Designed for running August 18 2017, 0 Comments

We are designed to run, and a number of our design features passively help us to do so.

We've previously discussed the anatomical features that show how we have evolved as long-distance runners. Our long legs and impressively large buttocks give us a long, loping stride. Because we are bipedal, our stride does not limit our breathing in the same way as for four-legged animals. Our ability to sweat keeps us from overheating and enables us to outlast animals that can only cool themselves by panting. The nuchal ligament in our necks, which is not present in tree-dwelling apes, keeps our head stable while we run. And finally, strong elastic ligaments in our feet and achilles tendons store energy from our landing and re-use it in the push off into the next stride.

Professor Dan Lieberman eloquently explains and quantifies the passive elements of running in this short video, explaining that the arch of the foot stores 17% of landing energy, and the achilles tendon another 35% - energy that does not have to be generated in the muscles to contribute to the next step as it is released naturally by the springy ligaments. There are two conditions for this to work at its best - we need to run and land with good form, and we need to relax while we run so that our passive mechanisms can make their contribution.

So, shoulders down, easy breathing and a light, springy step in order to enjoy the countryside around you rather than focusing on the effort - after all, if you are doing it right, 52% of that effort comes for free.

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.


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!


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.

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.


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.


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.

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.

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.

What is the difference between walking and running? July 07 2015, 0 Comments

Weight transfer in walking does not exceed total body weight as the transition from one foot to the other involves a stage with both feet on the ground. With running, we are airborne for most of the time, so weight transfer includes the impact of landing which is typically two-and-a-half times body weight. The feet and legs have developed to absorb this impact, and cleverly to store energy from the landing for use in the next take-off.

The benefits of barefoot style June 30 2015, 0 Comments

We use our ZEMgear shoes for free-time and social use as well as for sports. We get a few widened eyes and raised eyebrows when people on public transport see them, a small price to pay for comfort, and anyway, some like that sort of attention... I first noticed the benefits at an exhibition.  We were wearing ZEMs - the best way to display your wares is to use them - and at the end of a longish day, I noticed that I had no back-ache, something that I have associated with exhibitions for many years. To get an idea of why this might be, we need to go into the mechanics of heels.

When standing barefoot, weight distribution between the heels and the ball of the foot is about 50:50. This is the most energy-efficient way of standing, as your weight is balanced over your feet, a technique taught in the Alexander technique for reducing strain and promoting relaxation.  You can change the weight distribution by leaning forwards or back, but this induces tension in the opposing muscles.  Over a full working day, this can make a big difference both in how tired you might feel at the end of the day, and in aching of the correcting muscles.

Let us now throw some heels into the mix. High heels are worn to attract. They make you taller and bunch the calf muscles so that the curve of the calf is more accentuated. They tilt the body forward so that the spine curves to compensate, making the bottom stick out and lifting the bosom into a sexier pose. So what is the effect of this re-distribution of assets?

Relatively low heels will change weight distribution, throwing more weight onto the ball of the foot, and less on the heel, and really high heels can put as much as 90% of your weight on the front of your foot, which can cause distortion and bunions.  The arch of the foot, which normally flexes to absorb impact during walking, is now stretched into a fixed position, which weakens its ligaments, and the toes are are flexed into a fixed position from which they can make little contribution to locomotion. The Achilles tendon and calf are shortened, and if the shoes are worn for long stretches, this can become permanent, making it uncomfortable to go back to low-heeled shoes because of the stretch that this induces. The knees are pushed forward so that when standing the weight is not balanced over the foot in the column of the leg - instead the muscles and ligaments around the knee have to be in tension to maintain balance. Still thinking in columns, the vertical alignment of the spine is disturbed, putting strain on the discs, and necessitating additional muscular effort to stay upright.

Walking barefootI know that it is too much to ask some people to give up their high heels, and the social constraints surrounding some jobs make this impossible. However, to allow your feet, legs and spine to relax, try barefoot in the evenings at home, and barefoot shoes for going out informally. Your body will thank you for it.

Barefoot or cushioning? February 24 2015, 0 Comments

Last week, a friend sent me an article from the International New York Times describing the arrival of maximalist, highly cushioned shoes. You might be surprised that such a topic would appear on this website, as we are at the other end of the running philosophy spectrum. I was initially a little reluctant to read it because I was sure that I wouldn't like what I saw. In psychology, this is known as 'confirmational bias' - an acceptance of anything that confirms one's existing beliefs, and rejection of anything which contradicts them.  However, I did read it, and in the interests of open-mindedness (the opposite of confirmational bias...), here is what I found and think.

Born to runOn the basis  of the story of a prominent long-distance runner whose plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the feet, was resolved by using maximalist shoes, they seem to work.  Plantar fasciitis was exactly the issue that plagued Christopher McDougal, author of the best-selling Born to Run, and his cure was to change to barefoot running, so it seems that different approaches can come to the same resolution. The article emphasised that, even with the cushioning, correct running style on the forefoot is important. This uses foot pronation and the gradual lowering of the heel to absorb impact, wonderfully demonstrated by professor Daniel Lieberman at Harvard. 

I guess that each individual has to find his or her solution to their running needs, and this can be different for different people.  For my part, switching to barefoot running (with barefoot shoes) has been life-changing, and I shall stick with it.  And, even in this article, I found a salve for my confirmational bias - the long-distance runner who uses the maximalist shoes still runs shorter distances barefoot to keep his feet strong.  He drily concludes that people who spend more time improving their bodies as opposed to shopping for shoes are the ones who are going to run better.