Stepping On Thistles, Nettles And Sheep-Shit: The Joys Of Barefoot Running

Where I thought I was gracefully leaning forward and cycling my feet under me to create the perfect mid-foot strike, I actually look like a knock-need flapper from the 30’s, doing a weird version of the Charleston. Barefoot running. It's tricky I tell ye...
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Where I thought I was gracefully leaning forward and cycling my feet under me to create the perfect mid-foot strike, I actually look like a knock-need flapper from the 30’s, doing a weird version of the Charleston. Barefoot running. It's tricky I tell ye...


The birth of a conscious runner, I am having to think about every step - how I land, how I push off, how heavy, how light. Am I leaning forward from the ankles? Am I still hitting down onto my heels, pushing off through the toes? It is hard work. A playing field at Garscube, a 400 metre loop, I try out different shoes, my old Asics, with socks and a silicone extension that uses the top of the shoe to push the deviated second toe down into its rightful gap, saying to the big toe with every step ‘move over, move over’.

I can’t sense the ground and after a mile change into a pair of Vivo Barefoot minimal trainers. I run with socks and then without, it feels good. I run the last mile completely barefoot and it is too much, I can begin to the feel the pain across all my toes, my technique isn’t good enough yet to make this stress free. I am trying to lean forward in a straight line, from the ankles, keep everything loose, but of course, everything is complaining, especially calves, ankles, hips and knees. You can’t change fast or without consequence as your body re-adjusts. I keep telling myself I have no choice.

I’ve put five pounds on in a month, I eat for pleasure and I eat to comfort myself, I eat when I am ill and I eat when I have finished a long run. I just love eating. Last year I weighed the same at the end of the year as at the start, but ran 1,500 miles in between. That is the equivalent of running off two and half stone of fat. That is how much bigger I would be if I ate the same and didn’t run. I need to get a handle on this greed - it feels like the last thing in my life I don’t really control or change. Now that I am running less if I don’t sort it then it is a one-way ticket.

Down in Sussex for a few days working on a 30th anniversary Test Dept book, I’ve been looking back at my 1980’s diaries. We were a very politically-committed band, touring throughout the miner’s strike, and I’m proud to say battling against Murdoch and News International at Wapping for nearly a year. My girlfriend at the time was hit by one of the newspaper vans as it sped through the picket line at the entrance. Being in Test Dept was a commitment as well as a creative vocation. One entry in 1985 reads:

There was an intense conviction and compassion with which the miners and their families fought their corner. It affected everyone who became involved in the struggle. So many diverse strands were brought together and the degree of resolve they shared is unbreakable. Some of my belief in the power of the collective was forged in this period, we were young and ever idealistic but the relationships formed were real and the idea of alternative networks forged through shared values still holds true.


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I take a break from the writing and head out into the warm rain of the south of England. I run barefoot through muddy orchards; I try a rough field and spend 10 minutes hopping this way and that to avoid twigs, thistles, nettles and sheep-shit. I try a lower paddock and get rammed by a sheep and have to sprint and vault a fence swearing my head off to get it away from behind me. Barefoot running, it’s nothing if not adventurous - I must have managed about a mile in 30 minutes!

Long train to Scotland, I bailed out of a Pendolino at Warrington Quays and straight into a hotel pub to see Andy Murray win the first set of the final at Wimbledon. My god he did his best, there is no one in the bar, but I am in a one-man drama, shouting at the screen, support, disbelief then commiseration. What a performance. He is so close to getting there.

I go to see Jae Krauer, a feldenkrenz movement specialist in Edinburgh. I am hoping that the Chi running style I have adopted will strike a chord. My foot is aching as we go out onto a wide pavement to look at my form. I run in my old style and then change to the new way I have recently been working on. Without pausing for breath she says “Drop the new technique.”

Where I thought I was gracefully leaning forward and cycling my feet under me to create the perfect mid-foot strike, I actually look like a knock-need flapper from the 30’s, doing a weird version of the Charleston. It is a rude awakening to the fact that you cannot analyse and successfully change your running, without outside assistance. What I imagined I was doing well was actually damaging and pointless. It’s important to use the internet for information rather than education, especially as so much of what you read is partial and slanted to either the opinions of the writer or ghosted commercial interests.

I need to start by making subtle adjustments to my original style, which by all accounts is not too bad. If I change to minimal shoes and take smaller strides, that alone will change the strike position. You hardly need to consciously change anything. This is a massive relief as I had been aching in just about every muscle attempting to force it. This is very typical of why further injuries occur. There is, as the best blogs essay, ‘no universal truth’, only the incremental move towards a better style that suits your individual biomechanical imprint.

I ride along the canal to Stobhill Hospital to get an MRI scan. The new building is a surprise like a leftover film set from Lucas’s THX 1138. It is white, pristine and just not very north Glasgow. On hearing that I am going to be put inside the scanner I begin to get palpitations. For some reason I had imagined it was akin to an iron lung and you could not move your body an inch. The reality was infinitely grander but easily manageable. The machine was incredibly loud, like being in an out take for a Test Dept track . I tapped out rhythms on the panic button staring into the white light oblivion of the ceiling above.

It’s not often that a sporting performance can reduce me to tears of joy, but Bradley Wiggins winning the Tour de France and leading Mark Cavendish on over the last kilometre of the Champs Elysees, is something that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

Meanwhile back in reality, I go to get the results back from the scan. As expected it is a complex picture, there is degenerative and arthritic change under the big toe joint and sesamoid articulations, a hyperextended second toe and a 9mm Morton’s neuroma between the third and fourth metatarsal heads. In ordinary language it means that the tiny pads that cradle the big toe, a runner’s shock absorbers are out of position and worn down, the second toe is on a one-way journey to dislocation and there is a trapped nerve between the other main toe joints. Well that’s a bundle of fun.

There follows an amusing conversation where I ask the surgeon:

Will orthotics make a real difference?

Will daily massage change the conditions?

Will changing my running style reverse any damage?

Will flex exercises bring back movement range?

Will cortisone injections help?

Is surgery inevitable?

The answers:

No, no, no, no, no, Yes!

So that’s it, I have to bite the bullet and get surgery as soon as Speed of Light is finished. The irony is that the damage is such that as long as can manage the pain effectively, running now will not make any difference to my condition. The damage is done and probably started when the sesamoid bones were hardening up before I was even ten years old. I feel quite accepting and must be careful not to become hyper-sensitised to sensations in the foot or become a ‘foot-bore’ in public. I can already wax lyrical about the hallux valgus on the MTPJ and the lateral pull on the hallucis brevis tendon. There is a horrified fascination as you go deeper into an injury prognosis.

I will persist with the barefoot work and decreasing heel strike but in the full knowledge that this must be done with gentleness and care. My feet are relatively soft and will need years of retraining. I will not be able to run for three months after the operation. It will involve removal of the bunion, breaking and re-setting the first toe and doing the same with a wire in the second and then taking the offending nerve out to eradicate the neuroma. There is an 80% chance of success.

Fuck this, I won’t give up. Surgery is irreversible, form is not. I’ll have Cortisone injections instead, work hard to change my foot strike and spread impact across the toes. The surgeon’s knife can wait.

Angus is Creative Director of arts charity NVA. NVA’s Speed of Light, where hundreds of LED light-suited runners performed in a unique fusion of sport and culture, took place onThe Quays in Greater Manchester between Thursday 21 and Saturday 23 March 2013 . For further information visit: NVA Speed Of Light