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How well are we equipped to run? - 3. Other equipment April 20 2016, 0 Comments

So far, we have looked at the legs and feet, so it is probably time to look at the other anatomical aids we have for long-distance running.

Let's start with breathing. If you watch fast-running four legged animals you can see that at the two extremes of their stride they either stretch or crunch, and this can have a dramatic effect on their breathing.

If you are at full stretch, it is much easier to breathe in than out, and if you are crunched up, exhaling is the most comfortable option. So breathing is linked to pace, and that is an intrinsic limitation. Cheetahs are astonishingly fast, but they run out of puff pretty quickly. Being bipedal enables us to disconnect our breathing from our pace. We may choose to breathe in time with our stride, but if push comes to shove we can double or triple our respiration rate without affecting our running, a handy trick if you want to maintain a pace for a long distance.

Another thing that you will notice with most animals is that they pant to cool themselves down, and this also has limitations. Running generates heat, and if you are pursued by an animal until you cannot cool down as fast or faster than you heat up, eventually you simply have to stop. If the animal pursuing you happens to be homo sapiens, he has the major advantage of being able to sweat across the full breadth of his skin, and the evaporation of the sweat cools him and gives him many more miles of distance before he overheats. The evidence suggests that we were on a high-protein diet (meat) long before we invented tools and weapons, and that running after animals until they simply lay down from exhaustion was how we caught our food.

Finally, in our necks we have a nuchal ligament, something that his found almost exclusively in running animals. It serves to support the weight of the head without muscular effort, and to hold the head still while running.

So the anatomical evidence is looking pretty strong that we were built to run. In the next instalment we shall look at what we can do that supports the man-as-long-distance-runner theory. In the meantime, you might like to have a look at some of ZEMgear shoes that protect your feet but still allow you to run as nature intended.

 


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.


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.


Keeping cool in the heat July 21 2015, 0 Comments

One of the reasons that we are a successful species when it comes to running is our ability to sweat.

When it evaporates, water takes energy from nearby heat sources to increase the energy of its molecules enough to launch them into the air. The energy used to change the state of the water from liquid to vapour is called the latent heat of vaporisation. When the latent heat is taken from our bodies, it has a cooling effect. In contrast to animals such as dogs who cannot sweat, and have to cool themselves by panting, this means that our whole body surface can be used to cool us, which is why we are so good at running long distances. Dry atmospheric heat is better for us than humid heat, - you are more sweaty in humid heat because the sweat stays on your skin and does not evaporate as easily, so the cooling effect is reduced. Wiping sweat off can be counterproductive, as it can no longer evaporate and cool.

So what does that mean for running in the heat? Essentially, you should aim to expose as much skin as possible to allow evaporation (don't forget to use suncream...), and/or use clothing which wicks the sweat away from your body to the outer surface of the cloth so that evaporation can still take place.

The second part of this story is equally important - because you are losing so much liquid from your skin, you need to drink frequently to restore it. You also lose minerals (notice how your sweat tastes salty), and you will need to replace these. Omission of either of these can result in heat exhaustion; lack of water causes excessive thirst, weakness and headaches; lack of minerals causes nausea, vomiting, muscle cramps and dizziness. So keep drinking, and in hot weather consider upping the amount of salt that you put on your food, or address both with balanced salt drinks.