Monday 18 June 2012

The pros and cons of a running partner

Before I met David (around eleven years ago) I was a solitary runner.  I didn't like running with other people because they interfered with my time and distance goals.  They also interfered with my time.  Running was a haven for me to escape - to allow my thoughts to run through my head, or indeed, for all thoughts to leave my head so that I could just appreciate pushing my body physically.  Running partners either held me up because they were too slow, or made me feel inadequate because they were too fast.  With both scenarios, I would just end up frustrated.   

This changed slightly when I met David.  He was pretty fit so he could keep up but he wasn't particularly competitive so didn't try and make it a race.  I didn't mind him as a running companion and as I'd recently moved to London, I felt a bit safer having him with me - plus, I didn't get lost.

(Side note: I did get lost once when I decided to go running by myself.  I ended up having to phone David from a phone box, reversing the charges and then wait for him to come and get me.....oops)

In those days, we were still running in trainers.  David didn't really have a passion for distance running but I would drag him out, waiting impatiently for him to tie his shoes several times before they felt comfortable.  The running partnership sort of worked though because, as I said, I felt safer and didn't know my way around and David did quite like it once he got out there (and was quite a natural) but needed me to give him the initial push.

When we began barefoot running, the dynamics of the running partnership changed.  The main reason for this is that we were embarking on a new and slightly scary journey so that mutual support was extremely helpful.  We were also no longer focusing on speed and distance but on how we were running and how we were feeling.  This provoked discussion during our runs, whereas before, we'd generally run in silence.  It felt good to have somebody out there with me so that the bemused glances, giggles and outright abuse from onlookers could be shared equally between the two of us.

We were like two conspirators, slowly unleashing our natural running ability.  We had a secret - everyone who saw us thought we were two nutters, but we knew different.  We were learning a new approach to running which was not only helping us move better physically but providing us with a healthier attitude to running.  By that, I mean that running shouldn't always be about numbers.  Humans are historically meant to run in groups, which is often why people like running in clubs and even one of the reasons they enjoy races.

One thing we've found though is that people do have a default speed at which they're most comfortable.  One factor that determines this speed is the height and leg length of the individual.  With that in mind, my default speed is different to David's because he's quite a bit taller with much longer legs.  This means that when we run, we have to compromise.  David has to run a bit slower than he'd like to and I have to run a bit faster.  This is challenging for both of us, although for the most part, it works. 

When we teach running clients, we tend to work together but we work separately with our movement therapy clients, so it is often tricky finding suitable times when we're both free to run.  We're fairly comfortable running quite long distances now but finding gaps in our diaries when we can run together for over an hour is pretty rare.

So, recently, I've begun doing some runs by myself.  I've found that my natural speed (at the moment) is around 10 to 15 seconds per mile slower than the pace I run with David.  This is both good and bad - feeling comfortable for the most part is necessary I think, but there's always room for a little 'push' which is what I get when I run with David. I do enjoy being completely in charge when I'm on my own though.  I can keep going for as long as I like and go wherever I like (I finally know the area after living here for eleven years) without having to consult anybody.  This is part of my character - I resent being told what to do which is one of the many reasons I began barefoot running.  The world told me I must wear shoes when I run and even which type I should wear - so I retaliated and don't wear any!

I think the answer is to mix it up.  I love running on my own, being in my own thoughts and just appreciating moving and being in nature.  I also love running with David - I enjoy both the support and the discussion and we both have that runner's high at the end, so the post-run atmosphere at home is very peaceful. 

Our company, Barefoot Running UK, also organizes group runs - something I've never really done before.  But who knew?  I love those too!  I enjoy hearing other people's running stories and just running and chatting is such a great way to spend time.

I think most runners will benefit from doing a bit of both.  For those who always feel they need to run with someone else - try a run on your own, it's very liberating!  For people who feel that they must be alone during a run, try joining a few group runs - it'll be more fun than you thought it would be, honestly!

Monday 27 February 2012

Some thoughts on injury

I recently watched a documentary featuring a conversation between the great former racing driver, Stirling Moss, and Richard Hammond, one of the presenters of BBC One's "Top Gear".

The reason for getting these two together was because of an experience they had in common: they had both crashed a car at high speed and been on the edge of death. Many of you will remember hearing the report a year or so ago that an experiment for Top Gear in a 200+ mile an hour car had gone horribly wrong and that Richard Hammond was in a coma. You may not remember so well the crash that landed Stirling Moss in hospital in a life threatening condition back in 1962.

The men's conversation was emotive and almost painfully honest - I would highly recommend that you seek it out on iplayer or youtube. They both talked with candour about their crashes but also about their journeys since then; about how they've coped with new thought processes, feelings and getting back into a car.

One thing in particular that struck me and started me thinking was something that Stirling Moss said. You may or may not know that he chose to end his racing career after his crash, despite having seemingly to have fully recovered. His explanation for his retirement went something like this: "When I drove before the crash, it was through pure instinct. I didn't need to think about it, I just did it. After the crash, I was still able to drive fast but I found that I was consciously having to process what I was doing. My driving became calculated rather than instinctive and it just didn't feel right" (paraphrasing).

This rung so true with me, having worked with numerous injured clients. This is exactly how they move - they think about their movement first and then control their body with their brain. Sometimes, simple movements such as walking become brain teasers as back, knee and hip pain cause them to over-think something that before their injury was natural.

In Stirling Moss's case, the reason for his over-mindfulness in a car was probably -understandably - fear of death. For most of my clients, there are several fear factors: pain, immobility and the idea that a wrong move might create more damage. Again, this is understandable but unfortunately this fear can also be detrimental. An injured individual quickly learns which movements are uncomfortable and begin to find ways around them. If their knee hurts, they avoid bending it, so if something is on the floor that needs picking up, they'll bend their backs instead. This can fairly swiftly lead to back now, their knees and backs are suffering so even more work is given to other areas of the body.

So, what's the answer? Ignore the pain? No. It's there for a reason. BUT, if it hurts to bend your knee, you shouldn't avoid all movement of the joint. The goal is to maintain and gradually increase movement but within your comfort zone. This gradually helps to restore mobility but also confidence.

Movement systems such as Feldenkrais and mine and David's own movement therapy aim to restore natural movement. The word "restore" is correct. During early child development, movement comes naturally as children play: running, jumping, rolling, play-fighting. Somewhere in early adulthood and beyond, movement becomes unnatural, as it's no longer the "done" thing to roll around on the floor, run really fast or spin around like an aeroplane for no reason. The brain imposes restrictions due to societal "rules". Throw in a few injuries - sometimes through trauma or sometimes as a direct result of moving unnaturally - and movement becomes even more distorted. It can come to feel as though you're not fitting quite right in your body and so your brain tries to figure out how to combat this, which often just makes things worse!

Instinct rarely comes into the equation at this point because it's been lost. This is often the spiralling pattern that creates recurring injury. Perhaps this is why many runners give up running.

Perhaps this is why barefoot running has become recognised as the secret of injury reversal. Connecting with ground helps your body's interconnected parts talk to each other in the same language again. And because there's no way you can do too much too soon, you stay in that "comfort zone" area which breeds patience and confidence. It diplaces the fear too - you're focused on keeping off the sharp stones which leaves your knee to find its own natural way of working.

One thing that Stirling Moss would also have grappled with would have been the element of competition. That pressure to win that comes with any high level competition. Runners often put pressure on themselves but barefoot running can help disperse this competitive element and lead to a more relaxed attitude towards running. Stirling Moss certainly still drives, but for the love of driving and cars rather than with the goal of winning a competition.

Of course, it's better to avoid injury altogether. I often refer to the martial arts and I will do so again here, for the training philosophy of true martial arts has not changed in thousands of years and has not changed for one simple reason: it works. One of the many pieces of wise advice given to David during his long years of martial arts practice was this: you should learn your art so well that you no longer need to think about how to do it. In fact, your goal is almost to forget what you've learned. The way you maintain your skill level is through practice - and not through practising harder and harder kicks and punches, but by routinely going through the basics. I remember Michael King years ago during my first Pilates certification course telling us about the benefits of returning to a complete beginner's class every so often rather than always striving for bigger and better. Build and maintain a strong foundation and the world of the injury-free is yours!

So, the message here is to not stop moving when you're injured but stay within your comfort zone so that it slowly expands again to restore you back to health. Many of Stirling Moss's peers claimed that he made a premature decision to give up racing - maybe if he'd started again with the basics and without any pressure, he'd have found that instinctive driving talent again.

Who knows?

Monday 16 January 2012

3mm makes all the difference!

I have been running barefoot, almost exclusively, for about three years now. And I have developed quite a serious problem. No, I haven't damaged my feet. Or lost any toes. In fact, I'm enjoying running more than ever before.

The fact is, though, that I find I'm no longer capable of running in any type of footwear. Ok, I can still run if I'm wearing shoes - I don't physically become incapable of putting one foot in front of the other - but I find shoes cumbersome. And by the end of a run in any type of footwear, all I want to do is feel the ground beneath my feet.

David and I went for a run on Clapham Common a couple of days ago. Now, those of you who are barefoot runners will know that, very occasionally, it's possible to tread on a not-so-friendly piece of debris which will cause a slight bruising to the underside of your foot. This happened to me a few days earlier - we were out running and I felt something sharp under my bare sole. Happily, my "fat pads" are so developed that the skin wasn't punctured but beneath the skin was a definite cut. My old running persona would have said: "never mind, push on and ignore it" but my evolving laid back, nurturing side said: "never mind, take a couple of days off and then run in Huarache sandals next time. Leave the barefoot running another couple of days". Oh, how I've grown!

Or....maybe not. On Sunday, David and I headed to Clapham Common (our favourite barefoot running haunt) and I threw on a pair of slim-soled Huaraches, whilst David removed his shoes completely. It was cold, so I was slightly smug when I asked, "how are your feet?" expecting David to moan about the close to zero temperatures. However, Mr "Leatherfoot" reported that his feet felt "cosy" and I began to feel jealous of his naked feet.

As I said, I'm not used to running in shoes. I wear them sometimes when running with clients, or when testing minimalist shoes, but I'm really one of those people who feels freer and happier with no footwear at all when I'm running. As I ran behind David, I could see him slip occasionally on the mud, whilst I was solid in my grippier shoes. But, for some reason, I felt less confident. When my feet are bare, I know what's what. I might slip, but my body tells me how to make the appropriate corrections. The shoes weighed next to nothing, but somehow I was struggling to maintain my normal, swift cadence. David's observations weren't especially helpful either: "you're running like an 18 stone builder" he commented, before leaving me in his light, leather-footed wake.

Well. Each run is an education, I tell myself. And my personal goal is always about learning how to adapt my body to different situations. By the end of the run, I had made a perfunctory peace with the shoes, having upped my cadence and improved my gait.

One of the things I love about a barefoot run though is the way I feel at the end. Not a sense of achievement at having burned "X" amount of calories (which was always my goal in my pre-barefoot running days) but that I have, for an hour or so, really connected with nature. I just didn't feel this when I'd run in shoes. Something fundamental was missing. I didn't feel frustrated, but just a little bit unfulfilled.

I think that something everyone learns as they grow older and wiser, is that you can't have your cake and eat it. In order to make a gain somewhere in your life, something else has to suffer as a result. That is the ying and yang of it. So, whilst I have gained a huge amount from running barefoot, I have sacrificed - a little bit - how much enjoyment I can experience when running in shoes.

By the way, this is not an anti-shoe post, it's just my experience - which is point number 2: that everyone is unique.

Phew, 2 lessons in 1 post from someone who might potentially not have a clue what she's talking about!

Food for thought though, hopefully :).

Tuesday 3 January 2012


This word actually means a type of eel, but if any of you are "Friends" fans, you'll know it was also used by Ross Geller to describe the skill he claims to have acquired in his karate that makes him uber aware of his surroundings.

In the programme, Ross is, in fact, sadly lacking in unagi and gets caught out by Rachel and Phoebe throughout the episode. He is absolutely right though - accomplished martial artists seem to possess a sixth sense and can detect, just by remaining connected to the atmosphere around them, the presence of someone behind them, for example, or feel the change in the air that comes with impending danger.

This is part of what I regard as fitness. If fitness is a readiness for whatever life throws at you, then unagi is a major component of what makes up a truly fit individual. When I used to exercise in gyms, or jump up and down on a step in my lounge, I worked my heart and lungs hard, toned my muscles and burned several hundered calories.

Until I ran barefoot though, I don't think I really paid proper attention to what was going on around me. I think I used to look a lot like the shod runners I see now - feeling and focusing on the pain, trying to be inspired by the music on their ipod but ultimately wanting to get home. Ok, plenty of runners are actually having a good time - I have certainly enjoyed the majority of my runs, shod or barefoot - but I have to say that when a shod runner is running towards me on the same path, I've planned my route around them long before they've even spotted me. Believe it or not, but I know my unagi skills have improved dramatically since I've been barefoot running!

I recently explained this concept to a journalist (although I referred to it as proprioception in case I lost her with my whole unagi anecdote) and she quoted me as saying how I constantly scan the terrain, take in my surroundings, adjust my stride and route accordingly, etc. when I barefoot run. The article appeared on the internet, along with a whole host of comments, most of which were in favour of barefoot running. However, somebody wrote that I must be missing out on enjoying the run because I was so concerned with where and how I was placing my feet. This person obviously did not understand the power of unagi! It's something that you learn to feel and, with practise, it becomes second nature. So, whilst I'm scanning terrain and choosing my path, I am also noticing the scenery, talking to David and thinking about what I'm doing later on that day. Barefoot running has, for me, opened up my mind so that I can feel and experience many more things simultaneously without any particular effort. Yes, it's taken some time to hone my unagi skills, but I feel so much more alive when I run and in tune with what is around me rather than shut in a little cocoon along with my ipod music and my pain.

The reason I felt compelled to comment on this was that everywhere around me, I see an unfortunate lack of unagi. I actually think it is a natural human trait which we just lose because we don't use it. And we make it worse by shutting ourselves off from the world around us. How many times have you seen someone walk out in front of a car because they're oblivious to everything else other than their mobile phone? How many of you have had to bite your tongue to stop yourself chastising someone for just stopping in the middle of the pavement because they feel like it and seem not to notice the huge pile-up of pedestrians behind them as a result?

There is a real concern in London (and other cities, no doubt) about road accidents. There are more and more speed bumps, more speed cameras, 20 mile an hour zones, etc. popping up all over the place in an effort to reduce the number of casualties. But I bet if everyone ws coached in the art of unagi, this would help limit the incidence of accidents, whether on the road, pavement, or any crowded area.

If you're still not sure what I mean by unagi, watch a Jackie Chan or Jet Li movie. Both these martial artists have an unmistakeable, constant alertness without being highly strung. Then, after watching the movie, take a walk outside or better still, visit a shopping mall and see how people move. You'll notice quite a difference!

To improve your unagi: take off your shoes once in a while when you're outside to feel the ground beneath you. That's what I do and it really helps. Take some deep breaths of fresh air and, just for a few moments, spend some time watching, looking, listening, smelling and feeling.

Make it your 2012 resolution - to rediscover your unagi!