A barefoot running journey – how I discovered mindful and relaxed running by James Mabbitt
Now the proud owner of five pairs of Vibram fivefingers, all for different occasions – what’s the big deal and why have I moved away altogether from conventional footwear?
On being introduced to some Inov8 running shoes, which had a more flexible sole a slightly lower heel than the standard running shoe, my physio brain immediately started thinking. It does indeed seem strange that most footwear has a heel. Why do that to yourself? A heel will shorten your calf, throw your weight forward, and thereby set of a whole series of compensations further up the ‘chain’ to keep you in balance. And then there is the ‘toe box’ of the shoe that in ‘normal shoes’ squashes your toes together or at least prevents your toes from naturally spreading out and gripping the ground as you walk, causing your foot muscles to atrophy and your foot to become stiff. Additionally your feet are rich in sensory organs, designed to enable you to react to the ground beneath you and maintain your balance – what effect is wearing socks and a 10mm sole going to have on that?
As a physio and being interested in function I had now decided that I wanted to get myself running in a ‘zero-drop’ (no heel) shoes with flexible soles to let my feet move more like they should. Over the coming months I got into Inov8 Bare Grips. Naturally more of a forefoot foot runner (but having been heel striking as this is what I’d been advised to do by senior physios during my physio career) I managed the transition to forefoot running fine on soft cross country terrain but I could hardly run more than a few hundred metres on tarmac before my calves got really sore and would need a couple of days recovery. I persevered and slowly progressed myself to managing the relatively short stretches on tarmac with no undue soreness. I started easily and significantly improving my speed and time on runs. I could feel the elastic energy that gets wound-up in the calves when forefoot running really propelling me.
The change to running in Spyridon fivefingers came after reading the book ‘Born to Run’ – I don’t think I am alone there. I wanted more function from my feet, and for me running is about getting out into nature and this seemed a better way of connecting with it. The transition into fivefingers wasn’t so smooth, and although I wouldn’t run in anything else and would love to recommend them to everyone, I have had plenty of injuries…which is making me a stronger runner (in my view). To date I have had a metatarsal stress fracture in both left and right foot and left Achilles/calf problems – so be warned!
Was it worth it? I think so. It has been and still is a journey. But it has made me ask the question, why do I run? I have definitely run because I enjoy it, but I feel that in the past it was also about proving something to myself – how hard and fast can I go? It was a way of burning stress off. But what I feel I have learnt is that you can’t use running barefoot style to burn off stress – you will get injured. Unless you can become aware of the subtle tensions that you are holding on to you will not move fluidly and evenly enough to land your forefoot strike softly enough to prevent the development of injuries. It is interesting (from my own experience) that you can start to feel a discomfort in your left foot (for example) and by noticing and relaxing a developing tension in your right shoulder or your face, or taking control of your breathing (for example) the discomfort in the left foot ceases. You need to be mindful of how you feel and that you have the right motivations for going on a run or that you are able to put your stresses to one side and concentrate fully on your body. You need to become mindful of where in the body you start developing tensions during your run and be able to let them go. Making and keeping your whole body relax will make that “core” feeling increase and it can be hard work to keep this up. But this brings you to the “Central Governor” theory – effort and fatigue is not real but is perceived. Again this is about exercising the power of the mind. But make no mistake – judge it wrong when your body is genuinely telling you that you need to stop as there is an issue of injury if you continue, and you will get injured.
In short, in my own experience, making the transition to “barefoot running” is not something you just do. It is a journey that requires you to become more mindful about how you feel, how you deal with stress, and how you move. You have to become better at listening to your body and commanding relaxation. Oh, and it also makes your feet feel great!