Monday, October 17, 2011

A Call To Barefoot / Minimalist Trail Runners

This is a humble request for feedback from experienced minimalist trail runners, some of which I have personally called out to, like Barefoot Ted, Daniel Dubois, Jason Robillard, Michael Sandler and Patrick Sweeney. But at this point, I’m really interested by opinions from everyone with experience. I am looking forward to reading your comments / advice.

I won’t tell you the whole story of how I got into barefoot / minimalist running, I’ve done that before. But for the sake of comprehension, I need to mention that I started barefooting to break an unending circle of injury, notably of IT Band problems. I’ve been (road) running barefoot for over two years now, with great satisfaction and success.

I rediscovered trail running this summer, while preparing for my first ultra marathon. I had somehow forgotten how incredibly better trail running is, with its added challenge and beauty, the need for constant attention and the reward of being one with nature in a very special, physical way. Awesome.

After my ultra, and even more so when I learned I would be running the Copper Canyon in 2012, I realized that my trail abilities needed to seriously improve. So I started adding at least one trail run per week, while adding to my mileage gradually. I chose trails that offer various levels of challenge, but that can all be regrouped under the category “technical”, which means they are of the “single trail” type. Not smooth, gravelled park pathways. I’m talking roots, sharp rocks, vertical drops up to 5-6 feet, rolling pebbles, riverbeds, mud pits. Below are a couple images of trails I run (Click to enlarge).

I started hitting the trails in the same minimal shoes I ran my ultra with, the Merrell Trail Gloves. However, I quickly found they were very limited in capability, notably in terms of protection. I’d get bruises under my feet, experience severe adherence issues on slippery downhills or wet tree roots, and have a really hard time with surfaces made of sharp, protruding rocks. All these issues would get much, much worse as I would add speed to the equation.

I also had a very hard time going downhill on steep declines. This is clearly inexperience on my part, but I also think there’s more to it. After realizing I couldn’t really forefoot strike while going downhill unless I break my cadence with every step, I was advised to aim for a mid-foot landing that would allow me to use gravity to my advantage and that would stop me from hitting the ground so hard (and breaking my forward momentum) compared with my usual “barefoot” form.

So I did, and for a while, I got convinced I’d found the proper solution. I replaced my Trail Gloves with somewhat minimal La Sportiva Cross Lite and changed my downhill running technique. I gained awesome traction, a lot of confidence and I got much faster (in a mid-pack runner way, not the Patrick Sweeney way ;). All was good under the sun!

Except, Last week I did 2 hard trail runs, doubled with road trainings on the same day (the “back-to-back” technique for ultra training). My first one was 22.5km (14 miles) trail + 9km (5.5 miles) road, both at moderate pace. I took a 2-day break, then went for a 9km (5.5 miles) hard trail run (fast+technical), then went home and out for a 16km (10-mile) road run. I had to stop my road run because my knee started hurting in a way that was all too familiar – and, must I add, that I thought was gone for good. It was a slight IT Band pain. Like back in my shod days.

I gave myself 4 full days of break, then last Saturday went to a 23km (14.5-mile) vertical trail race up and down a ski resort. The knee pain came back around the summit (around the 11 mile point), and with a vengeance. When I started the last 3-mile straight downhill to the finish, the pain was really bad, I was limping and pretty much unable to run decently. Under other circumstances, I would’ve quit altogether. Anywho, I finished the race, but now my knee’s bad. And it’s IT Band.

This makes me think it’s a warning of overuse AND a sign of bad running form (probably a bit of both), coming from my intensified trail training / volume and the changes in my technique. I feel a little depressed, and back to square one. So while I ice and whine, there are many questions I want to ask you :

  • Did any of you experience similar issues?

  • Do you think this is maybe an “adjustment” my body’s doing and that it just needs time?

  • Are there barefooters / minimalist trail runners out there running shod part-time? What shoes do you use?

  • What do you specifically recommend I do, when I get back on the trails, considering the above context?

  • Am I the only one to think “performance” trail running on technical, single trail courses is impossible barefoot and extremely tricky / risky in minimalist footwear? (Also note : I’m from Canada, with seriously cold falls and winters)

  • For a barefooter / minimalist runner who gets injured the minute they wear shoes, what is the proper downhill running technique?

  • I am used to training volumes of 40km (25 miles) to 85km (53 miles) per week, on road. What should be my volume on trails?

  • Considering my ultimate goal is the Copper Canyon Ultra next March, do you have any other advice for me?

I hope I provided enough details for all this to make some sense. I also wish this can bring an interesting debate and stir ideas around a little. I find that there’s an overwhelming number of barefoot/minimal/whatever shoes that have gone out recently and pretend to be trail runners while they are far from it.

I will come back often and respond to your feedback. Thanks a lot for your time and help!


  1. I know it wasn't a call for me since I'm not experienced and I'm not a trail runner, my only trail experience being limited to a half-marathon in Merrel Pace gloves, but I'm interested in the responses.
    I went from barefoot to Lunas and I started increasing my mileage and the result is IT band problem. I was thinking of incorporating more trail runs to my training on the assumption that uneven ground and lateral pushing would strengthen me and reduce the IT band problem. It's interesting that you think the opposite i.e. trail running could cause ITBS.

  2. Well, frankly, at this point I'm at a loss. I think my ITBS might be a combined effect of my change in posture (by wearing shoes and by adopting a different downhill running form)AND my increased mileage on trail, aggravated by my recent gain in speed on downhill sections.

    I met a chiropractor today who told me we runners have a tendency to have weaker back-leg muscles (Our quads are too strong, in other words) that cause that type of problem. He recommended working out specifically on this set of muscles, easing off from running and cross-training (swim, gym) for a bit instead.

    Well stay tuned because if we're lucky, Barefoot Ted (maker of your Luna Sandals) might drop by and share his opinion.

  3. a couple things from a "not that experienced" trail runner:

    1. I don't think trail running is impossible barefoot, but I do think there are trails that are not suited to barefoot running. Personally I also think trail running is better with some kind of footwear so I can actually appreciate the nature around me instead of having to stare at the ground (I stubbed a toe very bad by spending more time appreciating nature than watching the trail).

    2. you should have been landing on your midfoot anyway while barefoot, so I'm thinking you were up on your toes too much before making the switch. That said, this past spring I made a similar major (may not seem major, but it is) change to my form and wound up developing IT Band issues as well. What I learned is when you make a change like that you need to back off your mileage and "relearn what you have learned", to quote a wise man.

    3. specifically for IT band issues, what I found to get rid of it was to use a foam roller/rolling pin technique on my quads, hams and glutes. some of these spots are hard to get with a rolling pin and an awesome BFR PT I know suggested using a softball to get at some of them. It'll hurt like hell the first few days but eventually it'll settle down and the IT Band pain will go away (it took me about a week to get rid of it and it's never come back)

    good luck with your training! I hope any of this helps you!

  4. Thanks a lot for the advice, Troy,

    And as a matter of fact, I'll be seeing a kinesio therapist tomorrow for a deep-tissue ass beating :)

    I'm also growing increasingly convinced that this is a form issue caused by my downhill technique. I will stick to what I know (forefoot landing) and instead focus on keeping my feet under my hips and accelerating my cadence. I found quite a couple interesting technique-teaching videos on YouTube.

    Thanks a lot for your time and run free :)

  5. I'm a trail runner and just completed my first trail marathon in the Merrell Pace Gloves. I have had IT Band issues and NEVER thought I would complete a marathon EVER! (I just recently posted my Run Smiley marathon to this collective minutes ago).

    Because of this, I've opted for an alternative training combining lots of strength training and no long slow distance running. Just high intensity interval training and sprinting. My longest run prior to the 28.75 miler I did last saturday was only 14 miles back in September for a trail race.

    As part of my program I have also been doing A LOT of mobility work. Check out:

    I think a lot of things allowed me to complete my latest race, but also not getting so hung up on my time and speed was part of it. I stopped to walk a lot of hills to make sure my IT Band didn't start screaming. I love hills, but the hills kill me!

  6. Thanks Zap,

    And I loved your text :)

    I will check out the resources you mentioned. When I do get back to the trails, I hope everything goes well. I'll keep you all Smiley people posted :)