What I Have Learned About Running

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by Hazel Anna Rogers for the Carl Kruse Blog

I have been running for many years. I recall that I undertook my first non-school-based runs with my father, down in the Lot Region of France. We would run up to drive from my grandparents’ home, named Les Placettes, and up into the surrounding forest. During these first forays into the world of running – that is, running as a form in itself as opposed to one solely acting as a singular component of the greater world of ‘play’ – I learned of its wonder and its capacity for mindful exploration. The first times I ran, I ran without earphones, distraction, pedometers, and specific running shoes. My father and I battled the pebbled dry ground, the hard tarmac, and the roots and sticks of the woods with a pair of non-specific trainers, some shorts, and t-shirts which were drenched by the end of our journey.

Running was fun, I discovered. Running felt like freedom. Why walk to the top of a hill when I could run up it? Running made the banal seem enjoyable, liberating, and exciting. I continued to run sporadically throughout most of my youth. When I became ill with anorexia, I began to run more, excessively – oftentimes twice a day I would lace up my shoes to go on an escapade. Killian Jornet, the celebrated Spanish trail runner, runs twice a day, but he runs for joy and for training, as running is both his love and his life. I lost my love for running through my eating disorder. Running became a habitual, essential punishment, and I lost the sense of my body as I ran through faintness and into a temporary, crashing euphoria. I hardly ever ran without music. In fact, running without music suddenly seemed both unfeasible, because it was the only distraction that I had which took my mind off of my aching feet and buckling legs. Of course, there was still a part of running that I loved; its solitude, where only I and my legs were partners together on a solo journey to somewhere I knew not. And I remember during Christmastime, on my night-time runs, I would look into other people’s windows at their Christmas trees, their televisions, and their joyous family gatherings, and I’d smell the sweetest, juiciest scent of roasted meat and potatoes and pie. That was a wonderful thing. But I could go on no longer. I was too weak, and, soon after my diagnosis, I was told that I was no longer allowed to run.

If I am honest with myself, I would say that I have only been fully recovered from my eating disorder for roundabout a year or two. The thing is, recovery is less than linear, and odd compulsions remain for years, even after weight and mind have been mostly restored to something resembling normality. When I ran during the last 6 years or so, I still ran almost entirely with the aim of physical changes, notably weight loss. And, once again, I was never without my earphones, perpetually blasting my ears with a constancy of noise, even when I was in the most peaceful, most beauteous of settings. But during this last year, and particularly these last three months, I have found something in running that I thought I had lost; that inexplicable joy of finding oneself lost in movement, the same joy I found when I was a little girl running with my father. I am writing this article after having completed a rather difficult run. It wasn’t of a ridiculous length – some 13 kilometres or so – but I was in near-constant pain throughout – a bloated stomach, a niggling ankle, strained shoulders, and stiff knees – and to add to that, in addition to the raging gusts of wind blowing about my ears, it began to rain halfway through the run, huge droplets flooding the streets and clouding my eyes with their torrents. But I was already halfway, and halfway means there is no turning back. I breathed, walked a little, then ran again. This route was familiar to me, and it was not so hard a run. I could do it, I could do it, for nothing else than simply being able to do it, simply being able to move and run and smile in my t-shirt and shorts as people strolled passed me, cocooned in thick Puffas and soft merino scarves. It was suffering, but it was good, for it is good to suffer, and then to return to the warmth which, in suffering so, has become ever sweeter.

I get injured a lot, in comparison to many of my peers. Not horrific injuries, but many minor issues, particularly in my feet and ankles. Perhaps in part this is a result of long-term malnutrition, which may have led me to have a little osteoporosis, and which is only lately being remedied by a steady stream of good food and rest. But I must also add that I have been plagued with bunions and flat feet for the entirety of my living memory, and thus my feet have been clad in various forms of ‘good, supportive’ shoes, complete with thick insoles supposedly encouraging my poor ugly feet to arch. It is only recently that I have thought on this, thought on the continued prevalence of my bunions, and the weakness of my feet and ankles. Just over ten years ago, Harvard University et al carried out a study looking at the history of barefoot running in various human populations, and compared it to regular ‘shod’ (running in shoes) running in cities and, predominantly, the west. (www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2010/01/100127134241.htm).

Generally, the research suggested that people who run barefoot, or in minimalist shoes, strike less with their heels and more with their forefoot, which tends to reduce impact and thus injuries related with impact (heel-strikers land with up to 3 times as more force onto their heels than those who strike at the middle or ball of the foot). Professor of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard, Daniel E. Lieberman, purports that the callusing of the foot, of which the skin is some of the thickest in the human body, is an evolutionary tool to help the foot avoid damage when running on perilous or hard ground. With the help of a few other universities, Lieberman found that the running gait of habitual Kenyan barefoot runners was far more ‘springy’, and the leg more compliant with the running movement, when compared to American shod-runners, who experienced sudden collision forces to their heels approximately 1,000 per mile run. He argues that our feet were made for running, for the purpose of hunting down prey, running to pass on messages to other villages, and outrunning predators, and that the modern running shoe, which only came about in the 1970s, does not acknowledge the fact that runners throughout history ran with next-to-no cushioning for thousands of years. Lieberman argues that the lighter step and lower force generated by barefoot runners makes complete sense, because the body is telling you what to do through its engagement with the floor, its primary aim naturally being pain-avoidance.

Numerous other studies have propounded exciting, but oftentimes preliminary, evidence on the benefits of barefoot, or minimalist, running: a study by Brigitte Wirth et al focusing on back and neck muscle activity in healthy adults during barefoot walking and walking in conventional and flexible shoes, found that back and neck muscle activity was slightly higher when walking barefoot, or in barefoot-style shoes; a study by Joel T. Fuller et al found that running in minimalist shoes improves running economy and 5-km running performance; a study carried out by Sachini N. K. Kodithuwakku Arachchige on the impact of foot arch type and minimalist footwear on static postural stability discovered that the barefoot condition elicited greater static balance performance in all conditions except during extremely challenging sensory conditions where [a particular brand of barefoot shoe] was found to be the footwear of choice.

But just as many studies dispute this evidence. The jury is out, and, honestly, my impetus for my research into barefoot ways of living is predominantly fueled by positive testimonials. Yet a part of me is befuddled; it makes no sense that the part of our body which hold a quarter of our bones in it, and which is responsible for enabling us to move for the entirety of our lives, should be cordoned off and restricted from being able to touch the ground and flex and move as it naturally wishes to. I cannot think for another reason why I have such weak ankles, flat feet, and bunions. We can point to these things as hereditary; and, sure, I likely have a propensity towards a flat foot, as can be illustrated by placing my feet beside my fathers – they are almost identical. But I refuse to believe that these things should be accepted as ‘fate’. I want to run without fear of twisting my ankle for the hundredth time, or for fear of having painful bunions and sore heels when I return. I had a case of plantar fasciitis a few years back – a very painful syndrome of the heel – and, the more I think about it, the more I realize that this was likely as a result of: too much sitting, which locked my hips in a certain position, leading to bad running form and weak extremities; standing for hours a day with the bad form which resulted from sitting which led to increased pressure on my heels; and my only movement being either walking or running without the incorporation of any natural playing or movement techniques to strengthen my joints and encourage arch flexion in my feet, coupled with shoes which did not allow my feet a good range of motion, nor encouraged them to strengthen.

Brigitte Randall, writing for Discovery Magazine, writes that we have been wearing shoes for over 40,000 years, but that most of these were thin-soled affairs like sandals, or leather casings of sorts for colder weather. Cushioned/higher-platformed soles became popularized around the 1700s, and in 1917 we saw the creation of Chuck Taylor’s converse shoe. The 1970s saw the emergence of very high-platformed, or heeled, shoes, as well as the highly-cushioned sneakers which are still incredibly popular today, such as Nike Air Jordans and later, in the 80s, Reeboks. Many trainers, or sneakers, today are marketed with promises of extreme support and comfort. We are told from a young age that it is essential to have ‘supportive’ shoes, and, if we do not have a natural arch due to the act of wearing ill-fitting shoes and developing hallux valgus (or bunions), then we are fitted with insoles that create a false arch in our feet and are told to wear every thicker, ever sturdier shoes. But a false arch does not encourage our feet to find their natural arch – rather, it weakens them, because they needn’t work to produce an arch in order to maintain stability and encourage proprioception of the entire body. But the fact is that there are many communities which live either barefoot, with minimal shoes (such as straw sandals), and mere foot wrappings, like the wraparound leather shoes worn in Mesopotamia thousands of years ago.

Randall also mentions Born To Run (2009) writer Christopher McDougall who, after studying the Tarahumara tribe in Mexico who were able to run upwards of 160 kilometres over perilous terrain in mere thin sandals, came to the conclusion that the over-cushioned sneakers of the late 20th and 21st centuries were the cause of a lot of muscular-skeletal injuries, and chose to get rid of his own trainers in favor of being barefoot, or in minimal shoes. Randall writes that runners who choose to go barefoot runners put less stress on their feet, as their strides are shortened as a result, and they land mostly towards the middle of the foot which enables the force of impact to spread out more over the whole foot. Randall goes on to reference other studies which have found that barefoot populations, such as some in India, generally have wider feet than Westerners, which helps them to spread out impact pressure and reduce the risk of injury.

Now – I’m not standing up here and saying that shoes are the devil, of course they’re not. And I’m also not about to stroll over the streets of London without any shoes on. But I think there is something to say here about how little we know about our bodies, about how they function, and about how to resolve injuries and protect ourselves against them without simply resorting to using devices, such as insoles, to ignore a problem and potentially make it worse in the long run. I have realized that I, and all of us, have immense physical capacity within us. We were ‘born to run’, but so many of us get injured that we are discouraged to do so. We have also become so sedentary that we are causing ourselves long-term health issues that result from sitting in chairs for hours upon hours each day. According to gov.uk, 76% of adults in the UK do not engage in the recommended amount of physical activity per day (34% men, 42% women), the target minimums of which are: at least 150 minutes moderate intensity activity, 75 minutes’ vigorous activity, or a mixture of both strengthening activities on two days, and the reduction of extended periods of sitting. Movement is hard, I know. We have offices centred around being seated for 8 hours or more a day. We can get public transport, or taxis, to go wherever we need to go. Our days are only so long, and most of them are taken up by work sat in chairs in order to make enough money to live. Plus, we are consistently discouraged from moving through the increased convenience of our societies. But if we could just learn a little more about our bodies, how they work, what they feed off of and what makes them feel their best (namely, movement), then maybe we could make ourselves a little happier, a little lighter on our feet, and a little healthier for the long game. Movement is nourishment, and I know that I am just on the cusp of discovering the true potential of what I can really do, which I owe to my research into my body and how I can make it feel truly well; for, really, if you’re honest with yourself, when was the last time you felt utterly, completed ‘healthy’? For me, I know it’s been a long time. In the future, I want to run 100 miles. I want to do it, not to win a race, nor to garner any kind of attention from my peers, but rather to prove to myself that I can do it for the pure joy of being able to move my body healthfully, for we never know if, one day, we may no longer be able to.

The Carl Kruse Tech Blog homepage is here.
Contact: carl AT carlkruse DOT com
Other articles by Hazel include Initiations, Central Governor Theory, and A Positive Spin On Hustle Culture.
The blog’s last post was on ChatGPT.
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Author: Carl Kruse

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