During my high school year as an exchange student (1989/1990) I decided to go for the full American experience. This meant going all out with sports. In fall it was football, in spring it was track. Go big or go home. In all fairness, I was a terrible athlete if you looked at the stats. With my physique I certainly wasn’t the sprinter type, but okay at medium to long distances.
When I joined the track team it wasn’t because I was such a gifted runner, I simply sucked less at running than at baseball. Up until that point I’d never practiced for anything other than martial arts 2 to 3 times per week. At home I was already graduated and getting my first taste of grown up life as house music mixed with alcohol introduced itself. I wasn’t quite prepared for how serious fellow students and coaches took high school sports activities in the US.
Pain in power running
Looking back at the type of track training, it was full-on traditional power running and heel landing. After a while, daily training took its toll. A classic approach, big strides with focus on push-off, plus weight training. We never discussed efficiency, breathing or running mechanics. Just put in all your effort if you want to go fast!
So as I tried to push my boundaries by adding more power, I found it hard to improve much at all. On top of it I developed shin splints which were absolutely killing me. But as a teenager trying to fit in, I didn’t want to give up, I kept going even though my legs were telling me to stop.
Unfortunately there was nothing that could give me some relief. No massage, icepack, ointment or cream or even new shoes. As competition started my brother sent me his ‘spikes’ that he used in his former training days. How was anyone able to run without heel cushioning, with spikes under the ball of the foot? Couldn’t wrap my head around it. Without Youtube or Google to ask my question, I tried to understand the mechanics, but was never able to get it. Without proper knowledge it felt best to just stick to what I was told. Don’t change anything, try harder.
When the season ended I was so sick of the pain I decided I would never voluntary go out running again. I truly hated it. Fast forward 30 years later and boom, we’re back at it again. But this time, things are different. Running without shoes has transitioned into a movement practice instead of a sports activity.
Barefoot running as a movement practice
A few years ago I was introduced to barefoot running by Wim Hof. After successfully finishing a year of training with cold adaptation I was looking for a new challenge. Pretty soon I was drinking the barefoot-cool-aid. I got some technique training and read the barefoot-bible ‘Born to run’. Within a year I would run my first 51k ultra marathon in the Swiss Alps on ‘Five Fingers’.
Meanwhile I got acquainted with ‘natural movement’ through MovNat, where they also teach and promote barefoot running. I decided to become an instructor. Running without shoes in a natural environment, this was actually fun! What happened? I thought I hated running and would never ever do it again.
Well, I found out I was doing it wrong. That’s right, you can go wrong running. ‘Just putting on shoes and go run’ is the biggest cause of injuries amongst recreational runners and amateur athletes. Why? Because most bodies are tense, stressed out, misaligned and augmented with footwear that takes away all feedback from your feet. That way you run further, can push through, although in reality your body may cry out. People simply miss the cues to truly listen to what their body is telling them. That certainly was my case in my teenage track-days.
Once you remove the competition element (also the competition with yourself) and add some biomechanics, suddenly things start to click. Nowadays my runtime is about relaxation. There is no competition, no PR to beat. Progression comes naturally with time.
Less power equals less pain
Barefoot running practice is about relaxing every part of your body, staying mindful and alert, tapping into a movement archetype present in all of us. What you’ll find is that your body has different ways to handle tasks efficiently. Only depending on muscle strength (and tension) will wear you out quickly. Our physiology for running connects into fascia, breathing and mental resilience. Strength and stamina will be a result of consistent practice.
Physical pain in voluntary action is something to avoid, no matter what. So whenever you feel something is up, never push beyond pain. Find out why your body is asking for attention. It’s a marker you can improve on technique or release unnecessary tension. No matter your movement history you will at some point run into discomfort running barefoot as your feet adjust to their new workload. Once they grow stronger you’ll build up enough strength to leave injuries behind you for sure.
30 Years after my personal ‘running retirement’, I never imagined I would run an ultra distance, let alone have fun doing it. Training for such an event ramps up your weekly mileage, but besides the occasional blister, there was never any real pain. I’ve run more in a year than I’d ever done in my life! It surprised me and gave me confidence.
Over the past few years I’ve learned that a movement practice calms the mind instead of stressing it out. When you feed yourself with natural sensory input you’ll be busy scanning your environment, feeling, connecting, processing, instead of thinking unproductive thoughts. Every body is capable of doing amazing things as long as you understand this key principle of efficient human movement: relax.