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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.


Do your running shoes unlace when you race? April 13 2017, 0 Comments

Few things are more irritating than the nagging flap-flap of an untied shoelace when running in a nice rhythm. Stopping to retie loses valuable seconds when running in a race, and failure to do so when navigating brush or a rough trail runs the risk of an undignified face-plant when it snags something mid-stride.

study at MIT recently discussed research on why shoe laces come undone when you are running. Apparently, the impact of landing stretches and then loosens the bow, and the swing of the leg causes the lace ends to swing like a pendulum, and all of this loosens the knot.

Intriguingly, this is quite a big subject, even with a presentation on the subject on TED. A study at the university of Berkley in California looks at the merits of different kinds of bows. A 'granny bow' in which the bow is tied in the same way as the first knot, say right-over-left for both, is intrinsically less stable than one in which the bow is tied in the opposite way to the first knot, so left-over-right after right-over-left. This intuitively makes sense for the same reason that a reef knot is more stable than a granny knot. Stability can be increased by using more complex bows, such as a double loop in the second knot.

It's all a bit academic if you use ZEMgear shoes, which conveniently slip on without laces, the sole held snugly in place by the Tech bands over the instep. Check them out here.


How to develop a front-foot running style May 31 2016, 0 Comments

We maintain that landing on the front foot is the natural, shock-absorbing style of running, so it might be helpful to know a few tips on how to make the switch from whatever you are doing now.

Forefoot running

Now jump repeatedly up and down on the spot. If you are doing this right, you will spring off from your toes and your feet will stay relaxed with the toes pointing down while you are airborne. When you land, the ball of the foot will hit first, and then your feet and calves will absorb the impact of the landing so that the heels touch down lightly if at all. This is the motion that we want to replicate as you run.Firstly, as it is supposed to be a core element of barefoot running, start somewhere where you can get rid of the shoes. An open area inside or out that is free from potentially foot-damaging detritus. If you do wear shoes, find some whose sole has the lowest heel in your collection. It's more difficult to land on the front foot when there is an extra couple of centimetres under the heel.

Now start running on the spot, using the same basic motion but one foot at a time. This means that your knees are coming up in front of your body, rather than kicking your heels out behind you, and your feet are moving up and down vertically. Again, they will relax into a downward-pointing position while you are airborne, and the ball of your foot will be the first to touch as you come down. Again, you will feel your feet and calves working to absorb the impact, only more so now as all of your weight is on one foot instead of two.

Finally, continue running on the spot and then lean forwards slightly from the ankles to move forwards. Your stride will be shorter than it is if you habitually heel-strike, but you can compensate for this by upping the step frequency.

That's it.

One more thing. Unless you want to run actually barefoot, get some barefoot running shoes. As your feet will work harder, you might want to transition with a pair of low-rise shoes where the difference in height between the ball and the heel of the sole is much smaller than your current trainers. Or you can simply take the plunge and get some barefoot shoes, in which case it is best to ease yourself in gently. As we are inching into June now, our summer range is ready to go. We recommend that you have a look at the Terra for all sorts of running, including trails where it offers extra protection, the 360 for running on smooth surfaces and the Oxygen 2 for indoor and water-sport use.

Wishing you good running!


Just r-u-u-nning in the rain! May 15 2016, 0 Comments

Despite a deluge of rain, we ran last night. I have a regular group run on Thursdays, and to make even better use of the time I borrow the neighbour's dog and try to get him tired - a forlorn hope as his running batteries are much bigger than mine. We arrived at the venue already sopping wet - he's a labrador and seemingly impervious to any kind of water - and set off a little stiffly as the temperature had headed back winterwards in the last two days.

Running in the rain

It's interesting how once you settle into the run, the weather becomes a less significant influence, and after a couple of kilometres warm up it becomes an irrelevance. It even has its benefits as it keeps you from overheating, and if you begin to feel a little chilly you can accelerate and burn a few more calories to keep warm. To help on this front I had donned an HG long-sleeved top under my running gear and was snug as a bug for the whole trail. I switched my summer ZEMgear Terras to go back to some winter Heros, and my feet were toasty warm even when running through deep puddles.

Sport HG topZEMgear TerraZEMgear Hero

At the end of the run everyone's spirits were noticeably higher, and I confess to a smug self-satisfaction that we ran in those conditions. If you drop it into the conversation at work the following day, you can watch people's eyebrows arch in amazement.

But here's the thing. It's not crazy. Rather than sitting at home and gloomily watching the rain on the other side of a window pane, getting out and running in it leaves you feeling relaxed, virtuous, and nicely ready for a good night's sleep. So next time it looks wet and miserable outside why not go out and confront it head on?


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? - 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 at night September 30 2015, 0 Comments

Nights are closing in. The equinox has passed and sunset here in Switzerland is currently shortly after 7pm rather than well after 9pm around the summer solstice. In another three months it will be dark before 5pm. For morning runners it will not be light until we are on the way to work. Temperatures are dropping, and so it's worth thinking about clothing and equipment for the changing season.

Firstly, if you are running off-street in unlit locations, a torch is a good idea. I have a small LED hand-held torch which gives me light to see what is in front of my feet, but prefer to allow my eyes to dark-adapt. You can see a surprising amount if you do this, and I find that I enjoy my surroundings more than I would if my horizon was limited to the reach of the torch. Some prefer head-torches, which leave your  hands and arms free. A couple in our running group have head-torches with enough candle-power to reach Austria, blinding everyone behind them when they turn round to see who is following, and then turning to go on and leaving us to stumble on in a red-haze.

As it is getting cooler, clothing layers allow you to adjust your temperature as you warm up during the run, and cool down again afterwards. I find that full length arm and leg coverings from Sport HG are a good foundation as they wick sweat away from the body, with shorts, shirts, pullovers, etc on top as needed. I usually have a change of clothing waiting at the end of the run in case it rains, and tie the additional layers around shoulders and waist as required. Many run with a small backpack into which additional clobber can be packed. It's cool enough now to change to Thermoprene Apex and Hero winter shoes which cope with the cold up to and including snow and ice. Last year in the snow I rinsed mud off my Heroes in a stream and my feet were comfortably warm for the rest of the run.

Finally, the accessories. A neck-warmer makes an astonishing difference to feeling cosy in cold weather, and gloves and an ear-covering hat for the extremities can be added and subtracted according to need. For wet weather I tend simply to add more layers to separate me from the water and allow the layers closest to me to warm through. Simple plastic rain protection tends to get just as wet on the inside as it is outside, so if you use waterproofing, best are high-tech fabrics which allow moisture passage outwards but not inwards.

In Sweden, renowned for it's chilly winters, they say that there is no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothing. Telephone apps allow us to predict running weather pretty accurately now. Between the two, we can run comfortably all year round.


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.


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.


Swimming in your running shoes July 14 2015, 0 Comments

Our running group is actually a 'hare and hounds' group in which someone lays a trail earlier in the day, and then the rest follow it. The trail disappears in places, so the front-runners have to find it and the others have a chance to catch up, and there are also a couple of other devices to keep the group together.

We ran on July 4th, as we have a fairly strong and patriotic American contingent. As the temperatures soared up to 36°C (97°F), the hare took the trail to the river, and we had a stretch of about half a kilometre along which we could float with the stream and cool down - bliss! I jumped in fully clothed and wearing my Terras. As they fit so snugly, and are not carrying a wad of padding underfoot, they felt quite natural, and I was able to swim and then get out and carry on running with the minimum of fuss.

Some ZEMgear shoes, such as the O2 Oxygen range, are designed for water sports, but in fact, because of their lightness and snug fit, all of them can be used for this. Handy if you would like to take a dip in the middle of your run.Similarly, a friend of ours with a labrador who has just discovered that he is a water-dog invited me down to the lake for a swim. Some sort of footwear is advisable to get over the stones near the shore to the deeper water. I wore 360s, and found that swimming in them is easy and, as they don't have to be changed, there is a minimum of fuss at the shore both going in and coming out.


The benefits of barefoot style June 30 2015, 0 Comments

We use our ZEMgear shoes for free-time and social use as well as for sports. We get a few widened eyes and raised eyebrows when people on public transport see them, a small price to pay for comfort, and anyway, some like that sort of attention... I first noticed the benefits at an exhibition.  We were wearing ZEMs - the best way to display your wares is to use them - and at the end of a longish day, I noticed that I had no back-ache, something that I have associated with exhibitions for many years. To get an idea of why this might be, we need to go into the mechanics of heels.

When standing barefoot, weight distribution between the heels and the ball of the foot is about 50:50. This is the most energy-efficient way of standing, as your weight is balanced over your feet, a technique taught in the Alexander technique for reducing strain and promoting relaxation.  You can change the weight distribution by leaning forwards or back, but this induces tension in the opposing muscles.  Over a full working day, this can make a big difference both in how tired you might feel at the end of the day, and in aching of the correcting muscles.

Let us now throw some heels into the mix. High heels are worn to attract. They make you taller and bunch the calf muscles so that the curve of the calf is more accentuated. They tilt the body forward so that the spine curves to compensate, making the bottom stick out and lifting the bosom into a sexier pose. So what is the effect of this re-distribution of assets?

Relatively low heels will change weight distribution, throwing more weight onto the ball of the foot, and less on the heel, and really high heels can put as much as 90% of your weight on the front of your foot, which can cause distortion and bunions.  The arch of the foot, which normally flexes to absorb impact during walking, is now stretched into a fixed position, which weakens its ligaments, and the toes are are flexed into a fixed position from which they can make little contribution to locomotion. The Achilles tendon and calf are shortened, and if the shoes are worn for long stretches, this can become permanent, making it uncomfortable to go back to low-heeled shoes because of the stretch that this induces. The knees are pushed forward so that when standing the weight is not balanced over the foot in the column of the leg - instead the muscles and ligaments around the knee have to be in tension to maintain balance. Still thinking in columns, the vertical alignment of the spine is disturbed, putting strain on the discs, and necessitating additional muscular effort to stay upright.

Walking barefootI know that it is too much to ask some people to give up their high heels, and the social constraints surrounding some jobs make this impossible. However, to allow your feet, legs and spine to relax, try barefoot in the evenings at home, and barefoot shoes for going out informally. Your body will thank you for it.


Travelling, ZEM-style June 24 2015, 0 Comments

Summer hails the arrival of another holiday season when we head for the sun, sea or mountains to unwind after a hectic winter and spring. For many of us this involves flights or car trips to our chosen destinations. For this, and indeed any travel that does not require looking formal at the end, ZEMgear shoes are a useful addition to the travel inventory.

If you are like me, and take your shoes off as often as possible, the elasticated, no-lace design means that they can be slipped off easily when sitting down waiting for that flight, and on again in a trice to board. Off when seated in the plane (or car), and on again for a walk to the back of the plane.  Also because they are elasticated, they will stretch to accommodate feet that swell up on a long flight or car journey, and maintain a good, snug fit as the feet shrink back to their normal size when we start to walk.

Normal shoes are bulky and impact the size of the suitcase that you take - it helps to stuff them with smaller items of clothing, but even so they take up a lot of space. Not so with ZEMs. They are compact enough to fit three pairs in the space normally take by a single pair of normal shoes, or you can slot them into the narrow spaces between other items to make best use of available space.

Finally, you can use them at your destination. If you continue with your running programme on holiday, they take up less space than your other running gear, and if you are so lucky as to be going to a beach, they are perfect for walking on sand as they keep your soles off the hot sand, and fit snugly to your feet to prevent the sand from getting inside the shoe.

There are so many reasons to travel ZEM-wise.


Indoor sports - shoes or no? February 18 2015, 0 Comments

We had an in inquiry last week from someone who wanted to know if ZEMgear shoes could be used for indoor sports such as martial arts.  I had heard that in some states in the USA, new legislation had made shoes compulsory at public sports venues because of the possibility of spreading foot infections.  This prompted an internet search, and I could find nothing about it at all, so it seems that it might be another myth.  However, the question about use of ZEMgear shoes for indoor sports remains.

In the past, I did martial arts, and we always trained barefoot, and sometimes on different surfaces (grass, concrete, slippery floors) to widen our experience.  This can be a trial in the early stages as constantly-shod feet are soft and can develop scratches and blisters until they toughen up.  This would be a perfect time for barefoot shoes, as standard trainers do not convey the same feeling of contact with the ground as barefoot training, and plasters covering small injuries would be protected inside the shoes.

So the answer is 'yes', it's possible to train for barefoot sports in ZEMgear shoes.  The soles of all models are all non-marking to keep the sports hall management happy, and the tech-bands hold the shoes tightly to the feet, allowing good manoeuvrability.  Any of the range could be worn, depending on the degree of protection or warmth required, with the O2 Oxygen as an initial recommendation, as it was specifically designed for indoors or water sports.