Anne Cuthbertson ditches the cushioned trainers and tests the trend for ‘minimalist’ or barefoot running
I meet Ted McDonald, known to the long-distance running world as “Barefoot Ted”, on a warm, sunny morning in Hyde Park. Clad in a white vest, black shorts and sandals, the 49-year-old Californian promptly strips off his top and footwear for our training session.
Ted has worked hard to earn the honorary title of “Barefoot”, having completed more than 20 marathons, ultra-marathons and 100-mile trail runs either barefoot or in “minimalist footwear”. His legs are as hard and gnarled as ancient tree trunks. And despite the gruelling distances, his feet, hamstrings, knees and back are, he assures me, injury-free.
“We have inherited the perfect hardware to become the perfect long-distance running animal,” says Ted, looking down to his bare feet. He quotes Leonardo da Vinci, who called our feet the “pre-eminently engineered part of the body”. He is enthusiastic to the point of evangelical.
Ted’s epiphany came as he approached 40. He got backache. Like many of us, he took up running because he wanted to be fitter and have more energy, but his lower back gave him agony. “I was looking into these fancy shoes, these $300 Kangoo Jumps from Switzerland,” he says. “But they didn’t help. I couldn’t run further than an hour without a jarring, pounding feeling and I wanted to run a marathon. I was practically giving up.”
It was then Ted discovered the website of “Barefoot Ken Bob” Saxton, the leading instructor of the barefoot running movement. He read up about the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico, who could run 100 miles in simple sandals, injury-free; about the barefoot marathon runners of the Sixties who smashed record times. Then came the introduction of Bill Bowerman’s Nike trainer and “the idea that if you can get people to land on their bony heel they can run better”, says Ted disparagingly. Cushioned sports shoes are today a multimillion-pound market and ever advanced in their technology. So, goes the argument, why are we still plagued by running injuries?
Barefoot running was outside the mainstream, waiting to be discovered. Ted thought, “Oh my God, how could I have missed this?”
Anne trials no shoes, Vibram FiveFingers and the Luna sandal (MARTIN POPE)
I was here to test the theory. New to running, but not unfit, the wrong side of 40 and about to run a 10km race, I was keen to learn how to improve my performance.
“In this period of history, running is all about times, distances, speeds,” says Ted, shaking his head. He acknowledges that to set goals gives a purpose, but fears that runners forget to listen to the body and therefore push through the pain, leading to injury. The goal, he says, should be the “runner’s high”, the release of endorphins – nature’s reward for running a long distance. “Barefoot running brings it on much more quickly,” he says. Suddenly, I’m all the more keen to learn.
I have been given a pair of Vibram FiveFingers to try out. A “foot glove”, it takes a while to put your toes into the individual pockets, but once in, they are comfortable and you feel the ground through the thin rubber sole. Ted is barefoot, but currently favours the Luna running sandal he is developing in Seattle. He has a living to make. “You can’t sell barefoot,” he shrugs.
We do a little practice run and the first thing I notice is Ted’s small, quick steps. The next thing I observe is that rather than striking the ground with a flat foot or heel, I am landing lightly on the front of my foot. I speed up my turnover of strides to match Ted and find my body stops bouncing up and down.
“If you’re running more gently,” says Ted, ” you experience fewer joint problems. These come from poor running form.”
Inspired by my meeting with Barefoot Ted, I take my Vibram FiveFingers out for a run at home. I start well, lightly cruising along the pavement. But after only 15 minutes I am clutching my calf in agony and hobbling home. I did not pay heed to Ted’s most important bit of advice: take it slowly.
This is a major setback. It takes two weeks before the calf pain has gone and I then revert to my old Nike trainers and heel striking. After a 12km practice run, my knees are painful and swollen. I’ve never injured myself like this before and taking up running has ruined me in two places. I wonder if I’m just not cut out to be a runner.
“If you immediately try to change the way you run, that causes problems… and can result in other injuries manifesting themselves,” said Dr Mick Wilkinson, a senior lecturer in sports and exercise science from Northumbria University, when he presented his research into barefoot running to the British Science Festival in Newcastle last month. An advocate of barefoot running and one of the first to run the Great North Run without shoes, Dr Wilkinson added that children should stick to thin-soled plimsolls instead of cushioned trainers for PE at school.
It was exactly this argument that converted Rollo Mahon, founder of the Barefoot Performance Academy in London. The former professional yachtsman turned sports therapist was looking for a first pair of shoes for his daughter and could only find thick, padded soles. (He and his family now wear Vivobarefoot.) Rollo’s six-week foundation courses focus on making the transition to barefoot running. He is not surprised that I injured myself so quickly.
“Running is a skill,” says Rollo. “We’re bombarded by perceptions of what running is, with pictures on the front of magazines. The conventional wisdom is that heel striking is sound. It’s not.” He cites the cases of professional tennis players such as Rafael Nadal and Andy Murry, who heel strike hard and sustain severe injuries. According to Dr Wilkinson, one in five runners develops injuries linked to landing on their heels, such as stress fractures.
Rollo videos then assesses my barefoot running style. My ankles are locked out. My foot is landing in the front of my centre of mass, which means my calf is “excessively loading up”. Hence the pain. My hips are acting as a brake, and my knees are “getting trashed”. And I thought I could run.
“Let’s get you squatting,” says Rollo. He’s a big fan of the deep squat. In Western society, we don’t incorporate deep squats into our daily routine and the number of hip operations is testament to that.
We move on to my “locked” ankles, which he rolls from side to side. Lunges are next. Then onto hands and knees, swivelling onto my side and jabbing my elbow back.
After an hour of exercises, I run a short distance and find my body loose and comfortable. This is running “rehab”.
Four weeks later I complete my 10km race in cushioned running shoes but with the barefoot technique in mind. I listened to my body, ran faster cadences and hit the runner’s high in the final kilometre. I try to practise Rollo’s deep squats and I remember Barefoot Ted’s words: “Running is about health, happiness and the joy of this ancient technology.”
Barefoot running basics
1 Find a smooth, hard surface and try to run as silently as possible, with quiet, gentle landings.
2 Aim for a quicker turnover of strides, or cadence – 180 turnovers a minute or three per second. It’s fast.
3 Think about your posture. Tall, spine lengthened, head up, core engaged. Think light.
4 Run on the ball of your foot. You are the spring. But take it slowly and develop this technique incrementally to avoid serious calf pain.
5 Pay attention to your body as if it were an instrument panel. If a car engine light is flashing, it needs fixing. If you’re in pain, stop
source: The Telegraph By Anne Cuthbertson