Like many runners, I’ve played around with the idea of barefoot running before. In short, I read Born To Run, was blown away by the concepts discussed, bought a pair of funny-looking run shoes and never got any further than trying them out a couple of times and then leaving them in the attic…
So several years later, why do I find myself at the door of Vivobarefoot for a training session with Dale Turrell, one of the Vivo team and a top ultrarunner? Well, a number of reasons. First up are the bout of annoying ankle injuries that kept me out of competing for 6 months over the winter and which my physio thinks may be down to my habit of running in whatever interesting new shoes arrive in the office without a thought for my biomechanics.
Secondly, having started competing in swimrun over the last couple of years and finding myself slithering off rocks and falling over on the uneven trails with alarming frequency, I’m curious about the official ÖtillÖ swimrun shoes Vivobarefoot have developed with the organisers of the series.
The Primus Trail Swimrun (£120) is designed for endurance over land and sea. It’s super-light and has a sock-like ankle fit to keep it in place and to stop annoying gravel getting in, and quick-draining mesh to stop it retaining water. There are also low-profile lugs to make clinging to slippery rocks easier. As I’m terrified of injuring my weak ankle again and have yet to find a shoe that I feel secure in while racing in ÖtillÖ events, I’m wondering if these might be the solution.
So in short – could a transition to barefoot shoes prevent me getting injured and help me to race faster? “There’s a reason barefoot shoes work better on trails,” Dale tells me. “If you’re wearing a very solid shoe then by the time your brain registers you’re unsteady it’s often too late to adjust. In barefoot shoes though, your foot is more connected to the terrain and tells your brain sooner when you need to correct yourself.”
Back to basics
The other good news is Dale’s lesson on biomechanics makes sense. We look at how the body works when walking, then running and with the three-point mantra of ‘posture, cadence, relax” he talks me through why the body is happier in more mimimalist shoes and can run further with less risk of injury.
“The mistake many people make when they try to go barefoot,” he tells me, “is they put on minimal shoes but then try to run with the same long, sticky strides and heel strike as before. Or, they go the other way and try to run completely up on their toes, which is too extreme and causes Achilles problems.”
It turns out the right technique is to maintain good posture first, with the head in line with the shoulders and hips and then to take much smaller steps with the foot landing directly under the hips, not ahead of them. You’ll land further forward on the foot, but then the heel should ‘kiss’ the floor too. The action is more of a gentle ‘lifting’ of the leg than a kicking back behind, while the much quicker cadence (Dale uses a metronome app on his phone, set at 180bpm) keeps you pattering along rather than overstriding.
If this sounds simple, then it’s important to remember that this is a whistle-stop tour of Vivobarefoot’s run teaching to give me a flavour of what’s in store. Before I get to start barefoot-running my way through training and racing, I have some work to do on strengthening my feet and muscular structures, which have had 35-plus years of stomping around in ‘normal’ cushioned shoes. Dale stresses that the biggest benefit comes from wearing an everyday or lifestyle barefoot-style shoe to work or the office to help strengthen your feet and improve mobility. Running comes second!
I’m given a few exercises to start doing every day which, although simple, are pretty near impossible for me at the moment. I have to practise sumo-style squats (holding on to something to start with, as I can’t do it unaided!), sitting down with my knees underneath me and the tops of my feet flat to the floor, and then sitting again with my knees on the floor but with my toes curled under me supporting my feet. I’m so inflexible and so bad at these, I even make a mental note to renew my yoga membership.
As for the more dynamic side, I can walk in the barefoot shoes and start doing some hopping and skipping in them to again start strengthening my muscles, but for now I’m to keep running in my heavily-cushioned old trainers – although I can start practising the new style, trying to learn running with my feet under me and to the new cadence.
We try a few short laps around the block today though, which Dale films and his verdict is encouraging. Although I think I look weird, apparently my feet aren’t landing too badly, my form isn’t horrific (although I am leaning a little too much, as you can see in the photos here where Dale has examined my posture) and for me, the new style doesn’t feel too weird. In fact, it feels similar to how I run on trails when the terrain is very uneven and my style naturally becomes more like that Vivobarefoot teach – with smaller steps and a more pattering rhythm. There’s still a way to go (and a lot of squats!), but I’m encouraged enough to pursue the journey. Watch this space…!
Find out more at www.vivobarefoot.com. A 90-minute coaching session with Vivobarefoot’s head coach, Pete Ford, costs £100.