Bare Foot Running

I’ve often been plagued with running injuries but have always had a hunch that it’s not to do with the running, per se, but more to do with my foot strike, a lack of support structures in my feet, lazy muscles in my lower limbs, as well as sometimes overdoing it. Prompted by a book I’ve recently read, ”Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall, I have returned to barefoot running in order to improve my chances of staying injury free. At first this seems counter-intuitive when wrapping our feet in thick soled shoes has become the norm, but with some careful planning, I’m hoping that barefoot will improve the natural recoil and protection in my feet and allow me to run injury free.

Clearly, if you just throw away your running shoes, and head off barefoot, you could do yourself some damage. So my approach has been to go for a normal run (in running shoes) and then on reaching a suitable area, do a small amount of barefoot. When I started barefoot, I did a normal 5 mile run, and around 1 minute of barefoot in the middle (when I reached some grass). I just carry my shoes and socks with me, though you could leave them and come back to them (who’s going to steal a smelly pair of running shoes?!).

I literally go barefoot, although you could obviously get some barefoot shoes (an oxymoron if ever I heard one). Totally barefoot is not like you might imagine though. It’s actually very easy on the feet and feels fine. Obviously you have to choose the correct terrain and damp grass (early morning) seems the best.

There is also the issue of stepping on something sharp, although this is much less of a problem than you might think. I ran across a sandy beach this week (in Bournemouth, UK) which was literally strewn with sharp stones and found it very easy to pick my way through them without touching a single one. I guess your body has had plenty of practice at accurately placing your feet and I found that it was very easy to do. A similar thing happens if you are running barefoot in your local park – any objects on the floor that get in the way are easily avoided.

A barefoot running friend of mine advised me to start off on concrete/tarmac. This seems counter intuitive, but the thinking is, that by running on a hard surface, you are forced to avoid ”heal strike”. All of a sudden the big thick heal from your shoes has disappeared, so you lean forwards, go up on your forefoot, take smaller steps, bend your knees slightly, no longer heal strike and hey presto … you are running how you should! I have tried running on sand, grass, tarmac and other surfaces and have found that they all have their merits.

The main thing that you notice after a barefoot run, is that your calves ache like hell! You can be a regular runner, and do a run that wouldn’t normally tax you at all, but put a bit of bare foot in the middle and it appears to wake up muscles that haven’t been used for years. This is certainly the thinking behind barefoot. Your feet contain 25% of the bodies bones, 33 joints, and 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. These form arches and structures to give your feet natural suspension and recoil. Once your feet are wrapped in shoes, much of this support structure switches off. The force from the road then goes up your legs and gives you ankle, knee and hip injuries, all too familiar to runners.

Anyway, so far so good. I’m sticking with my principle of starting off on a normal run in shoes, and then on reaching a suitable point doing a small amount of barefoot. I am currently up to about 10 minutes of barefoot in the middle of a 50 minute run. This should be enough to stimulate my foot muscles, tendons and ligaments and thereby improve the support structures of my feet. I can already feel my plantar fascia strengthening up and my natural arch returning to my feet. My running style has already improved (shorter strides, on my forefeet, knees slightly bent, and no heal strike). The overall aim of this, for me, is to keep injuries at bay and thereby indirectly increase my speed, by virtue of the fact that my training won’t be interrupted. So, the barefoot, I think, won’t make me faster, it is more the fact that my training will be more consistent and less interrupted by injuries. I’ll have to wait and see!

Author: Mark Ballard,


Free food anyone?

What is the best thing you’ll eat all year?

When I pose this question to my students I get an array of answers – eggs, salmon, tomatoes – all foods that have their merits. My answer though, to their surprise, is blackberries… yes wild blackberries. They’re just coming into season (in the UK, not sure about elsewhere!) and best of all are abundant and free.

What other food do you eat that is wild, 100% fresh, grown on virgin organic soil (pesticide, herbicide, fungicide, nitrate free) and non-cleansed/ pasturised or irradiated. Nothing you buy in your local supermarket can make those claims.

These are some great properties of blackberries:

  • they’re free!
  • low GI (slow release)
  • low calorie
  • high in antioxidants & bioflavenoids = lowers the risk of cancers
  • contain ellagic acid which is good for your skin and even helps tighten it up
  • can relieve swollen gums
  • high in fibre so great for digestion, reducing colon cancer and diverticulitis
  • cardiovascular benefits through blood thinning and anti-inflamatory effects
  • can relieve sore throats

So get out there and start picking!

Author: Mark Ballard



Does exercise help you lose weight?

Still on theme of Jaques Peretti, who queried the value of exercise for weight loss in his BBC documentary, it appears that some things are so ingrained in our psyche that they are difficult to question. It’s easy to demonstrate that exercise in isolation is an ineffective means of weight control, but it’s difficult to get people to believe it. From working with obese people though, it becomes very obvious. It is very difficult, if not impossible, to exercise away obesity. The maths just don’t add up.

This got me thinking, because it’s obviously an important part of the toolkit for weight loss and could it be more important for some than others.

If clients are extremely out of condition, exercise initially is a very ineffective means of fat loss. They simply cannot do enough exercise. Take a new client of mine last week. She could do a plank for 3 seconds and a side plank for less than a second and required a long rest between each exercise – clearly this will not have an impact on her body fat. On the treadmill she could hardly manage to complete my standard 10 minute walking test, and did so at such a slow pace that the calorie consumption/ metabolic boost would be minimal. We could debate the fact that for her this is still maximum pace for ten minutes, but when it’s happening in front of your eyes, it’s obvious that it’s just not enough to change her body shape.

Contrast this with a trained athlete. On the same 10 minute treadmill test, they would run perhaps 2 miles, dig deep into their reserves, and stay slim. We don’t need to over-analyse whether they’re burning carbs or fats, or what zone they’re in. If you have the ability to work hard, you have the ability to use exercise as a weight loss tool.

However, going back to our deconditioned client, as they progress, exercise becomes a more effective weight loss tool. Once they can complete set after set with minimal rest, or sustain CV exercise at a high intensity, they can boost their metabolism and make progress on losing body fat.

None of this escapes the key point that Jacques Peretti was making though. Exercise is only part of the fat loss toolkit, and a small part at that. Addressing poor eating habits has to be firmly at the centre of all successful fat loss strategies.

Author: Mark Ballard

Are holidays bad for your waist line?

A client of mine returned from her holiday today, 5 pounds heavier. This is weight that she had worked hard to shed for 5 weeks prior to going.

Well, it doesn’t take a genius to work out where it had come from. A few more red wines than usual, meals out, all the usual suspects.

It raises 2 interesting points though:

Mindset – most people appear to believe that to be enjoyable, a holiday has to include eating unhealthy food and eating to excess. The turmoil this creates on returning, seems to more than negate the brief pleasure. This link is established early on. Most celebrations involve poor food choices – Birthdays, Christmas, Easter – making it a hard habit to break. Holidays can be equally enjoyable without these add-ons, a message I try to get across before clients travel!

Exercise v Diet – it also reinforces the point that Jacques Peretti made on his recent BBC documentary ‘The Men Who Made Us Thin’ (see link below). In isolation, exercise is not a useful strategy for fat loss. On returning from their holidays, people often state that they swam daily and did more walking than usual. Well guess what, it didn’t make up for those poor food choices, and never will. A successful weight loss strategy has to address poor eating habits.

Author: Mark Ballard –

‘The Men Who Made Us Thin’:


Why weights don’t make women muscly

Four reasons weights won’t make females look over muscly

ONE: Testosterone This is the main hormone that drives muscle growth and women have, on average, 10 times less than men, making muscle growth difficult. 

TWO: High Reps To look bigger, you need to do between 6 – 12 reps (or less) for each exercise. If you stick to 12+ reps, by definition you are lifting a lighter weight, and working muscle fibres that don’t bulk out. 

THREE Men Depending on their body type, some men, under normal circumstances, even struggle to put on muscle. In my experience, most men. 

FOUR Celebrities. Celebrities are all at it, and they look how you want to look (I expect). Don’t be put off by Madonna – she just went a bit far!

Resistance exercise = increased lean body weight = toned muscle = boosts your metabolism = fat loss

Author: Mark Ballard,

Metabolism Myth

MYTH 2: ‘I was born with a slow metabolism’

We do not reach adulthood and get burdened with a sluggish metabolism. Our bodies have a lot of control over our metabolism and it is very changeable.

Our basic metabolism is driven by our muscle mass (lean body weight) and our activity levels. So, to boost our metabolism we need to tone muscle and become more active. Toned muscle is like a small child – its always active and burning off calories. We don’t need to go crazy though – a daily walk plus a few visits to the gym each week will do. If you enjoy exercising, more is fine.

Low calorie diets are a disaster for our metabolism. Normal metabolisms for females/ males would be approximately 2000 – 2500kcals per day. A metabolism for someone on a very low calorie diet could be as little as 500kcals a day. When dieters say they look at food and put on weight – they’re not exaggerating!!

When the body detects severe calorie restriction it goes on ‘red alert’. It hasn’t cottoned on to 24 hour supermarkets and still thinks there is a famine. To restore/ save calories it does three things:

  1. Turns down metabolism (like turning down your central heating to save energy)
  2. Releases a hormone who’s sole purpose is to grab food from the blood and shove it in our fat stores.
  3. Makes us hungry. Don’t think you can overcome this one – it is a primeval drive which you eventually give in to. The same as needing the toilet or feeling sleepy.