I remember the first time someone asked me to run just for the sake of it. I was 8 years old, having just migrated to Sydney from Mumbai with my family. It was my first Phys Ed session, at my first week of school in a totally new place and completely new culture. I had to run around the school oval. Firstly I was amazed that the school had a grassy oval, and then I was wondering how the hell I was meant to get around the entire thing.
Suffice to say, although I suffered plenty on that very first lap, I soon realised my natural propensity as a runner and then climber. Lean (skinny) and strong (for my weight).
I used to run while at school. A lot. It was a tool used to build fitness for sports such as rowing and soccer.
Though I am deeply grateful for the wide range of choices I had at school - both academically and on the sporting field, I really wish someone had taken the time to talk to some of us about, “form”. Nobody really curated our running form.
So, after a brief hiatus from running, I tried to return to it. This was about 15 years ago. Every joint in my body ached after running, and I hated it. Nothing doing, not for me…
In early 2012, I decided to try running again. The motivation was to be able to exercise anywhere - since I tend to travel a lot for work. While I have always been a keen cyclist, it’s not practical to go for a bike ride while travelling for work. It is, logistically, relatively easy to go for a run.
So, how does one avoid feeling so damn sore after a light run?
I spoke to a mate of mine, read a lot and decided to try out the, “minimalist” style of running. This doesn’t mean that I strapped on a loin cloth and ran barefoot chasing down my prey.
It means finding a way of running with minimal impact, by learning to use one’s feet as opposed to using material props to shim, wedge, support and inherently weaken one’s feet.
It means using a very lightweight, thin soled shoe which gives one a very clear sense of connectedness to the terrain, and zero heel rise.
The thing about not having a thick gel/air/foam/blah layer under one’s heel is that you quickly learn to land on your forefoot, allowing your foot to do it’s intended job of acting as nature’s shock absorber.
Years of using chunky orthotics, and hauling massive backpacks full of climbing gear over mountains has inflicted its toll. Making such a big change was not going to be straight forward.
My approach was one of extreme conservatism, and with an audacious/radical goal.
Put the orthotics aside, with a view to finishing every run feeling like I had done no exercise whatsoever. The latter point is to say that I did not want to feel strained or injured in any way.
I went about it this way:
- two months of walking in these new shoes
- 1 min of hopping barefoot on the spot every morning, adding a minute every few days
- 5 minutes of running on the flat to start with
- a very gradual increase to about 20 minutes of running within 3 months
- stretching stretching stretching
- no room for ego, it was important to listen my body
All was going well, until I started straining/pulling my calf muscles at about the 17 minute mark on every run I did. For the unpracticed, landing on the forefoot puts a great deal of strain on the plantar fascia, achilles, and calf muscles. This is why a really conservative approach is essential to allow your body to adapt to change.
A local sports Doctor and excellent runner advised me to adopt the “mid foot strike” approach which implied continuing the use of the heel, but with far lower impact than the conventional heel thumping jogger. This, coupled with neuro stretches for the sciatic nerve really helped.
He also asked me to scale it all back to ten minutes of running only - no hills, just 10 minutes on the flat to focus on mid foot strike form.
For me this suggested that the “minimalist” approach is merely trying to teach people to think about form. There is nothing new or revolutionary about the form itself. Runners have been doing it forever, and with whatever footwear they have or have not had access to.
So far so good. By the end of 2012, I was running for over an hour and had run in 6 countries as I travelled through for work or pleasure. I have explored neighbourhoods, parks, hills, made friends and kept healthy by just chucking my gear into my bag and going for a run.
Today, I played in the park with my 2 year old son, and he loves to run … really. So we chased each other and ran until the little guy was wobbly, and I sat him on my shoulders as we walked home. I’m really looking forward to running with him as he grows up. No major ambitions, just a sustainable thing to do …