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Run Like a Kid Again

[First published in Women’s Health magazine.]

Remember when life seemed carefree and running easy? As a child, you’d run around when happy, you’d run away when scared. Recent scientific findings are now endorsing a school of thought that says we should all learn to run in the style we did when we were kids: barefoot.

There’s a theory doing the rounds that says running is fundamental to who we are as human beings. That we can all run. Not only are our bodies perfectly designed for this activity, but it will make us both healthy and happy.

The gist of the story seems to be this: that about 1.8 million years ago our ancestors stood up from their all-fours. Suddenly (relatively, of course), their brains got radically bigger, they got smarter, they invented fire and Homo erectus evolved into Modern Man.

Why? Because they – we – stood up to run. To fetch dinner. Running on two legs, goes the theory, we followed our prey till that bokkie dropped dead from exhaustion. And we did this all as a family group – mom, dad, the kids and the grandparents – all running and hunting together.

The premise, as articulated most inspirationally in Chris McDougall’s book of that name, is that we were Born to Run. So why, then, does running round the block feel heavy and tiring and far from natural?

Well, goes the theory, we’re doing it all wrong. We’re landing on our heels. Our strides are too big and take too long. We’re hunched. And so it’s horrid and many of us hate it.

That’s not the way our ancestors ran. Nor is it the way some of the last great running people groups do, such as the bushmen who we know can trot along for miles and miles, either on the hunt, or as military trackers. Or the Kenyans who’ve come to dominate world long distance athletics. Or the Tarahumara of Mexico, who are the central characters in McDougall’s book. Neither is it the way that children run naturally.

And who is to blame? Well Nike is where the fingers are generally pointed. And our own legendary running professor, Tim Noakes, agrees: “It’s taken us 30 years to realise that Nike were wrong. Because they wanted to sell a product, they developed a hypothesis and then gave us the treatment.”

(He also candidly admits that he got it wrong in his The Lore of Running. Expect some radical changes in the fifth edition.)

Nike might be taking the rap, but name a manufacturer that hasn’t had us believing we need “all those gadgets and rubbish,” as Noakes puts it, pointing out that there is still no scientific evidence that running shoes are any help at all in injury prevention. There are those that go further to argue that running shoes actually hurt us.

“Running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot,” says Harvard University’s Dr Daniel Lieberman whose paper, published in the science journal Nature last year, finally brought scientific credence to the barefoot running theory. “A lot of foot and knee injuries that are currently plaguing us are actually caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate, give us knee problems. Until 1972, when the modern athletic shoe was invented by Nike, people ran in very thin-soled shoes, had strong feet and had much lower incidence of knee injuries.”

“The part of the brain that receives sensory input from the foot is enormous. It dwarfs most other areas of the brain that receive sensory input,” explains Noakes. Just think about how ticklish your feet are and you’ll realize that they’re are as finely tuned as your lips or finger tips. All that messaging capability must be for something, and it’s this: to give your body feedback about the terrain you’re on, so that you can respond appropriately. Interrupt that feedback loop, by cutting off the receptors’ contact with the earth, and you’re depriving your body of vital information and setting it up for injury.

“The foot was meant to move. It was not meant to be splinted,” says Cape Town physiotherapist Benita de Witt, who likens the standard running shoe to a plaster cast. “You don’t get the info and you can’t use proprioception, the natural balance mechanism of the body.”

She explains that the body was born with natural shock absorption. The normal running pattern for a barefoot child is to run on the front foot, with a soft calf and hamstring. “If you run striking the heel, it’s rock hard through your knees, back, everything.”

Nike would now agree. Gathering film footage of people around the globe who still run barefoot brought fresh insights, as one researcher at Nike Sports Research Lab explains: “Their feet flex, spread, splay, and grip the surface, meaning you have less pronation and more distribution of pressure.” These lessons have now been integrated into the Nike Free range, with the slogan “Run Barefoot”. Almost every running shoe manufacturer is following suit and producing ranges of what is being called “minimalist” shoes: “Almost barefoot, but better,” says New Balance. “Natural movement. Perfected,” says Reebok.

Show a clean pair of heels

Okay, so now I just throw away my shoes?

“Are you mad?” is De Witt’s response. You first have to strengthen those weakened muscles and return to a neutral position. So, yes, avoid shoes that act as splints, and start working on a more natural running style, with the footstrike on the outside ball of the foot, along the outside of the midfoot (yes, pronation). Try to scoot your feet backward, rather than reaching forwards in great big strides. No heels needed – just ask Oscar Pistorius.

As you try it, imagine a rope around your waist attached to a heavy weight that you are pulling. This will bring your feet under your body as you drive your hips straight ahead.

How to choose shoes (Wait, I thought this was barefoot running?)

  1. Stick with what works.

Noakes is adamant: If you are already running half marathons and are uninjured, don’t change a thing. “My own experience is that I cannot run with anything but the softest shoe. My Nike Air Pegasus are magic. After 40 years of running, I don’t think I could change.”

If you are injured, on the other hand, he recommends you try running barefoot on grass and if the injury is not there, you would be better without shoes – or with the new minimalist shoes that protect your feet from thorns and gravel, etc, but allow you to run in the barefoot style.

De Witt agrees that you shouldn’t just throw away your shoes. Rather, transition slowly to a more minimalist version that will have you running on your midfoot. Only much later – probably after a second season – should you transition to a completely ‘barefoot’ shoe such as the Vibram FiveFingers.

 

  1. Ditch the bells and whistles.

Letting your feet go completely au naturel is pretty radical, but you do want neutral shoes. “If you start running in hard shoes that prevent pronation, I think that’s the worst,” says Noakes.

Flexibility, says De Witt, is key. Yes, your shoe can still have some cushioning but it must not be rigid: you must be able to twist it.

And it should have a big toe box to accommodate “piano toes” that can spread and grip.

 

  1. Find an expert

Don’t let an in-store salesman talk you into something fancy. “Get expert advice, such as from a podiatrist, on what you should be running in,” says New Balance’s John Andrew. “It will save you money in the long run.”

Failing that, at the New Balance concept store you can run on a treadmill and have your running style video-taped for later scrutiny. You’ll see clearly how you’re landing.

On your marks… Get set…

Experienced marathon runner Keaton Oddy has recently started making the transition. While she doesn’t imagine herself ever going completely barefoot, she sees the benefits of developing stronger feet. She’s started doing some of her shorter runs in more lightweight shoes.

“I ran 10km in them and I couldn’t walk around in them afterwards. I was too sore. My body is used to a lot of cushioning and support.” She recommends a slower transition: “Go and do 5km training runs on the treadmill or the track.” Oddy is the marketing manager for New Balance, so can easily get access to any new shoe she wants. Despite this, she’s not rushing to throw away her old ones, even though there is a strong temptation to replace them with the funky-looking minimalist range the company launched in July.

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