Importance of Surface Variation

Posted: September 1, 2011 in barefoot, Fitness, Health, Primal, Running
Tags: , , , , , , ,

What surfaces should I run on when transitioning to barefoot running? I’ve been asked this question at least a couple dozen times, and I know that this is often addressed in posts that focus on barefoot transitioning. Most people advise that you stick to buttery smooth man made concrete when first learning to run barefoot. I agree that these surfaces are great to run on. However, I don’t believe that they are the best surfaces to run on for beginners. Now I know what you are thinking, well then Puff…WHAT do YOU suggest we run on? Grass, sand, treadmills, carpet, clouds???? Nope…As awesome as running on clouds might be, I have yet to learn how, and I doubt very much that you know how to either. I believe that there is a running surface that is FAR superior to concrete, grass, sand, dirt, high school tracks, indoor tracks, etc.

Are you ready for it? Is the suspense killing you? Ok…I’ll tell you. GRAVEL. Yep, gravel. I believe that gravel, above ALL other surfaces, is superior to teaching you to run lightly, softly, and efficiently. Barefoot Ken Bob feels the same way, so if my advice isn’t up to snuff for you, then maybe his is. When I say gravel, I’m not talking about the namby pamby peat rock that people use to fill in gardens and fish tanks. I’m talking about the narliest gravel that you can find. You need to find something that is sharp, prickly, and downright uncomfortable. Note that I said uncomfortable, not painful. This is an important difference that you, as a human being, have to learn to differentiate between. We don’t run through pain, but we can run through discomfort.

Ok, so now that you know what surface I believe is the best to begin your transition to barefoot running on, you are probably wondering how you should start running on gravel? Well first of all, don’t run. Yeh, that’s what I thought…How am I supposed to learn to run on gravel if I’m not uhm…running? When you were a kid, you didn’t decide one day to start running did you? No, I didn’t think so. There is a series of events that must take place before you start running. First, you need to learn to stand on gravel without causing pain. Again, a little discomfort is ok, but pain is bad and should be avoided. You need to learn how to adjust your weight and RELAX your body. Once you can stand still on gravel, start adjusting your weight forward and backward while stationary so that you can FEEL how the gravel feels as your weight adjusts, and how to compensate without causing pain.

Once you can adjust your weight and rock back and forth on the gravel it’s time to take your first step on gravel. You’re still not ready for running yet, you can start walking and taking baby steps. One thing you want to avoid is bunching up your shoulders. This creates the false belief that you are walking lightly; in reality you are making your body more tense and causing more force to be exerted through your feet. This is the opposite of what we want. We want to be light, smooth, efficient. Remember to RELAX. I can’t stress how important this is. If you are tense you’ll find your form will suffer and pain is sure to come your way. Remember what I said about pain? Yeh…It’s bad. We don’t like it.

Finally, after you are able to walk on gravel without pain…It’s time to start jogging in place. I won’t go into much detail about this because if you know how to walk, you should be able to jog in place. When you can jog in place it’s time to lean forward slightly and let gravity do the less. Remember, running isn’t about fighting against gravity. It’s about letting gravity pull you along and using your legs as springs to keep yourself from falling.

When you can run on gravel for a few hundred yards, you are ready to start moving onto the dessert surfaces. These are the surfaces that I mentioned earlier. If you can run on sharp, pointy, rough, uneven gravel, you should be able to really ENJOY and have FUN running on smooth man made concrete, soft sand, dirt trails, etc. Those surfaces should be like a great dessert. Enjoyed and a treat. I don’t believe that you should always run on gravel, but I do believe that you should add it into your rotation of surfaces, and more importantly, I believe you should be using it as the primary surface when just starting out.

Think gravel is too rough on your feet…Take a look at mine after a 2 mile run tonight:

No, those white spots are not blisters. They are my pads that are developing from my running. They look a little more beat up after running on the rough gravel of the trail near my house. After washing them off, there are no white spots on my feet. No blisters, no rough spots…Just fat pads. My feet aren’t tender, they feel tingly and alive. It almost feels as if they’ve been through a vigorous massage. It’s truly a wonderful feeling. I hope that my opinion/advice/smooth talking will make you give gravel a chance. You might just discover how much nicer other surfaces really are when you’ve spent some time on barefoot running’s most under appreciated surface.

Until next time,


  1. […] over the gravel, they’d be much better off.   This isn’t the first time I’ve written about running on gravel either. That post goes into detail about starting your gravel running […]