Barefoot Running

BareFootRunning.jpgIt was sometime the week before last, it didn’t seem important at the time, but now I guess it was. It was the last time I ran in ‘trainers’. Since that day every run till now has been in my Vibrams. I currently cannot see be going back to trainers. I feel so strong and relaxed running in them now. It reminds me of how I feel when I ride fixed wheel. There’s a feeling of connection, a feeling of control and definitely a feeling of using muscles right.

How did I get to this point ?

Looking back I realise it started way back in my late 20s early 30s when I went through a period of not being able to run and had 3 surgeries on my right knee. During that period I distinctly remember reading about some research being done into the lack of proprioception from the feet due to wearing supportive footwear. They came up with textured insoles that helped the foot feedback to the brain what was happening as it hit the ground. Funnily enough when I got the original Nike Frees they had textured insoles which are great but for some reason they seem to have stopped doing them. Anyway… this was like a Eureka moment for me. Thinking about it now it was probably the start of my more free thinking that ultimately lead me to massive changes of some pretty set views and a general questioning of “conventional wisdom”. I won’t get sidetracked with that.

At that time I made the decision that when I could finally run I would run in unsupportive racing flats. Yes I took the textured insoles a little further and decided that the more feel I got for the road the better. This was about 10 years ago.

Before getting in to triathlon I did loads of fell running. Interestingly enough fell shoes tend to be pretty unsupportive – they realise that big soles just lead to even more sprained ankles. Despite that I sprained my ankles multiple times and on one occasion managed to sprain both (though I didn’t realise one was because the other was so bad) and ran the second day on them. The physio showed me how to strap them. He said the strapping isn’t for physical support it’s to increase the proprioception by tugging on the skin in more places when the ankle gets pulled over. Interesting that.

During this period and into my triathlon racing I had no running injuries despite some pretty big volume. Fell runs of 10+ hours regularly and multiple 100+ mile weeks including one period of 3 weeks where I did over 100 miles every week. All this in unsupportive shoes. In fact, I went one further with my questioning. I decided not to replace shoes until they wore out. Seemed sensible to me. Why believe a company telling you to replace their product after a certain amount of time irrelevant of how they look.  Seems good commercial advice. As a result I spent even more time with even less support. This also appealed to the Yorkshireman in me – not only are racing flats cheap but they really last if you only replace them when they have holes in them.

So… come last year and I snap my FHL tendon. I’ve said I was injury free from this approach so I must address this injury as many out there will simply lay the blame on my running and my use of unsupportive shoes. Why wouldn’t they… a multi billion dollar industry is pushing the view that you need supportive shoes. This injury is INCREDIBLE rare. In fact, it’s unheard of other than through trauma or ballet dancers (standing on tip toes puts a lot of stress on this tendon). It is incredible unlikely this was snapped merely by using it. The most likely cause of this is some trauma in my past I wasn’t aware of. I’ve of course thought this through lots. Finally I remember an occasion when I was a teenager dropping a dumbbell direct on that toe… I do wonder. The other possibility is that I have a genetic tendency to weak tendons. Either way I think this injury was not due to my choices in running footwear.

Whilst sitting in a cast with nothing to do I read “Born To Run”. Reading that was like first reading The Paleo Diet. The penny dropped. Things weren’t so complicated. Ignore the advice thats bandied around and just take one bit of advice – do what is natural. Millions of years of evolution can’t be wrong. It’s quite arrogant to think in the past 30 years big business has discovered something better for our feet than natural selection did. So I got myself some   fivefinger shoes.

It seemed a good time to start wearing and running in them as my volume would be very low. I was effectively starting from scratch. Problem was I was subconsciously protecting my FHL tendon and causing compensatory injuries. To fix this I had to use an insert (hopefully temporary) which meant back to the racing flats. Since that point I have walked in Vibrams or bare feet probably 99% of the time. Running has been a mix. In Christchurch I would run in vibrams regularly to and from the QEII centre (about 3km each way). I also suspected one problem was lack of calf strength so I worked on that in the gym.

A year on from starting back to running and my feet feel so strong and now I am running all the time in vibrams. I’ll keep you posted if I ever go back to trainers.

Would I advice this to others ? If you’re my competition then definitely not. You don’t want to wear these, they’re terrible. To everyone else definitely. Just take it slow as your legs and feet adapt. You need to give it time and for that I think you need to be convinced. Think this through and ask questions. When considering the answers think carefully as to where your answers are coming from. So much advice is just out there … no one really knows the source but repetition gives it strength but repetition doesn’t make it right.

Here’re are some of my layman’s views on it that may make you think

-does it make sense to have support under your arch ? Any engineer worth their salt or even a kid with GCSE Mechanics will tell you that an arch is strong by not having support under it. It distributes the weights to either end. In the case of your foot that will be heel and ball. If you put support under it some forces will be applied at each point … ever wonder why runners get stress fractures ? I’m a layman but it seems to me that applying forces through the arch to bones not designed to take them would not be wise.

-Pronation. It’s only possible if you wear a supportive shoe. So when people wore these and started to pronate and got injuries what advice did they get (from the shoe shop / shoe company) – it wasn’t stop using our shoes and go back to your Dunlop Green flash. No, it was buy this more expensive shoe from us to fix it. Great business model.

-heel strike. Is this natural ? Try running in bare feet a little – you can’t heel strike. Ever looked at the complexity of your foot and wondered why ? Could it be some awesome shock absorber that’s just completely bypassed if you heel strike. Is the only reason you can heel strike due to the padding on the heal of a running shoe.

-Fore foot running. Is this the natural way to go ? Why do shoes promoting stick a heel on ? This surely just makes it harder to fore foot strike.

To finish … did anyone notice the puncture repair patch on the toe of one of my vibrams ? Seems to be working well.

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