There's more to 'barefoot' running than thin soles: technique is vital, too

"If you're banging your head against a wall, you can tie a pillow to your head and it will help," says Ben Le Vesconte, an instructor at the Vivobarefoot running clinic in central London. "But it's better to stop banging your head."

I've come to learn about "barefoot" running from the experts. This is a growing trend in the running world, fuelled by the success of the book Born to Run. The author claims that running barefoot, or in very thin-soled shoes, forces you to run in a more efficient way, making you lighter on your feet, quicker, and less susceptible to injuries. There's a wealth of scientific evidence to back him up, although also a few studies suggesting the opposite.

My head, in Le Vesconte's analogy, is my feet. The pillow is the cushioning on most running shoes. "Too many people read Born to Run, then go out and buy a pair of 'barefoot' or 'minimalist' shoes and think that's it," he says – but if you do that, rather than suddenly running like the Tarahumara or the Kenyans (the two main inspirations for the barefoot movement), you're more likely to hurt yourself.

To properly run "barefoot" (meaning, when written in quotation marks, running in thin-soled shoes that offer you little or no cushioning) you need to have the correct running form. To stop the head banging. Vivobarefoot's head coach, Lee Saxby, says that if you're still banging your head, you might as well have as much cushioning as you can get. Simply wearing minimal shoes often only makes things worse.

I've been to see these guys before. As part of the research for my book Running with the Kenyans, I was trained by Saxby in the art of barefoot running, so I'm expecting them to be impressed by my form. Their usual coaching process is to film you running on a treadmill in your regular shoes. Then they get you to take the shoes off and film you again running completely barefoot. Then, after some simple coaching and some exercises, they film you again.

That's what happened the first time I saw Saxby, and the results were startling. In the first film I looked like a tired office worker out for a weary plod. In the second, without shoes or coaching, I looked better, but still looked as though I was trying to slouch back into some invisible chair. In the final film, however, less than an hour later, I looked like a runner. A serious runner. In the three years since, I've become a firm convert to "barefoot" running; my race times have improved, I enjoy my running more and I've had fewer injuries.

When I hop up on the treadmill this time, Le Vesconte and Saxby say I have good technique, but spot weaknesses. Le Vesconte says my head is leaning forward, and my calves are not strong enough. He gets me kicking my legs up higher behind me, and it seems to help. But Saxby spots something even more fundamentally wrong. He gets me to stand on a special digital force plate which takes a picture of the pressure my foot is exerting on the floor. In the picture, I have no toes.

"Your running form is good," says Saxby. "That's what I call the software. Your brain has the right information and knows how to use it. But there's a clear problem here with the hardware – your feet." My toes, and particularly my big toe, are not doing anything. The big toe is supposed to be my anchor, providing stability as I run. But instead I'm off balance, my weight too far back in my heels. He presciently predicts this will cause me problems with my ankles and Achilles tendon. As it happens, I have been bothered by a slightly sore Achilles for the last few months.

So what is the remedy? Saxby says I'm a typical "zoo human", his delightful term for a person brought up in modern society, wearing shoes and spending most of the day sitting down on badly designed chairs. To prove his point, he asks me to do a squat, keeping my feet flat on the ground. I attempt it, but it's fairly hopeless. All I can do is bend forward. "You have no mobility around the ankles," he says. "And this is why you'll have problems."

I've heard about this before. In Kenya, everyone can squat – at least everyone in the rural communities where the great runners come from. If they couldn't, they wouldn't be able to use their pit toilets. This mobility and strength in the feet and ankles is one of the many advantages Kenyans have when it comes to running, and according to Saxby, it comes from walking and running around barefoot as children, and maintaining the ability to squat.

Fortunately, I am not beyond hope. In fact, the remedy is fairly simple. All I need to do is practise squatting – holding on to a door handle for now – and walk around as much as possible barefoot, or in "barefoot" shoes (Vivobarefoot handily sells "barefoot" lifestyle shoes for those who don't want to wear their "barefoot" running shoes all day).

Sort my hardware out, he says, and with my good running form, I'll be bulletproof. I think he means I won't get injured, but I like the sound of bulletproof better.

Ben runs a Saturday clinic, more info at barefootrunningclinicldn.eventbrite.co.uk or Ben@vivobarefoot.com

Thanks to guardian.co.uk who have provided this article. View the original here.