Monday, July 25, 2011

Mick Wilkinson Part III - the physical and social adaptations of barefoot running practice

In part one of our series with Dr. Mick Wilkinson on the joys and reasons of barefoot walking and running, we looked at the mechanics of going barefoot. In part two we looked at why exposing the sole is a good idea for performance economy. In part IV, we'll feature a barefoot adaptation technique clinic. In this the third part of our interview with Dr. Mick Wilkinson on the joys of barefooting, we consider
  • the differences of barefoot vs psuedo barefooting practices (ones that still use "minimalist" footwear) 
  • We talk a bit about footwear in sport, and also, finally and perhaps most importantly 
  • the social issues around moving towards barefoot practice. 
In part four, we'll have a wee clinic on barefoot walking and running to develop technique. Let's jump right in.

Ok, pose first. This type of running is often described as emulating barefoot running. Thoughts?
Someone running pose has a similar outward appearance to an experienced barefoot runner in terms of gait characteristics. What is different, at least from my perspective, is that pose is about 'DOING' something particular with your legs, specifically, actively pulling up the foot with the hamstrings and as the original book suggests preventing the heel from landing or at least controlling its descent.

I found great difficulty with this personally and many posts on the pose running web site cite similar problems and occasionally injuries from failed attempts to 'DO' it correctly.

As I have alluded to earlier, natural running is about NOT doing. It is about NOT interfering with the automatic reflexes of the muscle spindles in legs and feet and in fact all skeletal muscles. Allowing the stretch reflexes to operate in response to the sensation of barefoot contact results in a graceful, gentle and relatively effortless movement. Fighting or trying to 'make' movements / positions happen that will result on their own is what causes difficulties.

Humans have been running for two million years and were (some still are) very good at it. We have all been born with all the equipment we need to learn to run with ease and comfort, we don't need a book, method or any special shoes to teach us how or protect us, your own bare soles will teach you everything you need to know to run gently and easily. All you have to do is listen to them and let the movements that want to reflexively occur simply happen, just keep thinking of where you want to go - i.e. forwards and upwards - your reflexes will take care of the rest.

I have not run in VFF's but if I had, I would never have suffered the blisters that taught me to move forward without having to actively push off as they would have shielded me from this friction. I also note a number of similar post on Ken Bob Saxton's web site about top-of-the-foot pain in people trying to transition to barefoot running in VFF's. The symptoms described are usually characteristic of sesamoiditis, that is irritation of a group of small bones in the mid foot that usually results from chronic and excessive pressure on these small mobile bones.

[perhaps i'm fortunate, but in two plus years of running and walking in vff's, i've not had this issue -mc] 

As Ken Bob points out and a sports medicine expert in my own department confirms, driving the foot back and down into the ground with barely any cushioning is a sure way to irritate these bones and cause the problems described. If this action were performed barefoot, blisters would reveal the technique flaw long before inflammation reared its ugly head.

This is exactly what i experienced on my first run out: 
that's a big surprise that my form is plainly still not barefoot optimal.

As I have said earlier, the sensitivity of the sole is there for a reason, to block the sensations of direct contact is to lose out on information that helps you run gently. It is like trying to learn to sing while wearing ear plugs!

 - any other point you'd like to make about the value of running truly barefoot?

Apart from all the reasons I give above, it just feels absolutely great. To feel the ground, to move gently over it, the breeze cooling your feet, the sheer sense of freedom and of moving in a way that respects the way the body evolved and respects our evolutionary heritage as running animals.

o Sports and footwear
You're also an avid squash player - do you play squash barefoot?

No. When I run, I can do so in such a way as to minimise friction that would otherwise cause blisters and running is in one direction only - forward. Squash on the other hand is a multiple-sprint sport characterised by rapid and frequent changes of direction, often dictated by your opponent (especially if playing poorly!). Friction in this situation is high and cannot be avoided, playing squash barefoot would tear my feet to bits. Humans evolved to run distances not to play squash!

That said, I still place great value on being able to feel the floor so I can minimise impact and rates of loading not shield myself from the sensation of them by wearing cushioned shoes. Balance is also crucial and feedback from the foot and contact with floor is paramount. Ankle injuries are common in squash and I think this could be linked to wearing shoes that dampen feedback from the sole of the foot and of position sense in the ankle with cushioning and motion control.

I play in old style white canvas army plimsoles. They have very thin soles and no cushioning or support. That way I avoid blisters, but also get excellent feedback about impact that can help me move more gently and lightly on the court. I have practised on court barefoot, but that is when I am in control of where the ball goes or when I am simply practicing set and planned movement patterns.

As a sports person, what about sports and footwear more generally? Watching the French
Open and Wimbledon, for instance, seeing how taped up Nadal's foot was to
the point of being immobile, or looking at football players (and ankle
injuries) and more taping makes me wonder about sports that seem to assume
that feet/ankles are best immobilised, ostensibly for safety, if not
performance. Thoughts?

You can probably guess what I'm going to say. It is widely held public perception (largely based on unsupported claims of shoe manufacturers) that our feet and bodies somehow need protecting from nasty impact forces that threaten to damage our joints and cause us discomfort.

The body and feet have evolved to allow free and easy locomotion across widely varying terrains and surfaces. We have an inbuilt, fully interactive cushioning system that processes information faster than any computer. It comprises reflex loops, incredibly sensitive sensors and muscle systems that respond virtually instantaneously to carry out our movement wishes with the minimum of effort and maximum comfort.

To immobilise, cushion, elevate and 'control' limits if not prevents these finally controlled protective and performance enhancing mechanisms from operating properly. In my view, little good can come from interfering with what evolution has provided. Natural selection is a powerful force and humans would not be here today if it were not for our ancestors (barefoot) running prowess - two million years of development can't be wrong.

o Barefooting in public:
On meeting you in your office hallway, you were unshod, but also had just
come in from a run. That said, if i understand aright, you also walk about
barefoot do you not? Did that start right with running barefoot, or at what

Once I began barefoot running and noticed aches and pains disappearing that returned when I wore shoes, I started going barefoot as often as possible.

Example of winter unshod runner. Looks happy?
I understand it snows in northumbria. What do you do for foot coverings in
the cold?

If I'm not running, I do wear shoes in the winter. Running barefoot doesn't make your feet tough, in fact, it is the sensitivity of them that allows you to run barefoot comfortably, my feet get cold like anyone else's.

When running in the winter, I still go barefoot but I have to limit the duration of my runs so that my feet don't get too cold. If they go numb, that is bad news as it is the feedback from them that helps me run gently without hurting myself. I find that if I wrap the rest of me up well, my feet will be good for about 20-30 mins even if it is a little bit frosty. I stick to the pavements in the winter though as wet grass and sand really sap the heat out of your feet.

I never run in the snow as I have no idea what is underneath it. There could be unknown sharp objects that could injure my feet that I could easily avoid if I could see them.

Have you had any health and safety issues raised about being in the
building unshod, whether for risk of accidents or "uncleanliness"??

Never at work no. I did get a comment from a security guard at a supermarket once about what dirt might be on the bottom of my feet,    "the same as would be on the bottom of my shoes" was my reply ..... he let me go ahead and shop. In another instance, I was refused access to a roller coaster ride at a theme park unless I put on the flip flops I had with me. The reason I was told was that should the ride break down, I would have to climb down a ladder to safety. I pointed out that surely I would be safer climbing down a ladder in my bare feet than in flip flops .... I didn't win that argument and took to the ride in my 'safer' flip flops!

Is there any kind of meeting or event to which you do *not* go unshod now?
Where the social occasion demands it, I put on shoes. For instance, I generally teach and spend most if not all of the day barefoot, but if I am required to meet an important person at work or parents or for weddings (for example) or other important social occasions or in eating establishments, I will put something on. This is more about making others feel comfortable than me feeling embarrassed though which is real shame.

What strategies have you used - and/or would recommend if other folks want
to explore full on barefooting perhaps especially in the work environment,
home and play?

Just go ahead and do it. Obviously within any restrictions placed on you by your job and home / play environment. Common sense has to apply, I wouldn't want anyone to get the sacked or put themselves at risk on my recommendation. If safety and acceptance aren't an issue, go for it, there are many benefits to be had and if anyone asks you can list them - you don't have to be a hippy - I don't have any hair!

o Barefoot and Familial Concerns for one's wellbeing
Ok, so i've come back from a barefoot run and a walk and my family has greated me with absolute horror that this time i've taken my fitness eccentricities one too far. The risk to one's well being is just one too many - the glass, the nails, the nasty things that hide in the grass. Have you encountered anything like this? 

About the fear thing, yes I have had that also.

My response is I promise that I will walk and run with my eyes open so if glass is there on the path before me, I will avoid it just as someone in shoes would do!

the unseen stuff is an interesting one. I believe that you will be better off barefoot than in a minimal shoe. As soon as you feel something on your bare sole, your foot will withdraw from it. Now imagine the same situation shod, you might put quite a lot of weight on the foot before the glass or other sharp object penetrates the shoe at which time you are bearing down on the object with some force and will likely cause a worse injury than would result from quick withdrawal from early and detailed sensory feedback.

Another useful fact about the sole of the foot is the skin is unique - called the glaborous epithelium. The arrangement of collagen fibres is such that pressure that might otherwise puncture the skin is dissipated in all directions offering a wonderfully resistant surface. You don't get calluses from barefooting either - I had callus before I stared, now it has all gone! The plantar surface is like well conditioned leather - soft yet very resilient.
the bottom and top of Mick's feet.
looking pretty unblistered, and no shards of glass
sticking through them
Excellent. Are there any resources you'd recommend for folks preparing to take the plunge?
Books you'd recommend - and a bit about what makes you recommend them?
Web resources? anything else?

Barefoot Running Step by Step: Barefoot Ken Bob, the Guru of Shoeless Running, Shares His Personal Technique for Running with More Speed, Less Impact, Fewer Injuries and More FunAnyone interested in barefoot running really must visit Read the material about how to run barefoot.

The author (Ken Bob Saxton) is as eloquent and informed a writer as I have come across on the topic and is a veteran of some 40 odd barefoot marathons (some back to back!), trail runs etc. For a non-scientist he really does have a very good grasp on the body, mechanics, physics, evolution and philosophy. The author has also recently published a book titled the complete book of barefoot running though I have not obtained a copy yet. Chris MacDougal's book Born to Run is also a very entertaining read. Whilst not generally about barefoot running, there is a lot in there to get you thinking about the need (or not) for shoes and how our approach to running as a pastime and activity has been distorted over time.

Thank you so much Mick, for the great detailed replies on these points. 

Part IV of my discussion with Mick will be a bit more about Mick and his research, as well as a wee clinic in addressing the starting errors of "running" barefoot follows.

Remember, if you're enjoyng this series, please consider sponsoring Mick on his Great North (barefoot) Run.

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