Team Tengeri - barefooters Brad Osborn, Alison Sims and me (Stuart Gadenne)
On the weekend I decided to run the Canberra Times Fun Run, a 10km road run through the nation’s capital, barefoot. Not barefoot as in minimalist footwear but actually barefoot (i.e no shoes at all). Needless to say this raised a few eyebrows from my fellow runners, with reactions ranging from interest to utter disbelief.
It was a very interesting experience and one that raised more than a few questions from those around me, so to that end I have decided to detail my experience here and throw in a few tips for young players on barefoot running.
So firstly, why?
The theory is that by taking away all the cushioning and artificial support we create a situation were the body is forced to compensate for the ground strike force that would otherwise be hidden in cushioning. This results in a more efficient and safer running style. I can attest to the efficiency, as last time I ran this run I remember I wanted to die in the last 2km, whereas this time I actually felt like I had held back, and as a result was able to sprint the finish (much to the dismay of those around me who were probably thinking “at least I’ll finish before this crazy barefoot guy” – wrong).
It’s not all beer and skittles though.
Like Peter Parker (Spiderman) said “with great power comes great responsibility”, and the responsibility in this case is concentration and acute injuries. My cohort in barefootness, Brad Osborn, learnt this lesson before the start of the race when a runner decided he needed to be somewhere else very quickly and the quickest way was over Brad’s toes.
Throughout the race I saw many runners who were totally oblivious of what was going on. The iPod in the ears, the glazed-over look in the eye. Their mind is just about anywhere but here. No such luck for me though as the upside of running barefoot, propriception and being able to feel everything your foot touches also means that your foot feels everything it touches, no matter how bad. And the 1km stretch of rocky gravel road from km 2-3 was pretty bad. Even the shoulder of the road was littered with small rocks that I constantly had to weave through.
Having the ability to feel the road meant that I had to react to a steady stream of information coming in at me. Where’s the next smoothest part of the road? Can I run on the painted lines? What’s the next best step? Will this guy in front of me stop spitting on the ground every 10 meters? This is part of the allure of barefoot running for me. I can’t just plug into my iPod and day dream my way around a track. I have to concentrate on what I’m doing. I have to be in the moment and constantly adapt to the surroundings.
At around the 7km mark I started to notice blisters at the very front of the balls of my feet. I quickly realized that this was due to a running technique problem, namely I was slightly twisting when taking off. Although people would probably see this as a negative, I see it as a positive. Having the awareness of what my feet are doing meant that I could analyse and adapt my running technique on the run, allowing me to fix an inefficiency and improve my overall technique. This didn’t magically make the blisters disappear but I’ll know now for next time.
Another surprising side effect of running barefoot was the noise, or lack thereof. It sounded like I was surrounded by steam engines and elephants, with all the panting and foot slapping. It made me feel sorry for some knees out there that just aren’t going to make it past 35. It was very amusing (to me) when I silently padded up next to someone to surprise them.
Although a bit painful in parts the run, barefoot was definitely a worthwhile undertaking. It showed me, and hopefully those around me that 30 years of sporting technology and clever marketing don’t necessarily trump hundreds of thousands of years of natural human evolution.
So now for all those who suddenly feel the need to throw out their shoes and run around like hippies, here is a quick ‘Top 5′ tips for running barefoot:
1. Build into it
Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither were your feet. Running barefoot is not something I recommend for someone who is used to wearing shoes. Start slow by walking around barefoot as much as possible, taking some walks and eventually integrating some slow jogging spurts. And always carry shoes, just in case.
2. Learn POSE technique
The pose technique is basically an efficient way to run to help absorb the shock of ground strike and then utilize that energy to help propel yourself. It’s an easy and formulated way to learn how to run naturally. You can try and learn by yourself, but why re-invent the wheel?
3. Run with your ears
I always try and tell people, whether running with or without shoes, that they should run like a ninja. Ninja don’t make any sound (and they’re cool). If you’re hearing the ‘slap’ of your foot striking the ground it’s a good indication that you’re hitting the ground too hard. So … run like a ninja! (minus the the black mask and sword).
4. Be in the moment
This basically means concentrate on where you are going. Cushioned supporting shoes may allow lazy running technique and carelessness of terrain but, when barefoot, concentration is king. Of course the first time you step on a sharp rock or thorn this lesson will be burnt into your memory but I thought I’d at least warn people anyway.
At the finish line with fellow barefooter Ben Winter-Giles
Seriously. You’re out in nature, reconnecting to your surrounds and your own body. It’s not supposed to be a chore, it’s supposed to be an opportunity. OK so you may not be the type of person who finds ecstatic joy in running, but as a general rule if you hate it, you’re probably doing it wrong.
So hopefully that helps answer some questions out there and gets some of you thinking a bit more about the way you move. If you have any more questions, queries or doubtful points please feel free to contact us. Anyone interested in learning or doing more barefoot or natural running can get in touch with the Canberra Barefoot Runners group on Facebook or keep an eye out for our Tengeri barefoot running workshops coming up in October.