What do you do when you get a group of barefoot/minimalist runners together of varying ages, and fitness levels, and want to have a little fun? I suppose there are a lot of ideas that come to mind, several of which involve pizza and beer. I would like to introduce an activity you probably haven't heard of yet: TrailBall.

TrailBall - River walk

TrailBall is the brainchild of Christian Harberts, current president of the French chapter of the Barefoot Runners Society. In his role as president, Christian runs monthly meetings to encourage and support barefoot and minimally shod runners. TrailBall was born out of his desire to find an activity that would make these meetings fun and social, while also helping to build skill, strength, agility and fitness in the participants.

The game is inspired from Rarahipa, a game played by the Tarahumara (Rarámuri) that involves kicking a small wooden ball for days-on-end while consuming alcohol and hallucinogens. While TrailBall does not use a wooden ball, does not require the use of recreational drugs, and only lasts for about an hour, there is still a lot of fun to be had.

TrailBall 101

TrailBall - Rooty trails

At its core, the object of the game is quite simple: get the ball from point A to point B. That's it. Whether you choose to do that solo, as a team, as a time-trial, over roads, trails, or obstacle courses is up to you (more on that later).

In some ways, I liken it to the frisbee of the ball kicking world. You don't need anything special except a ball and a few willing participants - even for the official game. In that regard, trail ball really meshes well with running, hiking, and walking. If you can travel a course on foot, then it is a good course for TrailBall. You don't need a large playing field, you don't need goal posts or nets, or anything other than a ball.

Shoes are optional. You can obviously play the game in any footwear you like, however, participants are encouraged to use minimalist footwear or go barefoot. More for the spirit of the game than anything - it was designed by barefooters after-all.

The Ball

TrailBall - Hemp version

The TrailBall ball is small, light, and (of course) barefoot friendly. It is approximately 14.5 inches (326mm) in circumference and weighs about 7 oz (200g); specifications that give it the ability to float very well. Currently - with the game being in beta, things could change - the ball is available in two materials: soft PVC, and hemp. Both versions have a hexagonal pattern scored on the outside surface (similar to the pattern found on a soccer ball).

When I say the balls are barefoot friendly, what I mean is that they are soft and light enough that you won't injure yourself if you decide to kick one really hard. I won't be responsible for any gravel embedded in your foot though :-) On several occasions when playing with the family, someone has been nailed in the back (or the back of the head) when one of the kids let fly with a wild kick. OK, maybe I was responsible once or twice too... Either way, I am happy to report that the incidents were all laughed-off with nothing injured other than perhaps a little pride. The balls are safe.

There are currently a small number of pre-production balls available for purchase from the TrailBall website here. The pre-production balls are numbered and signed by Christian; collectors items!

The Variations of TrailBall

TrailBall - Off trail

The current sanctioned variations of TrailBall are:

  • TrailBall Enduro: This is a TrailBall session that lasts for a minimum of 30 minutes, and has no upper limit. The 30 minute line is a kind of threshold that separates the men from the boys so to speak. TrailBall novices will expend a lot of energy as they learn to control the ball and work together as a team; novice sessions typically won't last more than 15 minutes. As players gain experience and fitness, that time will gradually increase. Eventually the prospect of a 30 minute session will seem within reach and players will then be in the realm of TrailBall Enduro.
  • TrailBall Navigate: This variant is still in development (they are looking for advisors!). The basic idea is an orienteering course except the teams must not only navigate between checkpoints, but must do so with a TrailBall. Each team has one member who does the navigation, while the other members are responsible for advancing the ball.
  • TrailBall Play: The name of this variation speaks for itself. All you do is advance the ball, as a group through the course of your choosing. Oh, and don't forget to have fun while you are at it. This is a great way to introduce new players to the game, build skills, and just hang out with friends.
  • TrailBall Speed: The object of this variant is to achieve the fastest speed over a pre-determined course. You can either compete as teams or individually.
  • TrailBall Trial: Advancing the TrailBall over a natural or man-made obstacle is TrailBall Trial. Things like curbs, stairs, streams, ditches, cars, benches, trees, etc. Any change in relief in the path of a TrailBall is considered an obstacle. Any TrailBall course that contains obstacles is considered TrailBall Trial.
  • TrailBall Zen: When you are too tired to run, or want to play with others who would rather not run, or just feel like chilling out with friends, then TrailBall Zen is what you want. In this variant, you advance the ball while walking. To spice things up a bit you can add targets and turn it into a session of golf, where you compete for least number of shots to hit the target.
TrailBall - Log jumping

And of course you can do all of the above in one of two configurations:

  • TrailBall Solo: This is pretty straight forward... you play with the TrailBall alone, either walking or running.
  • TrailBall Team: Teams consist of 2 to 5 players per ball. Teams can be larger, but experience has found that more than 5 is the practical limit.

Get creative! All of the variations listed above can be considered as components that can be mixed and matched however you like. Anyone up for a TrailBall Team Enduro Speed Trial?

Our Experiences

We have been playing the game for a couple months now. Our family goes on a daily trail walk around our home here most mornings. To gradually introduce ourselves to the game and get people used to the concept of ball handling we started to bring the ball with us on some of our walks. AKA, TrailBall Zen. Usually, despite our best attempts at remaining Zen, there is a fair amount of running and scrambling to keep the ball in play.

TrailBall - Air time

Surprisingly, even at an (attempted) walking pace, you have to be quite focused as a group to keep the ball in play and moving in a general forward direction. Initially, our walks which typically take about an hour, were slowed down by about 10 minutes. Most of the slowdown can be attributed to learning how to deal with interesting obstacles: narrow paths, tall grass, logs, etc. On a mostly flat trail you probably wouldn't notice as much of a slowdown. Over time, we have gradually improved, shaving around 5 minuts off our time, but we still aren't as fast as just plain-old walking yet. By far, the most difficult scenario we have had to deal with is thick, tall grass.

TrailBall - Our Arch Nemesis, Tall Grass

In foul weather we even had a TrailBall Speed Trial session where the kids took turns trying to get the ball from the basement to the top floor of the house as fast as possible. Not that I condone the activity, but it is worth mentioning that the ball is light enough that indoor use is relatively tame.

Generally, our games are in the realm of Zen Play Team Trial, with some running thrown in as required when ball management disaster strikes. We are looking forward to introducing others to the game, and exploring some of the different variations. At the moment, we don't have an organized barefooters group in our area, but looking at some of the videos that Christian has produced, it looks like multiple balls and lots of people makes for a lot of fun!

Looking for an all-ages fun foot-powered activity that works well with barefoot and minimalist shoes? Check out TrailBall!