There is little that can polarise Podiatry circles with the same vigour that the old "barefoot shoe" debate can! The main issue being the claims that running in 'barefoot' shoes can reduce injury risk and increase performance when studies show that there is no evidence to prove that these claims are true.
A few weeks ago I had the pleasure of meeting William Sichel, Orkney's resident Ultra Runner. Not only is William an incredible runner and inspirational person, he's also really lovely to chat to.
We started speaking about his running and then moved on to footwear. I was knocked sideways to learn that William is a huge fan of minimalist footwear. Most Podiatrists are "anti minimalist shoes" so I was intrigued to learn more. How could someone who runs such massive distances, manage this feat whilst wearing 'barefoot' shoes which have a strong connection with injuries such as stress fractures?
William was good enough to agree to an interview to allow me to ask him just that! Read on...
Hello William, would you mind giving a brief outline of your running career and how you came to be an ultra runner?
It's been a long one! Started running in 1992 in order to get fit for when I would be 40 in 1993. I quickly became a useful marathon runner getting my time down to 2:38 in 1995. I happened to mention to someone that I didn't feel exhausted at the end of my marathons and they suggested I try ultra marathon running. I tried the Scottish 100km road runningchampionships in 1994 and won at my first attempt - so I was indeed an ultra runner! I stuck to 100km running for number of year but slowly started trying longer events with success. Basically, the longer the race the more successful I seemed to become. Eventually I moved into multiday running and became World No1 for 6 Day running in 2006. It was then pointed out to me that I had set a lot of records at World, Britih and Scottish level, including age-groups so record setting became a goal of mine right up to the present day. I managed to complete the World's Longest Certified Footrace in 2014 thus becoming the oldest person ever to complete it and the Brit to finish inside th current 52 day time limit.
What are some of the biggest achievements in your running career so far?
18 wins; 434 records; represented GB 12 times and Scotland 6 times. Completing the 2014 Sri Chinmoy Self Transcendence 3,100 Mle race in New York
After chatting with you a few weeks ago I was intrigued to learn that you are a fan of 'foot shaped shoes' and minimalist footwear. Can you tell me what prompted you to start wearing this type of footwear?
The simple answer is that I needed shoes that fitted me better. I've always had wide feet and they seem to have got wider and more spread over the years. I was finding it increasingly difficult to find conventional shoes that fitted me. Hence the move to foot-shaped shoes that actually fit me!
There is a connection between 'barefoot shoes' and an increased risk of injury such as stress fractures within the foot due to lack of shock absorption when running on hard surfaces such as tarmac. You run some incredible distances in your shoes, how do you protect yourself against injury during such intense activity?
I transitioned very slowly from normal cushioned running shoes to barefoot/minimalist shoes. I wore them all the time in normal life for 2 years before transitioning to running in them. I have now done all my running in them for 2 years. The other thing I do is buy a size larger then I need and them add addtional flat footbeds and/or insoles to achieve the desired level of comfort in my very long ultra distance races.
After speaking to you I was intrigued to try out minimalist footwear myself so I purchased a pair of Freet shoes myself, which is the brand you wear and endorse. They are really comfortable but I'm not convinced I'm ready to go for a run in them just yet! What advise would you give to someone who really wants to transition to 'barefoot' shoes?
Take your time! Don't rush into it and consider 'softening the blow' by adding extra comfort and support as described above. This can them be removed, if you want, as the feet, muscles and tendons adapt which does take time. Also it doesn't have to be 'all or nothing', you wear normal shoes for some runs and then gradually introduce the Freets into some runs. I have even changed into my Freets halfway through a long run!
Finally, can you give us a glimpse into your own foot care routine? How do you prep your feet for a race?
I have a weekly foot care routine which involves checking my feet over, filing down any calluses, trimming nails etc. Before a race I do this with extra attention, especially with regard to the nail trimming. I cut my nails short then file them right down so that when I draw my finger over the nail towards me I can't feel any ridge at all,. It's completely smooth, nothing to catch and I do that for each toe nail. I always have a footcare kit with me at every race. This will contain a variety of creams, lubricants, powders and patches to cover all eventualities. My favourite foot care book for runners and walkers is "Fixing your Feet" by Jon Vonhof.
William has found a style of shoes which fit him well and work for him. I think there is an important lesson here which we all can learn from. Everyone is different and different footwear works for different people. We need to be guided in our choices by what fits, what works and what is comfortable for us.
So far, I love my Freet shoes for every day use, in the clinic and to the shops etc. I enjoy feeling the ground and the movement the shoes allow my feet. I'll still wear my supportive trainers for my runs and my walking boots for off road walking with the dogs because for now, that is what works best for me. Maybe this will change in time, for now I'm really happy with it as it is.
You need to choose what suits you and your activities and go with that, and don't be scared to mix and match different footwear types! Don't get sucked in by hype and make sure your shoe choices are mostly based on COMFORT.
A huge thank you to William for his time and wisdom. To see more about Freet footwear check out www.freetfootwear.co.uk