Allowing Foot and Physiology to Uncoil as One

A greater focus on conditioning and cross-training this summer allowed me to experiment with some ideas I had about running. One of the hottest summers on record meant that all of my usual grass running routes were almost rock solid.

I wondered whether, over time, I would be able to increase pace and distance whilst running barefoot on these hard surfaces. Previously, I had only run barefoot on nice pliable grass surfaces which with little practice allow you to run with abandon.

Starting with 2.5 miles, I gradually increased the distance up to three runs of 8-miles per week. Slowly but surely, I adapted. As I gradually progressed the miles, I would always notice fatigue and discomfort in the calf region occurring during the last mile. This suggested I had reached the upper limit of what I was adapted for.

What were the differences to normal running?

1.The major difference I noticed compared to normal road running in shoes was that the minute-miles were slower especially at the beginning of a run. However, even when adapted, if you normally run 7-minute miles on the road, barefoot on a hard surface you’re running 7:30-minute miles (when the grass is softer, minute miles are often comparable).

  • Why? I think that your body is trying to protect you from heavy impacts on the firm surface. The further and faster you stride the greater the impact your body must absorb on landing. As I mentioned above, even at the slower speed, muscles grew fatigued from moderating the impact on the firm surface rather than due to fitness.

2.Foot-placements became more spring-like over-time. You begin to run softer. This does not mean up on your toes but more spring like. Almost as though as your foot comes in contact with the ground it begins to gently rise immediately. This was a response that occurred over time and gave the title to this blog.

  • Why? Obviously, we know with barefoot running the sensory stimulation of the sole of the foot is very rich. This in itself means we are more cautious with our foot placement. Many runners adopt shorter strides and a more mid to forefoot placement. However, there is something unique about the firm ground which encourages the use of tendons more like springs.

Is it useful?

I think it is a really useful conditioning and technique exercise. Running like this starts to make it feel more like a skill (which it is). It promotes a new level of consciousness about your foot placements. In shoes when running on the road, I have noticed some transfer effects.

It may be that the sensory input also regulates the speed you run at relative to your current fitness i.e. stops you running faster than you should for your physiological fitness. Perhaps in shoes we can over-ride this and run faster than we should for an aerobic run.

Further insight may come from the famous Kenyan shuffle. Kenyan runners are known to warm-up very slowly. It seems this type of running allows muscles and tendons unwind at the same pace as the rest of human physiology. This seems to be a little less important for non-weight bearing sports such as cycling which do not have to impact moderate in the same way.

The plan now is to design some studies around this concept – stay tuned!