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? - 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.


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 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.

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.