Wednesday 30 June 2010

Nature knows best!

(4th July 2010)

I have a question: why won't people trust what is natural?

I speak to many people about diet. I tell them to eat as natural food as possible. They then eye me suspiciously, "what, you mean organic food?" Well, yes, I tell them, amongst other things. I mean food that comes out of the ground without having been doused in chemicals, and food that hasn't been synthetically produced in a lab (squeezy cheese for example). I can then see them mentally picturing the alluring, succulent yet symmetrically perfect, aestheticlly pleasing vegetables on one side of the supermarket versus the mishapen, funny-coloured mysterious looking offerings on the other and thinking, "ugh, no thanks!"

The same goes for exercise. I encourage my clients to get outside in the fresh air, to move their bodies as they were designed to move and to enjoy the feeling of freedom that comes with it. Why would you want anything different? But people do. They want to look good and think they can only achieve this by pushing themselves to the limit. They would rather stand inside a sweaty, man-made gym in front of a mirror watching their biceps contract and relax as they grimace through yet another set of curls rather than work their biceps (and many other muscles at the same time) by climbing a tree, for example. After all, everyone knows that working yourself to your heart pounding, sweat dripping limits whilst hating every minute of it is the only way to achieve fitness, right?

Unfortunately, this is what we're told every day when we're bombarded with adverts for gym membership and all the paraphernalia that accompanies the gym world, such as special shoes, clothing, gadgets, etc. I would argue, though, that the fittest people are those that get outside and tackle nature (check out Erwan Le Corre at You get some strange looks when you train like this though. David and I were practising some movement therapy up in Crystal Palace Park a few days ago - rolls, headstands and handstands, pull-ups on tree branches - and received several puzzled, amused/bemused glances. I think it's weird that people run inside on a treadmill which takes them exactly.....nowhere.

I'm not saying that gyms and the modern ways of "keeping fit" do not have their place. Sometimes it is safer indoors, it can be much easier to rehab an injury in a more controlled environment.

But, as a society, we have been conditioned to trust the artificial and be very wary of the natural and I find that really scary. That's why I'm so pleased about what's beginning to happen in the fitness world. Or, the "mainstream" fitness world, I should say. Just as there are many people out there who've always eaten natural food, growing their own veg and eating healthily, there are people who've always followed a more simple way of training and never stopped climbing trees, doing acrobatics and so forth. Martial artists particularly fit into this category. This type of body conditioning is becoming wider-spread now though and indivdiuals are starting to question their exercise methods; question what they've been told by the fitness media.

I don't think we'll ever revert back to the way human beings used to live - chasing and killing their own meat, eating only fresh foods without additives and preservatives. Most of us wouldn't want to. The goal is to find a balance so that you can maintain a healthily functioning body well into later life without actually ostracizing yourself from society.

So, keep an open mind, keep the questions coming, find a balance and remember: nature knows best!

Wednesday 23 June 2010

It's not fair! (24th June 2010)

As David and I continue to experiment with barefoot running, adding miles, altering terrain and slowly adapting our muscles to this natural way of moving, I marvel at how effortless it is for David, and balk at how difficult it is for me.

When we used to run in trainers, I was the one who could keep going happily for miles whilst David would struggle awkardly and seem to work harder than necessary. Now that we've shed our shoes, it's as though David has been freed of the evil hindrances that were slowing him down and hampering his natural running style and he now flies along almost just skimming the earth beneath him. For me, however, it's the opposite. My shoes were apparently masking a multidude of sins that have now been exposed and are reaking havoc on my body. My feet are sensitive; little niggles that I used to be able to ignore (but shouldn't have) are now shouting too loudly for me to silence them.

It's not that I'm not improving - I'm actually getting quite good - but still, the question keeps bugging me: why is it so much easier for David than for me? I was as good, if not better than him at running before. He could beat me at most other sports, but running was my thing. What's going on?!

I recently read an article on Christopher McDougall's blog which encouraged me to think beyond the self-pitying "it's not fair" train of thought. His article is very funny, by the way, you should read it, it's called "Dr. Runner's World and Mr.Hyde" ( In a particular section of the article, he questions how the journalist he ran with a couple of months ago, who had never run barefoot before, was able to knock out 6 miles sans the shoes and with no nasty repercussions. He then notes that other runners take weeks or longer to adjust to barefooting. He concludes that "...the truth is, no one really knows".

Well, to some extent, that's true. There isn't one, singlular attribute that puts certain runners above others on the capability scale. There's no universal rule governing who will find barefooting easy and who won't - but there are a number (quite a large number) of contributing factors and looking back at your general exercise and movement history will help. For example, David's background lies predominantly in martial arts and dance, both of which emphasize whole body motion. With martial arts particularly, he was encouraged to use both sides of his body equally and as a result has extremely balanced movement. David's martial arts instuctor also made him run outside without shoes on and all his training was done barefoot, so his feet have been well-prepared and conditioned for barefoot running.

Injuries play a role too and more importantly, how well you recover from them. The healing process can lengthy and requires rest and rehabilitation, things most of us aren't very good at. A healthy, balanced diet is also key not only to recovery, but injury prevention as well.

Then there's genetics. I was born with lax joints apparently (my hips used to dislocate when I was a baby and I had to wear double nappies to hold them in place) and my joints still have that disconcerting tendency to fall out of place. David is genetically very strong - without any specific training, his father was able to lift an entire car engine all by himself. I think there can be quite marked differences in the congenital "quality" of people's soft tissue. There hasn't been enough diverse research on this subject (most is carried out on Caucasian men) but in my opinion, if the meat that you eat can vary so much in texture, chew-ability, etc. then surely human tissue can be predisposed to different levels of pliability?

There are other factors to consider too: how active generally were you as a child, how active are you now, how often do you go without shoes, what sorts of shoes do you wear, what's your natural running style like?....the list is endless.

So, having mulled over the above I've come to the conclusion that I always end up with when these questions of comparison arise: don't compare yourself to anyone but you. It's no good - and can be quite demoralising - to rate your progress according to somebody elses. It's silly really. My barefoot running journey is mine - I am experimenting with my own body and learning from it. It really shouldn't be about anybody else. And I think this attitude comes across with all barefooters, particularly the veterans such as Barefoot Ted and Barefoot Ken Bob. They share with us their own experiences, the ups and downs, the successes and failures. They say, "hey, why not try this?" or, "have a go at that". But their message is always very clear: listen you your own body and respect what it's saying. This is not a competition.

And so, my own personal barefoot journey continues and I will stop trying to make ludicrous comparisons between myself and my running partner who is practically the exact opposite of me. I would encourage anybody taking on the same barefoot running challenge to take a realistic look at their background, build and running style and adapt accordingly. Your body - or more specifically your feet - will tell you what to do.

Sunday 13 June 2010

My first run in Vibram Five Fingers (April 2009)

If you've ever researched barefoot running on the internet (I suspect, if you're reading this, that you have), the chances are you'll have come across a type of footwear called Vibram Five Fingers. I was introduced to them by Chris McDougall during his book promotion talk; he swears by them and refuses to wear anything else on his feet.

So, what are they? Well, as the name suggests, they have five fingers - or toes, actually. They're basically gloves for your feet. You slide your foot into them, attempting to separate your toes so that each one fits into its allocated hole (believe me, this is hard than it sounds), then there's generally just a velcro strap to secure and you're ready to go! These shoes then protect your feet from sharp objects such as stones, glass, and sometimes nastier things (particularly if you live in London) without compromising your biomechanics. They come in a small variety of colours - the only option available when I bought mine however, was bright red, so there was no hope of experimenting with them quietly and unassumingly.

I'd tried my first barefoot run (which went quite well I think, my feet were still attached to my ankles) and couldn't wait to test out these funny little shoes. I had a route in mind - a very conservative circuit near where I live which usually would take around fifteen minutes, so not a problem then.

Weeeelll, except it was. I walked up the first road, as I would normally for any run, trying to get a feel for the shoes. It was as though I was wearing someone else's feet. My feet and calf muscles seemed to be working extremely hard and the concrete was unforgiving. It also felt as though I had two toes squashed into one toe slot and I kept bending down to check that each little digit was tucked in correctly. Most of all, I was excrutiatingly conscious of how my feet looked in these bright red clown shoes.

I reached the next road and thought I'd attempt a bit of running. I already knew how I should be running, picking up my feet, landing mid-foot, gently, upright, etc. It was certainly much easier in this shoe; it came naturally. It's difficult to tell which part of your foot you're landing on with cushioned trainers because your whole foot just sort of clonks down in one heavy lump. It felt very strange to have something so light on my feet - I realised my whole body had been working so much harder just to lift the weight of my trainers. I also became aware how unnatural my running style is in trainers; I realised that I was wanting to stride out with longer steps but in the Vibrams I couldn't. They were almost forcing me to shorten my stride and keep my feet underneath me....which is naturally how we should run. These freaky little clown shoes were giving me a very valuable running lesson!

However, my goal of doing a circuit was quickly revised to: "do as much as you can" because my calf muscles were on fire; I didn't check, but I felt pretty sure they matched my shoes. Another revelation: my feet and calves hardly do any work when I run in trainers. So there must be other muscles over-working elsewhere.

I didn't manage much more than a mile and normally would have viewed this as a poor run. But running in Vibrams is like some sort of awakening. You you can really feel the ground underneath you and consequently are bombarded with feedback from your feet. It's like listening to voices when you're underwater and then all of a sudden coming up for air and the voices are clearer, sharper. Or suddenly putting your glasses on when you've been struggling without them. Everything suddenly seems more real and more alive. At the risk of sound a bit "touchy-feely" it's almost a sort of spiritual awakening. And I don't mean that I found God lurking in my Vibram Five Fingers, but that rather than watching the clock and focusing on how fast I was running and how far I could go, I was just enjoying being outside and feeling the ground beneath my feet.....and smiling. Fantastic!

My first time barefoot (April 2009)

I was truly inspired by Chris McDougall when I attended his talk at Run and Become about the new book he'd just published: "Born to Run". A fantastic read for runners and non-runners alike. In a nutshell, there seem to be two main ideas that he'd like us to take away after reading the book: 1) we run biomechanically correctly when we run barefoot, therefore any shoe/trainer/wedgy heel/ etc. will cause us to move incorrectly and get injured and 2) we need to re-evaluate why we run - try to enjoy it more instead of getting bogged down by distance goals, race strategies, timing....

So, after his funny, informative and thoroughly interesting presentation, the very next day I decided to try running barefoot. I'd read about the concept in Runner's World and in various online articles so I knew I needed to be careful and not expect too much from my first attempt.

Well. Ouch, is all I can say. I had no idea that the baby toe on my right foot was in such a position that when I ran it would rub on the ground until it bled. Despite the tenderness I was expecting, I had really not anticipated the sharp agony of landing on jagged bits of stone, sticks and gravel - it really hurt! I managed maybe about ten minutes of barefoot (very slow) running before deciding to call it a day and go home to examine my wounds.

To my surprise though, there were very few. I had visions of shredded bits of skin hanging off my feet but was pleased to find my feet were actually smoother than before. No one had told me about the exfoliation benefits of barefooting! There really was only just the one blister and a slight stinging, burning sensation along the sole of my foot - which sounds unpleasant but it wasn't at all. My feet felt wonderfully alive.

Strangely enough though, the overriding feeling from running barefoot was one of joy. I'd gone with David (it's slightly less embarrassing if two of you are doing it) and we giggled and laughed and felt like young kids having fun and.....well, playing! Don't you remember those days when you'd spend endless hours in the sunshine rushing around with friends playing tag, practising rolly polly's and returning home at the end of the day exhausted, dirty but pleasantly tired and happy? When was the last time you felt like that after a run?

I was hooked!

Flexible footfalls (12th June 2010)

I can't wait for the day when I can run around the outside of Clapham Common on the dirt track without feeling the stones, twigs, general jagged edges, etc. It's getting easier though. Two reasons it was less uncomfortable today: 1) some of the ground was slightly damp which means that the stones sink into the mud and the overall feel is like plasticine, and 2) I continued with my "new" running style (which is in fact very close to the old one I had before I started messing with it too much) which meant I was more relaxed, therefore my feet were more relaxed and the rough surfaces hurt less. It's amazing how tension in the mind can head straight into the muscles and cause them to freeze.

We did some "playing" today too. I have now mastered the art of rolling and can roll forwards and straight up to standing, just the kind of the thing I could do as a child without thinking anything of it. Pretty nifty. David was congratulatory for about three seconds before telling me I should try backward and side rolls, demonstrating them with his usual finesse, at which point I was reduced once again adult.

As I was running, I thought about my footfalls. I bet every time my foot goes down, it lands slightly differently. Every single time. So, even if my alignment isn't so great and I overpronate slightly too much, it doesn't matter because with each footfall being different, there won't be any overuse issues. Contrast this with wearing trainers, particularly if they're rigid "corrective" ones. My feet would land exactly the same every time, so the way my foot touched down would be a repeated movement over and over again - and one that was forced by the shoe rather than dynamically controlled feedback from the ground. Hmmm........

Saturday 12 June 2010

Sweet spot (9th June 2010)

I believe that today I found what Barefoot Ted refers to as the "sweet spot". David and I did a barefoot run through Beckenham and I decided just to let my legs and feet do what they wanted. What happened? My stride lengthened (shock, horror!) and I felt like I was truly running. I asked David to check and apparently my feet were still landing underneath me, so no dreaded heel strike. I've been so concerned with keeping my feet underneath me that my strides were becoming shorter and shorter and I was getting the same "breaking effect" that is associated with heel strike even though I was landing midfoot.

The resulting relaxation also meant that my stride was more even and I was getting more "pick up" at the back. I was also naturally speedier and got out of breath for the first time in a while - it was general fatigue that told me the run was over today rather than the usual foot sensitivity. In fact, my feet were fine and I could've run again the next day.

Sometimes when you're trying too hard, your mind becomes so saturated with endless pointers on technique ("relax your shoulders.....short, quick strides......midfoot landing.....upright....relax.......pick up your feet....alignment....RELAX) that any signals coming from the bottom of your bare feet remain at the back of the "instructions" queue. When I allowed myself more freedom today, I became acutely aware of the difference in power between my right and left calf muscles as I ran up a hill. This is something I've known about for some time but, without realizing it, was no longer feeling. Today I could feel it once again - not that I could do anything about it during the run but having the awareness of an imbalance means that you can plan how to correct it.

The rule is not to try too hard to run barefoot "correctly". You only need to look at the unique styles of other barefooters such as Barefoot Ted, Yanni and Ken Bob to realize that each individual has their own personal style - and that taking your shoes off provides the perfect opportunity to find it.

We had nothing but positive comments today - we had a chat on the move with a couple of guys in their car asking us, "would barefoot running be useful in the pre-season football training?" Of course!

Letting go (5th June 2010)

Georgeous weather today. Headed out to Clapham Common as usual and did a full lap plus a bit of road running. The tracks on the Common are still a challenge - lots of twigs and stones. The smooth-ish concrete at the end was very refreshing!

Also did some "playing". I practised some balancing on "the log" (a big piece of tree trunk lying horizontal with handy taller and shorter sections for varying challenges) but couldn't do my usual jumps onto it as someone had left their clothes right at my "jump point". I did cartwheeling (not on the log - yet!) and was endeavouring to be as good on my left side as I am on my right. Years of favouring my right side has quite literally done me no favours! One thing that horrifies me - I used to be able to do forward and backward rolls. I never dreamt that one day I wouldn't be able to do them anymore, but the technique now eludes me. However, today David showed me how to do a break fall type roll, where you sort of roll diagonally on your shoulder. I couldn't get my head around how to do it at first, but then suddenly, I did it! I immediately tried it on the other shoulder and managed that too.

When I was a kid I could do all sorts of acrobatics and this is what movement therapy and barefoot running are about. Being able to move your body in many different, natural ways and having the confidence to do so. We really do forget how to move - sounds bizarre, but it's true.

And, as usual today when I was playing, I felt like a kid again with no reservations. There was a group of people near us doing their "military fitness" session and the contrast between us was huge. They were pushing their bodies but were also extremely self-conscious - this made for a very restricted, wound up group of people. I was too busy enjoying my movement to care what anyone else thought about how I looked and as a result, I felt relaxed. This is how we feel as kids when playing and is unfortunately what we lose as we become self-conscious, socially restrained adults.....