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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.


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.

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.


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.


Foot fitness August 11 2015, 0 Comments

Over the last few years, I have watched my feet get tougher.

Not in the sense of being able to run on stones or coals, more in the sense that a body-builder would use. When I first started barefoot running, I had a fallen arch on the left foot, and both feet had a slightly long and flaccid a look. As I continued to run, they appeared to shorten, the ball of the foot widened, the musculature across the top of the foot became more pronouced and, miracle of miracles, the arch on the left foot re-formed.

I am aware that a case study with a single subject does not make a general rule, so I went to the internet to see what I could find on the topic. As well as more case studies detailing improvements in foot and ankle alignment from barefoot running over two years, there is a study from the Shanghai University of Sport, written by some eminent USA professors. The study followed two groups of runners wearing standard and minimalist shoes for 12 weeks.

So we can expect some increase in foot strength whether running in 'normal' running shoes or minimalist ones, but this is more widely spread across the muscles in the latter, and the arch becomes stiffer and stronger. The upshot is, if you start running with minimalist shoes, you can expect your feet to grow and look tougher.Minimalist shoe runners moved on average towards a more front- or mid-foot striking pattern while running. Both groups showed an increase in muscle volume for the flexor digitorum brevis muscle under the arch, but the minimalist shoe group also showed a significant increase in cross sectional area and muscle volume in the abductor digiti minimi, which runs along the outside of the foot to the little toe. Longitudinal arch stiffness underwent no change in the control group, but in the minimalist shoe group it increased by 60%.