Tough Feet, the Continuing Saga

“Hey, Josh. Quick question: how long did it take you to toughen up your feet for your long run? Oh, and while I have your attention, how did you get so astonishingly handsome?”

If I knew the answer to the second question, I’d bottle it up and sell it on eBay. Just luck, I guess. As for the first question, the answer is 0 days, 0 hours, and 0 minutes.

I just came off of a month and a half hiatus, recovering from a bad blister. Not only is all the skin on my right big toe and ball brand new (and still healing), but all the “tough spots” on my feet have long since been scrubbed away. And yet, with only 10 or so barefoot miles since December5 last year, last Sunday I quite comfortably stayed on my feet for nearly three hours, running almost 17 miles. On “new” skin so soft it was practically begging to blister. Concrete, asphalt (old and new), rocky paths (hiked that one).

Yes, toughening happens. It’s not a bad thing – the rocks are a little more tolerable, and pointy things have a harder time sticking me. My feet get tougher, and by that I mean the skins feels more dense, just from use. There is a cost, though. With tougher feet, my impact tolerance level increases. It doesn’t hurt, or do any perceivable damage, to push off just a little and land just a little harder. That’s why it’s always good to include rough surfaces on my routes, to keep me in check. I’ve found that if I run like I have tough feet in cold wet rain, my “tough” skin comes off in a gruesome manner.

So how do I run with soft, new feet? The way I should always be running. Smoothly. Anyone wishing to try running barefoot should understand that the more sensitive your feet, the more thorough your education. Don’t cheat yourself by trying to “toughen” up your feet before the shoes come off.

10 thoughts on “Tough Feet, the Continuing Saga

  1. I remain a newbie to bf and I can already appreciate your reference to “0 days, 0 hours, and 0 minutes” to toughen feet for bf.

    I have been trying too much too soon and tore up the balls of my feet a bit. But in my most recent effort (bf and with my new VFF KSOs) I finally think I hit an “a-ha” moment with stride. I know I had been pushing off too much before but this time I tried to increase my cadence while I imagined it was a mid-summer day on hot pavement and trying to keep from burning my feet. Somehow the “ouch-ooch-ouch” imagery helped my effort.

    Oh, and the good looking part? Not if she has a foot fettish : 0

    I now feel certain that my technique will evolve and with good technique my ability to vary my terrain and up my distances will come easier.

  2. I’m with you on the tough foot myth. I think it took me a long time to realize that what Ken Bob has been saying all these years about tough feet is true.

    I’ve found that with a really short stride and quick cadence, that my feet magically stay really happy.

  3. Yes, it seems to me that we n00bs should worry about striding short and fast instead of tough feet. How do you do that?

  4. Barefoot Ken’s site has a section on Cadence. But good ol’ Josh has a nice video of stride hints too.
    Ken says 180 bpm (that would be a beat for every step). Listen to a metronome and that seems fast to me. But I did much better when I thought my stride was the shortest and lightest. I had a hard time figuring out “it is the lift, not the landing” but if you force fast, small steps it begins to feel like it is all lifting. (Not that I am about to begin a bf workshop anythime soon).
    In my area I have seen only one pair of bf but several VFF runners. It is cold though, maybe more are about to start with the warmth. On the American Tobacco Trail I saw barefootprints in February. Brave!

  5. A quick way to check your cadence is to look at your watch: three beats per second. One-two-three Two-two-three is two seconds. With practice, 180 will be your slow cadence. I don’t really count my cadence anymore, but my tempo runs are probably around 210 or so.

    The “hot coal” analogy is a good one, but I bet you can find a rocky path to give you the real thing. First walk on it a bit, relaxing, convincing yourself it’s not that bad. Then, when you’re ready, you’ll say “screw it” and just take off over the rocks. You might get a bruise or two, but you’ll probably have a eureka as well.

    Viper: Tough feet sounds like a more reliable defense than quick cadence. When a runner ditches their shoes, priority instinct #1 is to make their feet as shoe-like as possible. Instead, the noob is forced to realize that their feet serve an entirely different purpose when they’re free to feel the ground. Their feet start to feel good not because they can’t feel the ground, but because they can. What they feel informs the way the rest of their body moves. And THAT is what replaces the shoe cushioning: technique. Not the feet.

  6. I have to admit that I’m still afraid of certain kinds of gravel. Crushed gravel is fine. But there is gravel in the alley behind my house that has big, sharp, pointy, mean rocks. I just haven’t learned to do it yet.

  7. I guess the message is that there is no good substitute for barefooting. The weather will let me get back to it eventually. BTW, I’ve started looking for cheap aqua socks in the stores. None yet.

  8. Does anyone use the product “Tuffoot” to speed up the foot tissue toughening process. I have been running bf for 2 years, but mostly on sand and it seems to polish my feet nicely, but doesn’t prepare them too well for pavement. I suppose that I already know the answer is that I just have to slowly push up the street miles with good form to have it work well.

    • You’re right, you do know the answer! I haven’t heard of this product, but would recommend against it. The feet get tough too quickly as it is. I would suggest you should worry less about toughening your feet and more about the difference between soft sand you sink in and hard road with no cushion. If you don’t adapt to that change, you’ll risk damaging more than just your feet. If you do adapt, your feet won’t need to get very tough at all.

      Practice running in place on the pavement. Feel how gently you land, and notice how your body moves to make that happen. Then run forward a bit, and try to hang on to that run-in-place feeling. Enjoy!

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