23 June 2015

Tread lightly

I try not to be boring about barefoot (or minimalist) running: fortunately, enough people are sufficiently interested to ask me questions, so if ever I am boring on the subject it is actually someone else's fault. I am a great enthusiast for the feeling of freedom (especially wearing my huaraches), speed and lightness I get from the technique. The idea of leaving no mark on the landscape appeals to the environmentalist in me. My feet feel strong and healthy and my knees love the fact that they are not called upon to absorb all the shock every time I put my foot down.
The science behind this is (to me) very interesting. Foot Strike Patterns in Tarahumara Runners Wearing Huarache Sandals vs. Conventional Shoes is a posting by Peter Larson on runblogger.com, his blog on all things running-technical. It picks up from the so-titled article by Daniel Lieberman in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2014, Pages 86–94. Lieberman, of course (and yes, you should know this, if you've any interest in running) is the academic and runner who features in Born to Run and who has provided a lot of scientific support for anecdotal and instinctive discussions about the benefits of barefoot or minimalist running. He convinced me, of course, but that doesn't take much doing.
Lieberman's research (as interpreted by Larson, who is better-qualified than me to do so) shows, ultimately, that running is a highly individual thing. Although running in minimalist footwear is associated with more midfoot or forefoot striking (MFS or FFS) while marshmallow shoes (not the scientists' choice of word but mine) are associated with heel-banging (again, my expression not theirs) there are lots of other variables: as I have noticed ... going uphill tends to move your strike forward, perhaps for no better reason than that your forefoot meets the ground earlier, and going faster tends to get you up on your toes, perhaps largely because you're leaning forward a bit. Softer surfaces can also encourage you to land on your heels: try running on a nice soft beach (Grand Anse is perfect for this, though unfortunately it's not very convenient). Then get closer to the waterline where the sand is packed.
The fact that we are all different means that, running being a democratic activity, there is no right or wrong footstrike. But there are techniques which can prove more efficient or which can help reduce the risk of injury. Over-striding (a result of, inter alia I suppose, heel-banging) is inefficient. Mid- or forefoot striking recruits the myriad tendons and things in one's feet to absorb the shock of landing, a job done by the marshmallow in 'conventional' shoes, and strengthens the arch resulting in feet that will withstand more - in theory at any rate, although it certainly feels that way to me. That said, a couple of years ago I sustained what I must assume was a stress fracture in one of my feet, and of course (as a doctor told me at the time) your feet have lots of little bones in them (he suggested ibuprofen gel, which sort of worked, a little: rest was the only real treatment).
MFS or FFS is also lighter and quieter, which makes sense. If you're not banging down on your heel you will make less noise. The runner you're catching in a race won't know they are about to be passed until it's too late.
So I know what works for me, and also that it won't necessarily work for the next person. But what also works for me was illustrated at Didcot Parkrun a few weeks ago, when a couple of ladies to whom I was talking remarked on my huaraches. I observed that they got me noticed, which nothing else was likely to do.
They also have the advantage that, if the dog chews the toe off them, you can fix them with Superglue and still run a Marathon on them. Try doing that with £100 marshmallows.

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