Friday, July 15, 2011

Mick Wilkinson Part I: Why Barefoot Running (in shoes) Is not barefoot running

 There's a young term in the market: barefoot running. The irony of this term, of course, is that it's used to sell shoes. Kind of an oxymoron there. But for many of us who have grokked the value of getting out of squishy or stiff shoes that don't pass a twist test, fewer of us have actually done the full monty, ditched the shoes and hit the streets unshod.

Dr. Mick Wilkinson,
in from a run, and being
stopped from getting to the
showers by yers truly
The same reasons that people have said they fear running in this soles - glass, harshness of surface and which those of us who run slightly shod have learned to smile understandingly about and say "no biggie for me" - are the same reasons most of us fear running without anything between us and the pavement.

But researcher Dr. Mick Wilkinson of the  Northumbria University has a similarly compassionate smile for the fears of the slightly shod, and many more reasons to show that even those 4mm between us and the planet can really screw up our stride. For him, a truly barefoot runner for over 4 years, barefoot means barefoot, and the distinction is pretty critical.

Mick is readily identified by his colleagues with the epitaph "you can't miss him; he's always barefoot" Wilkinson is an avid runner, competitive squash plater and senior lecturer in Sport and Exercise Science at Northumbria in Newcastle, UK. And yup, when i literally ran into Mick at Northumbria, he was indeed truly barefoot. I must admit it's the first time i felt overdressed in VFF Bikila's

What follows is a four part discussion of several rationales for barefoot running - one of the most compelling of which is just how the surface of our foot is wired. And once you've heard this, you may be hard pressed not to want to get your shoes off your feet as fast as you can.

Part I of the b2d interview with Soleful covers Mick Wilkinson on his journey to barefootness and the mechanics of the foot in running. In part II we'll look more at the role of the sole, in part III some comparisons with other running approaches, and part IV a wee clinic on tuning up the adaptation of running truly unshod.

If you enjoy this series, please consider sponsoring Mick on his barefoot Great North Run.

Mick, if i recall right, you said you started exploring barefooting about 4
years ago now? That's pretty ahead of the barefoot running curve.

Yes, it was before it all hit the headlines and became a bit of a movement, particularly in the states. I'm not sure it even has become a movement here in the UK. That said, I quickly and easily found Ken Bob Saxton's web site which has been going since 1997 and still is a fantastic resource for those interested in barefooting.

You were telling me that what lead you to barefooting was a suggestion by
your alexander movement coach to check out running in bare feet as a way to
interrogate your own movement since you were having recurrent injuries?
Maybe you'd tell us a bit about your running history, how you connected
with your coach, and your process of dipping a toe into barefooting.

That is correct. I have always run, mainly just for fitness but when I was a undergraduate student at university I also did a few cross country and road races though I was never a serious competitive runner.

I mostly used running as a stress release, particularly during exam periods where I ran everyday twice a day. I also took up squash while studying and used running as a form of training for squash (before I knew better about specificity of training!!). I began to suffer from calf /  soleus / Achilles problems that recurred with monotonously regularity despite trying physiotherapy, recommended stretches, shoe inserts, different shoes, acupuncture and chiropractic. I largely gave up on running and continued with squash which didn't seem to cause me as many problems.

Some ten years later when work and family commitments made it difficult to play squash, I started to try running again but the old issues returned so I again gave up. In 2007 my father in law wanted to race in the Great North Run half marathon and asked me to join him. I started trying to train again but after only four weeks my Achilles and calves gave out again. At this point I began to think that maybe it was the way I was running that was causing the issues and explored Pose running and Chi running without much success.

I then happened on a book called Master the Art of Running by Malcolm Balk - a teacher of the Alexander Technique.

I had never heard of the AT until then, but it made much sense to me that misuse Master the Art of Running: Raising Your Performance with the Alexander Techniquei.e. bad movement habits / unnecessary tension leads to illness and injury over time as the body is not being used as it has evolved to be used. I sought out a local AT teacher and booked a lesson.

AT teachers don't address symptoms of misuse directly but rather seek to improve overall use and coordination by helping student first become aware of harmful habits of movement, then learn to inhibit them and replace them with better patterns that result in free and easy movement.

It is essentially about NOT DOING, about stripping movements down to the bare necessary essentials and above all, not interfering with natural forces and the abundant stretch-shortening cycle postural reflexes that evolved to make movement free and easy - watch young children to see movement without interference with natural postural reflexes. Awareness of how you move while you move is key to the AT and my teacher suggested I try to get a little more in touch with how I moved when I ran by taking off my shoes and getting more information from my bare feet about how I was landing, balancing, pushing off when running.

Very cool. What was it like going from that first time shod to barefoot for a run? You
did this on a beach?

I was bit nervous first time out but, without exaggeration, there was an instant change to my running style. After a couple of painful strides where I landed on my heels, something I had not known I did until then, my stride automatically shortened and quickened so I landed instead more on the whole sole with perhaps the mid foot touching down fractionally first. I was still a bit tense but as I carried on, I used some of my AT training to release some of that unnecessary tension. As I released into it, my poise altered and I ran much more upright with (without sounding obvious) my head balancing on top of my neck, my torso balancing on my hips and freer hip, knee and ankles.

The change in balance made it far easier to land with my feet beneath me, hence landing more on the mid foot and considerably eased tension in my back that, I realised had been because I had been leaning forward which in turn had encouraged the heel strike as the foot was planted out in front of me to prevent me from falling flat on my face.

It all made sense and after only about half a mile felt very comfortable. I was careful to build up time and distance very gradually. I waited for the old problems to resurface, but they never did. Over time I moved onto grass, increased my distances and after about a year I decided to venture onto the pavement - something I wished I had done much earlier.

You were saying that someone in this space suggested start rather with the
rougher type surfaces and you agreed. Who was that and why?

Ken Bob Saxton suggested that you learn far more quickly about how to stand, walk and run lightly and comfortably when you get more feedback from rougher surfaces. That mirrored my first experience on the pavement. Until then I had thought I was running quite lightly. I was wrong! But, as with my first barefoot run on the beach, my technique altered quickly in response to the discomfort I felt through my bare soles and soon I was landing more lightly and gently and correspondingly more comfortably.

That first pavement run also taught me something else. I had a blister between the ball of my foot and big toe. I consulted Ken Bob's pages where he has excellent and very detailed instructions on technique from his years of experience. The cause of my blister it seemed was pushing backwards with my foot to drive me forward, the resulting friction leading to the blister. I quickly learned to simply lift my feet up after contact with the ground, to not actively push off, but instead to move forward by releasing my ankles and allowing my vertical torso to fall forward over my supporting foot.

The parallels with AT were always apparent to me: the less I actively did and the more I simply allowed the muscles in my legs and feet to respond to the lengthening / stretching forces imposed by gravity, and to recoil automatically with their stretch reflexes and in built elasticity, the better, more lightly and gently I ran.

Don't get me wrong, I am still learning and still finding tension to let go of and parts of my movement that I interfere with, but the more feedback I can get through my soles from rougher surfaces, the easier it is to make refinements that result in lighter and more gentle contact with the ground. I ran poorly for decades in shoes but have managed to undo lots of those bad habits in just a two or three years - all of which have been injury free.

o Science/Mechanics
So since we're now talking position,
Just to review, before talking about the foot's unmediated contact with the ground, let's review a few of the important reasons biomechanically around going barefoot: the action of the arch and the work of the achilles tendon.

The feet and legs are full of elastic tendons and connective tissues. The foot has many articulating joints and an intricate network of muscles, ligaments and tendons whose purpose is to provide an intrinsic support and cushioning system that responds instantly to variations in balance, pressure and comfort / discomfort with each and every part of every step. The mid foot has a thick pad of fat that also aids in cushioning, the heel does not and its purpose is simply to aid balance in standing and improve the lever characteristics around the ankle.

The sole of the foot also has a higher density of muscle spindles than anywhere else in the body
tendons of the lower leg that operate the foot:
like the flexors that attach on the shin:
lot of muscle spindle
and fine tuned movement
with the exception of muscles in the back of the neck. These are the organs that sense change and rate of change in muscle length and through the stretch-shortening reflex, ensure that muscle resist stretch with only exactly the right amount of force to counteract it. This reflex also results in storage of stretch energy in tendons and other connective tissues that can be returned thus reducing the energy cost of a given movement. Mechanical studies of the foot have also shown that as much as 17% of the energy a foot strike can be stored and returned by the longitudinal arch of the bare foot (Ker et al., 1987).

In order to store energy, the arch is deformed by a rolling action of the foot that begins on with ground contact at the outside mid foot and progress across the middle of the foot. This pronation is entirely natural and flatten the arch which subsequently springs back assisting in propulsive forces to move the body forward.

From this view, it seems ridiculous to think that an arch needs a 'support' as seems to be the thinking of manufacturers of modern elevated heel cushioned running shoes. Gallilieo himself marvelled at the arch as a structure and saw its benefits as a supporting structure that is now common place in engineering (bridges etc.) an arched bridge for example actually becomes
and another layer of muscles
directly within the foot,
and more fine tuning of movement
stronger under pressure as its parts mesh more closely together. The sure-fire way to weaken an arch and destroy an arch bridge is to apply pressure from underneath!

The elastic properties of the arch are also found in the Achilles tendon which is really just a large elastic band.

The purpose of the Achilles tendon is also to store and return energy only in running. It is remarkable that species that do not run or are very poor runners (non cursors), an Achilles tendon is absent.

Obviously, an elastic structure is only useful when it is stretched. An elevated-heel shoe shortens the Achilles tendon reducing any stretch placed on it during the running cycle. Comparisons of barefoot to shod running have shown greater peak ankle dorsi-flexion angle (that would stretch the Achilles further) in barefoot running.

running in heels?
killing the job of the
achiles tendon
This is, in my opinion, another example of shoe designers not having an understanding of or respect for the structures and functioning of the human leg and foot that evolved over 2 million years to make homo sapiens the unsurpassed distance running mammal on the planet.

That's it for this part on why getting squishy souls out of the way may be a good idea - and why if we stopped here we may think vff's do the trick. But that bit about blisters is important, too. 

In Part II of this series with Mick, we'll look at the Sensitive Sole of barefoot running, and why that plantar surface - and getting it into direct contact with the ground is a Big Deal.

Before then, want to give some real ground a try? Believe me, it will put the above and the rest of this series in a whole new context...

Till next time,

And oh yes, if you're finding this series interesting, please do consider sponsoring Mick on his
  Great North Run in his bare feet at:

Related b2d posts


Steven Sashen said...

I agree that the *shoes* (including Vibrams) that say "just like barefoot" are not. And, even our Invisible Shoes are not identical... because they essentially smooth out the surface a bit.

But, paradoxically, I've seen that running in huaraches can actually provide additional feedback that you can't get when you're barefoot -- sound.

With good form, running in sandals is quiet. Overstride, or land too hard (without absorbing the impact gently with your bent leg) and you'll get a slapping noise.

I've seen runners who were putting in 15-20 miles/week barefoot who *thought* they had good form... until they put on some sandals.

Again, I'm not saying sandals should replace barefoot... but that they're not in the same category as other minimalist footwear (except for the ones that are made too thick with too much padding)

dr. m.c. said...

Well that's interesting steven. Not having run in huraches, can't comment. it's an intriguing concept, and the audio feedback is interesting.

In part four, we'll be talking a bit about walking "barefoot" and how i really discovered that gait would need fixing because when i put on my in ear monitors with an ipod, i *hear* or feel my feet clonk.

i'm intrigued to think of anyone barefoot overstriding! have you ever tried that on tarmac? do you think they were running on sand?

You certainly have me curious: does my barefoot gait pass the sandle test??

Anyway, thanks for the introduction to this concept of an even OTHER way to approach minimalist shoes when the bare sole can not solely be bared.


Hope you'll come back for part two on the plantar surface of the foot.


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