Finding my feet.
Feet have always been a big deal in my life. My parents owned a children’s shoe store for most of my childhood and I was privileged to wear some of the loveliest shoes (hence the shoe obsession) growing up. My father also insisted my brother and I have arch raisers in our school shoes to ensure we didn’t end up flat footed. We lived shoes (and feet)! Yet, despite the fact that my family sold shoes, I often heard my father tell many new moms that the best thing for a child’s foot, was to be bare, for as long as possible.
Perhaps my Dad’s voice in the back of my head has finally made it into conscious thought? Not sure, but all I do know is that my foot hurts. It’s more my heel than my foot, well, depending on the day really, it can feel like the whole underside of my foot is stiff and sore when I stand on it. I think I’ve managed to ignore the pain and pretend it will go away for most of the year, and I therefore can’t pinpoint when exactly it started – a niggle here and there.
When I whined about it to my running buddy, she said it sounded like plantar faciitis and when I looked it up online – the shoe seemed to fit. I also spoke to a friend who is a physiotherapist and she confirmed the vague self-diagnosis (asking friends for advice is not recommended behaviour – rather seek medical opinion). The more I learnt, the more I realised I had developed… a running injury. I still can’t quite believe it. It seems absolutely ridiculous – I run between 10-15km a week (not a day), so that’s approx. 2-3 runs a week. It’s not a lot of distance at all. Especially as there are people out there who are running 20km or more a day, without any hint of injury (but maybe they’re just not telling me about it?). Was that the reason I ignored the pain in my heel that makes me hobble when I get up in the morning? Or was it the fact that when I ran, the pain went away? Probably both. Admitting that I have a ‘running injury’ when I am basically a plodder is quite a sad admission.
Would I have to stop running altogether?
This was probably the biggest reason I didn’t want to admit that I had possibly injured myself. I, like many others, have eaten badly during the corona crisis and there are a certain pair of jeans in my cupboard that now don’t fit. In addition, big brother – aka Discovery Health – are watching me and counting my steps, breaths and heartbeats. As an Apple user I also bought into the Apple watch programme – if I stick to the Discovery exercise programme and ‘make my points’ on a weekly basis, I don’t have to pay a monthly fee for the watch. Easy enough to do if you don’t get sick or injured – but too bad if you do. Not making my points is like losing; I don’t like doing it. So, I have persisted and possibly made this sore foot worse.
I then whined to another friend (poor friends) and she said ‘Let me lend you that barefoot book I have, I think the writer also had a sore foot’. I smiled back and agreed – I’d heard about this barefoot running story years ago, wasn’t it a fad? A friend in Johannesburg had started running races in those quirky five toe shoes, and then my brother-in-law had also taken to the streets in another type of flat shoe, and still continues to run in that style of shoe today. At the time when the book first came out, I think I had stopped running; I had small children, and I was basically the walking dead for 3 years – I completely missed the barefoot running craze. It was something that was happening over there, and I was wearing my old Asics as walking shoes and that seemed fine at the time.
When I borrowed the book, Born to Run by Christopher McDougall, I was curious to learn more about Christopher’s sore foot and how running around in a pair of silly looking shoes could fix the problem. I wasn’t expecting to read a marvellous story about perseverance, science and evolution, changing societies, the Tarahumara tribe, hard core American runners and finding the joy in running again (and taking out the pain). I read snatches of the book to my family and everyone got a taste of my new passion and inspiration. I finished the book and have become a convert: I believe and hope that I can heal my heel by changing the way I run. I truly agree with the saying: ‘If you want different results, you have to try different approaches’.
In other words, if I continue to run in my Nikes, throwing the full weight of my body onto my heel with each plod, then I am going to continue hurting my foot. I’m a scientist by training, and the science in Born to Run made sense to me. Anatomically the foot is constructed to take our weight on the ball of the foot – just try it yourself, take off your shoes and run five steps – immediately you run on the ball of your foot. Why would you naturally and automatically do that if that wasn’t how you were supposed to run?
First invented at the end of the 18th Century (basically just the other day in terms of how long we have been running barefoot as humans – think ancient Greece and the Olympics), the running shoe creates a wedge under your heel that changes your gait and encourages you to run heel first, making you smack your bony heel down. Furthermore, the weight of your body and the force driving down on the heel are the same, no matter if there is a fancy air cushion or not. No surprise then that running injuries are common. We’re forcing our bodies to run differently to what they were created to do, and when we get injured we inject, rub, medicate and then put the shoes back on. It just doesn’t make sense.
I won’t completely unpack the Born to Run book here, as there is incredible science behind his many points, and I do think that all runners should read the book and decide for themselves. No surprises, I have therefore decided to try this barefoot running lark out for myself. A friend kindly lent me her barefoot New Balance shoes, and I slipped them on and went for a 4km run – I could barely walk for 2 days after! ‘You see – it’s not good for you’ I hear you saying. No, that’s not the problem – what happened there was pure ego. Because I can run 5km in my Nikes, I thought I could do the same in shoes with no heel. And I could – my foot instinctively moved me onto the ball of my foot, I shortened my stride and off I went. But I tired quickly, and my calves ached for days. I stupidly thought I could teach myself to run correctly when I had been running in ‘heeled’ shoes for over 20years. ‘No way! Can’t be that stupid?’ Sadly, I was. It was a good lesson in reminding me that I need to relearn how to run differently (naturally) if I want a different outcome (i.e. no pain in my heel). And relearning, or actually learning from scratch takes time (I tell my kids this constantly), patience and letting go of some of that overpowering ego.
Sill determined, I took myself to a great shop in Claremont that sells barefoot running shoes, and I have now invested heavily in a pair of flaties (my son laughed at me and asked why the shoes were expensive when there was less shoe – I don’t have an answer but they are approx. the same price as a pair of Nike running shoes I just bought – thinking my old shoes were the problem).
I am now on a running programme that started with me running only 1.5km and then walking the rest of my usual distance, for a week, and then increasing to 2.5km and so on, until I get to the usual distances I run. It’s been hard on a number of levels: physically I tire almost instantly, my legs are working harder and they want to just stop – lazy flabby old things. Mentally my brain is having an absolute panty throwing fit; I’m as slow as a snail and I’m not running fast enough or long enough, which leads to my third issue which is my watch – if it could sigh, it would, at the end of my walk-run. But luckily, the strongest voice, the pain in my heel, is keeping me on track. I have to make a change to affect change. I don’t want to get out of bed and hobble around for the rest of my life. My left hip already pains me, I don’t want more pain. Therefore, I will persist on this trajectory and try and teach myself how to run naturally, like Zola Budd, and hopefully I can heal my heal, and become a stronger version of myself (without tripping anybody else).
Let me know what you think by emailing me on firstname.lastname@example.org