The skill of barefoot running

The idea of running barefoot – or in barely-there minimal shoes – struck a chord with me right from the very first time I tried it, back in 2007. I was a participant in one of John Woodward’s Natural Running weekends in the Lake District when I first liberated my feet, and after that, I regularly incorporated barefoot training into my regime and swapped cushioned trainers for flexible, low profile Vivo Barefoot Evos and Inov-8s. My technique – and speed – improved. But last year, at the tail-end of my spring marathon build-up, plantar fasciitis (a catch-all term that really just means ‘foot pain’) put me out of action. I limped from one sports injury clinic to the next, consulting physios, osteopaths and podiatrists – and they all told me the same thing – I needed to support my foot arches and cushion my feet against the impact of running. My instinct didn’t agree, but eager to get back in training, I complied (reluctantly) and once more encased my feet in hefty trainers. It didn’t help. Nor did having not one, but two, different sets of orthotics made.  In fact, despite months of treatment, I think it was time that healed my foot in the end.

I got back to running eventually, but the pain of plantar fasciitis – and the fear of its return – put an end to my barefooting adventures. Until last month! VIVOBAREFOOT, pioneers of the minimal running shoe, recently announced the UK’s first barefoot running coaching certification, a 5-day programme created by movement specialist Lee Saxby, who famously cured Born to Run author Chris McDougall’s plantar fasciitis, and endorsed by evolutionary scientist Professor Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University. When they invited me to attend, I decided this could be my opportunity, quite literally, to find my feet with barefoot running once again.

Drawing on biomechanics, evolutionary anatomy, motor control theory and plain old physics, Saxby showed how there is a lot more to barefoot running than taking your shoes off. Many enthusiastic runners, caught up in the ‘Born to Run’ craze have ended up with injuries because they’ve assumed that by removing their shoes, they have automatically acquired great technique. Sadly, this isn’t the case. Without proper technique, you might reduce the incidence of one type of running injury but simply replace it with another. (For example, shod running, with a heel strike, is often associated with injuries like shin splints, runners’ knee and lower back pain while barefoot running, done badly, can put excessive stress on the Achilles tendon, foot and calf.)  So if you’re going to free your feet – or swap chunky soles for wafer-thin ones – you better learn to run well.

Christened ‘the world’s best barefoot running coach’ by McDougall, you might expect Saxby to be of the popular opinion that the athletics shoe market is a huge conspiracy, designed to extort us of money whilst knowing that really we should all be unshod, or in the most minimal of shoes. But he thinks the conspiracy theory is nonsense. ‘The shoe companies are making shoes for people who land on their heels with their legs extending out in front of their bodies,’ he says. ‘And if you’re going to run like that, then you better keep wearing shoes.’  The majority of people do run like that – and it’s by taking off your shoes that you’ll hear and feel your body protest, hopefully motivating you to change.

There are plenty of books, DVDs and coaches out there willing to help you do just that – but it can be tricky to find a reputable source, which is one of the reasons VIVOBAREFOOT decided to certify coaches in the first place. There’s a lot of ‘bad science’ surrounding the mechanics of running – especially barefoot – and for Saxby, it was imperative that we budding barefoot coaches knew not just the ‘what’ and ‘what not’ but also the ‘why.’  Each day, the biomechanics lab bookshelf groaned louder under the weight of his imported library of specialist texts, which he encouraged us to delve into.

Through lectures, demonstrations and practical work, the course is designed to teach coaches how to identify faults in technique and set about correcting them by working on Saxby’s big three: posture, rhythm and relaxation. Having passed the exam, I should soon be one of the UK’s first certified VIVOBAREFOOT coaches (on  successful completion of my 3 case studies), and will be offering barefoot clinics and coaching – but in the meantime, you can see some of the drills and exercises we used here

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