Barefoot and sore calves: A transition to forefoot running (Part two – The beginning)

In the beginning there was…. pain.  Like many a runner I had turned to Chris McDougall’s ‘Born to Run’ for some inspiration and my first forefoot running experience was short and painful.  Nearing 38 I had managed to complete my first ultramarathon after a DNF earlier in the year at the now infamous Hardmoors 55.  Whilst I felt fairly comfortable across my 40 mile adventure I knew I was slower than I could have been faster.  How?  Because I had dropped a lot of body weight in 2012 and smashed my 10K time.  I’m now back where I began and carrying a lot of additional weight (not just my kit list) and whilst I’m told by some that I carry my near 15 stone weight well, I know others who cruelly use the title “Fat Mick” (I’ll get over it one day Stoney!).

So what is about barefoot running that’s appealing.  Well McDougall, as the title of his bestselling book goes, believes we were ‘Born to Run’.  Dr Dennis Bramble first made the connection between modern humans (Homo erectus #growup) and a design for running by considering the differences between us and animals that were ‘walkers’, he began to notice some key differences such as our strong leg and gluteal muscles, arched feet and short toes and the all important nuchal ligament which stabilises the heads of fast moving animals.  We were indeed born to run!

As McDougall continued his journey he turned to running coach Eric Orton for guidance and training.  Orton of Jackson Hole, Wyoming has been working with athletes for decades and he knows exactly how important correct running form is.  He describes the ideal running technique as “performance running….because form is at the heart of the word”. This involves a forefoot strike, leg stance, knee drive, take off and arm carry elements of which you can view for free on his youtube channel.

Orton also introduces his “True Strength” programme which is a series of exercises designed to improve foot strength and core stability.  The key tools in this programme are the slant board, stability disc, ski poles and the fitness ball.  The programme is very clearly set out and progressive but as Orton states “awareness and form are preeminent”  If you can’t maintain both during your sets and repetitions than they are not worth counting. The important point here is that if you want to become an efficient, strong forefoot runner it takes time and effort.  There is no quick fix to achieve good form and the performance running phase requires me to run around four times a week for four to six week weeks, concentrating on each element of my form to complete my strategic running foundation.

So here I am at the end of week one having completed a number of form focused runs contemplating whether this is all worth it?  Why?  Well because there’s a number of things that I can’t reconcile.

  1. Am I doing it right?  When I’m running I can’t tell if my form is good.  I feel as if I’m running on my tip toes and times and I can’t always tell if I’m letting my heel make contact with the ground.  Is this why my calves feel so soar? Is that bloke that ran past thinking “Why is this knob head recording himself running?”
  2. Am I too heavy to do this at the moment?  My current weight doesn’t help.  Despite my progress towards a Scott Jurek style plant based diet (which is a whole other chapter) I am only 1/2 stone down.  14.5 stone bounding about on tarmac puts a strain on the achilles and means I can feel and old gastrocnemius injury that has never been tested by the extended range of motion that forefoot running in zero drop shoes brings
  3. What the hell just hurt my foot?  Little stones bloody hurt.  I have always loved a lightweight shoe and the Merrell Vapor Glove is a beauty but “ee by gum it do hurt if tha steps ont pebbles”
  4. How do I stay fit when I’m only doing short runs?  I don’t want to stick a pair of big heeled shoes on that will undo the work on form by restricting my movement (i’ve even gone to the extent of by barefoot workshoes) but I already miss my long runs!
  5. Is it worth it?  Am I going to succeed in the transition, will it have any impact? I haven’t had any issues with bad knees, IT band or any kind of persistent runner’s complaints from being a heel striker.

These are questions I can’t yet answer but I’m hoping to find my answers and less questions over the next five weeks. If I graduate from Orton’s strategic running foundation I will progress into the foundation programme with a complex, technical, heart rate derived progressive programme to improved running.

Having read through ‘Born to Run’, ‘The Cool Impossible’ and ‘Eat and Run’ a key characteristic in the authors success is determination.  If you’re going to set about running an ultramarathon you have to be pretty determined.  Yes.. determined!  That’s about the only word I can find to replace that twenty others that my recent mental health training highlighted as negative.  I’ll stick with that for now!

‘El Lobo Gordo’

Mick Fenwick

Mountain Leader, D of E Co-Ordinator, Deputy Headteacher

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