Now this may come as a surprise, but for me, the subject of tough feet is the least interesting aspect of barefoot running. Sure, itís important, but it is just a means to an end. I often describe the foot toughening process as merely the ďentrance feeĒ to a new realm of experience: running virtually anywhere I want without artificial aids.
Even if you remove the "anywhere" stipulation, there are still plenty of locales where you donít need especially tough feet to enjoy going barefoot.
Imagining that foot toughness defines the barefoot running is a little like saying that raw strength is what defines gymnastics or ballet or soccer. Strength is certainly a prerequisite for those activities, but not defining. Similarly, toughened-up feet are a prerequisite for barefoot running, but not the reason for doing it.
Now, don't get me wrong ó it's pretty cool to have feet so tough I can go almost anywhere without shoes. But that coolness factor is only secondary to the new adventures that have opened up to me!
You'll notice that attitude reflected in this website. There is very little emphasis on foot toughness, calluses and so forth. Yeah, toughened-up feet are definitely a prerequisite for running on the surfaces I choose to run on, but there are plenty of kinder/gentler options that arenít as demanding. You donít need Kevlar feet to run on grass or smooth concrete, for instance, just somewhat different technique than what you could get away with in running shoes.
As I mention elsewhere, the draw of barefooting is that it has opened a whole world of new experiences, as well as deeper insights into sports physiology, evolutionary biology and even social anthropology! Not to mention how much fun it is to bring into question conventional beliefs that may be more harmful than helpful! (Hint: doesnít it seem strange that so many people in our society have foot problems?)
So, the bottom line is, you don't need especially tough feet to go barefooting on the lawn at the local park or beach or freshly plowed farm field (though a shotgun blast means you've exceeded your time limit). But if you want to run trails, roads, virtually anywhere, then a little foot preparation is in order.
So now that Iíve downplayed foot toughness, Iím going to finally talk about it here. Here we go Ö
Did you know Ö ?
Like the palms of the hands, the sole of the foot and bottoms of the toes have extra thick, abrasion resistant, skin. In addition, their epidermis contains five layers rather than the four that is normal for the skin on the rest of the body. The little ridges provide traction.
Use it or lose it ...
Like muscles, the skin responds to stress by getting stronger and thicker. My feet are not as tough as shoe leather by any means, but deerskin moccasin leather might not be far off as a comparison. Small rocks are unpleasant to step on, but donít do any damage. Big sharp crushed gravel is a pain. Itís better if there is a soft matrix underneath it. The worst is sharp gravel on a hard surface. Again, itís do-able and seems to not be harmful, but itís quite miserable. But I will tolerate it during a race or on a hike if itís thereís no choice. All part of the package!
Occasionally, a tiny pebble or burr will stick to the bottom of my foot and keep nagging at me until I stop and brush it off.
"No roses without thorns" (or blackberries or either, grrr!)
Thorns are my main nemesis. I try to avoid them, but up here in the Pacific Northwest, where the Himalayan Blackberry is rampant, I constantly have to watch for the thorny trimmings lying on the ground. Orginating in Armenia, so-called Himalayan Blackberry, Rubicus Armeniensis, was introduced to North America with the best of intentions (uh-oh!) by California's famous 19th century botanist, Luther Burbank. They now blanket the Pacific Northwest. Thanks, Luth.
Another annoyance is milkweed, the breakfast of monarchs (butterflies, that is). It is even worse because the super-thin spines break off under the skin.
But am I complaining? Nooooo, not I!!
"What doesnít kill you just makes you stronger"
As the soles of my feet have gotten thicker, thorns have a much harder time getting through. But I still donít like Ďem!
Although Portland, Oregon brings to mind chilliness and ceaseless rain, it does get dry and blazing hot during the summer. On those days, the blacktop finally becomes too hot for even my feet. During those times, I avoid streets. If I can't, I migitate the misery by getting over to lighter colored surfaces like concrete sidewalks or grassy shoulders.
Cold feet I can manage snow and even icy trails for a while, but if I'm going for a long run, I throw on my Nike Frees. The aching that sets in is unpleasant, but worse is the numbness that follows because it shuts down important sensory feedback. I once really beat up my feet at a trail marathon near Susanville, California because the ground was frozen and I couldn't feel the surface.
"Slow and steady wins the race ... "
Ultimately, developing tough feet is like training for a marathon -- you gotta be patient and build up to it over many months, even years. There will be blisters, but they'll be minor if you just take it slow and build up gradually. That's been my experience. It's just a matter of getting back to the place we'd all be naturally if we hadn't been forced to wear shoes as kids!