly, you can have many years of injury-free running ahead of you, and I sincerely hope you do. Just keep in mind that barefoot and minimal running are more than just a fad or a neat party trick. It’s a serious sport and one that needs to be treated with respect.

So, get out there, enjoy yourself, and don’t forget to listen to your body!

Couch To Front Door: 8 Things You Can Do To Get You Ready For Running

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

Overwhelmingly the most common question I get from new runners is “where do I start?”.

Fair question.

Up until recently I’ve pointed new runners to the excellent Couch to 5K (C25K) program.

While this program is excellent, I’ve had plenty of feedback from people saying that they tried it, and for whatever reason, left after just a couple of weeks.

There are several reasons as to why people leave the program, ranging from it being just too difficult for their fitness level to commitments at work, children, etc. From what I gather, though, the main reason is that many people aren’t physically ready, and even more are not mentally prepared to become runners.

What follows are 8 ways to help those of you who are new to running get a leg up and hit the ground running (ha ha) before the Couch to 5k even starts.

1. Walk Before You Run

The C25K program starts you off slowly, but there is a jogging component that is introduced straight away. Sooner or later, you’re going to have to run in a running program, but even 30 second intervals can be extremely difficult for many people.

So, to begin with, it can be very helpful to build up to 30 minutes of brisk walking. The easiest way to get started is to try walking for as long as you can, 3 days a week, until you can handle 30 minutes nonstop. Once you can do this, try increasing your speed a bit each session until you’re able to complete it as fast as you can without breaking into a jog. If you can do this, then you’re well on you way to a strong start.

2. Set Yourself A Schedule

One of the biggest problems that new runners face is getting over-excited and trying to do too much. A lot of new runners will try to run every day, or nearly every day, and find themselves burning out within a couple of weeks. When you’re learning a new skill, especially a physical one, it’s essential to give yourself time to adjust. For every exercising day, there should be 1-2 days rest to let your body build muscle and repair itself. Allowing your body time to relax may make it feel like you’re slacking off, but in truth you’ll progress faster and last longer than you would otherwise.

A simple way to stick to this is to set specific days to walk/run on. For beginners, 30 minutes a day, 3 days a week should be plenty. A good choice is Tuesday, Thursdays and Saturdays, which allows you ample rest between sessions and lets you start the week on a rest day, which is usually well-earned after the weekend!

3. Learn Good Form

If there’s one thing that new runners almost universally skip over, it’s learning good form before they start to run. By reading up on what you should be doing and familiarising yourself with the concepts of good form before you go for your first run, you’re more likely to have a safe and comfortable experience. There are plenty of resources on this site about improving your form, so have a read through and try to apply them whenever you’re out running.

4. Join A Community/Do It With A Group

One of the great motivators when trying to introduce exercising into your routine is to share the experience with others. More often than not, new runners will succeed in the transition by doing it with a spouse, friend, or coworker. There are some great online communities as well, including Nerd Fitness, which is becoming one of the most popular and newbie-friendly online fitness communities out there (did I mention I’m also a moderator there?).

Exercising with a friend or group of friends is a tremendous motivator, but can also keep you accountable and on-track. Nobody wants to be the person that lets the team down.

5. Set a goal

I’m certainly not the first person to say it, nor will I be the last, but one of the best motivators in learning a new skill is to set yourself a challenging, but tangible, goal. If you’re planning to do the C25K, then sign up for the first 5k race that comes up after your 6 weeks training is up. If you can’t find an organised 5k, then create your own!

Having goals to look forward to will keep the pressure on and give you a reason to keep going. On top of this, completed goals act as excellent milestones that will help you look back and see how far you’ve come down the track.

6. Get your gear sorted

At 6am after a late night, the last thing you want to do is give yourself extra reasons to stay in bed and skip the run. One of the big ones is not having all of your stuff ready. So, to avoid this, put together an outfit for running…shorts, shirt, etc, and stash it together in one place. This way, when you’re ready to go, you can just throw your running gear on and head out the door.

When you get home, put your sweaty stuff in the wash, and get it ready for the next run as soon as possible. It can be helpful to have a few go-to outfits that you can rotate, so that even if your running is out of sync with your washing, you’re good to go.

7. Get strong

Running can be rough on your body, especially when you’re not used to it. In the first few weeks, you can expect all manner of aches and pains as your muscles rebuild and regroup to adapt the new stresses it’s experiencing. A great way to reduce these discomforts is to do a week or two of basic exercises to get your body ready for running. A few sets of body weight squats, planks, calf raises, and lunges will go a long way to getting your legs into a reasonable place to start running from.

8. Get the latest App

Nowadays, it seems that nearly everybody has a smartphone of some description. These little beauties are excellent for helping you learn how to run. There are dozens of apps out there, many of which are free, that will make a big difference to your training. Search your app store for ‘C25K’ or ‘Running’, and you’ll find dozens of apps to suit your needs.

Learning to run can be a real challenge, but it does get easier once you’ve made it through the first 6 weeks. Keep at it, listen to your body, and above all, enjoy yourself!