What's the WORST surface for running barefoot? - Xero Shoes

What’s the WORST surface for running barefoot?

When I tell people that I run barefoot (or when they see me out running without any shoes), the first response I get is

“Oh, so you run on the grass?”

Or when I suggest to people that they might want to try running barefoot, the first thing they say is,

“With my feet/knees/ankles/eyelashes, I’d need to run on the grass.”

I mean, it makes sense, right?

Grass is soft. Feet are soft. Therefore, feet should be on grass.

Barefoot = Grass is the common wisdom.

But wisdom is rarely common, and what’s common is rarely wise.

Here’s what I can tell you, though. And it’s not just me, every accomplished barefoot runner I know will say the same thing. And all the other good coaches I know agree.

In fact, what I’m about to say is SO true, that if you meet a coach who tells you otherwise, RUN AWAY (barefoot or not, I don’t care) from this person as quickly as you can, because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Here it is:

THE WORST SURFACE for learning to run barefoot is GRASS.

THE WORST.

ABSOLUTELY.

Why?

Three big reasons:

  1. BIG: Who knows what’s hiding in the grass. If you can’t see it, you might step on it.
  2. BIGGER: One of the principles of barefoot running is that you don’t use cushioning in your shoes… well, when you run on grass, you’ve basically taken the cushioning out of your shoes and put it into the ground.
  3. BIGGEST: Running on grass, or any smooth surface does not give you the feedback you need about your barefoot form to help you change and improve your form.

The best surface for barefoot running is NOT grass or sand or anything soft, but the smoothest and hardest surface you can find.

For me, here in Boulder, Colorado, we have miles and miles of bike path.

In New York City, the sidewalks are perfect!

So, what makes a hard, smooth surface the best? It’s the biggest reason, from above:

FEEDBACK.

Grass and sand and soft surfaces are too forgiving of bad form.

Hard smooth surfaces tell you, with every step, whether you’re using the right form.

If it hurts, you’re not.

If you end up with blisters, you didn’t.

Pay close attention and each step is giving you information about how to run lighter, easier, faster, longer.

I’ll never forget going out on the University of Colorado sidewalks with the Boulder Barefoot Running Club. I had a blister on the ball of my left foot (more about that in another lesson). But I decided to see if I could run in such a way that I didn’t hurt .

At first, each step sent a shooting pain up my leg. Then I made some adjustments and I just felt the friction on the ball of my foot.

By the end of the first mile, I had made some other adjustments — using each step as an experiment — and the next thing I knew I was picking up the pace while putting out less energy than ever. I was running faster and easier than I’d ever run without shoes… and it was painless.

This would have never happened on grass.

I needed the feedback of the hard surface.

If you want to see a barefoot runner get a wistful look in his or her eye, mention a newly painted white line on the side of a road. Smooth, solid, cool… it’s the best! ;-)

Oh, and it’s probably no surprise that the advantage of Xero Shoes is that when you wear those on the road, they still give you that feedback you need… but with protection from the surface.

  • http://tdhurst.com Tyler Hurst

    Running barefoot on surfaces like streets and sidewalks is exhilarating. My feet have never been exposed to such surfaces and the feedback is fantastic.

    My favorite surface to run on? The raised bumps at the entrance to each sidewalk. My feet are forced to relax and it’s not unlike a quick foot massage.

  • http://adventuresinwoodworking.com Eric

    My first couple of runs were in our neighborhood. It’s paved, but not very well. But my default running location is in a park with a paved running path. Surprisingly, it is not that smooth! But I think in the end it is helping me by forcing good form and toughening my feet more than even a sidewalk would!

    It’s surprising how the first reaction by many people to someone who says they run barefoot is, “OMG, what about the rocks?!?!? The glass?!?!? It’s as if barefoot running is some sort of ultra-extreme sport! :)

  • http://roadtominimal.com Dar

    I am new to barefoot running and haven’t done much mileage on hard surface yet – still building up to it but I LOVE running barefoot on hiking trails.

  • Jon Ford

    Sidewalks are like butter to my bare feet. Those who don’t barefoot can’t believe it, but it’s so true!

    (Unfortunately, Arizona summer is almost upon us, with temps making sidewalks and asphalt too hot to the foot. But hey, that’s where the invisibleshoe huaraches come in!)

  • http://roadtominimal.com roadtominimal

    I love trail running barefoot as there are so many different types of terrain and sensations for your feet to experience. Plus there is something very spiritual about running barefoot in the forest.

  • CaliKid

    I saw a guy on t.v. He was talking about barefoot running. I thought this guy has no clue what he is talking about. He must be jumping on the barefoot running scene because he wants to be unique or something….. I was thinking he should research the Taraumara ( who happen to be my ancestral people) They run barefoot or with a simple huarache. Then he talked about his inspiration …THE TARAUMARA ! I was so happy to see that this guy was genuine and had a good understanding of barefoot running and how natural it truly is. Keep up the good work ..all of you…PEACE. “shoes are cages for a sophisticated appendages”

  • Brian

    Yeah, I’m such a rebel, running down the street that is full of (gasp) glass!

    (at least my wife thinks so; she’s convinced I’m nuts. I know it feels fine to my feets)

  • Ted

    I totally agree that running on the sidewalk feels “like butter”. Running has become so much fun barefoot because your whole body just tingles with sensory input from your soles to the top of your head. I usually go out early in my neighborhood before the sun’s up, but last Sunday I slept in a little and didn’t want to let that spoil my fun. Turns out there’s a LOT of people walking around at 8 am on weekends! When I got home, I told my horrified wife, “Well, cat’s outta the bag…a lot of our neighbors saw me out there today.” Oh well, I’ll gladly be the kooky barefoot guy of the ‘hood.

  • Silvano

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vca1QGVAshM

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nQmqEIYI-GU

    The official video of ROME Marathon (1960), in which Abebe Bikila run barefoot and won in 2h15′; all the other runners run shod on simple flat running shoes.
    After 50 years we all agree that he was right.

    Silvano

  • http://Unclealbertscookies@cox.net John

    Was man really made to run barefoot on sidewalks?
    Do the Taramuhara run barefoot or on tire-sandals which would provide much more protection.
    The book- Born to Run- speaks of Caballo Blanco running in Tevas.

    • Steven

      I think we are equipped to run barefoot on any surface… some ground is pretty hard packed, rocks are hard, sand is giving but abrasive. The Tarahumara seem to do both barefoot and tire-huarachas. Suffice it to say there are a lot of people who’ve done a lot of miles on hard man-made surfaces without a problem.

      That said, I’m not suggesting barefoot is the only way to be, especially on man-made surfaces in industrial cities. There’s a time and a place for barefoot and a time and a place for footwear of varying kinds.

  • http://Unclealbertscookies@cox.net John

    I would venture to say that modern day
    indiginous people have thicker foot pads
    than us multigeneration of shoe wearers

    • Steven

      John,

      So, do you think the infants in these indigenous populations are born with thicker foot pads?

      If not, then they’re developed over time with use.

      And if they don’t develop forever (that is, if there’s a maximum thickness for the skin/pads), then there’s no reason why someone who is not part of that population couldn’t put in the time/work to develop theirs.

      Also, for the kind of running we’re doing, we may not need pads as thick as the people you’re thinking of.

      Just thinkin’ out loud…

  • http://www.runningcoachhoward.com Howard Elakman

    I am a long time runner with running shoes. I have in the last few months started to run barefoot on the beach (South Florida). I have always suggested strengthening the feet by walking bare on soft surfaces or on a BOSU. When my Huaraches arrive I will definitely start my program to become a barefoot runner. All of my reading seems to indicate that barefoot is the way to go.

  • karen

    love barefoot running…however have to build up your foot pad. Initially i ran 1.5 miles on ashphalt and had some tender spots to recover from before I could run again. Using aqua socks for now until i get my huaraches:-) Otherwise, do barefoot on dirt trails.

  • Eva

    I love hard-packed mud, which can be difficult to find. When I do stumble across it however, it provides the hardness of asphalt while also being wonderfully smooth.

  • Nadine

    I completely agree. I lead a marathon pace group and just completed my first marathon in vibrams (I will be soon making the conversion to huaraches). Most of the training I did was on bike path, which is a combination of concrete and gravel. The gravel is nice, because it is kind of like a foot massage, and the bike path definitely tells you if your form is correct. Plus, if your ankle strength is lacking, running on softer surfaces may make rolling an ankle more possible.

  • Jordan

    good to know…i have been running in hauraches for about a week now and totaled up about 20 miles on concrete in them. the first 8 or so were painful, and i tried alternating concrete and grass. but i began to feel out how i should take each step, and now i very much enjoy running on a sidewalk or concrete running track.

  • Jojo

    John said…

    Was man really made to run barefoot on sidewalks?
    Do the Taramuhara run barefoot or on tire-sandals which would provide much more protection.
    The book- Born to Run- speaks of Caballo Blanco running in Tevas.

    Definitely smooth cement for me. Thanks for every ones input. If you still don’t believe man has evolved to run on many different surfaces including hard ones like cement, then I suggest you try it out and listen to your feet. Regurgitating propaganda from shoe companies advertisements is why people are so against barefooting in the first place. Once you try what this post is about: “what is you favorite surface to run barefooted style on?”, then your comments will be relevant.

    Thanks again Steven

  • Jojo

    “What is your* favorite surface to run barefooted style on?”

  • http://www.RunFasterToday.com Armando

    I love running barefoot but I actually love running on the grass. It feels so good, like a massage on the foot. Not a fan of asphalt with or without shoes. That being said I do believe that learning to running with correct bio-mechanics is probably more important. In fact if you can run with efficient bio-mechanics and you have shoes or spikes you will run faster than without. Look at track records, look at marathon records all with shoes. When speed is a factor I think shoes are game changers.

    I know this is a barefoot running community so don’t hate me for saying this. Here is something to consider.

    What are your goals?

    Every runner has a different goal and reasons why they run. I know for me barefoot running, VFF, or running in huaraches is for fun exploratory runs but when I am racing and seriously training, I will opt for my racing flats or spikes. You have more traction, more protection, and run faster.

    What are your thoughts?

    Cheers,
    AC

  • http://trailrockrunner.blogspot.com MARK

    I can sure tell you where the worst surface to run on-Gravel! We have a beautiful trail near Alameda creek that goes all the way to San Francisco Bay. 13 miles of black top on one side and 13 miles of gravel on the other. When I first started my barefoot adventure in October, I found out quickly that gravel does not work because it hurts like hell on your pads. Gravel is not natural. It’s made with crush rocks. If you run a trail in the back country, it will either be dirt, sand, rocks, or a combination of all. I find that much easier to run on than gravel.

    This morning, I ran with my huaraches on the gravel side of Alameda creek. Just like Steven says, these huaraches are not much different than running barefoot. Ouch! I lasted about 10 minutes and headed for the streets. How about some thicker Vibram Steven? We could have some invisible trail shoes and invisible street shoes.

    Stay off the gravel!

    When I run barefoot on the street, I often carry my huaraches as a “back up” or escape plan. You never know when and if your pads will start to burn. What if half way through a run, you decide that you want to go longer? See what I mean? Besides being invisible, they are also almost weightless.

  • Steven Sashen

    Hi Mark.

    Depends on the gravel. Some is great. Some is, well, not.

    And, yes, we’ve got what you’re looking for on the way (more details soon).

  • Henry

    So the question is what is the best surface … well “hard” is a vague answer. I like the smooth asphalt in residential areas of Vancouver, BC that cars drive on (sharing with cars suck … but c’est la vie). I’m not a big fan of sidewalks as there are indentations of slabs and I spend to much focus of not running into it.
    “Smooth asphalt” is my answer

    • Steven

      Smooth asphalt is splendid (don’t even get me started on how nice it is to run on a newly painted line on the side of a road)

      Here in Boulder, Colorado, the Boulder Creek Path or the sidewalks around the university aren’t asphalt, but they’re really smooth, well maintained, and divine for barefoot running.

  • Kristian

    Around home I practiced walking barefoot or with flat shoes before I went to running, and even tried to keep a mid- to for-foot strike like I was running, which became easier than heal striking after a while. I started running in flat shoes first, before getting my huaraches, and, as with most, I ran too far, and got tight calves. Then I tried walking/running barefoot, thinking I would do that occasionally to work on form, and I found I liked it better than any kind of shoes or sandals. Second to that I like the huaraches. I would alternate between walking and a little running, hoping to build up from there. I still overdid it, so I decided to kill 2 or 3 birds with one stone by going on rough/pebbly surfaces – the idea being that the rough surface would force me to set my feet down more carefully, helping with form, second, when my feet have had enough, that’s time to quit, and finally, of course, to toughen them some. I found later that cobbled stones and other uneven surfaces help because of the added sensory input.

  • Kristian

    I thought it would be a good idea to run on rough surfaces because, even on sandy surfaces one occasionally finds a surprise, while running in grass, at least around here, there are a lot of acorn shells, so I want to be prepared. I also carry my huaraches in case I need them. Or for walking around, if I’m not walking barefoot.

  • Amir

    I have run up to 1/2 mile on a smooth sidewalk. Every time I do that my ankles and top of my feet get swollen and I have to go back to running with shoes. However I can run on grass without any problems and enjoy it. My running shoes have almost no padding and I am no heel striker. My usual runs are on paved streets with rolling hill segments. When I run barefoot I land mostly on forefoot and have almost no heel contact which is quite unlike the way I usually run in shoes. I know I am doing something fundamentally wrong.

    • Steven

      Amir… the difference between “almost no padding” and “no padding” is night and day. And there’s no problem with letting your heels contact the ground if you land mid- or forefoot. It’s tricky to diagnose movement from an email, but my guess is that you’re not “placing/lifting” your feet under your center of mass. Imagine that, as you run, you’re trying to sneak up on a deer… or trying to run over thin glass that you don’t want to break. These mental cues might help you find a lighter, easier stride. Oh… or you could simply wonder: “How can I make this feel lighter and easier?” and see what changes to your stride result in that effect.

  • alok

    these huaraches have made me the king of the jungle here in thick bushy hilly woods of the northeast. i can grip really well on fallen tree logs and creekbed rocks/pebbles.
    but it’s cumbersome to sprint thru the forest…
    i am looking for a good natural barefoot long-distance running surface in the wilderness (which rules out asphalt, soccer fields even trails)
    what surface do u recommend- the beach, prairie, rocky mountains?

    • Steven

      Well, I’ve been on and enjoyed all of those surfaces, so I recommend ALL of them ;-)

  • Ali

    Thick layers of soft pine needles! When I run through deciduous wooded trails that periodically change over to pine tree habitat I am in instant heaven. (The downside is pine cones and roots of course but treading with care is all that is needed.)
    Conversely, the worst surface that I find myself mincing my way through lies beneath oak trees in the fall. Killer acorns. Lots of bruises.

  • Kavih Williams

    In case anyone is attempting sand/beach running, I wanted to post a direct email reply Steven (Founder of this website) gave me after I asked about running on the beach/sand. Thanks for such a quick and thorough reply Steven (my Invisible Shoe order will be coming soon!)…

    Hi Kavih,

    Let me answer your questions… below

    1) Is sand/beach running recommended or frowned upon?

    Neither. It’s a fine surface to run on, just like concrete, trails, streets, and any other surface. It’s just that each surface has different characteristics and will require different adjustments in form and conditioning.

    Sand is, obviously, abrasive, in a way that concrete isn’t. Sand, obviously, absorbs shock in a way that concrete doesn’t.

    You may want to check out the article I wrote at http://www.invisibleshoe.com/297/surfaces/

    2) Does it matter whether it is soft or hard-packed sand to run on? (I have a theory that soft sand is worse than hard…)

    I agree with your theory. ;-)

    3) Have you or those you know experienced long barefoot runs on sand/beach and did you/they experience pain after the run (is what I’m experiencing expected)?

    Again, you’re running on a highly abrasive surface, and you have to use more energy to overcome the amount of shock absorption in the sand. That said, over time, you can acclimate to almost anything.

    BTW, you mentioned that you were trying to stay off your heels. There’s no need to do that. You don’t want to LAND on your heels, but trying to stay off of them is unnatural and takes a lot of extra energy. Aim for relaxing as much as you can and you’ll see that your heel probably drops and lightly touches the ground before you lift your foot off the ground.

    4) Would Huaraches Sandles help?

    Well, they’ll add a layer of protection… but like any sandal, it’s not possible to keep sand from getting in between your foot and the sole. I know people wear Invisible Shoes on every surface known to man, and I wear mine for everything… but I can’t tell you either way whether they’ll help you. That depends as much on your form and your mileage as it does on the shoes.

    5) For a beginner barefoot runner, should I start off with trails/street as opposed to sand/beach?

    See the post I mentioned, above. (the answer is Yes)

    -Steven

  • Ron

    I run barefoot on a seldom used aircraft taxiway at work. People I work with think I’m nuts, but I truely believe they are secretly jealous.

  • http://domestictriffid.blogspot.com/ Molly

    The worst surface for bare feet is concrete swimming pools :) I’d always wear a spot through on each of my toes, pushing off from the edge (ouch !)

    But seriously…. I am stunningly overweight, and unfit and NO I don’t run. My poor knees….

    But walking barefoot has been a revelation in terms of using all those sensory nerve endings in the feet to really come into contact with the ground and really be in touch with the way my ankles, knees and hips are reacting to the way my feet are striking the ground. I am looking forward to being fit enough to run :) You guys are an inspiration to me :)

  • Go

    I love smooth asphalt to make me feel like flying, rough asphalt to teach me to soften and silence my stride, grass, sand and mud for the myriads of sensations on my feet.

    And I do appreciate my bare feet for not hurting themselves when something sharp pops up underneath them. My conscious brain would be far too late to prevent the harm if they had to instruct my feet first.

  • http://www.barberclippings.com Jerrie Barber

    I have run more than 1,100 miles barefoot in the last two years on asphalt and sidewalk. I just finished the Tom King half marathon in Nashville, Tennessee. I came in first in my age group (65+). It was my second fastest half out of four. The other three I ran in shoes.

  • Daniel Martinez

    I have never really run barefoot, but I have done some miles in Invisible Shoes and here’s what I’ve found.

    Running on pavement/asphalt gives you the most blisters and is the hardest on your feet. However, it does also give you great control of your movements, and it freaks people out to see you running down the streets of Los Angeles in sandals at midnight.

    Running on trails in Invisible Shoes is not very painful at all, and also gives you great feedback from the ground. Depending on the quality of the trail, you may have some slippage. Trails with similar consistencies to decomposed granite cause some slippage if you’re going fast downhill, but otherwise trails are great.

    Now, as for grass, there are pros and cons. In the past, I’ve found running on grass slows me down. That was back when I ran in conventional running shoes. Anyone who’s run an XC race on mixed terrain will tell you that the grass portions are the parts where you most wanted to slow your pace. Grass is too bouncy in conventional shoes, and gives you really poor feedback because of all cushioning in your shoes + the natural softness of the ground. HOWEVER, in Invisible Shoes, running on the grass is a completely different experience. Because of the lack of cushioning in Invisible Shoes, the softness of the grass acts as the perfect amount of cushioning, resulting in little to no pain from running in sandals. I can run fast as a MOFO on grass when I wear my Invisible Shoes, and it doesn’t hurt at all. However, it is also important to point out that running on wet grass completely soaks your feet and causes major slippage and instability.
    During my XC years, the coaches would tell us, if we’re beginning to get injuries, we should take off our shoes and jog a couple miles on the inside of the track, which was the outer rim of the turf football field. This barefoot experience allows for good form, no heel-striking, muscle use, and cushioning for joints, and allows any runner to recover and restrengthen their legs from injuries due to overuse. Even among the shoe-wearers, there is this knowledge that barefoot running is beneficial on soft surfaces.

    In conclusion, when running in Invisible Shoes, natural surfaces (dirt trails, grass) work best by eliminating stress and pressure on feet. As for running fast, it would be difficult to determine, but I’d say pavement probably still has a significant edge over grass because of the better grip. For working on a good, steady pace, dirt trails probably work best. Ultimately, I believe it is good to run on different terrains to allow our bodies to adapt and strengthen itself in different ways, and especially if you live in a city, its hard to find trails that don’t cross over into urban areas. My advice is to keep running on what feels good, and when in doubt, SLOW DOWN, run on soft terrain, work on your form, but DON’T STOP. Go as slow as you want, but don’t ever stop.

  • Guy

    Having gone barefoot for months on some lava based islands, I would have to say that was the best surface ever for toughening up one’s feet and learning to tread lightly and carefully (and it wasn’t Hawaii, it was on the equator). I doubt that the Copper Canyon runs include many sidewalks either. Good old Mother Nature is still the best surface.

  • Jerry Gentry

    When I first started my transition natural style I ran the first short distances (less than half a mile) barefoot on the well worn roads of the New England town where I live. I was surprised to find that, once I got passed the tickle sensation, that my feet didn’t get all torn up. That was in the fall and the roads got cold and full of debris, so I started wearing some minimal protection, but every run ended with about a mile of barefoot. I found out that my feet were fine until the temps got below 30 degrees F. That bit of barefoot helped me really tune my form and I still go back to it on a regular basis to remind myself.

    Steve, these are great articles!

  • Morgan Blundell

    I have two choices where I live: chip-and-seal or coarse gravel. I have not managed to get comfortable running on either of those surfaces completely barefoot. I run 30 miles a week and cycle 70 miles a week as my daily commute to and from work, so I need to be able to get back out there the next day; I can’t afford to have blistered or cut up feet. My contact xeroshoes fit the bill. I cycle in them part way to work and run the rest without having to carry extra shoes or change footwear. I wear them all day at work too; they are super comfortable…
    When winter comes, I will have to scale up my cycling shoes for protection from cold, but the xeroshoes will ride lightly in my backpack, ready for the run. Couldn’t ask for more convenience, cost effectiveness or a more comfortable run.

    • http://www.xeroshoes.com/ Steven Sashen

      Yeah, I wouldn’t call either of those surfaces “smooth” ;-)

  • Trip

    I agree completely that a smooth hard surface is best for learning your natural run and building your strength to avoid injury. I took this advice while learning too. After being fully acclimated though, I wouldn’t shy away from grass. Almost nothing feels better than running through a field of grass with bare feet. It’s an awesome experience :)

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