Monday, 5 December 2011

Thoughts on barefoot running and my half marathon

I’ve got a lot of things I want to say here, hence the length. I know attention spans are only around 500 words, so feel free to skip ahead to the sections that interest you. I want to share my thoughts and experience with barefoot running, particularly over long distance. I will also explain my training programme for the half marathon I recently completed, and the method behind the madness. Finally I’ll let you judge how well my training worked by sharing my experience of the race.

I want to get this out of the way first – I don’t believe humans evolved for endurance running, and I didn’t do this for my health. I did it to test my body and will power. I’m unconvinced by the claims and suggestions that humans evolved for endurance running, in fact I gave a talk for the Auckland University's Reason and Science Society on the topic (I should write that talk into a blog post). I fully understand that endurance running is not primal, and that it’s not good for my body. Now that’s out of the way. . .

Barefoot running and increasing your distance

Vibram five fingers are my primary shoes of choice, I wear them every day to work, I hike, and do parkour in them. When I run Tabata sprints I do them barefoot on a rugby field. For the previous year I did no other running but I thought all this barefooting would easily prepare me for running in vibrams – I was wrong. When I decided to do the half marathon I had 7 weeks to train and Mark de Grasse from My Mad Methods warned that I should build my distance up slowly to prepare my legs and joints for running, I’m so glad I took this to heart.

The first week I decided to test the water with a 2km run. I tried to with good form, high cadence, fore or mid foot strikes and most importantly – running quietly with little impact. The first km was easy, and then my achilles began to hurt. My calves are very short (in fact my whole posterior chain is short) and this meant that running barefoot was going to not so gently stretch out my claves and achilles. I thought 'that’s fine; I’ll just build up slowly'. The first two weeks I did four, 2km runs and by the end of the two weeks I had no pain in my achilles. The third week I upped the distance to 4km, again the final km was hard on the achilles. I never pushed this too hard, to avoid the risk of damaging myself. The next 4km run that week was fine. So I upped the distance to 6km and again that last km was hard on the tendons. At this point I knew that I had time to bring my distance up to 10km running comfortably, but after that it would be hard on my achilles. I thought I might push to 15km in the race then snap a tendon and I wasn’t willing to risk that.

So I decided to swap to my conventional running shoes for the rest of my training and for the race. I ran an 8km and a 10km in these shoes for the two weeks leading up to the race and found that due to the heel lift my claves and achilles were fine but the muscle crossing the front of the hip was working too hard and that would hurt after a run. However, that I could deal with, and I would stop running in the conventional shoes and swap back to building my running volume up in vibrams after the race.
Some thoughts and suggestions:

Mark Sisson says that training in a primal way by lifting heavy things and sprinting once a week is all the preparation you need to be able to jump into a 5 or 10km fun run if you feel like it. While primal training prepared my aerobic metabolism for running, it did not prepare my legs for long distance running, despite over 6 months of near exclusively walking in vibrams.

My suggestion to gauge how prepared you are for a given distance is to be able to comfortably run half that. This is why I built up to a 10km run, I found I could easily run 10km and feel fine the next day. I don’t know if this is the best way to go, maybe it’s too far, maybe not far enough but I feel like it’s a good rule of thumb. Another rule of thumb I have is to never run more than the distance you are training for in a single week for example when I trained for the half marathon I could do two 10km runs in a week, but I wouldn’t do three. Again this could be too much or not enough, but it seemed to work for me.

In addition to my weekly runs I did three kettlebell workouts which focused on both strength and conditioning (I was doing the strong as an Ox, lean as a Lion plan from My Mad Methods). I would also try to do one set of Tabata sprints each week, as well as either Tabata skipping or burpees when I had time. I really enjoyed this but often found myself quite worn out. I wouldn’t call this over-training, I would say I am under-trained, I intend on keeping up a similar training volume from now on, with shorter (and more intense) 2 or 4km runs being my distance of choice.

Running the half marathon (and the aftermath)

For the first 7km my legs were screaming at me to quit and walk back but I knew if I just keep running I would get in a groove. Between about 8 and 12km I was really in the zone and running well, at this point I was on time for a 1:45 finish. Then at 15km I hit the wall and couldn’t keep up the pace, I slowed down and all I could do was keep my legs turning over but still doing ok. Then just before 19km (about 1.5 miles from the finish) both of my calves cramped badly. I pushed through and kept running and got it for a 1:50:03 finish, which I’m happy with.

Aftermath: My hips and calves were killing me all afternoon, and when I got home I sat on the couch exhausted for the rest of the day. The next day the fronts of my hips were very painful and climbing stairs was hell. Even three days after the race I could still feel my hamstrings and ankles took a beating.

For the next race I plan to run in vibrams or invisible shoes, so I think I won’t have the same pain in the front of my hip. I also plan on taking in more water and electrolytes during the race to hold off the cramps. I’ll also be in a better position to start the build up next time.