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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.


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? - 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.

 


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.

 


How well are we equipped to run? - 1. Upper legs. April 06 2016, 0 Comments

I'm not talking about shoes or clothing now, but about how we are built and how this helps us to run.

Theory has it that we run because that was how we caught our food. Interestingly, most of our potential food, down to animals as small as rabbits, can run much faster than we can. So our strategy could not be about speed. Rather, it is about stamina. We are reputed to be able to run most other animals to a standstill because of a unique combination of anatomical features. And here, while the evidence is still circumstantial, it is considerable.

Firstly, let's look at how our upper legs are built. If you watch our recent ancestors chimpanzees walk, they are obviously uncomfortable in standing motion on the ground. Their legs come straight down from the hip, which confers a wider range of movement for climbing, but means that they have to rock from side to side to put their centre of gravity over the leg during walking. We, on the other hand, have thigh bones that slope inward so that our legs are already under us and as we walk or run we can transfer weight from one leg to another much more smoothly. Our legs are much longer comparative to our bodies, increasing for us the importance of locomotion over distances.

At the top of our legs are the gluteus maximus muscles, our buttocks, the biggest muscles in the body. Compared to a chimp, they are enormous. They provide the power for both forward movement and agility across the ground and the importance of this for us is very apparent from the size of the muscle. If you have ever played a hard game of squash after a long break, the extreme mobility needed during the game often leads to 'squash buttock', an aching pot that can make a punishment out of sitting down for the next couple of days.

So the upper leg structure suggests that we might be designed to run. We shall continue this anatomical exploration in the next blog or two. In the mean time, feel free to browse our range for shoes that work with our wonderfully designed running bodies.


Running inspiration September 22 2015, 0 Comments

I did the Greifenseelauf last weekend. It's a half-marathon run around the Greifensee lake here in Switzerland, relatively tame by Swiss standards because it is nearly all run on the flat, but a great opportunity to watch runners in action.

The run starts in a hubbub of excitement with each stage (there are 17'000 runners, so it needs to go off in stages...) setting off with an abundance of chatter and banter amongst the competitors, and with a few burning off into the middle distance either to achieve a fast finish or to be passed later walking. By about 10km most have settled into their quiet little world of contemplation and the rest of the run is conducted in silence. My own contemplation was about how running really is a community within which there is a diverse spread of inhabitants. Being in the barefoot shoe business, I pay attention to the footwear. There is a growing number of barefoot runners, ranging from the more conventional round-toed, lace-up variety through ZEMgear Ninja-Toe and Vibram Five Fingers to one runner who was wearing huarache sandals. There was even one pioneering soul who had gone back to absolute first principles and was running barefoot - I started this way, but chickened out when the cold weather arrived and switched to some nice snug ZEMger winter shoes.

But I digress - we were talking about the running community. If you go to YouTube and search for 'runner helps', you get over 40'000 hits. Many of these are codswallop, but amongst them are some truly wonderful stories. One of the most famous is Derek Redmond who had to stop running with a painful hamstring injury in the 1992 Olympics 400m final, but who got up and hopped on to finish the race, helped by his father who evaded the security people to get to his side. In long distance running, Ivan Fernandez deserves a mention for slowing down to tell his disoriented leading competitor where the finish line was and allowing him to cross first, or Meghan Vogel, who stopped to pick up Arden McMath, a competitor in trouble, and helped her across the finish line. There are many more, and they both inspire, and make me glad to be a part of this remarkable community.


The importance of rest September 16 2015, 0 Comments

Browsing through YouTube the other evening, I came across Dr James O'Keefe, a cardiologist, delivering a talk on TED, in which he advises against overdoing exercise, a rather unexpected comment to come from a cardiologist. He compares exercise to a drug - a fantastic drug that protects against heart disease, diabetes, depression and a multiple of other conditions. However, as with all drugs, it has an optimal dose range, and if you overdo it, it can do more damage than good.

The human body is a remarkable piece of apparatus. It improves by a process of damage and repair. When you exercise beyond your limit, micro-tears develop in your muscles, and when these are repaired, the muscle is built back stronger and better than before. This is the process of getting fit, and it requires a period of rest before exercise is repeated to allow the repair to take place, or the tears simply get bigger. The heart is a muscle like any other, and according to Dr O'Keefe, sustained exercise beyond about an hour results in micro-tears or damage. If you take some rest days afterwards, these repair themselves, better and stronger than before.

The issue comes with long-term, long-distance runners who train regularly enough for the repair process not to take place. Their hearts stretch to accommodate the sustained increased blood that they pump, and the tears do not repair so that scar tissue is formed. He cites a study of some 50'000 people which shows that runners have a 19% longer life expectation than sedentary people, but that when they run over 30km average a week, this benefit cancels out. The result also applies to speed - up to 10km/h provides benefit, but pushing to 12km/h sees it go away. Finally, running two to five times a week provides the benefit, but running seven days a week takes it away again. The Copenhagen Heart Study, tracking 20'000 people since 1976, confirms these results. Joggers have a 44% lower mortality rate and live on average 6 years longer than non-runners - provided they run at a slow to average pace for one to two-and-a-half hours or two or three times per week.

Some of you will always prefer to run far and fast and die happy. With these learnings you can choose your own destiny and the good news is that if you choose to change and slack off now, the heart repairs itself and returns to normal. For the rest of us, exercise is a remarkable therapy, and running up to 30k per week at a moderate pace will make us healthier and happier. You can find Dr O'Keefe's talk here. Good running all!


Barefoot or cushioning? February 24 2015, 0 Comments

Last week, a friend sent me an article from the International New York Times describing the arrival of maximalist, highly cushioned shoes. You might be surprised that such a topic would appear on this website, as we are at the other end of the running philosophy spectrum. I was initially a little reluctant to read it because I was sure that I wouldn't like what I saw. In psychology, this is known as 'confirmational bias' - an acceptance of anything that confirms one's existing beliefs, and rejection of anything which contradicts them.  However, I did read it, and in the interests of open-mindedness (the opposite of confirmational bias...), here is what I found and think.

Born to runOn the basis  of the story of a prominent long-distance runner whose plantar fasciitis, a painful inflammation of the feet, was resolved by using maximalist shoes, they seem to work.  Plantar fasciitis was exactly the issue that plagued Christopher McDougal, author of the best-selling Born to Run, and his cure was to change to barefoot running, so it seems that different approaches can come to the same resolution. The article emphasised that, even with the cushioning, correct running style on the forefoot is important. This uses foot pronation and the gradual lowering of the heel to absorb impact, wonderfully demonstrated by professor Daniel Lieberman at Harvard. 

I guess that each individual has to find his or her solution to their running needs, and this can be different for different people.  For my part, switching to barefoot running (with barefoot shoes) has been life-changing, and I shall stick with it.  And, even in this article, I found a salve for my confirmational bias - the long-distance runner who uses the maximalist shoes still runs shorter distances barefoot to keep his feet strong.  He drily concludes that people who spend more time improving their bodies as opposed to shopping for shoes are the ones who are going to run better.