Barefoot care

One of the worries people have in contemplating barefoot running is the damage they imagine it must do to the soles of their feet.

What about callouses?
What about cracked feet?

The saying goes that if you’re running with proper barefoot technique, there’s nothing to worry about: the foot requires no special care or extra maintenance.  Basically, this is true in my experience as well, with a couple of exceptions.

My foot: not a thing of great beauty, but it's free of cracks and callouses!
— My foot: not a thing of great beauty, but it’s free of cracks and callouses!

Callouses as well as blisters are liable to build up when rubbing occurs between the skin and an external surface.  But when you’re running barefoot, you just place your foot down on the ground and then lift it up again.  Surprise, surprise!  No rubbing or scraping.  The skin on the bottom of your foot will certainly toughen up and thicken over time, but it should remain pliable and more or less smooth.  Basically, it shouldn’t really change in appearance at all.

There’s a greater chance of abrasion between your foot and the ground while running hills, especially when going downhill.  Without a cushioned heel, you can’t take those huge strides you can in shoes.  In fact, you’ll need to adopt what first seems like a ridiculously short stride when running downhill, in order to prevent scraping the first point of contact with the ground.  When I first started running barefoot, the only problem I ever had with blisters was on the outer surface of my little toe – close to the point where my foot first touches the ground.  The tougher skin right under the midfoot caused no problems, but obviously the skin on the little toe is thinner and more vulnerable.

FOOTCARE: if callouses develop, it’s best to soak them in a bath for a while and then file them down with a pumice stone or a metal foot file.  Afterwards, thoroughly rub in a heavy foot cream and wear socks to prevent losing any excess cream.  Then, figure out why you have callouses in the first place – it means something’s wrong with your technique!

*         *         *

Cracked feet can be a problem, even with good technique.  Of course, cracks occur when the skin dries out and loses its elasticity, and can no longer respond flexibly to the demands of running or walking.  If callouses have begun to build up, it’s worth filing them down straight away, before they dry out and then inevitably begin to crack.  Prevention is key, because once a crack appears it can take a long time to go away!
Even if your technique is good and your foot is free of callouses, there are (in my experience) three main causes of cracked feet.

(1) As you start to run barefoot, your feet will inevitably widen a little.  This is only natural given that shoes are no longer artificially holding them together.  Even if the skin on your sole is supple, a lot of stretching is going on down there, especially in the area towards the front of the metatarsals (around the ball of the foot), between the big toe and second toe.  This area can become sensitive as the muscles underneath adjust to being pulled apart with each step.  Likewise, the skin in this area takes a lot of the strain of being pulled apart, resulting in micro-tears and mini-cracks, even if it is in good condition.  This happened to me, but didn’t cause any lasting problem.  Given that the skin there was (and should be) soft and supple, it stitched together again all by itself after a couple of months, once my feet had finished morphing into their new shape – which fortunately doesn’t look so different to the naked eye!

(2) Weather and ground conditions can have a major influence on whether you feet risk becoming cracked or not.  Any environment which dries out your feet can be a cause, such as:
– dusty trails
– salted winter roads
– any climate with low humidity, regardless of temperature
I love the sensation of running on dusty trails, where the earth has begun to turn to a fine, soft powder, but it wreaks havoc on my feet.  A thin layer of dust gets ingrained between the natural peaks and troughs of my footprint, and there it begins very effectively to dry out the skin.  Even worse are salted puddles or damp pavements in subzero weather.  Liquid is even faster and more effective in getting into your footprint, and the salt – like any salt – powerfully draws out the natural moisture of your skin.  On top of that, the compound usually used to salt roads and pavements isn’t edible table salt (NaCl) but rather Calcium Chloride (CaCl2), which is toxic.  So if you’re a crazy winter barefoot runner like me, watch out for wet patches!

winter puddle (cropped)

(3) Puncture injuries can also cause cracks.  It’s true that only very rarely should you end up cutting your foot on something, but if it does happen, and if it happens on an area of the foot where the skin does a lot of stretching, then you’re in danger of a crack developing.  The skin doesn’t even have to bleed for it to be weakened enough to risk cracking.  Stretching can of course also interfere with the body’s attempts to stitch together the damaged tissue.

FOOTCARE: if your feet begin to feel dry, especially after running through winter puddles, rub in a foot cream before going to bed.  This can be repeated daily as long as necessary.  If there’s any danger of a crack developing, you can also rub in a light oil (such as almond oil) into the fissure after your post-run shower.

Equally important to prevent existent micro-cracks from deepening is to apply some kind of bandage during your run.  This serves to prevent both further stretching and tearing, as well as preventing dirt from entering the fissure.  Although traditional Band-aid plasters might work elsewhere on the body, I’ve found that they fall off relatively quickly when running barefoot.  As strange as it might sound, good quality electrical tape is the most effective solution for me.  Especially with cracks developing on the forefoot or on the underside of toes, electrical tape easily adapts to the contour of the foot and sticks very efficiently, especially if it’s also wound around a toe for extra hold.  Most importantly, it is extremely durable and takes a pounding!

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