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!