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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.


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.


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.


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%.