Monday, June 3, 2013

Barefoot Running

I'm not really into conspiracy theories. I tend to look for the positives in people's motives rather than looking for ulteriors. However, when it comes to medical science, I'm afraid I can see quite a few instances in our daily lives that are evidence at best of an entrenchment of ideas, but quite often are probably just blatant lies fueled by self-interest.

Some of the absurd positions on "alternative" medicine and therapies among our esteemed western medical experts stem from the self-interest of the pharmaceutical industry. Why cure something when you can make a mint out of alleviating the symptoms. This has created the absurd western medical practice of treating the effect instead of the cause.

Whether fueled by industrial greed, or just simple obstinacy, there seems to have surfaced a belief within the medical profession that humans - the great 2-legged persistence hunters, that ran for days on end to wear their quarry down - are not meant to run.

Enter the modern running shoe. Invented in the 1970s by a person who had never run but wanted to, who found that it hurt his heels too much. This person had such poor running form that he was landing on the back of his foot and consequently jarring his whole skeletal system with each step. What did he do? Study running form so he could run better, faster, and with no pain? No. He put a foam pad under his shoes to absorb impact. That was Phil Knight - the founder of Nike. The rest is our inheritance.

I was just another one of his victims. All advice on shoes for running followed the same mantra: In order to make the inefficient human, sedentary, badly-designed body do that completely unnatural running thing, you needed high-tech help.

A few years back I injured the soleus muscle just behing my right achilles tendon about 5 weeks out from a half-ironman race I'd signed up for. Disaster!

Through recommendations I managed to find a great physiotherapist who not only got my foot working again in time for the race, but did a video analysis of my run to see where the problem was. I had always prided myself on having a pretty good, natural running style, so I was dumbfounded to learn that I was committing that cardinal error of running: The Heel-Strike: landing on the back of your foot.

My physiotherapist told me to increase my cadence, as this would mean I would be taking shorter strides and consequently landing behind my centre of gravity, and so on the front of my foot.

I followed his advice religiously, and was soon running comfortably again. I even got through the 21km run in the race without needing to stop or walk!

At that time, a few friends were starting to experiment with this new idea of minimalist running shoes. Not me. I was still firmly of the belief that they would all have such horrible injuries that they would be on crutches. Then one of them gave me a book.

Born To Run by Christopher McDougall is a special book. It reads in the easy style of a great American novel, but the story it tells is magical. Based around one runner's search for the cure to all his running-related injuries, it introduces us to the Tarahumara tribe in the Copper Canyons of Mexico. The Tarahumara have a delightful culture that involves running hundreds of miles a week with nothing on their feet except a pair of sandals fashioned from old tires to protect their feet from the rough terrain.

McDougall presents a strong case for the legitimacy of the barefoot runner including scientific as well as anecdotal evidence of our evolution as the great persistence hunter that then devolved into the heel-striking couch potato.

It worked on me. So I got myself a pair of minimally-soled shoes and started re-training my body to run correctly.

When you start running barefoot, your calves can't take too much to begin with. This is because you're keeping your heels off the ground by using the tendons and muscles in the foot and lower leg as a spring to push back off before your heel touches down. It doesn't take long though. As long as you increase the volume very gradually, you'll be over the aching calves within a week or 2 and starting to be able to run continuously for longer.

It's not hard to get the technique right. If you take your shoes off and run a few steps across a hard floor, most of us will instinctively keep our heels off the ground using the springy tendons in our mid-foot. But even if you're not quite so instinctive with it, the basic idea is to take small steps, which will have you placing your foot on the ground behind the position of your knee and hence on your toes, then push off before you heel hits the ground. That's how our ancestors did it, and why our feet and legs have the shape and musculature that they do.

This might not cure everybody's running problems. There are plenty of things that can contribute to making running difficult in your musculoskeletal structure from hereditary of injury-related problems. But whatever the problem, look for the cause. Don't just make the symptoms go away.

Shoes: I have used the Vibram FiveFingers and also some minimalist shoes by Merrell and New Balance. All of them work well but I prefer the FiveFingers for road and smooth running surfaces as you feel more of the surface that you're running on. For off-road you might need a bit more protection which the Merrils and New Balance ones give you, but do get the off-road versions - the road ones are starting to re-introduce some cushioning, which is totally counter-productive.

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