(Re)Learning To Run

How barefoot running has changed my life

As a teen, running was one of the few ways of escaping a house full of foster children and forgetting about the social juggling act that was a single-sex school. I ran for miles around the Isle of Sheppey, using the clocks at the various train stations to time myself, powered by the Rocky soundtrack and a mish-mash of the famous training montages. I never competed or even mentioned running during my school life, other than a brief try at the 1500 metres after somebody got wind of my evening odysseys which left me feeling decidedly sick. No, I was happier on my own, pacing along the promenade, through the docks and endless seas of newly imported cars. 

Later at university I again got into running as cardio training for swimming. At this point, a dull pain started to appear in both inner shins. It got progressively worse due to my ignorance of the cause. I iced, elevated, compressed, and simply continued running. Being about 65 kilos, in my early 20s and pretty fit, I assumed it would vanish. Eventually, even a short 5k would leave me hobbling in pain for days. A subsequent visit to the Physio led to a diagnosis of shin splints. No known cure, just take it easy, buy shoes with more cushioning and don’t overdo it.

Over the following decade I periodically ran various distances at various intensities, always playing a delicate balancing act between ambition and pain. Predictably, the amount I could manage with tolerable pain diminished until,  aged 30, I just stopped altogether. I even watched my wife run a marathon without a hint of jealousy, so certain was I regarding the futility of even trying. 

The final nail was an attempt to get back into running in 2019. I ran about 4k, very gently, then had 6 days of rest before another 3-5k. After repeating this cycle 3 times the familiar sensation started creeping up my shin bones. That was it for running as far as I was concerned.

The following year, Flee read Born to Run by Christopher McDougall and fed me titbits as she went along. My curiosity aroused, I also read it. The main thrust of the book, for those that haven’t already read it, is that we run incorrectly, planting our heels instead of the tough fleshy pad just behind our two smallest toes. The running shoe industry has simultaneously taught us to run differently, leading to injuries which they then solve with a never-ending stream of bullshit products. 

Anyway, I was sold. Ultra-marathon-running barefoot tribes, running down antelopes and our anatomy matching other long-distance-running mammals. What was there not to like? I ditched my trainers and started jogging in an old pair of canvas deck shoes. It felt awkward as hell and my calves killed me. But, but, the muscles healed and…… no shin pain. Sadly, I got a bit carried away and strained a ligament in my arch, around the cuboid bone I think. 

This eventually healed and I bought myself a pair of barefoot running shoes, with zero cushioning. Taking it a little more slowly this time, I gradually upped the distance and listened carefully to the ligaments, tendons and musculature as they slowly (re)discovered how to move. It struck me that heel-planting causes the Achilles to become a shock-absorption device, when in fact it is an energy-storage device meant to transfer the momentum smoothly from one stride to the next. This was an aha moment for me. 

So, one year after my final, failed attempt at running and feeling as though I was ready to push the envelope a little more, I set about running as often as I felt like in January 2020. I racked up about 300 kilometres including two half marathons and a 30k, all without any hint of shin pain. It was like I’d had a leg transplant. I kept waiting for pain, tenderly fingering my shins every day, but it didn’t come. This was pretty convincing stuff, just a year before, 15k across a month had left me feeling tender but here I was a year later impervious to my old demon. 

I have since realised that barefoot running shoes are also a rip off, costing upwards of 80 euros for a strip of rubber – minimalist design, eye-watering prices. Taking a leaf out of the Ramaruri’s book, I made my own running sandals from an old lawnmower tyre. This is lighter than a car tyre and rather than steel wire it contains nylon, reducing the risk of cuts or puncture wounds. The strapping is made from old bicycle inner tubes. They are incredibly durable and comfortable and show no signs of wear after around 200k of trail and road running.

So what’s it like running this way? Superb. My feet feel free, my body is re-learning the art of effortless movement and I feel no pain whatsoever. The change is completely automatic, it only takes landing painfully on your heels on a few acorns to make the necessary adjustments. Your back straightens, stride shortens, cadence increases and your heels flick up behind you. At first it feels a bit awkward but now, the idea of landing on my heels seems absurd. The haptic feedback from your feet allows the brain to tailor your running to the terrain. This causes natural variation in pace and stride, rather than simply ploughing along with barely a thought of what’s under your feet, thus reducing the risk of repetitive strain.

Get rid of your cushioned shoes, make your own then sit back and watch the transformation!

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