Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts On Barefoot Running (Even Tarahumara Indians Strap Pieces Of Tyre To Their Feet)

There has been an explosion in coverage of barefoot running in the last year. Nearly every fitness or health magazine has had an article on it, and the mainstream press has covered it extensively as well. This is mainly due to the popularity of the book Born To Run (one of my favourite books, more on this later).

However, most of the people writing in mainstream magazines about barefoot running have never actually tried it, or they do a quick jog around a park with a barefoot expert. The Internet is replete with stories of people who cured themselves of all sorts of debilitating injuries just by going for a barefoot run, and most articles feature a barefoot running zealot who lives their entire lives barefoot. On the other hand there are some podiarists who believe merely thinking about barefoot running will cause your foot to explode. Somewhere, as usual, there is a middle way.

And that's where I come in, I've made the barefoot running mistakes so you don't have to! I will outline how to integrate barefoot running into your training based on my experience. I should say straight off, this isn't a review of the research or a scientific discussion. To find out more about the research I recommend going to The Science of Sport blog and reading this article about the research and this excellent 5 part discussion about barefoot running ( click on link and scroll down the page to get to part 1). Also see this website from Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University that explains the research they did and also gives some tips of barefoot running. As you'll see later, some of my tips crossover with theirs, but some of mine are based on my experience and training background - I haven't seen them mentioned by endurance athletes or publications aimed at them, that doesn't mean they haven't been, I just haven't seen them.

And So It Begins

"'And just how far would you like to go in?'
'Not too far but just far enough so's we can say that we've been there.'" - Bob Dylan

The first time I came across barefoot training (excluding watching the likes of Zola Budd running around barefoot when I was a kid) was when I started to do kettlebells in about 2004. Pavel and all the kettlebell guys recommended training barefoot, and seeing as I was only using my kettlebell at home and not in a commercial gym, it was easy for me to do, and it made sense.

Fast forward a few years, and I would routinely do things like deadlifts in the flattest shoes I could find, and then started to do them barefoot (or in socks to be completely accurate), and then put my trainers back on, hoping no one had noticed to avoid a discussion about why I was doing it.

Then in 2008 I read this blog post from Eric Cressey, that mentioned this article in the New York Times. It seemed the author recommended wearing minimal shoes or going barefoot as much as possible, and again it made sense. At the time I couldn't locate any Vibram Five Fingers that I could try on before buying, but the author of the NY Times article, mentioned a British company called Terra Plana, who made a minimal barefoot shoe called the vivo barefoot, bingo! A travelcard and a train ride later, I'd gone to their shop in Covent Garden, tried on a pair, liked them and bought them. They also looked a bit more conventional than the five fingers, even so the looked different enough for people to comment when I wore then in the gym and at work.

The vivo barefoot

Working On Technique And Barefoot Running Are Not The Same Thing

At this point it still hadn't occurred to me that you could actually run barefoot, I was still stuck in the mentality that you needed trainers with a heel cushion to go running.

I'd looked at running technique, I think it was back in about 2001 I had read the Chi Running book and tried a few of the drills and exercises, but at the time I had lost interest in running and wasn't really trying. And for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that running shoes could change the way you ran.

Then in about May 2009 I read Born to Run when it first came out. At the time, I thought the book would only be of interest to ultra runners and their ilk. Turned out I was wrong. Christopher McDougalls writing and the story turned it into a world wide hit and probably generated about an extra zillion sales of vibram five fingers. (If you haven't read it, go and read it now! Right now!). And the content was a revelation, not only in terms of the discussion of ultrarunning and the story, but also the issue of barefoot running, running shoes design and how it changed technique. Despite the success of Born To Run I still think barefoot running is not in the mainstream consciousness, despite seeing a few people in the gym wearing the vibrams, the majority of gym goers and runners still wear trainers and think barefoot running is not for them.

The previous year I had been suffering from ITB pain, that was debilitating enough to make me stop running and have to start walking after about 20 minutes. I was still paranoid about it coming back. Barefoot was the answer! And I already had the vivo barefoots.

I put on the vivo barefoots and my raidlight rucsac to be extra stupid and hardcore and ran to the park. I ran on the pavement to get there, did some circuits around the park, ran up the hill pictured below a few times and then ran home on the pavement. All in all about 6-7k. Note that I had completely ignored the barefoot running advice to only run a few minutes to begin with, only run on soft grass etc. The next day I had no adverse effects, except some pretty sore calf muscles from my new forefoot running technique I had adopted.

Find a hill and do repeated sprints up it - It'll make you a believer. The first hill I ran up in my vivo barefoots - ahh, memories

I continued to incorporate barefoot running into my training, I'd run completely barefoot on grass football pitches - working on sprints and technique, then run longer in my vivo barefoots when I did a combo of road and park running and then use my trail shoes when running on trails. All the time I was trying to adopt forefoot running, as well as adding in pose running/ chi running style techniques - and my calves and achilles were getting tighter and more tender and my ankles were getting stiffer.

Then after reading all the info on The Science of Sport blog about forefoot and midfoot running and also reading their book The Runners Body, ( hint: even some elite runners heel strike) and I decided to simplify my technique. I focused on landing my foot under me and driving into the ground and using my posterior chain (glutes etc). Almost immediately I started to have more of a midfoot technique and felt like I was running more efficiently and my calves didn't feel like they were on fire.

I'd tried to change too much too quickly and tried to adopt a technique that didn't really work for me. Maybe everyone wasn't destined to be a forefoot striker.

I had observed this with a few people I had got to run barefoot on the treadmill or outside. Nearly everyone would adopt a midfoot or forefoot style with no coaching, but a couple of people continued to heel strike, even when I inclined the treadmill. Was it because the heel strike dogma of running companies was so ingrained in their mind, or was it because the software in their brain told them to heel strike? (Note: No I don't like treadmills, I've never run for more than 10 minutes on one, and the technique is different to running outside, you bounce up rather than driving back into the surface, but if you are working in a gym, that's what you've got).

One time I had forgot my trail shoes and ran off road in my vivo barefoots (see picture below) and I was absolutely fine despite a mixture of stones, grass, mud, chalk etc. I also noticed that when running on this type of terrain there was no mid foot, forefoot, heel strike issue because the way your foot hit the ground changed all the time. The foot would match the ground, sometimes striking more on the outside or inside or back or front as it felt it's way across the terrain. Was this how the human foot was designed to work? It seems unlikely ancient humans would have run on long straight, hard stretches of ground with the foot striking the ground the same on every step, the foot strike would have changed with the terrain.

Yes you can do a trail run in vivo barefoots - wouldn't try it in winter though. Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, U.K

Disaster Strikes - how to be a barefoot muppet

Then about three weeks before the Trans Aq ultrarun I had entered, I decided to go and do a tempo run in my vivo barefoots. I ran for an hour on pavement, on a road that was basically flat and straight. And when I got home it felt like I had broke my foot, and the next day it felt worse. Like all good runners I took some diclofenac, stuck my foot in a bucket of ice and hoped it would go away.

I had injured myself not on a difficult trail but on a flat pavement with my feet striking the ground the same way for an hour, with 2-3 times my bodyweight going through my knees and ankles and feet with every strike, and in an hour that's 1000's of foot strikes. In his book Movement Gray Cook refers to barefoot running as a "self limiting activity", as in, you stop doing it when technique breaks down, not when fatigue sets in. Obviously, Gray hadn't considered a muppet in a pair of vivo barefoots running on a pavement panicking about a multi day endurance event he had entered. Now, of course, If I was completely barefoot, maybe I wouldn't have been able to do it on that surface, my body would have stopped me, who knows. After a few weeks the pain went away. But it was a wake up call, you could injure yourself barefoot running, just the same as you could running in trainers.

The Emperors New Clothes

I own a pair of vivo barefoots and a pair of Nike Frees which I wear most of the time at work. But of course, actual barefoot means you don't need any footwear, it's free! It's human nature (well in the West where consumerism is the name of the game) to think you need special footwear or tools to achieve something like barefoot running. So we go out and spend £70+ on trainers or shoes to give us that barefoot feeling, or help us on our way to being barefoot. I'm as guilty as anyone of this.

These days, wearing a pair of vibram five fingers is seen as part of your functional fitness credentials. At one fitness show I was at, half the people manning the stands seemed to be wearing them. But we were indoors, so they didn't really need any footwear. If they had been barefoot it would have been perceived as strange, unhygienic and weird, if you're wearing some vibrams though you're cool and functional.

Now, to be fair, running barefoot outside is not an option in some places depending on the climate and terrain. For example, where I live in the UK, going for a barefoot run in the winter is going to result in frozen feet, possible frostbite and a trip to casualty to explain that you are not an insane hobo but a barefoot runner. You could buy the cheapest pair of trainers or minimal shoes and run in those (Yeah, I know someone who ran 20k in a pair of fake converse chucks off road and lived to tell the tale). If you want to get a barefoot shoe - here is my guide based on what I have used:

Vivo Barefoots - comfortable and hard wearing with a minimal sole, and wide front, fit perfectly. No heel whatsoever.

Nike Free - looks like a conventional trainer, so you wont get stared at. Can run in these on pavement as they provide more cushioning than a vivo barefoot. Disadvantage, their sole has large 'grooves' in it, to make it super flexible, however gravel and stones get stuck in these, if you have a gravel drive way like I do, you end up carrying an extra kilo of stones around with you. Also these 'grooves' suck in mud. Comfortable, good to wear all day.

Nike Free - comfortable, great shoe to wear all day and break yourself into more minimal footwear. However the sole is a gravel magnet.

Actually being barefoot - good for around the house, kettlebell training, deadlifting and running on grass where you know Dick Dastardly hasn't planted any nails or tacs for you to stand on. The most authentic barefoot experience - you know, cos you're actually barefoot. No good in winter or really hard terrain - even the Tarahumara Indians strap pieces of tyre to their feet for when they're running around Copper Canyon.

Vibram Five Fingers - don't know, haven't used them.

The devolution of footwear - Asics Trail Shoe (yes I need to clean them), Nike Free, Vivo Barefoot

How to start

I still think training barefoot and running barefoot is beneficial to just about everyone. The caveat being, if you actually have a structural problem with your foot, then you should get that checked out first, yes, some individuals may need orthotics - but probably a lot less than actually have them.

  • Start slowly, if you've never done anything barefoot then start to do something barefoot, like walking around at home, doing some bodyweight squats or bodyweight lunges. This should help show up any tightness or restriction you may have.
  • If you're not fit enough to run 5k then you're not fit enough to run 5k barefoot. Don't expect barefoot running to suddenly make you fitter. Be realistic.
  • Build up slowly, try some walking mixed in with some jogging on flat grass. Literally a couple of minutes, a few hundred metres and that's it. You wouldn't go to the gym and knock out 10 sets of heavy deadlifts if you had never done it before, you might do 1 or 2 sets with a light weight to groove in the technique. Running is no different.
  • If you have mobility issues, work on them, don't expect barefoot running to fix them. Stiff ankles with poor dorsiflexion - do some mobility drills, and squat, lunge, deadlift barefoot. I think my base of lifting barefoot and doing kettlebells barefoot stood me in good stead for barefoot running.
  • If you have weak areas strengthen them. If your glutes are weak and stop you using your posterior chain, work on strengthening them, again mobility drills like hip bridges and strength work like deadlifts, one legged kettlebell deadlifts and step ups.
  • Soft tissue work. Your calves may get tight if they aren't already tight,. get a massage, or if that isn't feasible use a foam roller or stick or read this fantastic article. Stretch.
  • Trail running seems more authentic to me because of the constant change in foot strike position, it will strengthen your connective tissues and help to bulletproof you against things like achilles tendinitis. Again start slowly, wear trail shoes to begin with.
  • Running on sand is the hardest thing in the world ever. If you have access to a sandy beach, try it - bear in mind that the technique is completely different to running on grass, and may not carry over to your normal running.
  • Barefoot running is not a panacea, barefoot runners get injured like everyone else. General advice - if your are overweight or really unfit doing something else before running, you don't have to run to lose weight or even 'get fit', there might be better options to begin with.
  • Certain things I would not do barefoot, like Olympic Weightlifting, get some weightlifting shoes. I've seen videos of some Bulgarian or Greek guys doing some oly lifting training barefoot, but the chances are you aren't in the Bulgarian Weightlifting Team.
  • Listen to your body, it's trying to tell you something.
In short start slow, build up slow, make sure you're mobile enough, strong enough, recover properly and enjoy yourself.

"Training gives me proof." - John Litei (Kenyan who can run faster than you)

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