ARTICLE: Bob Graham's shoes

I recently began reading ‘The Round – in Bob Graham’s footsteps’ by Steve Chilton. A passage about Bob’s long training rambles on the hill stood out:

On his feet he wore plimsolls or sandals, much to the disapproval of one friend who suggested he should wear boots. Bob took his advice or one walk only with the result that he slipped and fell down a gully. That was the last time he wore boots.

It reminded me of one of those many memorable quotes by movement educator Ido Portal, whose weekend training I was lucky enough to attend in 2014. Ido has recently hit the public eye in Ireland due to his work with Ultimate Fighting Champion Conor McGregor. On the high-class podcast show ‘London Real’ he quoted a student of his saying: ‘hi-tech shoes, low-tech feet, the more expensive the toys, the cheaper is the mover’. (go 10 minutes in to hear this part).

When Bob Graham prepared for his remarkable record in 1932 which would spin off one of the most well-known ultra-mountain running challenges in history, he trained by walking the fells bare foot:
As part of his ‘preparation’ for his attempt at the fell record he walked over every fell he intended to include in his BARE FEET (imagine walking over Scafell Pike in your barefoot).* His reasons for this was two-fold: to toughen the skin (he suffered no blisters when he eventually broke the record), and to save wear and tear on the footwear (gym shoes).

Shoe care or foot care?

I have found it increasingly hard to understand the aggressiveness towards barefoot training or training in footwear trying to mimic barefoot (i.e. – by not trying to interfere). For starters it is not a radical view (it is the recommendation of the American Society of Sports Medicine) and it is blindingly obvious that prolonged wearing of shoes with heel-to-toe drops, narrow toe-boxes and excessive cushioning and stability retards and weakens the foot.

On the one had some of will defend footwear as if it were a dear beloved family members while shedding not a single tear at the damage the same type of footwear did to our closer family (our foot). I am lucky to now have a son and being able to confirm for myself: most of us are born with perfect feet. My job as a parent now is to keep his foot that way so he can avoid the many travails I had to suffer because my parent’s were not lucky enough to equally well-informed. I am grateful to those who brought my attention to this and some day Cillian will have reason to share this sense of gratitude I have no doubt. I know many parents I have worked with have implemented similar changes to their children's footwear choices and it's one of the things I am most proud of being part of.

I look at my son's perfect feet and compare to the huge amount of frustration and effort I have had to put in just to return my feet to somewhere near close to what they could have been (but never quite what they could have been if not 'molested' by an ill-conceived footwear paradigm). At the same time minimalist and barefoot enthusiasts and coaches are being ridiculed and screamed down while the big companies responsible for this development are left alone. But I suppose most people don't have the guts to pick on the big bully in the schoolyard - they'd rather molest the small guys in the corner.

The process of undoing the damage of wearing such footwear obviously has to be managed properly but the solution is not to ‘stay in the coffins’. If I break my wrist and put on a cast, I don’t stay in the cast just because my weaker wrist seems to need it a few months down the road. We all understand the implications of keeping it on too long.

Eustace Thomas

As an after-thought – Bob Graham’s predecessor on the ‘Lakeland Record’ throne – the famous fell-walker Eustace Thomas swore by many techniques I would today consider essential parts of any healthy training system – the bold items describe directly routines we have as part of all warm-up and cooldown:

His system encompassed a thorough reconnoitring of the route ,gymnastics and mountain-based training, the use of lightweight clothing and footwear, massage, spinal exercises and foot preparation. Thomas’ approach sought to understand the problem of endurance from a systematic physiological perspective, incorporating analysis of the nervous system, the respiratory system, and breathing technique, the biomechanics of movement, gait and pace.
I’ll look forward to reading the rest of Chilton’s book – in the meantime start caring more about your feet and less about your footwear – you got the latter first.

* For those of my readers who haven’t been to the summit of Scafell Pike – it’s a flat expanse of nothing but big uneven rocks.