Friday, December 31, 2010

Another Lost Year -this time it's gonna be different - not the usual goal setting article

National Lampoon Christmas Vacation: Cousin Eddie 'That's the gift that keeps on giving the whole year'

3am and all the wasted decades and lost years are right there in the darkness. Deep inside your limbic system the fear kicks in, the fear of all the things you’ve never done. The silence amplifies the failures. The heart rate kicks up a notch and the sweat is cold, another wasted dream half remembered.

Write your goals down and then burn the paper, watch it burn, watch the ashes scatter. You’ve written down so many goals, missed them so many times, had too many fresh starts, until the act of setting them and writing them becomes meaningless. Put that list next to your lottery ticket and then burn that too.

In conversation with your friends, you realised they’ve ‘settled’, it’s over for them, they gave up half way through the game. You ask them what their plans and goals are for the following year, they answers ‘you know, keep on plodding on’ ‘try to keep my job’ ‘keep up the payments’. The formula answer was set long before they used it, they just joined the queue.

There’s a question you remember asking, but you don’t remember what it was. Somewhere in childhood, the fear came flooding in, and the person you are was set before you even knew who you wanted to be. The dreams became lost, and the memory is fuzzy, you can remember having those dreams but you can’t remember what they were.

Everyone took a piece: your parents, your teachers and friends you lost along the way. And you spend a lifetime trying to put that puzzle back together. Trying to figure out what you want and who you should be. What were you going to do before you tried to be just like everyone else, to fit in, to make your parents proud, not stand out in the crowd.

The fundamental question

‘Who am I?’

The question you need to answer before you can set any goals. The question that determines the path. But no one even told you about the question, let alone the answer. All the books and psychics and tarot card reading mystics can’t answer that question for you.

In the endless snow it’s easy to lose track of yourself.

But the answer is right there, you’ve always had it, always known it, but it got lost somewhere between childhood and the life you settled for.

Sometimes the answer is right there, close, glimpsed through a crack in the curtains. In the forest running at night the answer is there, mountain top sun up, the answer is there, 3am the answer it's trying to break through. Washing up the answer is there. The mundane day to day drudgery, the answer is there, breathe in, breathe out, the answer is there.

You know exactly what to do, right there in the darkness, close to the truth of who you should be, the mystery solved. And then 3am turns to 4am and daylight dissolves all those dreams, and you’re back at the start again.

Desolation days. Endless trains, everyone sits in silence and quietly dies, outside the countryside and the towns rush by. Like a film you once watched on a Sunday afternoon.

How many lost years? How many you got left? When you gonna stop playing the part someone else wrote for you?

The time of death is uncertain. But the warm glow of the comfort zone keeps you on the same path you wrote for yourself along time ago. Everything dies,except the things that were never born. That can be hard to grasp, sometimes it takes a life time or two.

Fear keeps you here, keeps you safe, makes sure you never make a mistake or fail because you never push yourself.  That warm fire of comfort will burn you alive and you wont even notice.

The constant loop of ‘what could have beens’. What if I had said that, what if I had done that, what if I had risked everything, what if I had spoken to that girl/boy, what if I said how I really felt. How many people put it on the line? The real conversation is always happening in the spaces in between.

Lost moments. That girl you walked past in the street, you turned around, she turned around, then you walked on, may be she was the one, you’ll never know, you’ll never see her again. That marathon you were going to run, you bought the trainers but never entered it, didn’t have time to train. Line up the excuses like dominoes. That time you were going to speak up at work, you kept your head down, you blew it. These moments will haunt you.

The conventions made it so, keep your head down, get a good job,buy this, buy that, learn to die quietly inside. Walk along a crowded street, there a million lost dreams and failed goals walking right past you, the paranoia is palpable. Keep your head down and consume and conform.

Alcohol, drugs, shopping, food, therapy and constant media flow help to dull the pain. And you think you’re doing okay, and then the past walks right by you in the street and waves at you, and you realise you never got over it, the past is dragging behind you. All the faded memories and false hopes are there again. Let them go, the past and future are one and the same.

This is the wealthiest society the world has ever seen, and yet rates of depression and anxiety are sky high. Why is that? What if you’re not special, what if you’re just another cog in the machine, grinding away, what then.? Is it something peculiar about our society that instills the idea that you can be anything, achieve anything, be anything, that everyone is talented. What if that’s not the case, what if most of us are worker drones, then what?

Somewhere, someone just got blown apart or vaporised by a computerised bomb or wasted away from a run of the mill disease, probably while you were doing your weekly shop or sitting in traffic. Life is cheap in some places. That’s why you need to live it.

In hospitals you can feel the years passing you by, death is close by. But still you stay in your comfort zone. The fear of failure and fear of the unknown trumps the fear of death. People would rather die than break out.

Life is a series of connections. There are billions of people you will never meet, an infinite number of things you will never know. Somehow, you weave a thread through life, and connections are made and connections are lost. And you look for patterns, and they only become apparent after the fact. Were they always there, or did you project them on events afterwards.


All the people you ever met, all the people you are ever going to meet, all the places you are ever going to go. Every so often lifelines intersect and it seems right.

Don’t get caught up in thoughts of destiny. Live your life.

You could write your goals down, and make them achievable and realistic, make them public, and then break them down into manageable bit size chunks, and visualise and really believe. And it doesn’t mean a thing.

Unless you actually do something, you might as well burn that paper and go sit back in your cubicle and read 'the secret and wait for someone to rescue you.

You need to actually go out and run those first steps, or start writing that book or go and tell that girl how you feel. Otherwise, you’re gonna die with all those ‘what could have beens’ eating away at you.

There will be times when you are tired and depressed and feel alone. Push on. Mediocrity is a swamp that most people will fall into. Run for your fucking life. This is it. There is only your mind and body, refine them as best as you can. Live a life that is authentic to you. Moment to moment, there is only now. Nihilism is not the intention.

Someone I vaguely knew died. Didn't drink, didn't smoke, trained everyday, and then fell over and died, as prosaic and pointless as that. So why live a healthy life, if death can take you at any time. The point is he lived the life he wanted to, lived authentically. Was the person he wanted to be. There is no other way. Strengthen the body and the mind.

If the mythical teacher or mentor doesn’t arrive, then what? Keep going, do the best you can. No one is going to save you or do it for you. There is no success or failure.

Define yourself by your actions. There is only action and non action, there is a time for both.

The flashbacks and attachments are mere illusion. You don’t have to be the person that was set all those years before. Be who you want to be. Make meaningful connections with people who seem meaningful to you.

Move on, cause moving backward ain’t no move at all.

Fitness goals are some of the easiest ones to achieve. They don’t rely on other people, no one has the power to give you fitness like someone can give you a job or a book deal or make your film. You decide whether to achieve them or not. Simple as that. Fitness goals are easy to measure, you either got stronger or didn’t, you either lost weight or you didn’t. All the information you need to achieve fitness goals is already out there. A moderate effort and you will be able to obtain most of them (unless your goal is the Olympics). Train, rest, eat right, be consistent. The downside,, no one to blame when you fail. No buck to pass. Fitness goals are one of the few things in life that are black and white.

Guide to achieving goals:
1.    wake up
2.    decide what you want to do
3.    do it!

What's it gonna be, another year in suspended animation? Or push past the edges into the wilderness, into the unknown.

Happy New Year and thanks for reading.

"The future is unwritten." - Joe Strummer

Here's a clip from The Wire, the greatest TV show of all time, Lester Freamon says it all.

"If you're going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don't even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery--isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you'll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you're going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It's the only good fight there is."
— Charles Bukowski (Factotum)

"We keep passing unseen through little moments of other people's lives." - Robert M Pirsig

"To live only for some future goal is shallow. It's the sides of the mountain that sustain life, not the top."
- Robert M Pirsig

Sunday, December 26, 2010

The Complete History Of Fitness - Part 1- from paleo to pole dancing

The Complete History Of Fitness – Part 1- from paleo to pole dancing

Note: Of course, no history can be complete. And pre-history is a matter of guess work. Everything, however, mentioned in this article is true, except the mythical bits and the bits I made up,

In The Beginning

Somewhere in the Paleolithic era some cavemen were trying to stay warm, as no one had figured out how to light a fire yet. One cave guy was doing jumping jacks, but no one called them that back then. And then another cave dude picked up a big rock and held it over his head to try and impress one of the cave women.

Everyone eat raw food because that’s all there was until someone figured out how to light a fire and cook stuff. And everyone ate paleo, because that’s all there was back then, until it became the Neolithic period, so I guess they ate ‘neo’ then. They pretty much ate whatever they could and didn’t worry about macro nutrient ratios and whether seeds and nuts were good for them, if meat was around they ate it, if they only had fish they ate it. You get the picture.

And everyone walked everywhere, because that’s all there was. No one had invented the wheel yet, and even when they did, it took a while for them to figure out how to make a cart and make an animal pull it for you. And it was literally aeons before someone invented the bicycle. Everyone was barefoot as they tramped across the super continent. When the Pleistocene came along it got pretty cold all the time, that was the time for footwear and skis.

Back in the Paleolithic, as they were hunting and gathering, every so often they would come across some water, and then someone probably invented swimming, but it’s unlikely anyone invented the butterfly stroke as it is so ridiculously hard and not user friendly.

Then they hit the sea and someone probably made a kayak out of a some tree bark and then before you know it they were rowing too and spreading out across the world. No one had invented the indoor rowing machine as of yet because there was no need for it

The Film 2001 A Space Odyssey: I like to think it started like this, but it probably didn't
Train like an Egyptian

The ancient Egyptians did a lot of things quite a few thousand years ago. One of the things they did was invent sand bag training, as the picture below shows. They liked to wave the bags overhead. Mostly though the Egyptians were pretty busy building pyramids and mummifying people, so they didn't have much time to exercise.

Egyptian sand bag training

Greece – things get classical

The Greeks really got things going, they liked sport and fitness, so much so they invented the Olympics and set the template for many of the western ideas of fitness.

The word gymnasium comes from the Greek gymnasia, a training facility and place to hang out – literally. The Greek word Gymnos means naked, as competitors in Greek sports were naked and it was men only. They also oiled up before training and competing, much like the modern day competing bodybuilders, except the ancients used a lot less fake tan and didn’t have dynabands to pump up pre-contest.

The Greeks had three weighted implements - javelin, discus and halteres. The halteres are hand held weights that they use during jumping exercises and drills, sometimes this was to music, flute driven music no less, sadly the jazz flute did not exist back then. Halteres can be considered the ancient dumbbell.

Halteres - ancient dumbbells

Milo of Croton

Not only did Milo have a cool name and come from a place with a cool name, he was really strong. He lived  in the 6th century BC and supposedly got strong by lifting a calf as a child, as Milo got older the calf got older and bigger and he kept lifting it until he could lift an adult bull. Thus he invented linear progression and progressive overload. If only he’d known about Westside and conjugated periodization he would have lifted a small sheep on dynamic effort days and de-load weeks and attached some chains to the bull to create accommodating resistance; (Well that's what an internet fitness expert would have told him to if they existed in ancient Greece). He was a 6 times Olympic champ in wrestling between 540 and 520 BC. He also ate loads of meat and bread and wine, thus setting the template for modern powerlifters.


In 490 BC Pheidippides ran from to Sparta and covered about 240km in two days, and immediately invented mutli day ultra running without even wanting too. Then more famously he ran from a battlefield near Marathon to Athens, about 40k or 25 miles, and invented the marathon. Unfortunately, no one had yet invented the energy gel or recovery drink, so he immediately dropped dead from exhaustion.

The marathon distance continued to be about 40k/ 25 miles until the 1908 Olympics when it was officially set at a bizarre 26 miles and 385 yards – so the queen at the time could see the finish. Marathon runners ever since curse this extra distance as they limp the extra yards of pain.

Let’s get mythical (to be sung to the tune of Olivia Newton Johns Let’s Get Physical)

In Greek mythology Sisyphus was condemned by the gods to push a boulder up a hill only to watch it roll down again, and then push it back up again for eternity. Sisyphus is therefore widely regarded as the mythical inventor of The Prowler, eccentric-less training and GPP Hill training and conditioning.

GPP hill training

Achilles became the first person to suffer from an Achilles heel problem and he didn’t even wear trainers.

Heracles/Hercules was really strong, but he was half god, so it doesn’t really count, like anabolic steroids, it wasn’t a level playing field, having a dad whose a god is considered cheating for sure.

Go tell the Spartans

Sparta was a city state in ancient Greece. The Spartans were hardcore, they trained for war all the time. At aged 7 young boys had to enter The Agoge – a permanent military bootcamp/ school.

This military bootcamp format has survived through the ages. Little did the Spartan know that thousands of years later this would result in people paying trainers £10 an hour to shout at them in the park while they do burpees.

Also, without the Spartans Mens Health or whoever couldn’t have invented the 300 workout and spawned a myriad of random workouts based on 300 reps.

Sparta is really the first time we see fitness women as well. Women had quite a few rights in Sparta, they could wear revealing clothing. Both girls and boys exercised nude, mainly as it was thought to promote fitness, which is probably more feasible in the Mediterranean climate than in northern Europe.

They had women who were sporting celebrities, but they weren’t allowed to compete in the Olympics in Athens

Apparently in the comedy ( I don’t know if it’s actually funny, I’ve never read it) Lysistrata by the Athenian playwright Aristophanes, some Athenian women say to a Spartan women called Lampito . 'What healthy skin, what firmness of physique.' And then one says, 'I've never seen a pair of breasts like that.' To which Lampitos comes back with, 'I go to the gym. I make my buttocks hard.'

This seems to be the first example in history of a female fitness athlete/ gym goer.

Spartan woman: Doing a rotational lunge (probably)

The Romans

There’s a lot of crossover between the Romans and the Greeks. The Romans liked chariot racing, marching places and gladiators. Gladiatorial battles are the ultimate cage fighting, no holds barred, with the advantage that no one is wearing ‘Tap Out’ clothing.

Roman women were allowed to train and use halteres/dumbbells. Check out the mosaic below, no one had yet decided that dumbbells for women had to be pink.

'Bikini Girls Mosaic' 4 century AD. The worlds first figure athlete picture

Everyone was eating the Mediterranean diet as well, because that's were they lived, except those poor Romans who got stationed up on Hadrians wall, they were probably eating a bit more paleo as the Scottish hadn't discovered the battered Mars Bar yet.

Western culture is slightly obsessed with Greek & Roman history, but lets not forget…

Meanwhile In India

The Indians had been doing there own thing for quite a while. Yoga has been around a long time, maybe 4000 or 5000 years! Which means while in Europe we were figuring out how to eat nettles the Indians were doing down dogs and working on their fitness and mind body connections. The first corrective exercise.

Without yoga there is no pilates or bodybalance or err yoga. It’s one of the few things that has stayed constant

The Indians also invented the Indian Clubs. Except they didn’t call them that. These probably developed from Gada or war clubs. These were as the name implied heavy clubs for hitting people with during battle. Swinging a club around for fitness had been practiced in the Middle East and and ancient Egypt. Eventually in India the war club became a fitness device. There were two types of clubs a light one for speed and a heavy one for strength. During the British colonial period in the 19th Century some British military personnel noticed how muscular and built some of the Indian soldiers were. They put it down to their Indian club training, exported it to England and it became the most popular type of training in the 19th century. The Brits only used the light clubs. They should have kept the name 'war clubs' though, it is a lot cooler. (This will be covered in more detail in part 2).

Light Indian Clubs

They also invented a gymnastic sport called Mallakhamb somewhere  possibly back in the 12th Century and for definite in the 19th century. You can see from the video below that this is like some crazy pole dancing. However much I watch that clip I still can’t see how the guy gets on the pole without permanent injury.
Anyway, this takes phenomenal amounts of core strength & balance.

Don't attempt this without some 'No More Nails' and a safety harness

It also justifies my attempts to attend those pole dancing classes; women only, pah! What you talking about, I want to work on more core strength like those Indian guys and nothing more. And I want to wear traditional pants like those Indian guys and will not be looking at you in your hot pants.

Pole Dancing: Great for core strength, it really is!

And while ‘researching’ this I found this link. Yes, it seems someone has set up pole classes for guys, it’s called Vertical Pole. I am so going to be there in my orange pants dominating with my core strength!

Meanwhile over in China – Shaolin

Bodhidharma, a Buddhist monk was born in India, and then decided to make his way to China to spread the word. Back then you couldn’t go overland, so he went by sea and arrived in China in about 475 AD. Long story short, the guy then becomes the mythical patriarch of Zen Buddhism and makes his way to Shaolin.
It’s probable that having come from India he already knew yoga and some martial arts. When he gets to Shaolin he finds the monks are weak and sets about showing them some fitness moves, maybe some yoga, or qi gong type stuff. Before you know, kung fu is invented and Bodhidharma walks off into the sunset carrying one sandal.

Without Bodhidharma, there’s no Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan and to stretch the plausibility even more, there’s no bodycombat either, though the Shaolin monks probably don’t know who Les Mills is.

That’s it for part 1, in part 2 I’ll jump forward to the 18th & 19th century and cover barbells, kettlebells, strength training, aerobics, Arnie, Jane Fonda, health clubs and everything else in between.

From Milo to Milo - A History of Barbells, Dumbbells and Indian Clubs by Jan Todd. Iron Game History

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

The Yoga Up Dog Pose For Mobility (Urdhva Mukha Svanasana, What?!)

I've been meaning to write this for a while. A few months ago Mike Reinold posted on his blog that the Yoga cobra pose may be the best postural stretch. The reasoning was quite sound, using the joint by joint approach this stretch opens up many of the tight areas in the body.

Standard Desk Jockey Position

However, what I wanted to know was how to do this pose correctly, and the best person to ask is a Yoga teacher, so I asked a friend of mine, Janet Kelly, to talk me through it and demonstrate various progressions (see the video below of Janet demonstrating it). The first thing to note is she called it the up dog pose and not the cobra. I'm sure that many Yoga people argue the subtle differences between the cobra and the up dog and where the arm positions differ. All in all I'm looking for the mobility exercise that can be modified, used by the most people and benefit the most people. This is the strength of Janet's progressions and explanations of where you should be feeling this pose and how to do it, and this is why I think these up dog progressions are going to better for most people.

Why You Should Do It

This pose is going to lengthen your anterior chain. In the desk jockey picture above you can see the head is forward, the shoulders rounded, the chest collapsed inwards (Janda Upper Cross Syndrome) the hips flexed and the knees flexed. The up dog pose is really the opposite of this posture.

Who Should Do It

The up dog pose is similar to the McKenzie extension position, one of a series of extension exercises popularised by New Zealand Physiotherapist Robin McKenzie. This extended position is proven to provide back pain relief for some people with discogenic back problems, helping to 'suck' the disc back in. However, like everything, this is an individual thing.See the quote below from Stuart McGill (online article 'Selecting Back Exercises' available at his website)

"The location of the annulus breaches can be predicted by the direction of the bend. Specifically, a left posterior-lateral disc bulge will result if the spine is flexed with some additional right lateral bend (Aultman et al, 2004). Subsequent twisting leads circumferential rents in the annulus that tends to make McKenzie extension approaches for these clients useless, or even exacerbating."

Also, I imagine any type of facet joint problem could be made worse by this position. In short, use your judgement, if it hurts, stop, figure out why and do something else.

If you don't have any of these problems, this is a fantastic mobility exercise that you should make it part of your training routine, especially if you are a desk jockey or do a typical bench press routine or spend a lot of time cycling or driving. This is a great reverse posturing exercise.

As usual the people who should be doing it are the ones who are not doing it. All the guys in the gym spending all their time bench pressing should be in the studio doing some yoga and mobility work, and all the women in the yoga studio working on their flexibility should be in the gym lifting weights. This is the nature of things, resist the urge to only gravitate towards things you are good at, sometimes do the opposite of what you normally do.

How to do it

In Yoga the up dog pose is done as the opposing move to the down dog and is part of the sun salutation (don't ask me, I'm not a Yoga teacher!). In this example we are doing it as a stand alone move. In the video and explanation it is broken down into 5 levels, this is for ease of explanation and progression, these aren't 'official' levels.

Level 1
  • Forearms down, elbowed directly beneath shoulders
  • Rolling shoulders back and down
  • Think of sliding chest forward and up
  • Chin tucked & head neutral
  • Relax lower back
  • Big toes in, all 10 toenails resting on the floor
  • Relax glutes
Level 2
  • Slide elbows behind shoulders
  • Opening middle back but not 'impinging' shoulders
  • Imagine back and chest equally open and wide
  • Don't retract shoulder blades, think of length
Level 3
  • As previous levels but now more pressure through the forearms
  • Think of pushing floor away rather than lifting the body up
Level 4
  • Hands beneath shoulders, softness in the elbows
  • Make sure there is space between your ears and shoulders
  • Eyes looking forward
  • Hips are now off the floor
Level 5
  • Knees off the floor
  • Now only the top of your feet and hands are in contact with the ground
  • The body is not being driven downards, think relaxing again rather trying to force yourself down
  • Stay open and still think of the chest going forward and up
 A note on breathing: Breathe in as you go into the pose, then exhale as you settle into position and soften

How long for

As we are using this as a stand alone mobility exercise, as long as you need to, 15-30 secs would be a good starting point to aim for

Where should you feel it

You should feel this opening out your hips and in the thoracic area. When I first tried this I felt it in my lower back, until Janet coached me to relax my lower back, and relax my glutes and then I could really feel it in the thoracic area. Remember, you are not trying to push your hips into the ground.

If it's painful stop and try something else, there are plenty of other exercises you can try to open out the hips and shoulders, this one just happens to accomplish a lot of things in one go. Using the joint by joint approach the only joint I think that needs to go the other way for most people and especially runners is the ankle. In this pose the ankle is in plantar flexion, I think for a lot of people working on dorsiflexion and calf tightness is the way to go. Of course, that's why in Yoga, they do the down dog pose as well. Who would have thought they knew a thing or two about keeping the body in balance a few thousand years ago.

Thanks to Janet Kelly. Also bear in mind that Janet is your typical flexible yoga teacher, her spine looks like that without her forcing it, don't expect yours to necessarily look the same, mine definitely doesn't!

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Thoughts On Barefoot Running (Even Tarahumara Indians Strap Pieces Of Tyre To Their Feet)

There has been an explosion in coverage of barefoot running in the last year. Nearly every fitness or health magazine has had an article on it, and the mainstream press has covered it extensively as well. This is mainly due to the popularity of the book Born To Run (one of my favourite books, more on this later).

However, most of the people writing in mainstream magazines about barefoot running have never actually tried it, or they do a quick jog around a park with a barefoot expert. The Internet is replete with stories of people who cured themselves of all sorts of debilitating injuries just by going for a barefoot run, and most articles feature a barefoot running zealot who lives their entire lives barefoot. On the other hand there are some podiarists who believe merely thinking about barefoot running will cause your foot to explode. Somewhere, as usual, there is a middle way.

And that's where I come in, I've made the barefoot running mistakes so you don't have to! I will outline how to integrate barefoot running into your training based on my experience. I should say straight off, this isn't a review of the research or a scientific discussion. To find out more about the research I recommend going to The Science of Sport blog and reading this article about the research and this excellent 5 part discussion about barefoot running ( click on link and scroll down the page to get to part 1). Also see this website from Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University that explains the research they did and also gives some tips of barefoot running. As you'll see later, some of my tips crossover with theirs, but some of mine are based on my experience and training background - I haven't seen them mentioned by endurance athletes or publications aimed at them, that doesn't mean they haven't been, I just haven't seen them.

And So It Begins

"'And just how far would you like to go in?'
'Not too far but just far enough so's we can say that we've been there.'" - Bob Dylan

The first time I came across barefoot training (excluding watching the likes of Zola Budd running around barefoot when I was a kid) was when I started to do kettlebells in about 2004. Pavel and all the kettlebell guys recommended training barefoot, and seeing as I was only using my kettlebell at home and not in a commercial gym, it was easy for me to do, and it made sense.

Fast forward a few years, and I would routinely do things like deadlifts in the flattest shoes I could find, and then started to do them barefoot (or in socks to be completely accurate), and then put my trainers back on, hoping no one had noticed to avoid a discussion about why I was doing it.

Then in 2008 I read this blog post from Eric Cressey, that mentioned this article in the New York Times. It seemed the author recommended wearing minimal shoes or going barefoot as much as possible, and again it made sense. At the time I couldn't locate any Vibram Five Fingers that I could try on before buying, but the author of the NY Times article, mentioned a British company called Terra Plana, who made a minimal barefoot shoe called the vivo barefoot, bingo! A travelcard and a train ride later, I'd gone to their shop in Covent Garden, tried on a pair, liked them and bought them. They also looked a bit more conventional than the five fingers, even so the looked different enough for people to comment when I wore then in the gym and at work.

The vivo barefoot

Working On Technique And Barefoot Running Are Not The Same Thing

At this point it still hadn't occurred to me that you could actually run barefoot, I was still stuck in the mentality that you needed trainers with a heel cushion to go running.

I'd looked at running technique, I think it was back in about 2001 I had read the Chi Running book and tried a few of the drills and exercises, but at the time I had lost interest in running and wasn't really trying. And for whatever reason, it didn't occur to me that running shoes could change the way you ran.

Then in about May 2009 I read Born to Run when it first came out. At the time, I thought the book would only be of interest to ultra runners and their ilk. Turned out I was wrong. Christopher McDougalls writing and the story turned it into a world wide hit and probably generated about an extra zillion sales of vibram five fingers. (If you haven't read it, go and read it now! Right now!). And the content was a revelation, not only in terms of the discussion of ultrarunning and the story, but also the issue of barefoot running, running shoes design and how it changed technique. Despite the success of Born To Run I still think barefoot running is not in the mainstream consciousness, despite seeing a few people in the gym wearing the vibrams, the majority of gym goers and runners still wear trainers and think barefoot running is not for them.

The previous year I had been suffering from ITB pain, that was debilitating enough to make me stop running and have to start walking after about 20 minutes. I was still paranoid about it coming back. Barefoot was the answer! And I already had the vivo barefoots.

I put on the vivo barefoots and my raidlight rucsac to be extra stupid and hardcore and ran to the park. I ran on the pavement to get there, did some circuits around the park, ran up the hill pictured below a few times and then ran home on the pavement. All in all about 6-7k. Note that I had completely ignored the barefoot running advice to only run a few minutes to begin with, only run on soft grass etc. The next day I had no adverse effects, except some pretty sore calf muscles from my new forefoot running technique I had adopted.

Find a hill and do repeated sprints up it - It'll make you a believer. The first hill I ran up in my vivo barefoots - ahh, memories

I continued to incorporate barefoot running into my training, I'd run completely barefoot on grass football pitches - working on sprints and technique, then run longer in my vivo barefoots when I did a combo of road and park running and then use my trail shoes when running on trails. All the time I was trying to adopt forefoot running, as well as adding in pose running/ chi running style techniques - and my calves and achilles were getting tighter and more tender and my ankles were getting stiffer.

Then after reading all the info on The Science of Sport blog about forefoot and midfoot running and also reading their book The Runners Body, ( hint: even some elite runners heel strike) and I decided to simplify my technique. I focused on landing my foot under me and driving into the ground and using my posterior chain (glutes etc). Almost immediately I started to have more of a midfoot technique and felt like I was running more efficiently and my calves didn't feel like they were on fire.

I'd tried to change too much too quickly and tried to adopt a technique that didn't really work for me. Maybe everyone wasn't destined to be a forefoot striker.

I had observed this with a few people I had got to run barefoot on the treadmill or outside. Nearly everyone would adopt a midfoot or forefoot style with no coaching, but a couple of people continued to heel strike, even when I inclined the treadmill. Was it because the heel strike dogma of running companies was so ingrained in their mind, or was it because the software in their brain told them to heel strike? (Note: No I don't like treadmills, I've never run for more than 10 minutes on one, and the technique is different to running outside, you bounce up rather than driving back into the surface, but if you are working in a gym, that's what you've got).

One time I had forgot my trail shoes and ran off road in my vivo barefoots (see picture below) and I was absolutely fine despite a mixture of stones, grass, mud, chalk etc. I also noticed that when running on this type of terrain there was no mid foot, forefoot, heel strike issue because the way your foot hit the ground changed all the time. The foot would match the ground, sometimes striking more on the outside or inside or back or front as it felt it's way across the terrain. Was this how the human foot was designed to work? It seems unlikely ancient humans would have run on long straight, hard stretches of ground with the foot striking the ground the same on every step, the foot strike would have changed with the terrain.

Yes you can do a trail run in vivo barefoots - wouldn't try it in winter though. Ashdown Forest, East Sussex, U.K

Disaster Strikes - how to be a barefoot muppet

Then about three weeks before the Trans Aq ultrarun I had entered, I decided to go and do a tempo run in my vivo barefoots. I ran for an hour on pavement, on a road that was basically flat and straight. And when I got home it felt like I had broke my foot, and the next day it felt worse. Like all good runners I took some diclofenac, stuck my foot in a bucket of ice and hoped it would go away.

I had injured myself not on a difficult trail but on a flat pavement with my feet striking the ground the same way for an hour, with 2-3 times my bodyweight going through my knees and ankles and feet with every strike, and in an hour that's 1000's of foot strikes. In his book Movement Gray Cook refers to barefoot running as a "self limiting activity", as in, you stop doing it when technique breaks down, not when fatigue sets in. Obviously, Gray hadn't considered a muppet in a pair of vivo barefoots running on a pavement panicking about a multi day endurance event he had entered. Now, of course, If I was completely barefoot, maybe I wouldn't have been able to do it on that surface, my body would have stopped me, who knows. After a few weeks the pain went away. But it was a wake up call, you could injure yourself barefoot running, just the same as you could running in trainers.

The Emperors New Clothes

I own a pair of vivo barefoots and a pair of Nike Frees which I wear most of the time at work. But of course, actual barefoot means you don't need any footwear, it's free! It's human nature (well in the West where consumerism is the name of the game) to think you need special footwear or tools to achieve something like barefoot running. So we go out and spend £70+ on trainers or shoes to give us that barefoot feeling, or help us on our way to being barefoot. I'm as guilty as anyone of this.

These days, wearing a pair of vibram five fingers is seen as part of your functional fitness credentials. At one fitness show I was at, half the people manning the stands seemed to be wearing them. But we were indoors, so they didn't really need any footwear. If they had been barefoot it would have been perceived as strange, unhygienic and weird, if you're wearing some vibrams though you're cool and functional.

Now, to be fair, running barefoot outside is not an option in some places depending on the climate and terrain. For example, where I live in the UK, going for a barefoot run in the winter is going to result in frozen feet, possible frostbite and a trip to casualty to explain that you are not an insane hobo but a barefoot runner. You could buy the cheapest pair of trainers or minimal shoes and run in those (Yeah, I know someone who ran 20k in a pair of fake converse chucks off road and lived to tell the tale). If you want to get a barefoot shoe - here is my guide based on what I have used:

Vivo Barefoots - comfortable and hard wearing with a minimal sole, and wide front, fit perfectly. No heel whatsoever.

Nike Free - looks like a conventional trainer, so you wont get stared at. Can run in these on pavement as they provide more cushioning than a vivo barefoot. Disadvantage, their sole has large 'grooves' in it, to make it super flexible, however gravel and stones get stuck in these, if you have a gravel drive way like I do, you end up carrying an extra kilo of stones around with you. Also these 'grooves' suck in mud. Comfortable, good to wear all day.

Nike Free - comfortable, great shoe to wear all day and break yourself into more minimal footwear. However the sole is a gravel magnet.

Actually being barefoot - good for around the house, kettlebell training, deadlifting and running on grass where you know Dick Dastardly hasn't planted any nails or tacs for you to stand on. The most authentic barefoot experience - you know, cos you're actually barefoot. No good in winter or really hard terrain - even the Tarahumara Indians strap pieces of tyre to their feet for when they're running around Copper Canyon.

Vibram Five Fingers - don't know, haven't used them.

The devolution of footwear - Asics Trail Shoe (yes I need to clean them), Nike Free, Vivo Barefoot

How to start

I still think training barefoot and running barefoot is beneficial to just about everyone. The caveat being, if you actually have a structural problem with your foot, then you should get that checked out first, yes, some individuals may need orthotics - but probably a lot less than actually have them.

  • Start slowly, if you've never done anything barefoot then start to do something barefoot, like walking around at home, doing some bodyweight squats or bodyweight lunges. This should help show up any tightness or restriction you may have.
  • If you're not fit enough to run 5k then you're not fit enough to run 5k barefoot. Don't expect barefoot running to suddenly make you fitter. Be realistic.
  • Build up slowly, try some walking mixed in with some jogging on flat grass. Literally a couple of minutes, a few hundred metres and that's it. You wouldn't go to the gym and knock out 10 sets of heavy deadlifts if you had never done it before, you might do 1 or 2 sets with a light weight to groove in the technique. Running is no different.
  • If you have mobility issues, work on them, don't expect barefoot running to fix them. Stiff ankles with poor dorsiflexion - do some mobility drills, and squat, lunge, deadlift barefoot. I think my base of lifting barefoot and doing kettlebells barefoot stood me in good stead for barefoot running.
  • If you have weak areas strengthen them. If your glutes are weak and stop you using your posterior chain, work on strengthening them, again mobility drills like hip bridges and strength work like deadlifts, one legged kettlebell deadlifts and step ups.
  • Soft tissue work. Your calves may get tight if they aren't already tight,. get a massage, or if that isn't feasible use a foam roller or stick or read this fantastic article. Stretch.
  • Trail running seems more authentic to me because of the constant change in foot strike position, it will strengthen your connective tissues and help to bulletproof you against things like achilles tendinitis. Again start slowly, wear trail shoes to begin with.
  • Running on sand is the hardest thing in the world ever. If you have access to a sandy beach, try it - bear in mind that the technique is completely different to running on grass, and may not carry over to your normal running.
  • Barefoot running is not a panacea, barefoot runners get injured like everyone else. General advice - if your are overweight or really unfit doing something else before running, you don't have to run to lose weight or even 'get fit', there might be better options to begin with.
  • Certain things I would not do barefoot, like Olympic Weightlifting, get some weightlifting shoes. I've seen videos of some Bulgarian or Greek guys doing some oly lifting training barefoot, but the chances are you aren't in the Bulgarian Weightlifting Team.
  • Listen to your body, it's trying to tell you something.
In short start slow, build up slow, make sure you're mobile enough, strong enough, recover properly and enjoy yourself.

"Training gives me proof." - John Litei (Kenyan who can run faster than you)