As people look for new ways to get fit and healthy, injuries often take the blame for throwing people off the wagon. In the world of running, it’s often a cycle of feeling unfit, going for a few runs, injuring yourself, recovering and feeling unfit again. This obviously isn’t always the case, other factors can throw you off-course, but regardless, the fact remains that when we run, we often don’t run ‘naturally’ due to the fancy-pants cushioned trainers we now all possess. Barefoot running has become increasingly popular in recent years, bringing with it an ethos of natural running, increased connection to the terrain and reduced injuries.
I have been a bit of a fitness fanatic since I left university, broke up with my then girlfriend, realised I’d got pretty fat and decided to do something about it. That’s not to say that I’ve been consistent, but I’ve done pretty well and am now able to maintain a good level of overall fitness. My trick to staying motivated is to set challenges throughout the year to aim for. For example, most years I do 5-10km assault course style events, which require a good overall fitness level. Other events, such as a 38 mile cycling event to raise money for Wheelpower (the charity behind wheelchair sport in the UK), give another bit of variation, while raising money for a very good cause.
Running makes up the majority of my training, and a couple of years back I was preparing to run my first ever half marathon. Speaking to a friend, who is also a very seasoned runner, I was advised that I get my gait analysed. As I was due a new pair of trainers, I popped down to my local running shop and plodded along on their in-store treadmill. A slow motion camera recorded my stride from behind and I was shown that I had a slight over-pronation on my right side, but my left was neutral. I had never had any injuries, but listening to the ‘experts’ advice, I threw down £95 for a new pair of corrective cushioned trainers and went on my way.
After my first run, I stumbled home, with a pain in my left knee. I went back to the store and told them my woes, to be advised that it is probably just my legs adjusting and to take it easy and build up.. I swallowed the advice and the pain, and carried on. After a month or so or interrupted, uncomfortable runs, my legs were starting to adjust, and the pain disappeared. My left leg had learnt to adjust to being forced out of its natural alignment, and the right was now landing how it should be, thanks to the padded cushioning of the trainers. I went on to build up my stamina and distance and completed the half marathon, injury-free.
Fast forward two years and after a recent break in regular running, due to a few back spasms and a possible tendon/ligament injury around my knee, caused by an over-enthusiastic game of basketball, I am carefully trying to get back to running. Earlier in April, I went down to the NEC in Birmingham for the Gadget Show Live event. While there, I got chatting to one of the guys on the Primal Lifestyle stand who sold nothing but Vibram Five Fingers. Their line of what could be described as ‘protective foot gloves’, were not new to me. I had been reading various articles and forums around barefoot running for some time and it intrigued me. A book that I had heard of before, Born To Run, was also dotted about on the stand, which also peaked my interest. After talking through my past and present problems with the salesman, I decided to try a pair out and have a little walk/jog around the stand. I felt liberated. The sensation was lovely, being able to feel the air between your toes. I was sold on the product and I bought a pair of Seeyas and got them to throw in the book for good measure.
Everything I had heard and read about barefoot running advised taking things extremely slow. My understanding was that you have to learn to run again, starting with doing short runs (as in 5 minutes), once or twice a week. The shoes came with an advice sheet, which suggested wearing the shoes for a few hours a day for a couple of weeks before doing any running in them.
So that’s exactly what I’ve done. After my 2 week ‘prep’, I set out on my first run. Just a light jog around the block totalling a little over 6 minutes. For my first few strides, I was heel-striking, but not heavily. As I picked up a little more pace, my form adjusted and I was landing on the balls of my feet. Having read some tips beforehand, I’d read that I should keep my back straight and nearing the end of the run I felt comfortable and as though I was driving from the hip.
By the time I had finished, my calves were feeling tight and I was definitely glad to be back at my doorstep! That being said, I started the run with a bit of lower back pain, but finished feeling much better. For the next three days, I endured a decent case of DOMS. Once it had subsided, I managed to get out for another run, making sure to stretch a bit more thoroughly beforehand. I took the same route and came back feeling good, though I felt my Achilles was a bit tight. Perhaps I was running a bit too much on my ‘toes’ rather than striking on the ball or mid-foot?
Today I went for my third run of the week, this time stretching it out to about 10 minutes and including a small incline/decline. Everything went well and aside from a little bit of DOMS again, which isn’t surprising, all feels good! I’m already realising how important a good calf stretch is before and after a run compared to running in normal trainers!
If any of you have any advice, I’d be more than glad to hear it!
For some tips on looking after your Vibrams, check out my follow-up post here.