Many times people will stop to ask why. My simple answer in one three lettered word? "Fun".
Play and Variety
I have walked and run barefoot now for over 40 years. Many times people will stop to ask why. My simple answer in one three lettered word? “Fun”. “Play” is a related word and it is significant that it is the one we used to describe the activity of sport. Listen here to a short tale about the hidden power of play: an episode from my recent teaching experience. An individual has a painful knee problem. He goes to a pop festival. As usual the ground is very churned up and uneven. He never expected this but to his astonishment moving on uncertain ground freed him from knee pain! When he returns home he is resolved to follow through on the logic of this: and he organizes a workout for himself on similar uneven ground. But makes his knee considerably worse! So here is the conundrum: he carries out the same movements on similar uneven ground and yet he gets the completely opposite effect. It took quite some time for us to work out the obvious difference. In the pop festival setting he was playful: he was dancing. Back at home he reverted to being mechanical, he was working out –striving to make it happen. Why is it that time and again we miss the extraordinary potentials in the power of play! What is it about barefoot running that can unlock this potential?
The sole of a naked foot connects to the bare earth. It celebrates an inter-play that connects and reveals our evolutionary origins. Increasingly and in all kinds of ways we become more and more disconnected. This must in some way be linked to a sad loss in the joy of movement that is our natural birthright. That joy finds its natural expression in the play of a young child. Check this out: Only rarely do young kids string together a sequence of steps that are the same. When we observe such a variety and vitality in the running steps our young children, we may well be getting a fascinating glimpse into the way our ancestors continuously adapted their gait to uneven terrain that was constantly changing! We have become so disconnected from being this responsive, alert and awake to all that is around us. We have lost the joy in the present moment!
Why run barefoot? There are now many documented fitness benefits that are now thoroughly scientifically well researched. However for me, the greatest benefit remains the opening of the vital inter-play in the link between mind and body. This awakening interplay of connection brings us into the present moment with an alert, aware connection to all that is around yes-but most of all it is the expansion of sensory awareness to include extraordinary variety of sensations beneath your foo. Joy and the fun begin with this kind of inter-play! Play is a natural expression of the healthy child. I reckon inter-play is the thoroughly and grown-up version what with all the same endorphin filled life and elan. Splash it on!!
Review of “The Incredible Human Foot” TV Prog
Wow! If I were given a shed full of money to make an hour-long programme to present the 25 years of Naturalrunning work I doubt that I could improve on this:
This wonderfully presented and produced programme goes from surface to depths and it achieves this at various levels: The program cuts back and forth from the start of a human foot dissection. It takes you literally through the special qualities of the tough surface details of the skin of the sole of the foot. It opens up to the ” bubble wrap” like adipose chains of fat and explains about their extraordinary hydraulic like shock absorbing qualities as well is there remarkable insulating properties. The program cuts (sic) back and forth from the foot dissection while cleverly interleaving this with various different aspects of the miracle of bioengineering that is the human foot. It illustrates in various ways how the foot is the foundation of our physical prowess and of our extraordinary evolutionary success as a species. The real “meat of the sandwich” of the programme contains a key message from a whole raft of peer-reviewed, evidence-based science to suggest that the modern shoe leads to compensations to gait that downgrade that extraordinary physical prowess in the way we walk and run. It. pulls no punches in directly coming to this conclusion.
This middle section of the programme also contains some beautiful biomechanical graphics that show how the stresses and strains of the stride change and improve as a barefoot is encouraged to return to something like full foot function. Again cleverly inter-leaving detailed features of foot anatomy, the programme then shows some great pictures of natural living hunters in movement and compares them with our modern restricted and downgraded gait.
At one key point in the dissection, the anatomist/dissector physically demonstrates the important the link between the calf muscles and the Achilles tendon in a fully functioning foot. He even illustrates how this works in an integrated fore-foot foot strike by taking hold of the calf muscles in his hand and showing how, even in the cadaverous foot, these key links work to integrate a whole foot.
The dissection part of the programme builds up to its grand finale with a revelation of the extraordinary piece of bioengineering that is the first metatarsal – the Big Toe. Anybody who’s been onto one of my courses and heard me banging on about the importance of the ‘first Met’ will know how appropriate it is for this to be kept for the grand finale!
However the grand finale of the anatomical dissection section of the programme is for me, not the climax of this extraordinary presentation. It truly is wonderfully put together! The final section presents a fascinating and a well-constructed account of how the foot plays a key role in the proprioceptors sense. There are some really poignant shots of the presenter George Martin first walking along a 6 inch beam on the ground and then courageously taking on the challenge of walking the same 6 inch beam 30 foot above the ground. I would have a shed full of money if I had a pound for every time I have talked about such a scenario on my courses There are also some similar really good scenes of the presenter experiencing the devastating consequences of de-activating the proprioceptors in the foot!
The 25 years of intensive Natural Running work has involved:
- a detailed understanding of the functional anatomy of the foot
- extensive work to try to understand a fully functional foot in a natural stride.
- the evolutionary implications regarding our origins as a species.
- How the human foot has downgraded in compensation for the restrictions of modern shoes.
- An exploration of the head to toe implications,in particular:
- the proprioceptors prowess that links together the extraordinary feat of bioengineering that is the human foot with the equally extraordinary bio computer housed in the human cranium.
Well here it is: all gift wrapped in one hour long detailed magnificently thought out and put together presentation!
I recall going for a run around the time of the millennium with a running chum in the woods above Loughborough University. We paused for a breather overlooking the great sports University. I was saying how, before the decade was out they’ll be doing massive research on the stuff that I had been exploring in natural running. I recall then that quizzical look from my mate, that lifting of one eyebrow that said:
“He’s off trolley!”
Well!! Every dog has his day!
When around 2008 research funds started to flow into exploring the capacities of a natural foot, I took a deliberate step backwards. It seemed then that I had undertaken a 20 year long experiment in my Laboratory of One. I saw what was happening as a great opportunity to put those insights through the Laboratory of the Many (in other words Science). As this great programme illustrates the results are now in! I could not have wished in my wildest dreams for such an vindication of the 25 year long work of the Natural Running course!!
The cliff top path approaching the rugged St Bee’s Head has plenty of challenges for bare feet. Furthermore, the more tired you get the trickier it gets to keep up with the necessary micro-adjustments that throw your weight away from the odd sharp stone. It is my sixtieth birthday and I have more than 50 miles of running behind me as I pass by the back gardens that look over the Irish Sea next to the path. It’s very often the case that people are curious to find out about my naked feet and one woman leaning over her back-garden gate asked me what on earth I’m doing running the cliff path barefoot.
“Well,” I said, “it’s my sixtieth birthday today and I am running 60 miles barefoot to celebrate.”
It was true I was a bit down on my springs and I mustn’t have looked that great. Whatever, she went on to say:
“Why couldn’t you just have had a party?”
At that stage this seemed a very appealing alternative!
Falling into conversations with interested passersby is one of a long list of reasons why I like to run barefoot. I’d like next to introduce some of the more serious reasons why I’ve found it so fascinating to run barefoot for more than 30 years. For sure, there are some new and different challenges for those interested in different and new forms of exploration, but for me, one of the most significant reasons for trying out some barefoot work is the way it opens up to an intriguing inner-journey of exploration.
No doubt most people have at least some beach experiences of going barefoot. If you are not used to it if feels particularly vulnerable and unsafe. Watch that guy picking his way over a section of pebbly beach. For a start he is not thinking about much other than how he picks up and puts down his feet. It is a study in someone being careful! It is the very vulnerability that eventually reveals its true strength. My number one reason for barefoot explorations is that it encourages a mindfulness in the way you move and the way you use yourself.
The Disconnect and the Shoe
We live in a mechanical age and very often we live our lives from the neck up. In other words we get disconnected from our bodies, certainly compared to our remote hunter gatherer ancestors whose moment by moment survival depended on a complete head to toe alertness and connection. The Disconnect takes many forms in modern bodies but for me the key symbol for our mechanical and disconnected state is the protective shoe. It seems highly probable that our ancestors occasionally covered their feet using the second skin solution of an animal skin style moccasin. However in no way would this have hampered that alert head to toe connectedness in the way that modern footwear does. Happily, all that is changing with the current trend to reinvent that ancient second skin solution in the form of the modern minimalist shoe. It has now become a familiar sales pitch to hear the latest minimalist shoe trumpeted as: “guaranteed to give a barefoot feel.”
The minimalist shoe issue
Here we meet a cascade of difficulties and problems. The key issue is the way that supportive and protective shoes have downgraded the foot as well as having created an associated raft of compensations and adaptations to posture and to gait. These affect everything from head to toe. It’s not just a simple matter of kicking off those shoes and ‘going for it’ because if you try to walk or run barefoot with a degraded foot and a compensated gait it won’t be very long before you will be in difficulty and before you injure up in some way.
Wise-up before you exert yourself: The Alexander Technique
I have been running barefoot for over 30 years and at the same time developing my work through the Natural Running Course, I have devised ways to fast-track individuals back to a fully functional foot and to the upright posture and alignments of a natural stride. I have a powerful secret weapon in this work called the Alexander Technique. So what does this technique achieve? When introducing people to this work I often say that the best way forward is to get smart before you exert yourself. Wising up in this way involves an intelligent use of the body sense. The technique develops the body-sense which often goes under various aliases: the proprioceptive sense, the kinesthetic sense. Sometimes you will hear it referred to as interoception. This distinguishes it from the exteroreceptors because the eyes, ears and taste and smell senses all pick up information externally, from a distance, while the proprioceptive sense collects and feeds back information internally, from within the body. This sense is the Mammy and the Daddy of all the other senses: They all derive from the core sense. In our mechanical ‘neck upward only’ lifestyle a key part of the Disconnect is that this core sense has become dumbed down and numbed down. Consider how more than most other body part (the exception being your lips), your foot is stuffed full of proprioceptors. In its fully functional state we need every bit of that rich flow of information from the foot to the integrative centres in the brain in order to take a natural stride. Mindfulness in action demands this kind of complete present-centred, head to toe connectedness, As I say what initially feels like its weakness and vulnerability turns out to be its greatest strength. The problem right from the moment your foot takes that first unshod step is that those integrative centres in the brain have gone to sleep. They need to be awakened and to be refined. To address this I use the Alexander Technique. Rapidly you learn how to get smart before you attempt to get strong.
Wising up in this way involves a systematic and intelligent use of what has become in modern bodies, a forgotten and downgraded sense. Working to refine this core sense is not unlike going to an artist to learn to draw, a musician to develop your ear or a wine connoisseur to refine your palette. It is a fundamental sense because it shapes and guides how you use yourself. Clearly things need to change as you engage in the process of reconnecting your head (waking up those integrative centres in the brain) to your feet (and all those exquisitely sensitive nerve endings in the soles of your feet). The Alexander Technique supports and guides these changes.
The Head-to-toe Procedures and proprioceptive prowess
I have devised a systematic and radical set of procedures called the Head-to-Toe procedures, which include ways to fast track the foot back to 100 percent competence. When a foot comes out of a shoe for the first time, most likely it will be functioning under 10 percent of full competence. The procedures use what I call proprioceptive prowess to facilitate a return to the complete in-the-moment connectedness and alertness of our ancestors. It is a process that connects me with our origins and that forms yet another key reason that keeps me inspired to continue with my barefoot explorations.
Here is a mind-blowing thought: Imagine a sci-fi machine that could flip your brain into the mindscape of our remote ancestors. This would be an awesome experience: all the senses would become completely alert and connected into the body sense. It would be like an awakening, a feeling of being fully alive and wholly in the present moment. You would be ready and poised to spring into action in any plane of movement. Perhaps in our ‘neck-upwards’ lifestyles and in our current disconnected state we have come to need high-risk activities in order to briefly recapture what should in fact be our birthright. Can we get to that fully alive feeling in some other way?