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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.