Finally getting somewhere

Well, despite Achilles tendon soreness and other miscellaneous aches in my feet, I’m continuing with barefoot running albeit over shorter distances (approx 2.5km). The good news is that I think I’m starting to find some progress. I’m no longer picking up new blisters and my old blisters are beginning to fall off. I’ve had a bit of pain in the front of my feet, and I’m ever vigilant not to develop a stress fracture. However, I found that I just had to pick my feet up more quickly so that I don’t ‘toe-off’. This is what all the barefoot experts recommend and I can see why now.

I’m still slightly concerned that I may just be swapping one set of injuries for another. However, in the last week or so I’ve heard so many other runners tell me of mysterious pains they suffer in their knee or hip joints, it has reinforced my view that trainers with thick heel cushioning are bad and are causing some serious injuries.

I broke my vow to run only barefoot the other week, when I put on a pair of trainers for the first time in a couple of months so I could join the rest of my running club on an away night. It involved running 10km – twice what I’ve run during my barefoot months – so I was slightly concerned how I would cope. As it turned out, it felt great. My daily cycle rides have kept my fitness levels up. The weird thing was how much my technique has changed with my cadence being much higher than everyone around me. I felt sensitive to any friction to the soles of my shoes – just as I would my barefoot soles. Thankfully the route was mostly flat because every time I went down a decline I flew down – like a bicycle without brakes – just as I do when I’m barefoot. Having no friction means having no brakes.

So after about 3 months persevering with barefoot, I think I’m beginning to reap some benefits. I’ll continue for now and see where it leads me.

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Back to nature

The weather just keeps getting nicer and nicer so I was tempted out on Saturday again. This time I thought I would treat myself to some off-road running. After two and a half months of running on rough tarmac, I thought I had earned it!

The glorious Beverley Westwood

The glorious Beverley Westwood

I’m fortunate to have Beverley Westwood near to where I live. This is a large area of common land with some nice hills to practice running up and down. I’ve run around it many times, but never without shoes. I couldn’t wait.

As the weather has been so warm and dry, the ground was actually very hard, but most of it has a layer of grass which gave it some cushioning. I ran up and down the hills with a big smile on my face, trying not to forget to keep my cadence up for the up-hill bits.

There is a gravel track across part of the Westwood, so I thought I would give it a go. It was agony! It is still a mystery to me how anyone can run on such a surface – I guess not many people do, and even fewer enjoy it!

The distance was 5km, so that’s three Saturdays in a row that I have run that distance. I would like to think I’m getting used to it but my feet and Achilles tendons are still sore a couple of days afterwards. My left Achilles tendon has been sore since I started barefoot running back in February, so I’m now thinking I should give running a rest until it stops aching. I’m sure it will get better and stronger. I just don’t know if running, even short runs, might be preventing this from happening.

Anyway, I’ve ordered a load of books on barefoot running so I’ve got lots of reading to do!

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Learning the Three R’s of barefoot running

It’s Spring and barefoot running is a lot easier and a lot more appealing now it’s warming up. After last week’s Park Run, my feet were quite sore so I was wondering when to do my next run. With sunshine everyday I couldn’t wait to try out the pavements after work. I tried a run on Wednesday but it just wasn’t working, my ankles felt stiff. I got to the end of my road and turned around and went back. The next day I tried again, and this time did my 3km route. It still didn’t feel quite right so I kept stopping and walked for bits of it.

The next day I had a new sharp pain on the outside of my shin. I tried working out which muscle / tendon it was – it seemed too low for the tibialis anterior (which is where I get most of my shin pain). It seemed to be the muscle used to raise the toes (extensor digitorum). I wondered if this was caused by me lifting my toes in order to avoid damaging them, a technique that Ken Bob explains in his book.

I spent Saturday afternoon reading websites related to barefoot running. I found a lot of useful information, and a lot of similar stories to what I was experiencing on my barefoot journey. A real mine of information was In particular I found the information on posture and pelvis position useful – a problem I’ve written about in a previous post. Related to this is the view that leaning forward (from the ankles) is important to gain forwards momentum. I also found it useful to learn that a little bit of over-striding is not a sin but a key part of loading the elastic energy. There is a lot of conflicting advice about “running tall” and avoiding over-striding so I couldn’t wait to try out these new ideas.

I hadn’t planned on running on Saturday but the weather had improved considerably from the morning so I couldn’t resist. I enjoyed it so much I ended up running 5km. As with the Park Run this was probably too far. But as with the Park Run, I am unrepentant because I think I learned a lot from it. I did my best to relax my posture. In fact, I had to tell myself to relax approximately every 10 seconds. But it definitely helped. I didn’t worry about where I placed my feet, nor did I consciously try to raise my toes – in fact I did my best to relax my lower legs as much as possible. And finally I started to lean forwards. This is where it gets fun because it is like you are continually falling forwards and you have to keep your legs spinning. It’s slightly scary and feels like being on a bike with no brakes. It’s not easy to stop!

The home stretch is a long downhill gradient – and I really flew down parts of it. It starts off with some rough tarmac but finishes on smooth paving slabs and cobbles which after the rough surfaces felt like heaven. I examined my feet when I got back and found that I had one fresh blister – the rest of my feet the in tack. Okay, I’m still damaging my feet, but I still think it’s amazing that I can run so far and so fast and create so little damage.

Lying in the bath when I got back I tried to summarise in three words what my advice to a fellow barefoot beginner would be. Initially I came up with “Relax relax relax” as this was what I kept telling myself to do during my run. I think it is also important to relax generally, as learning barefoot running can’t be done in a hurry and is likely to take many months. Then I thought that my three words would be “Read, Run, Relax”. Read about barefoot running – try to learn as much as possible from others. However, there are some things you can only learn from experience, therefore Run little and often. Last but not least, Relax, physically and mentally. I think I’m learning the Three R’s for barefoot running!

Relaxed also describes my attitude to training. I’ve previously talked about training schedules, but I think these create too much pressure. Running is meant to be fun – so only run when you feel like it, like when the weather beckons and your legs feel right. And when you go for a run, only run as far as you feel like. Don’t feel like hitting any targets. As I say, on Wednesday I only went to the end of the road. The day after I went further but walked for long stretches. On Saturday after learning a bit more I went a lot further – probably too far given the new blister and the fact that the left calf/Achilles tendon are still sore today (Monday). I don’t want to run again until they feel better. I don’t know when that’s going to be. Not having a training schedule means that I am under no pressure – I’m not missing any targets so I’m relaxed. Okay, I’m not going to smash any PBs any time soon, but that is a price you have to pay in order to learn barefoot running properly. Hopefully it’ll pay off in the long run!

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How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Gravel (sort of!)

So the big news is that I’ve run my first Park Run completely barefoot! At 28 mins 33 seconds this was a whole 9 minutes slower than my PB. But I don’t care because running a BF Park Run has been my ambition for a couple of months, and for most of that time it felt like the equivalent of running a marathon. Bruised heals, stubbed toes, sore Achilles tendons – it has been a steep learning curve!

After the run - feet still in one piece (just about)

After the run – feet still in one piece (just about)

And I will put my hands up and admit that strictly speaking I should not have run it. Park Runs are 5KM and the furthest I had run before that was 3KM. Add to that the fact that Park Runs are timed so there was the temptation to race and injury myself even further, this was a reckless act. Do I regret it? Well, yes I did get injured (details towards the bottom of the article), so maybe a little bit. But I think I learned a lot from it, so overall I think it was well worth it.

Normally I’m busy on a Saturday morning so Park Runs aren’t possible. It is only when I visit my parents in Dorset that I have the opportunity to run the one in Weymouth. A couple of days beforehand, I practised running barefoot across my parents gravel drive. I found it incredibly painful and I soon gave up. I then entertained myself by running hill reps, something I don’t have the opportunity to do close to my home. I’ve always had trouble controlling my speed when running down hill, and I found that barefoot I had to really shorten my stride and pick up my cadence in order to prevent friction from damaging my feet. I was pleased to find that when I got back inside there was no visible wear to my soles.

I was still apprehensive about doing the Park Run, but the success of the hill running spurred me on. I just couldn’t remember whether the Weymouth Park Run involved any gravel. Part of me thought it might do, because it involves going around Lodmoor Nature Park. On the other hand, if it was too gravelly I would surely remember it for being a slow course.

My Innov8s - you're suppose to wear them on your feet not your hands!

My Innov8s – you’re suppose to wear them on your feet not your hands!

On Saturday morning I still wasn’t sure so I took a pair of minimalist Innov8 running shoes so I could decide when I got there. I haven’t worn these shoes for a few months but remember that they felt very different to cushioned running shoes, which I was used to. I naturally thought that after a couple of months running almost entirely barefoot that I would run a lot more naturally in the Innov8s. How wrong I was! When I got out of the car I tried a warm up jog and couldn’t believe how rough it felt – it was like driving a car with no suspension. I had to consciously make myself run as if I was barefoot. This helped enormously and I was moving smoothly again. But clearly without the feedback from bare soles, this style is not natural to me. It is going to take a while to embed – another lesson in why going barefoot is the best way to change running styles.

I did some warm up exercises in the car park, then joined the crowd amassing behind the start area. At 5 minutes to 9 I took off my shoes. No one seemed to notice. The ground was warmer than I was expecting, but my feet started to cool down after standing on the tarmac for a few minutes. For the first time in a long while I positioned myself at the back of crowd. If I was going to be hopping along in bare feet I didn’t want to be accused of getting in anyone’s way.

The run started. I carried my shoes in my hands, just in case. The course goes out of the car park and then left – straight onto a gravel track. Oh, god, I thought. I then remembered that we do two loops of the gravel track before going onto a tarmac path. What could I do? With people around me I couldn’t just stop. The humiliation of giving up and putting shoes on almost as soon as I had started was too much. So I soaked up the pain and got on with it, concentrating like never before on those gentle landings – picking up the feet just before they land to minimise the impact. This was a real baptism of fire – or strictly speaking, gravel.

Somehow I made one slow lap, then two, all the time longing for the tarmac where I could relax and hopefully pick up some speed. When I got to the tarmac path the change was a bit of a shock and I had to alter my style slightly to compensate for the harder, smoother surface. It was not necessarily easier than running on gravel, just different. I’m sure most runners, including myself, would not change running style when moving between the two surfaces in cushioned shoes, but being barefoot you have to adapt your style a lot more.

The tarmac stretch of the course goes up a hill then straight back down it. The hill reps I did a couple of days beforehand gave me the confidence that I could manage this. Going down hill I speeded up my cadence significantly to prevent my soles from being torn by friction. Then I got back to the gravel for one final loop before the finish. This time I had the finish line in my sights and so I speeded up. Suddenly I didn’t care that I was running on gravel. Maybe my feet were numb from being beaten across the ground, or maybe it was adrenaline, but for the first time I felt like I could run quickly barefoot. It felt natural and smooth. I was zooming past the other runners, nipping through gaps when I got a chance. I was running on gravel and having fun!

With a sprint I crossed the finish line and one of the volunteers said I was looking good. I don’t know if that was a comment on my running form or whether she says that to everyone. Another volunteer asked why I was carrying my shoes. I explained that as this was my first barefoot Park Run, they were my insurance policy in case I couldn’t finish it. During the run other people had remarked that I was barefoot. This is one bit of barefoot running that I don’t like – being noticed. I’m naturally a very shy person so being the centre of attention is not something I enjoy. I guess it is just something I’ll have to put up with until people get used to me running without shoes.

Because I hadn’t trained for this distance I paid for it straight away with sore soles and a blister on a toe. Then for two days after I had sore Achilles tendons and foot arches. Today (Tuesday) my feet feel reasonably okay again, but I’ll give them another day’s rest before I try running again. So yes, maybe ill advised but I think I learned some important lessons during my Park Run. I’m now re-reading parts of Ken Bob’s book and it makes more sense to me now.

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Playing With Posture

sewerby xc 2015

Trying to keep good posture while running into a strong head wind!

For me and for many others, posture is a worry. Just its mention can cause us to start adjusting our position. We probably recall a teacher or parent telling us to stop slouching and stand tall. We are told that our sedentary lives, predominantly slumped in front of screens, causes our posture to get worse. (As I spend most of my working life slumped in front of a screen, I thought that for a change I would write this blog while standing.)

Posture, in my experience, has made a massive difference to my running, barefoot and shod. For the last year or so I’ve been coached with shoes on, and a large part of that involved improving my posture. I then read Barefoot Ken Bob Saxton’s book and found his advice to be identical as far as everything above the hips go. That advice is to start with the top, correcting head and torso, and the feet should automatically fall correctly.

I found that as I changed my posture – into a more upright, less slouched position –  I began landing on my forefeet more. This is obviously the type of landing that minimalist and barefoot runners advocate. The only trouble was that I wasn’t allowing my heals to touch the ground, resulting in really tight calves, even after short runs. I ran a 10k in PB time but I paid for it with tight calves for 2 weeks afterwards.

Clearly posture was only half the story. A solution to my tight calves was a key motivation behind me wanting to learn barefoot running. With barefoot running you have no cushioning so a key technique is to allow your whole foot to touch the ground in order to spread the load. You should also bend at the knee in order to absorb the impact, and that in turn allows the calf muscles to relax. That’s the theory anyway! I still suffer a little from tight calves, but not as much as I did, although that might be a result of my substantially reduced mileage. I’m hoping that my calves improve further as my technique improves.

During one training session with shoes I sprained my hip flexors. I learnt that by running too tall I was pulling my pelvis out of its “neutral position”. I also probably have short hip flexors caused by spending most days in a sitting position. So having a good running posture is also about positioning the pelvis correctly so that you have a good range of motion in your legs.

Something I am beginning to realise about good posture is that it is not about stretching your spine as far as it will go, or locking any group of muscles into a fixed position. Instead it is a position to adopt in order to maintain a reasonably good centre of gravity running from our head down to our feet. In order to do this correctly you need to allow your joints to fall into a neutral position (which means they can move either way) and then make constant tiny adjustments in order to maintain your balance. Although this sounds like hard work, it means that no single muscle group is under constant work. Key to maintaining good posture is a good sense of balance – a skill I have improved since starting running coaching.

One of the joys of running for me is focusing in on the movement of my body. A key part of this is playing with posture, something I don’t have the opportunity to do most of the time while I’m slumped in a chair or bent over a bicycle frame. Call it “play” and not “work” and it makes it so much easier! Experiment and see how it feels. Sometimes you need to lean forwards, for example, when you are running into a head wind or want to accelerate. But all the time you need to be aware of your balance and make adjustments accordingly.

A couple of days ago I watched the World Cross Country Championships and I was struck by the different postures of the lead runners of each race. These are some of the world’s fastest distance runners, but each one had a slightly different posture in order to maintain the runner’s centre of balance, proving that posture is personal.

So, in summary, good posture is about keeping a good centre of balance, which in turn allows your feet to land underneath your (instead of over-striding). Barefoot running is really good for posture because the feedback from the feet give the body more information on how to position itself. In fact, many people find that they instinctively start to run much taller without their shoes. However, care has to be taken to allow the pelvis to fall into a neutral position so as not to end up spraining the hip flexors.

For more information, there are a lot of good websites on posture – this is one I read the other day which looks quite good:

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How trainers made my flat feet even flatter

My Achilles tendons were a bit sore yesterday after my run the day before, but have thankfully returned to normal today.

As well as Achilles tendons, the main soreness I’ve experienced since taking up barefoot running has been in my foot arches. This takes me back to 2012, when I first started running seriously. It was then that my arches first began to ache, so I went to the local sports shop in search of running shoes that would solve the problem.

The shop assistant asked to see my feet while standing and immediately diagnosed me as an over-pronator. These feet required stability shoes. I had never heard of pronation before, let along over-pronation, so it all sounded very impressive. Clearly, my feet just needed the right shoes and then everything would be all right.

You never forget your first pair

You never forget your first pair

The arch pain went away. I ran happily for a few months until my toes started to hit the ends of the shoes. The shoes themselves had barely any wear. I couldn’t believe that in my thirties I could have grown out of a pair of shoes. I went to another running shop. The owner explained that my feet hadn’t grown, it was just that the arches had dropped. That didn’t sound good, I thought. I knew that my feet were on the flat side to start with, so why were they getting flatter?

I bought another pair of stability shoes, half a size bigger than the last ones, and didn’t think much more about it. Soon it was winter and I found I was doing most of my running off-road, in trail shoes. Now, trail shoes troubled me because unlike road shoes there were not different models for different types of feet. Feeling my arches getting sore again, I went to a running shop to see if there was a fix. They explained that off-road running didn’t generally require stability shoes as the ground was softer, but I could buy these expensive insoles anyway. Puzzled, I bought the insoles and found that because of their thickness they caused my ankles to buckle over on uneven ground. I stopped using them after that.

Then I read the fabulous Born To Run. As well as containing a fantastic account of the native running people of Mexico (who are excellent runners but extremely reclusive), it includes sections that are highly critical of the modern, highly cushioned running shoe. The humble trainer, it seems, is the root of all evil. I tried to be sceptical, but certain elements resonated with me. In particular, the suggestion that trainers and insoles that support the arch actually help weaken it. It made sense. Just like putting a cast on a broken arm, the muscles underneath deteriorate through lack of use. I was doing just the same by wearing stability shoes – my arches (that may not have been great to start with) were withering away. As they say, use it or lose it!

So, I thought, maybe that pain in my arches was not a bad thing after all. Maybe it was a sign that the important muscles in my feet were being worked and were hopefully getting stronger. And that’s why I’m not too worried today that I have a bit of arch pain for a day or so after a barefoot run. I am working new muscles, ones that expensive running shoes try to suppress. I’m now beginning to appreciate what an incredible design the feet are, and how sad it is that most of the time they are hidden, something that we are embarrassed about because they smell or look funny, and something that running shoe manufacturers have tried to convince us are inherently faulty.

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Barefoot training – one step at a time

Today is a running rest day. I have a lot of them. I want to run more but it takes several days to recover after a run. The main impediment is sore Achilles tendons. I’ve never had this problem before taking up barefoot running. In fact, I’ve probably never used them properly before. However, tendon soreness was about the first thing to flair up after my initial 5 minute run. Having seen someone with a snapped Achilles tendon the other week, I’m extremely keen not to push mine to the limit. Spending months on crutches and unable even to drive does not appeal!

My original plan was to run three times a week, starting with 5 minutes and adding 5 minutes after every couple of runs. I wrote out the schedule on my calendar. By now I was meant to be running 40 minutes in barefoot bliss, having already completed a 5km Parkrun. The reality is that I can run for about 15 minutes covering approximately 3km. From where I’m standing at the moment, a Parkrun seems like a marathon!

The best plan for anyone wanting to start barefoot running is to not to think of distance or speed, just time. Start with 5 minutes and see how you feel after a couple of days. Wait for any new pain or soreness to subside before beginning your next run. If, after a couple of runs you feel fine, increase your time. But do it gradually. And accept that the process will probably take longer than you think. Learning barefoot running is like learning a new language – you are not going to master it in a day or even a week. Unfortunately I think it is going to take months of practice. Like life itself, enjoy the journey and don’t worry about the destination.

I said at the top of this post that this was a running rest day. I can still cycle, swim, walk, or work on core strength – there is no reason to let general fitness levels drop off while barefoot training. But don’t feel bad about just resting – it is important to give your body chance to rebuild itself after each barefoot run, hopefully getting stronger each time!

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One step back, two steps forward

Hurray, I’ve run 3km and no new blisters, aches or pains. Success!

It seems that the path to barefoot nirvana is slow and hazardous. The tarmac road is an unforgiving surface – this is learning the hard way. In the past couple of months that I’ve been running barefoot, I’ve picked up numerous little injuries. At least today I feel like I’ve made some progress.

So, I have built up to running 3km. Don’t ask me how long that takes me. For a runner who could run sub-40 minute 10kms, this is really frustrating. I knew I wouldn’t be fast, but my plan was to be running a lot further by now. Now I’m just resigned to taking every day at a time.

So why is today such a big success? Because I ran the same route 4 days ago and came back with 3 interesting looking blood blisters. Owww!

How can I run the same route and on one day get blisters and on another not? Because barefoot running is all about technique. Runners often joke that running is simply putting one foot in front of another very fast, but I don’t agree with that. Running is a skill, and if you do it wrong you get injured.

My problem 4 days ago was that my feet were numb with cold, so I couldn’t feel that I was creating a huge amount of friction between them and the pavement. Today it was warmer, so I was able to listen to my feet. I picked them up properly and that prevented them from getting worn and blistered.

The pavements around here having extremely rough surfaces, so to be able to run 3km on them comfortably is, in my opinion, a considerable achievement. It will have to make up for not running a 10k any time soon.

So today I have learned that a good foot lifting technique is important, and also why shoes are bad. You have to run genuinely barefoot, and not use minimalist shoes or Vibram five-fingers in order to feel the ground and correct your technique. Ken Bob Saxton calls this process “Feetback” which I think usefully summarises why running barefoot is important. I’m not on commission, but I strongly recommend anyone interested in running barefoot to read his book before starting.

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