Runners World, August 2013

Science writer and author Leonie Joubert embarked on a project to turn herself from a heel-striking newbie into an efficient minimalist trail runner. Her journey unearths some crucial lessons for all of us.


Photo © Nick Muzik

“Nah, I can’t run.” I said, or something to this effect, wrapped in the wintery darkness on Lion’s Head in June last year (ED: 2012), the north-westerly whipping the fine mist into a froth. Below, Cape Town’s highways glowed like trails of magma as the city started to wake.

“My legs don’t work properly. The muscles down the front of my shins spasm, it’s hell.”

The wind shredded my words and scattered them.

“No, it’s not true. You can run,” the nameless shape spoke from beneath the Cyclops eye of his headlamp which he’d spiralled around to his temple so he wouldn’t blind me, “you just need to change the way you run.”

For just over two years, I’d been doing Lion’s Head four, five, sometimes six times a week (I needed to burn off the anxiety of a midlife crisis: divorce; starting afresh; huge book project; yaddah, yaddah). I’d never managed to run with any level of comfort before, so going uphill, fast, was the only way I could get a good workout on foot. Recently I’d tried putting the odd five or 10 minute shuffling run along gentle single tracks but I wasn’t having much fun.

This unlikely collision with a stranger on the mountain was about to change all that. As we scurried down the Lion beneath a rusty sunrise, a plan was in motion. It meant losing my clunky old mountain shoes and going “barefoot”.

The little running I’d tried until then involved the typical long, loping stride of a “shod” runner: throwing my feet out ahead of me, landing on the heel, rolling through to the front of the foot, launching forward. This classic heel strike is a product of padded running shoes where several millimetres of “lift” beneath the heel absorbs some of the shock of the foot hitting the ground, and allows the runner to land on the heel rather than the mid or front foot. Many argue that the heel strike is the source of certain running injuries: Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, tibial stress syndrome, runner’s knee.

And, according to Cape Town-based physiotherapist Rob Sims, it was also the possible cause of my discomfort. Landing on my heel required lifting the toe with each stride, causing that front shin muscle to seize.

The “barefoot” or natural running style, most of you probably know, involves running in a shoe which merely protects the foot from getting punctured, and has no heel padding or “drop” (meaning there’s no difference in height between the heel and the ball of the foot). This allows a runner to revert to the kind of gait we evolved to run with when we were chasing down antelope on the ancient savanna, where we landed on the mid- or forefoot.

The plan was for me to transition into this style of running, and to do so in time for a 15km trail run on my 40th birthday: 27 October. It was June. I had five months to go.


Rewiring the brain

Fixing my gait started over coffee, rather than on the trail.

The shadowy figure from the mountain turned out to be barefoot runner Stuart Hutcheson who later in the year would make up the four-man Team Vivobarefoot that took on the 2012 Otter African Trail Run. The team’s front-man Greg Goodall scooped the race’s bronze medal; Charl Souma later won the Cape elite leg of the Impi Challenge (a gruelling 21km trail, peppered with obstacles); and UK-based running coach Dale Turrell (trained by the renowned barefooter Lee Saxby) flew in to complete the quartet.

You can’t just pop on a pair of barefoot running shoes, tilt your landing site towards the forefoot, and take to the mountain. That’s how many people get injured. It needs to be a slow, calculated transition.

“It’s a bit like firing up an old car,” said Stuart, pausing, backpedalling, his hand making anxious little butterfly wing motions. “No no, I’m not saying you’re a...!”

A skorokoro? I raise an eyebrow. An ampoule of palliative laughter cracked in the air between us.

“But you want to do some fine tuning before you open up the engine on the open road.”

The first step was a set of exercises to strengthen the levers and pulleys in the calves, ankles and feet.

“Don’t change anything else just yet.”

Same shoes, same heel strike, same distances.

Photo © Nick Muzik

The following week, we added squatting exercises to tweak my posture, then a little hopping technique to rewire my brain to get used to a high-cadence gait. The objective is to tighten up your gait into a short-striding, high-cadence action where your feet stay beneath your body and connect with the ground as briefly as possible rather than the loping, “sticky” stride of “jogging”.

By now I had a pair of barefoot shoes – slick, matt black, and agro as low-profile rims on a pimped up Corolla – but two months into the process and I wasn’t ready to take to the trial in them yet. I kept to my usual regime in the old shoes – power walking the climbs, running the contours, but increasing the distances. My gait was transforming, though, and felt as comfortable as breathing, but the 8mm drop in the old shoes was cumbersome and still forced a heel strike.


The champagne run

I’d heard it called a “champagne run” but I thought it was a bit of a con job by the racing snake types.

And then it happened to me.

I wasn’t ready to take on a hard, technical trail in barefoot shoes, but I wanted to try this forefoot strike. So I waited for the tide to slip out on Muizenberg beach, and I hit the hard sand (warning, don’t do this on soft sand!).

It was a revelation. Without the 8mm lift beneath my heels and the stride now second nature, slipping into the forefoot strike pattern was as easy as sucking in air. The run was like an out of body experience: I knew my limbs were moving, I could hear the raspy sing-song of my breath, but I didn’t feel like I was working. No pain, no discomfort. On and on, gliding across the hard sand, for 45 minutes – the longest continuous run in my 39.75 years.

It felt incredible. Except I couldn’t walk for two days after that.

Almost every barefooter tells a similar story: that moment when they slip into the zone, where the new stride works so well that they just want to keep on going. For some, it causes little more than a bad lactic acid build up, which Stuart admits happened to him too. For others, it can lead to real injury. Even physio Rob Sims admits that he gave himself a stress fracture in a foot bone this way.

Too much, too soon.

Once I’d recovered, it was time to start alternating between my old trail shoes, and the zero drops.

For every two runs I did in the 8mm drop, I started walking the Lion or Nursery Ravine in the barefoot shoes. One fateful Sunday, the day after cruising through a three hour session (Newlands Forest single track, a 40 minute slog up Nursery Ravine, more easy trotting along single track and jeep track), I decided to power my way up the Lion on a “recovery” walk in the zero drops.

Within minutes, my calves seized. But I kept going. By the time I shuffled to the summit, my calves felt like quick dry cement, my feet were completely numb. It only took about ten minutes of resting for the pain to recede but for weeks, the slightest exertion brought it back.

Compartment syndrome, according to Claremont-based biokineticist Gabi Dekenah.

“This is where the fascia, the sheath surrounding the muscle, isn’t big enough to accommodate the contracting muscle during exercise. It results in extreme tightness and pain, and possible tingling and numbness in the feet due to the constriction in blood flow to the nerves.”

It took a month of dialling back to the running, and regular fascia massages, to get back onto the trail.

Here’s the problem for the barefoot movement: because many barefooters (myself potentially included) are so blown away by the results of adopting all or some of the style, they become a bit evangelical. This has caused a backlash from shod runners who challenge barefoot claims about the cure-all nature of the style. In the process, the message has been distorted: barefooters aren’t saying this is the magic bullet to wipe out all running injuries, they’re just saying that in many cases it reduces them, something which early research supports. But because this has been lost in translation, when barefooting injury happens, it gets lobbed back as evidence that the style’s not all it’s made out to be, that it’s just a fad, that it’s as injury prone as shod running.

There’s also this notion that if someone tries to transition to barefooting, the Shangri-La of running,

but doesn’t quite get there, that it’s somehow their fault, that the person hasn’t been devout enough in their practice. Not so, writes the Sport Science Institute’s Dr Ross Tucker on The Sport of Science website.

“(Y)ou may be told that it's because you've failed to do it right... that you haven't made the transition gradual enough, or that you're landing with a stiff ankle, or pointing your toes, or some variation which ultimately boils down to ‘It’s you, not the concept’. It may just be that you cannot do it. Onesize- fits-all fits exactly no-one.”

Two mistakes I’ll admit to: I didn’t take enough recovery time after long runs; and I should have started alternating between my old shoes, and a 4mm-drop transition shoe, and later switched to alternating between a transition shoe and barefoot shoe, before going fully barefoot.

A month from D-Day, I bought a pair of transition trail shoes and alternated between these, and halfhour barefoot runs. I could manage shorter routes, but my calves still tweaked occasionally, and my feet needed to strengthen more to handle the demands of uneven, technical surfaces. As race day approached, I had to decide: was I ready to take on 15 kays in a zero drop shoe?


The Roaring Forties

My 40th birthday arrived with the alarm clattering rudely inside my skull at 4:30am. No time for existential fretting (“OMG I’m single, childless and 40!?”) or ego (“Do I look fat in this spray-on lycra!?”). Two pairs of shoes eyeballed me from inside the cupboard: zero drops and the 4mm transitions. I paused, calculated, chewed on my lower lip... and reached for the transitions.

Photo © Nick Muzik

The race started in the Tokai forest picnic area, with a shallow ascent which allowed my contrarian calves to warm up, before it began pulling up the rump of the Constantiaberg and hauling itself to the undulating 8km mark. The few steep inclines reined me in to an occasional walk, but reverting to a heel-striking walk gait killed my calves so I longed for flatter sections that’d allow me to break into a trot again.

It was different to the trailing I was used to: the stop-start, high-octane single track runs where you dance about like a rock rabbit, with brutal ascents. This was more of a trail run for roadies. It followed a jeep track in a grinding slow, continuous pace. I kept slipping into a lazy stride, and had to pull myself back to that tight, higher-cadence tic tic tic step that barefooting needs. Stuart had warned me about this – when you get tired, you lose form and that’s when you become inefficient and injury-prone.

The sun hoisted itself higher in the sky, baking the route, but eventually we drop back down into the forest where the shade closed in softly. By the 13km mark, the downhill released the last coiled-up energy. It looked like a 90 minute finish time and I was flying.

That’s when it happened.


Fatigue, a bit of lost form, and the dark thrown across the path by the canopy, conspire together. My toe clipped a stone. There was that split second when the brain calibrates whether the body’s going to recover or not... and then I was slow motioning my way towards the dirt, and some epic bruises to flash about at that night’s party.

But even as I ran through the pain, exorcising the limp and getting stronger as the last furlongs closed, I glanced over my shoulder at the spine of the mountain and wondered how I could turn this into a 25km run on a single track somewhere up there.

And I thought this wasn’t a bad way to enter a new decade: 40, fit, and nearly naked on the trail.

Learn from my mistakes

Inhabit your skin: Read and interpret your body. Physiotherapist Rob Sims says if pain mirrors itself on both sides, it’s probably wear-and-tear or fatigue and it's time to rest a while; one-sided pain might suggest injury.

Kiss the dirt: Even though you’re mid- or forefoot striking, your heel must touch down on the ground to “reload” your stride. Some beginner barefooters dance along the trail on the balls of their feet which, says Rob, is like doing about 1 500 calf raises over a distance of about 3km.

The “two shots of Scotch” rule: Biokineticist Gabi Dekenah says many runners’ calves are too long due to excessive heel striking and over-stretching. Optimal calf length is important for efficient running and to avoid injury. To assess yourself, stand with your feet slightly apart and lift the ball of the foot. If someone can get more than two fingers under the ball, then the muscle is “locked long” in the fascia, in a weakened position. If you can’t fit two fingers under the ball, then the fascia is “locked short” and the muscle will need stretching.

Beware the champagne run: Everyone will have it, the out of body experience; don’t be tempted to push it too far.

Know your gear: Research the difference between transition, minimalist, and barefoot shoes.

Slow is the new fast – how to transition

Barefoot coach Dale Turrell confirms that while some can “transition” in six weeks, others need six months. Read your body and adapt the following regime accordingly.

Step 1 – lounge lizard

Heel drops/calf raises: stand with the ball of one foot on a step, lower your heel below toe-height until you feel the stretch in the tendon; hold there for about 20 seconds; lift the heel until it’s a few centimetres higher than the toe, and hold. A slow, rhythmic motion; no jolts or jumps.

Squats: feet shoulder width apart, weight on the balls of the feet, sit down into a squat (don’t lift your heels), hold it for ten seconds, stand. Do five reps. Do the same, but with your arms out in front of you and a weighted bar resting across your arms, next to your collar bone.

Excellent to cultivate flexibility, balance and an upright posture.

Hops: hop on the spot, aiming for an efficient 180 beats per minute (cyclists aim for an optimal 90 revolutions-per-minute on a leg) for two minutes.

Step 2 – the grassy knoll

If you can, rope in an experienced barefooter. Do a few short, slow barefoot runs on a sports field to assess posture (back straight, head up, lift your chest), rhythm, foot-strike and body positioning (that you’re relaxed, and not “leading” with your head or hips).

Step 3 – going binary

For every two “shod” runs, do a short barefoot run. By now the lounge lizard exercises will be reprogramming the body’s muscle memory. Try three 1km barefoot runs a week, rather than one 10km.

Step 4 – tiptoeing the forest

Barefoot trail running needs strong tendons in the foot, but also a hardened sole. Slowly increase barefoot distances, but on forest surfaces with cushioning from softer sand and pine needles.

Step 5 – taking on the trail

When you’re ready, try technical single tracks and stony surfaces in the zero drops to finally beat those soles into shape. Some runners hold onto their transition shoes and alternate between these and the barefoot shoes, depending on their mood, their body or the terrain.