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Do your running shoes unlace when you race? April 13 2017, 0 Comments

Few things are more irritating than the nagging flap-flap of an untied shoelace when running in a nice rhythm. Stopping to retie loses valuable seconds when running in a race, and failure to do so when navigating brush or a rough trail runs the risk of an undignified face-plant when it snags something mid-stride.

study at MIT recently discussed research on why shoe laces come undone when you are running. Apparently, the impact of landing stretches and then loosens the bow, and the swing of the leg causes the lace ends to swing like a pendulum, and all of this loosens the knot.

Intriguingly, this is quite a big subject, even with a presentation on the subject on TED. A study at the university of Berkley in California looks at the merits of different kinds of bows. A 'granny bow' in which the bow is tied in the same way as the first knot, say right-over-left for both, is intrinsically less stable than one in which the bow is tied in the opposite way to the first knot, so left-over-right after right-over-left. This intuitively makes sense for the same reason that a reef knot is more stable than a granny knot. Stability can be increased by using more complex bows, such as a double loop in the second knot.

It's all a bit academic if you use ZEMgear shoes, which conveniently slip on without laces, the sole held snugly in place by the Tech bands over the instep. Check them out here.


The efficiency of barefoot running style September 23 2016, 0 Comments

Our bodies have many wonderful ways of managing energy - for instance redirecting blood flow to conserve or disperse heat, and in the case of running, storing energy to be used in the next stride.

In their book on Biomechanics and Biology of Movement, the authors estimate that for a 70kg runner the energy lost and regained in each stride is about 100Joules. Of this, about 17 Joules is stored in the elastic tendons of the foot as the foot stretches and flattens on landing, and another 35 Joules is stored in the Achilles tendon as the heel is lowered to the floor. When springing off into the next stride, this elastically stored energy is used for the lift-off. You will notice that the assumption in this is that the foot lands with the ball of the foot first so that the heel can be lowered for this impact absorption.

Work done at Harvard has shown that the impact on landing during running is about two and a half times your body weight, and they have elegantly illustrated how this happens for different running styles. With a front-foot landing, as the impact absorption comes into play gradually there is a steady incremental impact, with a symmetrical decrease as the weight is lifted off again. With a heel strike, the elastic parts of the foot and Achilles tendon cannot play a part in impact absorption, and so there is a jarring impact which carries up through the joints of the leg. It is possible to run on the front foot with heeled running shoes, but it is less easy, and there is less travel to absorb the impact. Heel striking with padded shoes does not seem to have much effect on the jarring impact of the landing.

To switch to a front-foot running style may take a little re-learning (we do it naturally when we are children), but it will save energy by using your elastic tendons to help you run.

The days are cooling off now as we move into Autumn, so if you are thinking about saving energy by changing to barefoot shoes, check out our winter models, Apex and Hero, which are made from Thermoprene to keep your feet snug in the cold weather.


Spread your toes to support your arches July 06 2016, 0 Comments

Many running shoes add strain to the foot and particularly the arch by tapering the toe box so that the toes are squeezed together.  To illustrate, try this...

With your bare foot on the ground, move your big toe in towards the others as far as you can and then see if you can rotate the arch of the foot towards the floor. You will probably find that this is quite easy - you are over-pronating and this puts a strain on the arch, and also the structures higher up such as the knees and hips which can be misaligned by this movement.



Being able to spread the toes while running or walking is important to ensure arch support, ankle alignment and correct movement during these activities and to avoid planar fasciitis and other painful conditions. As with all things, prevention is better than cure - if you can see that your arch is sagging now, consider changing to shoes that allow better natural support.
Now, still with your foot on the floor, spread your big toe as widely away from the other toes as you can and try to pronate the foot again. It's much more difficult - the big toe acts as a support and keeps the arch in the flexed position, which also keeps the ankles and knees properly aligned. Here is a good anatomical explanation of what is happening.

ZEMgear shoes allow for good toe spread, either through a wide toe box as we have in our 360 series, or with a separated big toe which can move independently from the rest, found in our Terra, Hero, Apex and Oxygen 2 series.


How to develop a front-foot running style May 31 2016, 0 Comments

We maintain that landing on the front foot is the natural, shock-absorbing style of running, so it might be helpful to know a few tips on how to make the switch from whatever you are doing now.

Forefoot running

Now jump repeatedly up and down on the spot. If you are doing this right, you will spring off from your toes and your feet will stay relaxed with the toes pointing down while you are airborne. When you land, the ball of the foot will hit first, and then your feet and calves will absorb the impact of the landing so that the heels touch down lightly if at all. This is the motion that we want to replicate as you run.Firstly, as it is supposed to be a core element of barefoot running, start somewhere where you can get rid of the shoes. An open area inside or out that is free from potentially foot-damaging detritus. If you do wear shoes, find some whose sole has the lowest heel in your collection. It's more difficult to land on the front foot when there is an extra couple of centimetres under the heel.

Now start running on the spot, using the same basic motion but one foot at a time. This means that your knees are coming up in front of your body, rather than kicking your heels out behind you, and your feet are moving up and down vertically. Again, they will relax into a downward-pointing position while you are airborne, and the ball of your foot will be the first to touch as you come down. Again, you will feel your feet and calves working to absorb the impact, only more so now as all of your weight is on one foot instead of two.

Finally, continue running on the spot and then lean forwards slightly from the ankles to move forwards. Your stride will be shorter than it is if you habitually heel-strike, but you can compensate for this by upping the step frequency.

That's it.

One more thing. Unless you want to run actually barefoot, get some barefoot running shoes. As your feet will work harder, you might want to transition with a pair of low-rise shoes where the difference in height between the ball and the heel of the sole is much smaller than your current trainers. Or you can simply take the plunge and get some barefoot shoes, in which case it is best to ease yourself in gently. As we are inching into June now, our summer range is ready to go. We recommend that you have a look at the Terra for all sorts of running, including trails where it offers extra protection, the 360 for running on smooth surfaces and the Oxygen 2 for indoor and water-sport use.

Wishing you good running!


Just r-u-u-nning in the rain! May 15 2016, 0 Comments

Despite a deluge of rain, we ran last night. I have a regular group run on Thursdays, and to make even better use of the time I borrow the neighbour's dog and try to get him tired - a forlorn hope as his running batteries are much bigger than mine. We arrived at the venue already sopping wet - he's a labrador and seemingly impervious to any kind of water - and set off a little stiffly as the temperature had headed back winterwards in the last two days.

Running in the rain

It's interesting how once you settle into the run, the weather becomes a less significant influence, and after a couple of kilometres warm up it becomes an irrelevance. It even has its benefits as it keeps you from overheating, and if you begin to feel a little chilly you can accelerate and burn a few more calories to keep warm. To help on this front I had donned an HG long-sleeved top under my running gear and was snug as a bug for the whole trail. I switched my summer ZEMgear Terras to go back to some winter Heros, and my feet were toasty warm even when running through deep puddles.

Sport HG topZEMgear TerraZEMgear Hero

At the end of the run everyone's spirits were noticeably higher, and I confess to a smug self-satisfaction that we ran in those conditions. If you drop it into the conversation at work the following day, you can watch people's eyebrows arch in amazement.

But here's the thing. It's not crazy. Rather than sitting at home and gloomily watching the rain on the other side of a window pane, getting out and running in it leaves you feeling relaxed, virtuous, and nicely ready for a good night's sleep. So next time it looks wet and miserable outside why not go out and confront it head on?


How well are we equipped to run? - 4. Evidence from our achievements April 29 2016, 0 Comments

So are we designed for long-distance running?

Apart from the anatomical evidence that we have discussed in the previous instalments (1, 2, 3), if we look at what we achieve as a running species, it becomes impressive.

Vast numbers of people participate in marathons and half marathons all over the world.  It is gender-neutral. Men's and women's marathon records get closer year by year, and are now within 10% of each other. If we are looking at distance running, then a marathon could be construed as a bit short. Very long races are run on every continent, including the Bruce Trail (Canada - 800km), the Bunion Derby (USA - 3'455km over 3 months), the Ultrabalaton (Hungary - 220km), the Trans-Europe Foot Race (last run in 2012, 4'175km in 64 days) and the Big Red Run (Australia, 250km in 6 days in the Simpson desert).

Dr Dennis Bramble ran an exercise to plot the age of all participants in the New York Marathon against their running times. He found that speeds increased from the age of 19 up to about 27 years of age, and then they declined. Although this might be expected, the rate of decline was very slow, and it was not until an age of 64 that the speed had declined to the same as the starting point of 19 years old. If you think about it, if you need to chase your food for 60km, you're not going to want to lug it back home, and so the whole tribe has to follow dinner until it lays down - so the ability to run has to be long-lived.

Finally, in a long-distance race between a man and a horse, which would you back? It's an interesting question because the stride of a good runner is longer than that of a horse, and we have already established that we can do distances. Since 1980, this event has taken place in Wales each year over a 22 mile (35km) course. The horses win more often than the runners, but the differences are not huge, and on two famous occasions, both on hot days, the runner has won.

So we appear to be designed do long-distance running. Moreover, we increasingly do it for fun, suggesting that we are following a natural instinct to run, and we have developed as a running animal in an evolutionary laboratory over 2 million years. ZEMgear shoes allow us to indulge this ability in a way closest to the natural barefoot state, protecting our feet and still allowing us the flexible, natural use of our feet.


How well are we equipped to run? - 3. Other equipment April 20 2016, 0 Comments

So far, we have looked at the legs and feet, so it is probably time to look at the other anatomical aids we have for long-distance running.

Let's start with breathing. If you watch fast-running four legged animals you can see that at the two extremes of their stride they either stretch or crunch, and this can have a dramatic effect on their breathing.

If you are at full stretch, it is much easier to breathe in than out, and if you are crunched up, exhaling is the most comfortable option. So breathing is linked to pace, and that is an intrinsic limitation. Cheetahs are astonishingly fast, but they run out of puff pretty quickly. Being bipedal enables us to disconnect our breathing from our pace. We may choose to breathe in time with our stride, but if push comes to shove we can double or triple our respiration rate without affecting our running, a handy trick if you want to maintain a pace for a long distance.

Another thing that you will notice with most animals is that they pant to cool themselves down, and this also has limitations. Running generates heat, and if you are pursued by an animal until you cannot cool down as fast or faster than you heat up, eventually you simply have to stop. If the animal pursuing you happens to be homo sapiens, he has the major advantage of being able to sweat across the full breadth of his skin, and the evaporation of the sweat cools him and gives him many more miles of distance before he overheats. The evidence suggests that we were on a high-protein diet (meat) long before we invented tools and weapons, and that running after animals until they simply lay down from exhaustion was how we caught our food.

Finally, in our necks we have a nuchal ligament, something that his found almost exclusively in running animals. It serves to support the weight of the head without muscular effort, and to hold the head still while running.

So the anatomical evidence is looking pretty strong that we were built to run. In the next instalment we shall look at what we can do that supports the man-as-long-distance-runner theory. In the meantime, you might like to have a look at some of ZEMgear shoes that protect your feet but still allow you to run as nature intended.

 


How well are we equipped to run? - 2. Lower legs and feet. April 12 2016, 0 Comments

From our previous discussion, our upper legs are designed to help us with locomotion on the ground, and I'd like to now build the case that we are actually designed to run.

Casting our attention south to the lower legs and feet, and again comparing with the apes, we can see that we have a very chunky calf muscle and a considerably bigger achilles tendon.

Tendons connect bones to muscles and are elastic, often being placed to absorb and store energy for later use. For walking, where we normally plant the heel and then roll forward on the foot to pushing off into the next step, there doesn't seem to be much need for a large, impact-absorbing tendon. For running, on the other hand, especially if we accept the case for a front-foot landing, the absorption of energy as the heel is lowered warrants a very much larger tendon, such as we have. The elastic energy stored can then be used for the push-off into the next stride.

The case becomes stronger when considered with the structure of the foot. One of our feet has 26 bones, 33 joints and more than 100 muscles. Many of these are located in the arch, which acts as a bridge between the ball and heel of the foot. When we land on the front foot in running, the muscles in the arch and the achilles tendon together tense and absorb the impact of the step so that the heel lands much more lightly. This prevents a jarring impact at the heel being transferred upwards to the ankle and knee and the lower back. One of the best illustrations of this are the videos taken by Dr Daniel Lieberman's group at the skeletal lab at Harvard University. Follow the link for a heel strike. You can see that the total impact of landing is about two and a half times the body weight, when the heel lands about one and a half times the body weight occurs in the first, jarring impact by the heel, shown by a vertical line on the impact/time trace at the bottom.

With a front-foot landing, the impact trace has a much more gradual slope, showing a steady transfer of weight, rather than a sudden one. Furthermore, adding a big wad of padding to the sole of your foot doesn't significantly reduce the sudden impact of a heel strike.

So our calves, achilles tendons and feet are admirably suited to provide us with a cushioned ride during running. And we have other equipment that helps us to run, as we shall discuss in the next blog. In the mean time you might like to check out our  ZEMgear shoes, which protect your feet, but allow them and your legs to run as nature intended.

 


How well are we equipped to run? - 1. Upper legs. April 06 2016, 0 Comments

I'm not talking about shoes or clothing now, but about how we are built and how this helps us to run.

Theory has it that we run because that was how we caught our food. Interestingly, most of our potential food, down to animals as small as rabbits, can run much faster than we can. So our strategy could not be about speed. Rather, it is about stamina. We are reputed to be able to run most other animals to a standstill because of a unique combination of anatomical features. And here, while the evidence is still circumstantial, it is considerable.

Firstly, let's look at how our upper legs are built. If you watch our recent ancestors chimpanzees walk, they are obviously uncomfortable in standing motion on the ground. Their legs come straight down from the hip, which confers a wider range of movement for climbing, but means that they have to rock from side to side to put their centre of gravity over the leg during walking. We, on the other hand, have thigh bones that slope inward so that our legs are already under us and as we walk or run we can transfer weight from one leg to another much more smoothly. Our legs are much longer comparative to our bodies, increasing for us the importance of locomotion over distances.

At the top of our legs are the gluteus maximus muscles, our buttocks, the biggest muscles in the body. Compared to a chimp, they are enormous. They provide the power for both forward movement and agility across the ground and the importance of this for us is very apparent from the size of the muscle. If you have ever played a hard game of squash after a long break, the extreme mobility needed during the game often leads to 'squash buttock', an aching pot that can make a punishment out of sitting down for the next couple of days.

So the upper leg structure suggests that we might be designed to run. We shall continue this anatomical exploration in the next blog or two. In the mean time, feel free to browse our range for shoes that work with our wonderfully designed running bodies.


Spring in your step March 22 2016, 0 Comments

It's that time of year when some of us wonder when we are going to have to do the spring wardrobe switch. The weather, of course, does not go out of its way to make the decision easy, and temperatures swing wildly over a twenty-degree range making any fixed decision in either direction incorrect for at least part of the time.

For the ZEMgear barefoot shoe runner, an equally weighty decision has to be made in respect of footwear - when to switch from those warm winter Heroes and Apexes so as to avoid reproachfully steaming feet at the end of the run? I wait for them to be too warm, rather than switch early and suffer from cold feet - at least warm feet are flexible and don't hurt. This decision was reinforced by the experience of setting out on a balmy spring day last year wearing a pair of summer shoes and climbing above the snowline on the surrounding hills, hobbling back a half hour later with painfully cold feet.

So the decision has been made. The Terras are in waiting for a warm, sunny day, unless I plan to climb high. Meanwhile the Heroes will be used until the snow is completely gone. My 360s are used indoors where conditions are controlled, and for flying where swollen feet make having elasticated shoes a huge boon. All of them have that wonderful feet-on-the-floor feel that simply doesn't come with standard shoes.

Check them out!

 


Muesli paradise March 18 2016, 0 Comments

You come in from work and want a bite to eat before you go out for your evening run. Growing evidence says that eating high-sugar content candy bars is bad for you, with the sudden increase in blood sugar boosting insulin production to a point where the 'hangover' leaves you shaky and bad tempered. Long-term, this is one of the paths to insulin intolerance and type 2 diabetes. High-energy fruit such as bananas are always good, but my personal favourite is home-made muesli. With no added sugar, a small bowl of this is good for many kilometres of steady energy release. I make this in bulk, so if you want a smaller amount simply pro-rata the quantities down.

Ingredients

  • 1Kg of any one of or combination of wheat, barley and rye flakes
  • An equal volume of a mixture of your favourite nuts and dried fruits, chopped lightly where necessary. For instance brazil nuts, hazel nuts, almonds, cashews, sultanas, raisins, apples, plums, mangoes - really, whatever you find on the shelves in the shops that takes your fancy, but not with added sugar.
  • 250g of dates
  • 2 fine-chopped vanilla sticks
  • 250ml olive oil
  • 250 ml water

What to do

  • Mix the nuts, dried fruit and flakes in a large roasting tin
  • Blend together the dates, vanilla, olive oil and water, and add to the contents of the roasting tin, mixing thoroughly until damp evenly throughout.
  • Bake in a low oven (140°C, 275°F, Gas mark 1) stirring every 20 minutes until dry. Turn the oven off and leave the muesli in it to dry out thoroughly overnight.
  • When ready, add milk or joghurt and eat.

This is tasty, filling and pretty chewy. Eat it half an hour or so before you run. It also makes an excellent top-up between meals during the day  if needed.

Bon appetit and good running!


What are the relative values of running and walking? March 12 2016, 0 Comments

You know that running is more intense than walking, and believe in your heart of hearts that it is doing you good. But what does the evidence say? The benefits of different durations and intensities (walking and running) of exercise is discussed by Wen et. al. in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology (2014, 64:5).

It seems that, even in very small doses, walking and running are beneficial in reducing cardiovascular disease and lowering the risks of diabetes and hypertension. The benefits are on a sliding scale that increases as the amount of exercise goes up, but the biggest increase in benefit is at the beginning of the curve, where the amount of exercise is small (figure 1, after Wen et al.).

Figure 1: Relative benefit in reduced mortality for average daily running or walking time.

The implications from this are that benefits can come from relatively small changes - good news for those who have difficulty finding the time to do long work-outs. It also means that beneficial exercise can be built into your day by, for instance, getting off the bus a couple of stops earlier and walking the last part of the journey into work.

For those of you who want to ease yourself into spring with running or hiking, and would like to do so with less shoe and more you, ZEMgear Hero and Apex shoes are warmer for the still cold weather, but you should graduate fairly quickly to Terras as it warms into summer.

Good running and walking all!


Why run at all with barefoot shoes? February 22 2016, 0 Comments

We did a lot of barefoot running at school. It was in the tropics, and a place of manicured lawns and playing fields, so it was easy to do. We felt light and agile doing athletics or playing that game of touch rugby without footwear. Tarmac and concrete were another story as they held the tropical heat and we were glad of the separation that a pair of soles would offer. There were some among us, often brought up on farms, who spent most of their time at home without shoes, and who were unfazed by jagged gravel or hot concrete. After years, their feet had tough, leathery soles with much thicker skin.

Moving to northern Europe changed all this. The environment was more urban and for a good deal of the year it was cold and unfriendly for going barefoot. Trainers were the norm. Many years later I was easing myself back into running after a long, forced break and finding it hard going. I saw a talk by Christopher McDougal, author of the best selling Born to Run, which convinced me to try barefoot again. I was living in the idyllic Copenhagen summer and so the idea seemed pretty attractive. It was slow going as my feet were very soft from years of wearing shoes, and I had to increase distance gradually to build up the additional strength needed in my feet and calves. I came back with cuts and bruises from sharp objects and was always worried about bits of broken glass. Eventually, summer drew to a close and the temperatures dropped below 10°C, so I wimped out and looked for some running shoes that would give me the barefoot feel, but offer protection from the hazards and elements. I found ZEMgear, which offered all of this, with style on top.

It is possible to toughen up your soles so that you can run really barefoot by gradually increasing running distance and the roughness of surfaces covered. It takes time and patience, and a certain amount of disinfectant and plaster for the mishaps along the way. If you spend all day in an office and with your feet in shoes, it will take even longer.  

...Or you could steal a march and get some barefoot running shoes. ZEMgear trail shoes (Terra, Apex and Hero) are all very pliable so that your foot really can flex fully, but the sole protects from heat, cold and sharp objects, wrapping upwards around the edges to offer additional sideways protection. Experience that light, agile feeling, and give them a try.


OK for the joints - what about the brain? January 26 2016, 0 Comments

Startling results have come out of an MRI study of runners in the Trans Europe Foot Race, which covers some 4'487 kilometres from the south of Italy to the north of Norway in 64 consecutive days of running.

Conventional wisdom has it that you need to rest between exercises in order to allow time for repair and strengthening of your joints and muscles. To investigate the effects of the run a team from the University Hospital of Ulm followed participants with a portable MRI unit and examined their muscles, joints and brains at various stages of the race. As expected, the cartilage in the runners' knees, ankles and hind-foot joints deteriorated significantly for the first 1'500 to 2'500km, but after that they regenerated, showing that repair was able to take place even when running every day.

Another startling result was that the runners' brains shrank by an average of 6% during the course of the race. The cause of this is not known although there are several speculations ranging from transfer/burning of tissue for use elsewhere to lack of stimulation from staring at a road for 60 days. The good news is that the brains returned to normal size within eight months.

So, unless you plan on running further than two and a half thousand kilometres on consecutive days, it still seems good sense to take a little break from time to time for muscle and joint R&R. As for the brain, regular running has been shown to have many beneficial effects on the brain and psyche if you don't overdo it.


On rabbits and running November 19 2015, 0 Comments

When I was at school some of us used to sneak out after lights out to try and catch rabbits that had come out to feed on the playing fields. We never caught one, but had enormous fun trying. Essential equipment for this was a powerful torch which would be scanned across the field until a rabbit was transfixed in the light. Two of us would then flank around out of the light beam to try and grab it, inevitably ending in a futile race across the fields, a still-free rabbit, and us panting and excited from the pursuit. 

 

We never wore shoes for this. The fields were reliably flat and free of harmful débris, and we could cross them with speed and abandon. The memory remains of the rush of cool night air and the incredibly light feeling of sprinting barefoot, swerving and dodging in hot pursuit of our elusive quarry.

For more formal pursuits, we wore 'tackies' or 'plimsoles' for cross country running, a thin, rubber sole with no more than 5mm or rise in the heel, and for rugby and hockey studded boots to provide traction and protect us from balls, sticks and other studded boots. At all other leisure times we wore flip-flops, or where possible no shoes at all.

This was an excellent grounding in running and sports in general, subsequently eroded by years of ever increasing amounts of padding in my running shoe soles. I have to say, I'm glad to be back, and since returning to barefoot style, have welcomed the return to that light feeling when running.


Core values November 03 2015, 0 Comments

Following on from a previous blog, my knee is improving slowly, and the bruising seems to have gone down, but it has some way to go yet, so still no running for a while. Fortunately, I can borrow the neighbour's dog and be useful when I go out for a walk. For more strenuous exercise, I do floor exercises to strengthen my core muscles around the abdomen, useful for runners and less active people alike.

Back pain and damage can come either from overdoing exercises such as crunches, or from too little activity such as sitting in front of a screen all day. In both cases, improving the tonus of the core region helps to hold everything in place and reduces the risk of spinal displacement and damage to the inter-vertebral discs. They also lead to better posture and to better running. These exercises have been picked up from physiotherapists and gym trainers over the years.

core exercise

Once again, as for the foot strengthening exercises from last week, they are done slowly to build strength, applying tension to a count of ten seconds, holding for two, and then releasing for another ten. Aim to build up to five repeats of each without any breaks so that the muscles stay under tension for about a minute. Breathing is important if you are working your muscles, so breathe out slowly as you go into tension and in as you release.  As they use body weight, no equipment necessary, and they can be done anywhere that you can find the floor space to lie down.

'C' crunch
Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Raise your hands straight in front of you and link fingers - keep them vertical through the whole exercise. Slowly raise your chest and hips as high as possible and making a 'C' shape, hold and then lower.

Bridge
Still on your back with your legs bent and feet tucked in close to your bottom, keeping your shoulders on the floor, raise your hips slowly until your back is straight, hold and release.

Side crunch
Lie straight on your side with the legs together and your lower forearm on the floor about level with your lower rib-cage and at right angles to your body for stability. Slowly raise your hips from the floor into a side 'plank' position, hold and then lower again. Do both sides.

Plank/push-up
Lie on your face with your toes tucked under your feet and your hands under your shoulders. The plank usually involves holding a stationary position, but while you are here you might as well work your arms as well with some push-ups... Holding the body straight straighten your arms to raise your shoulders, hold and release.

Hyperextensions
Still on your face, and with your feet relaxed and extended on the floor, rest your hands lightly behind you in the small of your back. Pick up your feet and head and shoulders as far as you can, hold and release. If you would like to put more effort into this exercise, touch your fingers to the sides of your head or extend your arms to full-stretch in front of you.

Combined with the standing foot-extensions described last week, this takes about fifteen to twenty minutes and can be done once a week to maintain, and two or three times to build strength. Also pretty good for people who temporarily cannot run...

 


Strengthening feet and calves October 28 2015, 0 Comments

We have said a few times now that starting barefoot-style running should be taken slowly to allow the muscles in the feet and calves to build up. Your feet, ankles and calves will not only because you need them to run, but also because without a layer of padding on your sole to spread the impact, you will need to correct continuously for small variations in the way that your feet land on different surfaces.  After a while, your feet and calves will look (and be) tougher.  Running does this, but some additional exercises can help to accelerate development and the transition to enjoyment. These should normally be done on rest days between runs.

Calf workoutBuilding strength as a general rule requires higher loads on the muscles and a smaller number of S-L-O-W repeats. If any of these exercises feel like too much, start with a smaller number of repeats and build up gradually, say by one repeat a week. Always exercise both feet equally.

Toes

Stop bending down to pick things up - use your feet to get them off the floor. Towels and clothing can be picked up by flexing the toes downwards to hold a fold of the material between the toes and the ball of the foot. Use both feet alternately, and if you don't pick up that many things during the day, exercise by picking up a towel ten times with each foot. Shoes can be picked up by grasping them between the big and second toes. For exercise, this can be done with progressively bigger items such as marbles or golf balls - if you are able to pick up tennis balls, you have reached champion status.

Toe spread and press can be done by putting some corks between your toes - the happy part of this is that you will need to drink eight bottles of wine... Alternate firstly squeezing the corks between the toes, and secondly trying to spread the toes wide enough apart to release them - ten seconds for the squeeze, two second break, and then ten seconds for the stretch. Repeat five times with each foot.

Feet and calves

Stand in front of a table or other such surface so that you can rest your hands lightly on it for balance. Stand on one foot (I tuck the other behind the calf of standing leg). Raise yourself to the maximum height to a slow count of ten, hold for two seconds, and then lower slowly to another count of ten. Repeat five times and then do the other foot. If you want to get additional benefit from this, do it with the ball of your foot on a stair so that the heel can travel downwards from the horizontal as well as up, which will help to develop the muscle through its full range of movement.

Sit and point your leg straight out horizontally with your foot pointing as a continuation of the leg, toes pointed. Lift your toes up to a ten-count until they form a right-angle to the foot, hold for two and then straighten out to a ten-count. Repeat five times with each foot. Martial arts folks achieve a good right-angle doing this so that when they kick somebody they hit them with the ball of the foot and don't hurt their toes.

Sit with your leg pointed out in front of you, foot relaxed. Flex the big toe upwards and the others downwards and then twist the foot inwards as far as it will go. Reverse the direction of the toes (big - down, others - up) and twist the foot in the other direction as far as it will go. Again, do this to a 10-2-10 count.

Ankles

Sit with your leg pointed out in front of you. Flex the foot upwards as far as you can, and then rotate it slowly, still as far as you can, to the outside, down, inwards and then back to the start. Hold for two seconds and reverse direction, with each direction taking ten seconds to complete. Repeat five times with each foot.

Beach running

If you are anywhere near a sandy area, try running on that, either barefoot, or with ZEM shoes as they are excellent at protecting the soles and still keeping the sand out. Your feet and calves work harder on a giving surface.

After a strength-building session, take some time to stretch the muscles out again. You will normally notice within a couple of weeks that running becomes easier.


Dealing with knee injury October 13 2015, 0 Comments

I'm having some trouble with my knee.

I did a slightly crazy run a few weeks ago on steep, broken, muddy ground in the dark and slipped sideways and fell, wrenching the left knee. It settled again with some ice-packing and NSAIDs at bedtime to bring down the inflammation, to the extent that I ran a half marathon on it without undue repercussions. However, when it was still niggling, I did another crazy night-time run on broken ground and although I didn't fall, it stirred it up enough that the ice-packing and NSAIDs no longer work and the knee clicked with each step when I started walking.

So, after the normal few days of denial and hope, I dragged myself off to the doctor and had some X-rays taken. The results were inconclusive, so he packed me off for an MRI. It turns out that I have somehow bruised the head of my femur bone, and damaged the meniscus, the cartilage disc that lubricates and cushions between the knee bones. In this wonderful age of the internet, I was able to find out that there are two parts of the meniscus, a white disc in the middle surrounded by a red ring around the edge. When damaged, the white meniscus stays so as it has not blood supply, but the red ring has a chance of regenerating because it is vascularised. So it's walking only and condroitin sulphate tablets for at least a month to give it all a chance to recover, the long-term goal being to be able to run again. No more perilous trails in the dark for me...

At this time of the year, if you are running in the dark, please take care. Wish me luck!


Running at night September 30 2015, 0 Comments

Nights are closing in. The equinox has passed and sunset here in Switzerland is currently shortly after 7pm rather than well after 9pm around the summer solstice. In another three months it will be dark before 5pm. For morning runners it will not be light until we are on the way to work. Temperatures are dropping, and so it's worth thinking about clothing and equipment for the changing season.

Firstly, if you are running off-street in unlit locations, a torch is a good idea. I have a small LED hand-held torch which gives me light to see what is in front of my feet, but prefer to allow my eyes to dark-adapt. You can see a surprising amount if you do this, and I find that I enjoy my surroundings more than I would if my horizon was limited to the reach of the torch. Some prefer head-torches, which leave your  hands and arms free. A couple in our running group have head-torches with enough candle-power to reach Austria, blinding everyone behind them when they turn round to see who is following, and then turning to go on and leaving us to stumble on in a red-haze.

As it is getting cooler, clothing layers allow you to adjust your temperature as you warm up during the run, and cool down again afterwards. I find that full length arm and leg coverings from Sport HG are a good foundation as they wick sweat away from the body, with shorts, shirts, pullovers, etc on top as needed. I usually have a change of clothing waiting at the end of the run in case it rains, and tie the additional layers around shoulders and waist as required. Many run with a small backpack into which additional clobber can be packed. It's cool enough now to change to Thermoprene Apex and Hero winter shoes which cope with the cold up to and including snow and ice. Last year in the snow I rinsed mud off my Heroes in a stream and my feet were comfortably warm for the rest of the run.

Finally, the accessories. A neck-warmer makes an astonishing difference to feeling cosy in cold weather, and gloves and an ear-covering hat for the extremities can be added and subtracted according to need. For wet weather I tend simply to add more layers to separate me from the water and allow the layers closest to me to warm through. Simple plastic rain protection tends to get just as wet on the inside as it is outside, so if you use waterproofing, best are high-tech fabrics which allow moisture passage outwards but not inwards.

In Sweden, renowned for it's chilly winters, they say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Telephone apps allow us to predict running weather pretty accurately now. Between the two, we can run comfortably all year round.


Running inspiration September 22 2015, 0 Comments

I did the Greifenseelauf last weekend. It's a half-marathon run around the Greifensee lake here in Switzerland, relatively tame by Swiss standards because it is nearly all run on the flat, but a great opportunity to watch runners in action.

The run starts in a hubbub of excitement with each stage (there are 17'000 runners, so it needs to go off in stages...) setting off with an abundance of chatter and banter amongst the competitors, and with a few burning off into the middle distance either to achieve a fast finish or to be passed later walking. By about 10km most have settled into their quiet little world of contemplation and the rest of the run is conducted in silence. My own contemplation was about how running really is a community within which there is a diverse spread of inhabitants. Being in the barefoot shoe business, I pay attention to the footwear. There is a growing number of barefoot runners, ranging from the more conventional round-toed, lace-up variety through ZEMgear Ninja-Toe and Vibram Five Fingers to one runner who was wearing huarache sandals. There was even one pioneering soul who had gone back to absolute first principles and was running barefoot - I started this way, but chickened out when the cold weather arrived and switched to some nice snug ZEMger winter shoes.

But I digress - we were talking about the running community. If you go to YouTube and search for 'runner helps', you get over 40'000 hits. Many of these are codswallop, but amongst them are some truly wonderful stories. One of the most famous is Derek Redmond who had to stop running with a painful hamstring injury in the 1992 Olympics 400m final, but who got up and hopped on to finish the race, helped by his father who evaded the security people to get to his side. In long distance running, Ivan Fernandez deserves a mention for slowing down to tell his disoriented leading competitor where the finish line was and allowing him to cross first, or Meghan Vogel, who stopped to pick up Arden McMath, a competitor in trouble, and helped her across the finish line. There are many more, and they both inspire, and make me glad to be a part of this remarkable community.


The importance of rest September 16 2015, 0 Comments

Browsing through YouTube the other evening, I came across Dr James O'Keefe, a cardiologist, delivering a talk on TED, in which he advises against overdoing exercise, a rather unexpected comment to come from a cardiologist. He compares exercise to a drug - a fantastic drug that protects against heart disease, diabetes, depression and a multiple of other conditions. However, as with all drugs, it has an optimal dose range, and if you overdo it, it can do more damage than good.

The human body is a remarkable piece of apparatus. It improves by a process of damage and repair. When you exercise beyond your limit, micro-tears develop in your muscles, and when these are repaired, the muscle is built back stronger and better than before. This is the process of getting fit, and it requires a period of rest before exercise is repeated to allow the repair to take place, or the tears simply get bigger. The heart is a muscle like any other, and according to Dr O'Keefe, sustained exercise beyond about an hour results in micro-tears or damage. If you take some rest days afterwards, these repair themselves, better and stronger than before.

The issue comes with long-term, long-distance runners who train regularly enough for the repair process not to take place. Their hearts stretch to accommodate the sustained increased blood that they pump, and the tears do not repair so that scar tissue is formed. He cites a study of some 50'000 people which shows that runners have a 19% longer life expectation than sedentary people, but that when they run over 30km average a week, this benefit cancels out. The result also applies to speed - up to 10km/h provides benefit, but pushing to 12km/h sees it go away. Finally, running two to five times a week provides the benefit, but running seven days a week takes it away again. The Copenhagen Heart Study, tracking 20'000 people since 1976, confirms these results. Joggers have a 44% lower mortality rate and live on average 6 years longer than non-runners - provided they run at a slow to average pace for one to two-and-a-half hours or two or three times per week.

Some of you will always prefer to run far and fast and die happy. With these learnings you can choose your own destiny and the good news is that if you choose to change and slack off now, the heart repairs itself and returns to normal. For the rest of us, exercise is a remarkable therapy, and running up to 30k per week at a moderate pace will make us healthier and happier. You can find Dr O'Keefe's talk here. Good running all!


Running easy vs running fast September 07 2015, 0 Comments

I came across a YouTube post of Christopher McDougal, he of Born to Run fame, who was discussing attitudes to running. He describes running an ultramarathon with an acquaintance of his, Barefoot Ted, who chats with him for the last 13 miles of a 100 mile (160km) race and arrives refreshed and happy at the end. Barefoot Ted typically runs about 25 miles a week, and yet he is still able to easily do a fast time over a much longer distance. McDougal attributes this ability to the fact that Ted does not run in order to beat a time, or to achieve a level of fitness - he only runs for fun, and this is what endows him with his seemingly superhuman stamina and bonhomie.

The idea is very seductive, and echoes another character in the book, Caballo Blanco, who said that it was wrong to start with grand goals and pushing into injuries, and that rather we should start with running at a pace that we find easy and look after our style, and the stamina and speed will come of their own volition. If we accept that we are in fact born to run, and that running is one of our most natural states, doing what comes naturally could be expected to bring physical and mental relaxation. Certainly, I find that if things are getting stressful at work, a run seems to add perspective and to bring me back to a more sane and stable state. 

McDougal's book arose from trying to answer the question as to why, whenever he tried to run, his foot hurt, and he found his answer in running barefoot. Me too. I run happily now having come back with barefoot running from a fallen arch and progressive pain in my ankles, knees and back. Running in the chilly Danish autumn, I switched from fully barefoot to barefoot shoes and have never looked back. And it really is fun.


Running on different surfaces September 02 2015, 0 Comments

I grew up in a place where many people went barefoot about their daily lives, and coped effortlessly with stones, gravel and other potentially uncomfortable surfaces. They had a thicker layer of skin on the bottom of their feet, and more padding in their foot soles than you will find amongst shod people living a modern lifestyle. Barefoot shoes work for people who are normally shod during the day, with the sensitivity in their feet that that implies, but still want to run or walk barefoot-style when the opportunity offers.

So how do we cope with different surfaces? We can look at this from the point of view of the quality of the surface, and then the slope. I'm going to start by assuming that you run with a front- or mid-foot strike as explained here - if you cannot help heel-striking in barefoot shoes, you would probably be better going back to standard shoes as explained here .

Soft surfaces such as grass normally do not pose a problem unless it is the hidden stone or doggie-bomb, from both of which barefoot shoes will protect you. It is a common misconception that hard, smooth surfaces such as pavement or tarmac are somehow worse. However, if you are running correctly, the foot and calves are acting to absorb the impact, and you should find it no less comfortable than running on grass. Barefoot shoes allow you to run barefoot-style, but protect the feet from heat, cold and debris such as broken glass. Broken surfaces such as uneven trails and rocks require much more concentration, variation in stride length and direction, and normally a reduction in pace to allow you time to read your path. The feet will be landing at different angles and so if you are early in your barefoot-style running career and have not yet built up the strength in your ankles, feet and legs to cope with this, more caution is advised. If stony/gravelly ground is uncomfortable, shorten your stride so that you are not airborne for so long on each step, and flatten the foot to spread the load.

Running on varying slopes can actually be less tiring than running a long way on the flat as you use slightly different muscle groupings and can rest the ones not being emphasised at that moment. Uphill running is good for working on your front-foot landing as it is pretty difficult to heel-plant when you are leaning into a hill. Going downhill, point your toes and if necessary pick your knees up a little more. I have run alongside someone trying to land on the front-feet with standard shoes, but the padding in the heel did not allow him to point his foot enough. Downhill on stony ground can be pretty uncomfortable because of the higher landing impact on the stones. Two approaches might help here, one being a shorter stride to reduce the impact, and the other being to land with a short slide to dissipate the impact. If it really is uncomfortable, check the wear on your shoes - I have a friend who had worn the soles down to about a millimetre thick and wondered why he was having difficulty coping with the stony ground.

Different surfaces sometimes need different running styles, and quite often we adopt this instinctively, lengthening or shortening stride and landing more or less flatly in order to cope with them.


Do your running shoes look like this? August 27 2015, 0 Comments


After a season and a half, my faithful Terras are feeling their age. You can see that the tread on the tough undersole that protects you from sharp and hard objects has worn smooth, and in places the light grey and orange mid-sole is peeping through. I'm a little more careful on stony ground now, but still able to cope with all but the very worst of surfaces. The picture above means that the combined thickness of 6mm for the inner-, mid- and outer-sole is down to an average of about 3-4mm, and less than this where the flexible and relatively soft mid-sole is showing.

It's nearly time to switch to the winter Heroes and Apexes, and these will be new, and with the full protective thickness that will allow me to run comfortably on pretty well anything.

So if you're feeling the stones more than you would like to, check your soles out. It might be time for a change.