As the weather gets colder, snowier, and nastier in the North East I find myself struggling to run outside barefoot without getting numb. Since the purpose of running barefoot is the sensory feedback, being numb is dangerous. I've explored the options, and tried many of them, but still have much to learn. Here are the options I've tried so far and what has worked.
Barefoot/Shodless. Frostbite is a serious concern as temperatures drip into the 30F and below and snow settles onto the ground. Cities spray the roads with salt and other chemicals, lowering the freezing point of water and creating a more caustic environment for skin. These are serious concerns and should not be taken lightly. They should also not be feared without being understood.
Being barefoot in the winter takes adaptation, just like any other type of activity that your body is not used to. The trick is to adapt slowly. The question is, can we truly adapt to such a thing? At this time I don't have an answer for you. My limited experience with running barefoot outside has involved numbness in ~30F weather. I promptly stopped, got inside, warmed up, and went back out slightly shod.
Perhaps I'm erring on the side of caution but the purpose of running barefoot is to increase the sensory perception and feedback. The moment things start to get numb, I am in a situation where I can easily overextend, over-stride, or simply overstep what I am capable of. Not to mention the heightened risk of frostbite.
Barefoot Rick has written some fascinating information regarding his barefoot running over the past 5+ years. The pictures are not for the squeamish and show him with various stages of frostbite and other injuries.
It's definitely possible to run barefoot in the winter; the jury is still out on the duration, adaption time and risk of lasting injuries.
Socks. Pulling on a pair of running socks (or wool socks) and just going out for a run seemed like a reasonable idea. After all, it's still pretty close to barefoot right? Well, not so much. The wool socks bunch in the front and felt extremely awkward. I had to take them off half way through 8 miles and run the rest barefoot. They did manage to keep my feet warm.
The running socks were no better. These provided very little warmth and the actual "sole" of the sock would have worn through after another 2-3 runs.
Just socks is not a viable option.
Vibram Five Finger Classics with Injinji Socks. The classic VFF have no strap over the top and are the most minimalistic of the Vibram options. Coupling these with the Injinji toe socks provides a warm and wicking solution. The actual running in "classics" is difficult since the elastic around the back pinches at the heel. If you remove this elastic the heel of the shoe is difficult to keep secured. Perhaps you will have better luck with this setup, however it is not feasible for me due to these limitations.
Vibram Five Finger Flow. Marketed as "ChiRunning in colder temperatures or crossing a stream with your kayak, the FiveFingers Flow provides comfortable barefoot protection", these definitely kept my feet warm. The 1.2mm Neoprene lining and 2mm EVA footbed provide the thermal insulation and protection.
Despite having a thicker sole than I would like, these have proved the best solution for me, thus far. The feeling is as close to barefoot as I can simulate while retaining feeling in my feet.
Since the shoes cover the entire foot, they do not feel as though they are going to slip off, like the VFF classics which allows for a more natural gait. As long as you are used to running barefoot, your form should allow to adapt to these without too much effort.
Treadmill. Barefoot running on the treadmill should not be dismissed as a winter alternative. Even if you are going to adapt your feet to the cold, the treadmill can help.
I've used the treadmill to both log miles barefoot and to warm up before heading out the door. I find that having muscles loosened up and my body temperature higher helps me ease into the cold without stiffness.
Snowshoes. I have yet to attempt this. Once there is some snowfall here in Michigan I will be trying my new Atlas Run Snowshoe. I've never "shoed" before but it sounds like a great way to run through the winter trails.
So how do you run in the winter? What have you done to keep your little footsies from freezing solid? I'd love to read about your trials and tribulations.
Edit: A more comprehensive winter running article is also available.