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!

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8 thoughts on “A Barefoot Runner’s Guide To Gravel

  1. I’m so relieved to hear you talk about Never Again Gravel. I was preparing to run my first barefoot 10K this summer, but after evaluating the country roads that were basically still in sharp chip seal state, I knew I couldn’t. I felt like a failure, in spite of knowing it was really the best decision for me. I ran a great race in my Moc3s, but have still felt guilty and not gone back to the BRS forums because I didn’t want to admit it! Silly me. I’m still doing my training mostly barefoot and ran my longest ever totally barefoot last week, 7.8 miles. 🙂

    • It’s funny you should mention it…I’ve been thinking a lot recently about ‘barefoot runner’s guilt’, which seems to be occurring more and more. I’ve seen a lot of blog posts and forum threads that can make people feel bad about ‘taking the easy route’ by wearing shoes or running on a softer path. In my opinion, as long as you’re having fun and staying safe, then do what feels right!

      Well done on your race and mileage, that’s excellent!

  2. Just happened to me yesterday, in fact. it was my first trail running day and the gravel bits were agony, but overall it was still a positive experience.

  3. Pingback: Things I Learn Running Barefoot on Hot Asphalt

  4. How long can I expect it to take to be able to run a couple kilometres on Mixed Bag gravel? That is what is near my place, and I’m finding it very difficult. Instead of running, actually, I’ve been walking — both in order to make the experience less painful, and to be able to have a little more time doing it. In fact, I don’t know if I could run on this stuff at all. If I combine this walking with a bit of barefoot smooth surface walking then I can certainly get my Achilles a workout too. I’m hoping to be able to get some actual running in before the winter starts, but not too sure about that.

    • That’s a tough question and depends a lot on what the gravel is like, how accustomed you are to barefooting, Sounds like it’s pretty choppy where you are though, so it could take quite a while. Are there any easier trails nearby? Gravel is great for training, but can be painful and mentally taxing. Another option is to get some thin minimal shoes, which will let you work on your form without as much agony.
      It took me a couple years before I could run on rough gravel trails without hating every second…but it all depends on your individual circumstances, motivations, etc.

  5. Thanks for the article. Like the others here. I’ve had run ins with “never again” gravel. Here is India, the sharp stones are used to build roads. Though they usually covered in asphalt, there are roads where they break loose.
    The ‘never again’ gravel made me switch to Xero shoes, but they were never anywhere near quite as good as barefoot on decent terrain. I wanted to get back to barefoot and thanks to your article, my Xero shoes can stay back while I go out for a run.

  6. Pingback: Things I Learn Running Barefoot on Hot Asphalt - FunFittnessAfter50

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