Wednesday, 31 October 2012

The 30 day challenge - Day 23. Barefoot running on sand

So I've got to the end of October I'm down on my challenge per day on the blog. Coming up with rich content, rather than shorter posts on a per day basis is hard! Previously I've tracked my progress on marathon training and thats not so bad as you can be brief. That said, I've managed 23 in 31 days so far, with my main focus in the past week being an assignment I've got to get done by the 7th of November. So, as I'm waiting on a few guest blogs still and I value quality over quantity, I'm going to make today my last blog for a week, then complete the last 7 of the challenge between the 7th and the 14th of November. We've got some good content due, on the phenomenon of momentum, an interview with a pro cyclist and more sport psych and training insight.

As I mentioned in my post a couple of days ago, I got myself fired up by finishing a lethargic run by kicking off my shoes and running barefoot along the beach in Alicante last Friday. As a coach and keen runner, I often get asked about the benefits of training barefoot, as it is seen as very appealing to some. It is seen as being in tune with our ancestors and good for a number of reasons. Some hope to see performance improvements, as it is thought that running on your mid or forefoot propels you forward quicker. For some it is to take the pressure off knee joints/suffering chronic injuries due to the pounding on pavements and concrete (through modern stiffer support shoes). Such proponents believe we're doing ourselves more harm wearing a modern shoe than the likes of our ancestors did running with no support.

Personally, I was keen to see whether I can do anything to improve my arches and ultimately just wear flatter shoes at the track and in races, so wanted to test out what it felt like running on compact sand along a good, clean beach. Playa Muchavista affords such an opportunity a few miles out from Alicante town centre near my parents house. To me, the biggest benefit was actually psychological. To know that I was going to do a new, slow run that would be just different, with no ambition to make a commitment to joining (or not joining!) the barefoot brigade got me excited to run along the shoreline. And sometimes, you just need to change your running routine.

Having attended a training day back in May with Terri Knight at Primal Fitness in Manchester to work at some of my technique, and talked to Simon Whyatt about the benefits of barefoot running, I am more keen to make myself efficient, using whichever appropriate techniques can help my performance. Whilst I liked the feeling of running barefoot along the beach and can see myself running around a park barefoot, personally I like wearing standard runners (Nike Triax work best for me) on long runs and on the pavement. That said, having recently trained on the new track at Mile End with my VPH colleagues, I am going to buy some race shoes that I can wear for intervals and races. To get the most out of these I think it's important to prepare my feet accordingly, so when possible I will run barefoot at the beach and on appropriate terrain. As the review of barefoot running on wikipedia states:

"Scientific research into the practice of running barefoot has not reached a clear consensus regarding its risks or its benefits."

As an evidence based practitioner (and former employee of the London Marathon Store where I tested feet of all shapes and sizes), I would say I'm definitely not a full advocate of the barefoot phenomenon. There are definitely people I know who I would fear seeing wearing flats or barefoot running shoes, as there are those who have beautiful arches and really suit minimal support. With flatter feet due to my genetics and 36 years on this planet, I'll take a mixed approach and barring any ailments work at improving my technique overall.

But curious to know about your views on whether to strip off your sneakers and whether you think it improves your running. Any scientific based evidence anyone can provide gratefully received in the comments on this page please. I'm still open to the arguments put forth on both sides!


Simon Whyatt said...

Thanks for the mention Stu!

My thoughts on the topic are as follows:

1) Form Over Footware
That is to say that it is running technique that is most important, not whether you are shod or unshod.

In fact, running barefoot with bad technique could well cause more damage than running badly in cushioned trainers!

Although there is an argument running in minimalist trainers may encourage better technique, a recent study showed that a small % of runners wearing minimalist shoes who thought they were forefoot strikers were actually heel strikers!

This highlights the importance of getting your running style assessed by a professional such as Teri from Pure Running, or at the very least getting a mate to film you so you can watch it back. You may well be surprised!

2) Minimalist Footwear is probably best but...

If you've grown up in Africa running barefoot since childhood true barefoot running is probably the best thing going.

If you've grown up in squishy trainers, and live in Manchester with tarmaced roads and paths littered with broken glass and needles you may want to think again!

I'd agree that there is certainly more research needed, but in the interim I think the available evidence is pointing towards the direction that a thin flat sole is going to be best for both avoiding injury, and improving efficiency.

That said, if you're used to running in cushioned soles and have a heel strike, you're going to have to lose the ego, and start from pretty much scratch again, as if you'd never run before. This is no doubt hard to do, but probably a lot more sensible than waiting till you've got shin splints/runners knee/ITBS or some other such debilitating and hard to rehab running injury!

Stu - I'd also strongly recommend against running barefoot through the parks in Manchester - The long grass actually makes it harder to spot sharp objects etc.

3) What I do:

I go 100% barefoot whenever possible when NOT running - Around the house, when doing strength training, walking outside where it's safe. The benefits of walking barefoot in the grass/beach are manyfold!

When running shorter distances on the road I wear vivobarefoot shoes. They have a thin flat sole, are very flexible, and don't cost the earth, though I think any shoe with a thin flat sole will do, and doesn't matter if it's branded as "barefoot/minimalist"

When doing longer runs/trail runs I like Innov-8 X-Tallons. They're still pretty lightweight, minimalist, but have awesome grip in the mud, and offer that little bit more protection if you're hammering down a steep rocky hill at full pelt!

Hope this is of some use!

Stu Holliday said...

That's really useful Simon. Cheers for the advice. When I was thinking about running in parks I was particularly thinking of the perimeter round the cricket pitch in Highgate woods park, where you can see everything on a well manicured big patch of grass in summer, rather than some of the ones in Manchester!! But point taken.

I also had a reply from @simon_freeman which for some reason he couldn't add, so I've got the copy from an email he sent me:

"I think this is a interesting area, not least because it has recently become so popular and many of the brands that have made millions (if not billions) creating and marketing ever more cushioned shoes, are now trying to jump on the barefoot band-wagon with minimalist shoes. My opinion is very similar to @primalliving's - that shoes are a necessity if you are running on pavements and especially in built-up urban areas. Anyone who doesn't wear shoes in that scenario is a big of a fool in my opinion.

If we accept then, that shoes are a necessity, I think that wearing minimalist shoes is hugely advantageous at least some of the time. I wear racing flats for speed work, shorter sessions and threshold runs as well as races. These are not marketed as 'minimalist' but I tend to go for shoes that have a limited heel-drop, low levels of cushioning and very light uppers, so they are pretty minimalist in comparison to most running shoes. I do however, wear more cushioned shoes for my recovery runs simply because 40 miles per week on pavements takes its toll and I prefer the feeling of some bounce.

As for running totally barefoot or really minimalist, I very rarely do that. However again, like @primalliving, I kick my shoes off on every occasion, never wearing anything on my feet at home or in the office. Good luck with your experiments though and remember to take it easy transitioning!"