A barefoot running adventure in the Swedish mountains

My trip to Trillevallen was in collaboration with Vivo Barefoot UK, who invited me to test their new trail shoe, and to run in the off trail race which was part of Fjällmarathon week. Before I go into my experience of the race I want to give you a brief introduction to barefoot running.

Barefoot running

Although barefoot running has been practiced for decades, the barefoot running movement went mainstream back in 2009, when a book called Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall, was published. Like many runners, I read that book, and was interested in understanding more about barefoot running, but never actually took the step to try and transition out of my regular running shoes. In part it was the stage I was at with my running, and in part it was because I was injury free, so I thought why fix something that’s not broken?

Barefoot running is a topic that is widely debated online. Many opinions appear to be based on little or no science, and some are funded by companies with vested interests. So you really need to do your own research, but the most common pros and cons put forward include the following:

Pros

  • Improved muscle, tendon and ligament strength in the foot
  • Removing the heel lift of most shoes helps the Achilles tendon and calf muscle stretch and lengthen and may reduce injuries
  • Landing on the forefoot rather than the heel
  • Improved balance and co-ordination due to toe spread and ground contact

Cons

  • Less protection from ground debris and weather conditions
  • Shock to the muscles of initial transition may lead to overworked/fatigue muscles which can lead to Achilles or calf injury
  • Some people may experience plantar (bottom of the foot) pain when transitioning

Of these cons, however, the only one not related to the transitioning phase is protection from the environment, and this can be overcome with using the new barefoot style shoes. Which begs the question, why aren´t more people running barefoot?

I think it is due to a combination of things, including a reluctance to change away from traditional shoes when there is nothing “wrong” (as was the case for me), a lack of education, and the influence of marketing super powers in the footwear industry, such as like Nike and Adidas.

But even the strongest barefoot advocates will tell you it is important to consider a few things before going barefoot, because selecting the best type of footwear for you can depend on individual running style, body type and the surface you are planning to run on. You should also be aware that there is a transition period required, you can not just change from shoes to barefoot running overnight.

Vivo Barefoot 5 km off trail race

I arrived in Trillevallen on the day of the race after first flying from Stockholm to Östersund, and then driving for an hour. It was my first time in this part of Sweden, and I was excited to see what the landscape was like. Upon arrival at the hotel I met one of the staff at Vivo Barefoot, who gave me a pair of Primus Trail SGs (coming Autumn 2016), the shoes that I had been asked to test out during my stay.

The surrounds in Trillevallen are beautiful, being a popular ski location in the winter, and I immediately took my new shoes and went exploring. I didn´t know much about the race route itself, but soon realised I was in for a tough run when I found the start line at the foot of the nearest mountain.

Photo credit: Fjällmaraton

I went for a quick run around in the shoes to see how they felt, and my first impression was that they felt really comfortable. I was a touch nervous about diving straight into a 5 km race in a new pair of shoes, but after running around in them for a while I decided it should be ok. My previous experience running trail and off trail races had been in a pair of Inov8´s, which were minimal but not barefoot shoes. One of the great features I noticed immediately on the Primus Trail SGs was the material which enclosed the foot across the top, to stop mud or debris coming into the shoe. They also had fantastic grip, which was going to be needed to negotiate the technical course.

The race started as the sun was beginning to set and was a small but friendly affair. The majority of runners were Swedes from the local area, many of whom were running with their families. I was impressed with how many young children there were, Sweden´s next generation of professional trail runners!

So off we went straight up the hill. I copied a few others’ technique, walking and scrambling when it was too steep to run (most of the first km), and then trying to jog in between. My heart rate was sky high from the outset; and I was struggling, there are definitely no mountains like this in Stockholm.

File 10-08-2016, 14 27 47.jpeg

After making it up to the top, the sideways traverse across the mountain and then steep decline proved equally difficult, but in a different way. Knowing where to put your foot down was part of the challenge, as there were no trails and a lot of small shrubs, rocks and holes to negotiate. Running downhill always puts a bit of extra pressure on your knees too, so it´s important to know when to break and when to release your legs.

After reaching the bottom unscathed, the next part of the course involved running through mud and watery marsh. As an Australian my immediate thought was “be careful, this is the perfect environment for snakes!” Luckily Sweden doesn´t have the same sort of deadly animals that we do back home.

Photo credit: AXA Fjällmaraton

Photo credit: AXA Fjällmaraton

The race finished off through forest and with a jump over a small stream I was at the finish line, muddy, a bit tired, but with a big smile on my face after what was an incredibly fun and challenging run.

The Primus Trail SGs served me incredibly well, I didn´t slip once, they drained the water quickly, and I easily found my balance and rhythm running in them even though they were brand new shoes. I am going to start using them for trail running back in Stockholm too, but will ease into it slowly. The classic mistake people make when transitioning to barefoot shoes is running too much (too far) too soon, before your feet and muscles have had time to adjust.

As for the off trail race experience in Trillevallen I can highly recommend it, and I would love to go back next year. I will see if I can fit the Fjällmarathon into my schedule too - which is the 43 km trail race on the final day of Fjällmarathon week.

Happy running!

Dan