Running is one of the few great activities that can cause both euphoric pleasure and mind-numbing pain at the same time. If there's one thing worse than a running injury, it's never reaching your true potential as an athlete.
Don't think you have what it takes to be a high-performance runner? In fact, the human body is a running machine. Our exceptional ability to run is one of the key reasons humans are here on Earth today.
Evolution has turned us into endurance runners, according to research led by Harvard paleontologist Daniel Liberman. Long before the invention of weapons, humans would hunt by running down their prey. Since a quadruped can't pant while galloping to cool itself down, humans were able to outlast their prey by keeping cool through sweat.
Every one of us is built with many of these incredible running adaptations. For example:
- Short toes keep your foot stable and allow you to run without straining the toes.
- Arches in your feet act as springs to store and release energy, helping to propel you forward with less effort.
- Achilles tendons are super-elastic and also store and release energy, specifically when running.
- Gluteus maximus, also known as your butt, connects the legs and hips and is specially designed to stabilize the trunk when running.
Using evolution to your advantage
When you spend a large part of your day in over-supportive shoes with raised heels, your body is restricted and adapts to the conditions. It's not long before you end up with weaker feet, collapsed arches, and shorter heel cords, robbing you of your ability to run safely and efficiently.
Heeled shoes also force you to land on your heels as you run, known as heel striking. This transfers a massive collision force through the body at each step. "It's like someone hitting you on the heel with a hammer two to three times your body weight," says Lieberman.
Being a high performance athlete requires you to use the evolutionary design of your body to your advantage.
One way to do this is by running barefoot. Barefoot running allows you to land where it's comfortable; on the ball of your foot. Minimizing the impact force with a gentle landing, beginning at the forefoot and spreading evenly through the legs, prevents you from wasting energy on movement that doesn't propel you forward. This is the exact motion that feels most natural when you run in your bare feet.Of course, there's much more to good running mechanics. Yet, optimal foot placement and development helps set the stage for movement throughout the entire body.
The bare foot alternative
When going barefoot isn't an option, try a pair of minimalist shoes. These have flat, thin soles, and wide or individual toe boxes. They provide you with a barefoot feel that promotes good form and allows you to strengthen your feet, while protecting you from injury and infection at the same time.
This is especially important for athletes running on rugged terrain such as obstacle courses. Running through the rocky wilderness, up slippery walls and over blistering fire pits requires a little more protection than your delicate feet.
Of the minimalist shoes I've tried, my favourite for trail runs are the Vibram FiveFingers Spyridon MR, specifically designed for mud runs. Out on the trails, I like to focus on keeping my breathing slow and calm, keeping an easy stride and enjoying the scenery. Not only do the shoes improve my running efficiency, but they help clear my mind from worry about slipping or stepping on something painful at every step.
If you've never tried it, trail running with minimalist shoes has a completely different feel. The foot feels much lighter and more agile, but is well-protected and maintains flexibility. If you're anything like me and like to head off trail, balance on logs and run through the mud, then these are some key features you'll want to look out for.
That said, it's important to keep in mind that a minimalist shoe itself is not a miracle cure. You can unleash your natural abilities and maximize running performance, but it's going to take time and consistent effort.
If you're trying a pair for the first time, give your feet a chance to adapt by integrating a gradual transition for at least five weeks. Start with 10 to 20 per cent of your normal running distance in your new minimalist shoes and increase by 10 per cent each week.
Listening to your body at each step is the key to a smooth transition. By being aware of the danger signals in your body and training it to move well, not only will you reduce your risk of injury, but you may find yourself running faster and longer then you ever thought possible.
Follow HuffPost Canada Blogs on Facebook
MORE ON HUFFPOST:
A swim under a beam through an icy bath. Do it quick or you could develop hypothermia.
Climb over three 12-foot walls, just after you've climbed over bales of hay, when you're at your weakest in the whole course.
A 45-degree climb up a 40-plus foot cliff. Oh, and it's muddy, slippery and you'll be competing with your peers for hand grips. Don't try this alone.
Run through burning planks of firewood that can singe the skin if you're not fast enough. Persian New Year celebrations may have inspired the last part of this obstacle: a giant leap over a pit of fire.
You know the halfpipe? Grease it up and you get some idea of what "Everest" is like. Quickness is key here, as competitors have to run up a rounded incline and get a grip with a teammate before you get pulled over to the other side.
A simple slide down into a cold pool of muddy water. Which would sound a lot worse if you weren't doused in the stuff already.
You've seen this obstacle in any number of military academy movies. Get as low to the ground as you can to avoid getting caught on strings of barbed wire just over your head. Peek up too much and you could get scratched.
Have you done your squats? Strong legs are key for an obstacle in which competitors carry heavy logs for half a mile.
Just in case you haven't had enough mud, meander through acres of the muck that can bring you down if you're not careful.
You won't find Captain Hook poking a sword into your posterior, but you will have people barking at you to jump off a plank that's at least 15 feet high into a freezing bath below.
There's just no way to prepare for this, a painful crawl on your belly that forces you to stay low to avoid low-hanging wires that shock you if you get too close. But this is only half as bad as...
Evade Shelob as you climb over a wobbly spider's web that's only taut at the top.
Remember the rings in gymnastics? Yeah, they're not so easy anymore. And just try doing them over, you guessed it, a pool of muddy water.
The playground teased us when we were young: the monkey bars only got tougher as we all got heavier. On the playground, you could just drop down and get a soft landing. Here, you risk falling into frigid water.
Follow Jonathan Rizzolo on Twitter: www.twitter.com/eatplanima