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Adventure School: A guide to weighted barefoot running

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A guide to weighted barefoot running by Ross Edgley

  • Running a Marathon Pulling a 1.4 Tonne Car
  • Covering 1,000 Miles With a 50kkg Marine Backpack
  • Completing an Olympic-Distance Triathlon Carrying a 100-lbs Tree

Last year I developed a strange sporting skillset.

I became quite good at carrying very heavy things for very long distances, all to raise money for some truly deserving charities and causes. This all began in January when I ran a marathon (26.2 miles) around Silverstone race circuit whilst pulling a 1,400kg car. Next — with the help of the Royal Marines — I covered 1,000 miles in a month carrying a 50kg marine backpack. Then to finish the year I ran an Olympic-distance triathlon whilst carrying a 100lbs tree (in what the media called, “The World’s First Tree-athlon.”)

But a common theme among all of the above was that I chose to do it whilst wearing minimalist running shoes in the form of my favorite pair of Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoes.

Allow me to explain why…

It was 10 years ago now that I was lucky enough to live and learn from the great San Bushmen of Namibia. Leaving the School of Sport and Exercise Science at Loughborough University, I left my home comforts (protein shakes and sports equipment) to hunt miles a day wearing nothing but a bow and arrow, loincloth, sandals and a smile.

A month passed and after many miles I began to understand how forgotten foot physiology could help me cover more than a marathon a day on very little food and water. Essentially, barefoot biomechanics was improving my running technique and efficiency to such an extent I was evolving into something that resembled a (semi) good endurance athlete in as little as 30 days.

Barefoot Running, Speed & Skill

Running is a skill.

This sounds odd I know, but it’s a movement pattern so more efficiency means more speed and less energy spent. Something that would prove invaluable on the sun-drenched planes of Namibia in 39 °C and where food is scarce. But this is something my mentors had perfected down to an art form as their ability to track and hunt animals into exhaustion had become legendary.

How? Well (to reiterate) running efficiency and technique. They would glide across the sand with impeccable forefoot striking, leaning forward and without wasting any energy.

At the start of my African adventure I was so often found metres behind. Quite possibly the worst San Bushmen in history, my 5-ft-9, 100kg, hobbit-sized frame was left to drag itself around Namibia displaying the worst running form ever to grace the African plains. But after months of suffering blisters and a bruised ego things got better. Much better.

I began to forefoot strike. I began leaning into each stride. My footprints no longer resembled that of a baby elephant and for a brief moment I looked like a semi-competent San Bushmen. Why? Because barefoot running had given me a heightened sense of what my feet and legs were doing. I could feel every grain of sand between my toes and every painful stone as I accidentally slipped back into heel striking.

This is an idea supported by research from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University who found, “A barefoot running style provides increased proprioception and foot strength.” Proprioception just means the body’s ability to sense movement within joints and joint position and since running barefoot improves this ability, it can greatly help ensure you’re forefoot striking.

Looking back over my travel diary, here are 3 key lessons I took from Namibia…

#1. You Feel Your Feet (Again)

Very few people know the feet are one of the most nerve-rich parts of your body.

They come loaded with 100,000 – 200,000 receptors that collect information and provide valuable biofeedback to the brain to make sure you’re moving how you’re designed to. How is my technique looking? What’s the pace like? How’s my stride length? Is the ground stable or uneven? And thousands of other factors.

Lesson number one from my African adventure: minimalist shoes can help you feel your feet again.

#2. You Build (Tiny) Forgotten Muscles   

Imagine if you put your leg in a cast for 6 months and didn’t use it. What do you think would happen? Yes, the muscles would shrink and shrivel and with it so would your strength and functionality. This is all because of something called muscular atrophy and it basically means if we don’t use our muscles they waste away.

Well our feet come loaded with tiny muscles, tendons and a natural arch that acts like a spring when we run. When they’re firing and functioning they quite literally put a spring in our step. But what do you think happens when we wrap our feet in big, clumsy shoes? Yes, you guessed it, your feet experience this same form of atrophy.

This is why — when studying “intrinsic foot muscle strength” — scientists from the Shanghai University of Sport found running barefoot or in minimalist shoes, “Makes greater use of the spring-like function of the longitudinal arch and intrinsic muscle… thereby strengthening the foot.”

Lesson number two from my African adventure: minimalist shoes can train tendons to rediscover a “spring in your step”.

#3. Pacing Becomes Easier   

Even the most experienced long-distance runners can become cursed by a poor pacing strategy. Start fast during a marathon and you’ll likely finish slow (if at all). But the beauty of running barefoot is you have your own in-built pacing system. Don’t believe me? Try an hour of sprint training on gravel and I guarantee those 100,000+ receptors in your feet will be crying out for you to slow down and obey the speed limit.

Lesson number three from my African adventure: minimalist shoes teach you to have your own internal pacemaker.

Years later and I was faced with the challenge to run a marathon pulling a car.

Which is why I decided to incorporate the same lessons I learnt in Africa. Employing that same awareness and proprioception that many people are missing when they’ve only ever run with standard shoes, I laced up my Vivobarefoot Primus Trail shoes (thankfully had a good supply of food and snacks), stepped foot onto Silverstone’s iconic race circuit and attached car to my back.

My next blog post explores what I learnt during the next 26.2 miles.

Ross Edgley is an athlete adventurer, chief sports scientist at THE PROTEIN WORKS™ and considered one of the world’s most travelled fitness experts. For more fitness inspiration from Ross, check out his website and sign up to his (free) training and diet newsletter.

 

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