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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!

 


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%.


Do flip-flops cause floppy feet? August 04 2015, 0 Comments

Wearers of high heels sometimes complain of tiredness and aches when going barefoot or wearing flip-flops, and somehow this has been translated into a message that the flip-flops are the trouble makers.

We go barefoot around the house, and wear ZEMgear shoes regularly for trips to the shops or to go out socially. Our feet therefore regularly get exercise and stretching through everyday use - and on the occasions that we do wear flip-flops, it's a breeze!We would argue the opposite. If your feet are encased in a shoe all day, they are unable to flex and stretch as they would if they were uncovered, and so all the little muscles and tendons in the feet and calves do not get exercise. This is especially true if you are wearing high heels, where the foot is fixed in position such that up to 90% of your weight is resting on the ball of the foot. Furthermore, the Achilles tendon is held in an unnaturally shortened position, and tends to shrink. If, at the weekend, you then switch to flops, your feet will have to do unaccustomed work when you walk, and the Achilles tendon will be stretched back into its natural position, both of which can lead to discomfort. Regular periods in which you allow your feet and Achilles tendons to work naturally will help with this. We advise people new to barefoot shoes to start gradually, especially if the intent is to do some serious running, and allow the feet, tendons and calves to 'get fit' again.