Yesterday, I decided to test some cold tolerance barefoot running limits. In the past couple years, I have been able to run comfortably down near 30°F if the ground was dry. My feet would feel a bit chilled at first, but would warm up quite nicely by the time I had gone a couple of miles. When the ground has been wet, I haven’t been able to go below 45°F. The addition of moisture into the variables meant that any heat generated was quickly dissipated and my feet were not happy. I could easily walk outside for short periods in such weather, but staying out long enough for running a few miles has been problematic. However, having built up the health and strength of my feet for the last few years, it seemed a good time to see if anything had changed. I prefer running barefoot so much that I was inspired to try.
The scenario was this: It had rained heavily all morning and was still barely sprinkling. There were puddles everywhere, showing that the ground was not as flat as it might appear to casual observation. There was also a thin layer of water over a lot of the remaining ground. The skies were dark grey at 10:00 AM. The car thermometer read 43°F, and there was an unpredictable breeze. You might be surprised at the difference a couple of degrees can make. I was going to evaluate my feet during the duration of the run, both by feel and appearance.
My clothing was long running pants of medium to light weight fabric, a relatively thin long sleeve wool shirt, a light weight insulated running jacket, acrylic knit gloves, and a polar fleece ear warmer. The temperature of my feet can affect my core temperature, but is not always directly related, as I would experience during this run.
I knew that my two 20ish year old girls can run barefoot in these conditions with no jacket, sometimes in shorts, and definitely barefoot. They can do this even though they haven’t been running barefoot as many years or as many miles in the recent months as me. They have run recently in 20°F temperatures on semi-snowy paths and been quite warm. I might be tempted to attribute it to their youth, but I have a few barefoot running friends across the country who are my age or older and who enjoy colder temperatures. Some of these friends haven’t been running barefoot any longer than I have (about 5 years). Most do not have larger or heavier or heavier bodies. Their bodies just seem to moderate heat differently than mine.
Knowing other people’s cold tolerances can encourage me about the possibilities, but I don’t let it make me disregard my own peculiar limits. There may be other unknown variables in their lives. For whatever reason, my feet get numb and feel cold induced pain when they do and I need to work with that.
I chose to run on my favorite circular, nearly one mile loop around some ponds. I know the pavement there. It would not pose any particular difficulties or surprise me. I also knew I could more easily adjust my run distance, should I need to. With my Strava app activated and my Spotify streaming songs, I took off.
I was cold enough overall that I began my run too fast. It felt good for the first couple of miles and I don’t think I could have easily slowed down, because my brain was sending signals to stay warm. Not just to my feet, but everywhere. My body was not chilled, but as I sensed the overall conditions, the clear message was to get moving or risk feeling uncomfortably cold. Proceeding like this, I never felt cold above my ankles. I actually ended up shedding layers all the way to the base layer by the 3rd mile of this 6.2 mile planned run.
The goal was 6.2 miles for a couple different reasons. It is still a moderate distance for me. Even though I hadn’t run longer distances (8 – 12 miles) for a couple of weeks due to travel and illness, it was still well within my current ability. Of equal importance, I have run that far in these types of cold temperature in the recent past with minimal footwear AND have done similar distances barefoot within my previously determined tolerances. It is never a good idea to test too many variables at once. It is probably a good idea to dial back on some of them when testing a particular extreme.
With the water everywhere, my feet got wet right away. By the time I had run a mile, my feet did become fairly numb, but it still felt better than foot wear. I would not recommend that someone run with numb feet if they are fairly new to barefoot running because running that way limits important feedback to maintain good form. This is kind of the same as recommending that newer barefoot runners avoid minimal footwear while solidifying their form. Since my form is well developed at this point, I felt there was no risk of me pounding along. The other potential risk was an injury that wasn’t avoided because of diminished feeling. I thought the risk of this was greatly reduced by running in a very familiar place. I could see the ground well and I was familiar with all the types of debris to be found there.
Every so often, I glanced at my feet to make sure they were still nice and pink. That they were, combined with the fact that the numbness was ever so slightly going away with every mile, made me think it was safe to continue with my planned distance. I relaxed and ran lightly, trying to superimpose what I normally feel on the ground into how I ran. This was easier to do when my feet were more uniformly, though not completely, numb. When they started to warm up, I could feel oddly disconcerting things, like one heel more than another.
At the end of the run, I noted that I was not desperate to get my feet into the shelter of the car. However, I was surprised that they were still as numb as they were. I remembered what I had learned from the time I had gotten frost nip on them (dancing indoors on a cold cement floor) and was careful not to massage them or try to heat them suddenly, just in case I had pushed the limits a bit too far. For some reason, doing those things leads to more lingering pain and tissue damage.
I had to get some errands done, though, and needed to wipe some of the mud off of my toes. I did this gently, with next to no rubbing, using a wet wipe. Soon after this, I noticed that my soles were feeling a somewhat tingly burning feeling. I admit I was a bit worried right then about the results of my experiment. Not badly worried, but it would be better to not have to deal with frost nip again for 3 weeks. As I examined them a little more thoroughly, I saw one very small divot of skin missing on the bottom of one big toe. It was bleeding a pin dot for a couple minutes. I suppose it could be attributed to the numbness in some ways, but I occasionally get little ouchies on my feet in all weather, indoors and out, much like people do on their hands. I still would not want to wear gloves all the time and neither do I want to wear foot coverings in most circumstances.
Finally, about 30 minutes later, I found that my left, uninjured foot felt completely fine and normal. The right foot had a centimeter wide blood blister near the big toe divot, but was otherwise in great shape. A full day later there are no signs of damage. I think I can conclude that it was a successful test. I enjoyed the run more than I would have with even minimal footwear and my feet were up to the job.
Will I always choose to run barefoot at those temperatures? I don’t know. It will depend on other concurrent weather factors and how I feel overall. Sometimes, you just have to go with “how you feel,” because subconsciously you are aware of risk factors. Other times, you need to challenge yourself in order to make the progress you want to and will enjoy. I’m not trying not get recognition by doing something different than what other people have come think is normal, but I am quite willing to do it even though they don’t think it is normal. I do it for me.