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 http://balancedrunner.co.uk/. 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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