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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%.