ARTICLE: Barefoot running–what is the point?

I feel I owe it to readers to explain the purpose of my barefoot race at the Killarney 10k yesterday. We live in an age of media-stunts after all were running events balance on a fine line between competition and circus. Gerry Duffy brought up a good point when he took the stage highlighting the difference between personal achievement and absolute achievement. To me there’s three types of achievements today: empty achievements, personal achievements and absolute. If someone breaks the 4-hour marathon barrier it obviously does not compare in absolute terms to the world record. For an individual who struggled to walk 5k a few months previous, however, it is a laudable achievement and for that individual it is transformative.

Running is a perfect sport for allowing both and only goes off track when the individual elevates his or her achievement beyond the personal realm – for instance, if I run a 120km mountain run but aggrandise it as a world class feat. This is disingenuous when we know that there is 70-year old men who have completed more impressive feats (Joss Naylor). So it’s important to always quantify our achievements “this was a great achievement for me” without elevating it further and thus showing disrespect to the absolute achievements that are possible within our great sport.

Running has benefitted in many ways from the upsurge in popular interest but we need to maintain balance. Just as it is impressive for the beginner to break every new barrier, it is important to remember that the elites are not necessarily very gifted individuals and even when they are they still need to show preternatural determination and discipline to reach the lofty levels they operate at. We live in an era where we will happily see journalists disparage a runner who finishes 10th in an Olympic final before celebrating, uncritically, the performances of the so-called “fun runners”. There’s nothing wrong with the latter, but understand: the further you rise in the sport the harder you must work and the less room you have for error. It is unbecoming to disparage these individuals for not being able to stand up to the African excellence when our society gives most of our athletes such a massive disadvantage (sedentary lifestyle, poor food, stress, shoes that alter feet and destroy proper biomechanics, competition from more popular sports, mechanical coaching, general defeatism). If some of the enthusiasm we show for the great mass of runners was channelled into getting to the root of these problems, we would enable the next generation to compete on a level playing field again. Talk of genetic superiority be damned.

What is specific?

This has been an important lesson for me leading into the Run Killarney 10k. I filled my head with a lot of the usual self-talk such as “I’m not very fit, I haven’t done a lot of specific training.” But this time a voice answered saying “what do you mean specific, you are only saying specific because you only consider miles specific, but all the technical training you’ve done is specific.” This simple understanding changed my mindset going into the race. Instead of the nervousness of the unprepared runner I went in with an alarming sense of indifference – I could not say I was supremely confident (only a long specific training period for an event can create that in most of us), but my mind was not filled with any negativity. Just run. That was pretty much the only thing in my head at the start line. Science has proven today what the ancients knew – what happens in the mind changes our biology. Many go as far as saying the fastest runners are those with the most powerful minds – those who believe the most and fear the least. Because it is fear more than anything that holds us back. The great coach Cerutty famously used a stoic philosophy to beat this out of his protégés with lines such as “it’s only pain” and workouts designed to rinse the souls of his runners from doubt, to strip away the mental shackles that held them back.

No-hoper

It is in this context that my decision to run the 10k barefoot needs to be seen. Remember: I was a no-hoper in almost every sport I competed in. I was a write-off by the medical profession. My mental state was that of a wreck after 4 years of injury. Most mornings getting out of bed was a painful experience and I was told that “it’s normal at your age” (I was just turning 30 at the time). I wanted to demolish these powerful illusions that enchain us: that we need all sorts of “interventions” and that only the “naturally gifted” have running mechanics that allow them to run large mileage uninjured. If this is not a lie, it is at least a falsehood with huge negative effects.

Barefoot is not the point

You can look at barefoot running as a simple stunt on par with wife-carrying competitions etc. but to me barefoot running itself, and the reaction it gets (because it is unusual), is not the point. Here’s the point: to run barefoot over a rough and hard surface, when you have grown up wrapped in the cotton-wool of Western society, requires you to rewrite you mental, physical and technical abilities and change your frame of reference. To abandon fear. Some among us do this more readily than others. I was riddled by “fear of movement” when I began this process because almost every step for me was full of pain. I had to break these fears and change my physical and technical abilities. I am not alone in this and every workshop we see people who have walked the same road.

Do I believe that you can run faster barefoot than shod? My answers mirror Mark Cucuzzella, the barefoot “doc”’s: I believe that if you run in a pair of shoes that do not interfere with natural running mechanics (in our mind: 3mm sole, wide toe-box, completely flat), you will run slightly faster than barefoot. Why? Because you can afford to run more carelessly and spend less mental energy concentrating on every step. This is ok in a race, which is once-off, where you may sometimes want to compromise perfect technique for speed. In training this becomes a destructive habit, however, that eventually to a running style so sloppy that it injures us.

What one man can do another man can do

So when I ran the race barefoot on Saturday it was not to prove that it was necessarily faster. It was to prove that you can run pretty much as fast barefoot as without and that it is something that can be done even by a biomechanical and sporting disaster such as myself. This means it can be done by almost anyone and that the claims to the contrary are false and misleading. As Anthony Hopkins puts it in the 1997 movie “The Edge”: “What one man can do, another man can do.”

It is to help get through the message that we are not helpless crocks that need to be encased in a sole as thick as a burger and that we should all redirect our resources to empowering runners with proper technique instead of using our sport as a vehicle to send the vast majority of runners into an already over-taxed medical system. It is patently an absurd status quo to accept that running and injury and treatment go hand in hand. As the great coach Vern Gambetta once said: “proper training is the best injury prevention” and that means training that takes into account the quality of movement – not just intensity and volume. This chair has three legs! Let’s all be proud, tall, and elegant and free again. Every single one of us was born with the ability. It’s an injustice that we do not all run tall and strong like a Kenyan pack in the Rift Valley. It needs to be rectified.

From here to?

Will I run another race barefoot? Yes, firstly because most road races are much easier than Killarney and I find it pleasant to run on the smooth pavements and roads of Dublin – more pleasant than wearing any shoes, no matter how minimalist. Secondly, if I find it helps generate interest for running technique, then it is worth my time demonstrating that you can go from being a crock to being a competent mover (keep in mind, I am nowhere near at the pinnacle of movement quality – compared to some of the movement coaches I have met, I am only an apprentice. The possibility for development is endless. Many of you who read this could achieve much more than I have, and much quicker). Finally, I will not run every race barefoot. If the course is like today – very challenging for exposed feet – and I am chasing a personal best, I would wear a basic puncture proof sole such as that offered by a pair of VivoBarefoot shoes or Huaraches or similar.

A final word on this and anyone who considers whether there is wisdom to be found in our approach: when I stepped over the finish line on Saturday my world-view was forever altered. Reading and thinking can change your mind but not as profoundly as experiencing something outside your comfort zone. Just as finishing your first marathon can be a transformative experience (as in “oh, I didn’t know I could do that!”) so my “normal” has changed. No run on hard surfaces will ever seem quite as difficult as before. This means we can all change our world as much or as little as we choose by stepping into those unknowns. This is my plea to readers: don’t listen to “prevailing wisdom” – rather help us break it down and start a movement revolution within running. Let’s make it matter again “how we run” and unleash our full potential and end the injury scourge once and for all. Coaches and athletes together, we can do it.

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