mundane adventures in running
My quads hurt like hell after too much The Core is The Core. Practically crippled, I did a quick 10k loop into central London, so that I can provide you with this: a Brief Summary of Road Surfaces in London, Written with the Barefoot Enthusiast in Mind.
I’ve said elsewhere; I’m no barefoot evangelist, although I love barefoot running. It’s great for training, helping my form and strengthening muscles which otherwise wouldn’t get a look in. It makes you feel really connected to your environment, and to the great lineage of runners who have gone before you: the persistence hunters of yesteryear. Oh, and it’s blood minded, weird and slightly showy offy; it appeals to my Urban Exhibitionist side.
To be clear though, when I say barefoot, I mean barefoot. I hold no truck with these Vibram soled fly by nights who describe running whilst wearing shoes as running barefoot. I too wear minimal shoes for a lot of my runs, and seriously cushioned shoes for others, but when doing so I would never claim to be running barefoot. Shysters and charlatans begone.
When I first started barefoot running in London, a lot of my friends were aghast. They could get their heads round the idea of barefoot on a beach, or in a park, but not barefoot up the Walworth road, through Tulse hill estate, or over a hundred dropped pint glasses in a saturday morning soho. It’s only when you take your shoes off that you realise how good London streets are for barefoot runners. You become incredibly aware of glass, dog poo, tubercular cough mucus, tramp sick when there’s a very real risk you might make direct contact, right on the skin, with any step. With this awareness comes the epiphany that our council tax is well spent, that our pavements get cleaned up pretty regularly, that most Londoners have pretty good manners and that actually, really, I kid you not, going barefoot in the capital is ok.
That said, some surfaces are better than others, some are actively painful, others perilously slippery, others wonderfully tactile, luxuriously sensorial. Without any further ado, below are my user reviews of London paths and pavements with a focus on their suitability for barefoot running.
Bog standard. Concrete slabs are the most common paving encountered in London. While hard and unforgiving, they are gently textured so they never get that slippery and even with no surprising lumps and bumps. They’re quite boring to run on; it becomes quite easy to switch off and not think too much about form. Compared to other surfaces they feel dead, lifeless and without energy. They have a cold utility. There’s no romance in concrete slabs, but they work.
Hidden terror. Leaves can be a problem on concrete slabs. They increase the risk of falling, but rather more disgustingly can mask chewing gum, dog poo, hypodermic syringes etc.
Concrete paving comes in many guises.
Arch Banger. Barefoot running can switch your perception of your environment in quite peculiar ways. Tactile paving isn’t something I’d normally pay any mind to when shod, but when the shoes go they act like hurdles, making you hurdle for segments of your run.
These tiles are blister pattern. They are great for the blind, but rubbish for barefoot runners. If you land on them too hard, they can bruise the arch of your foot: painful but not crippling.
This is another example of tactile concrete slabs. These are corduroy, hazard warning slabs. Again, they can be real arch bruisers. Approach with caution.
Cheese grater. This simple tarmac is another very common pavement material. It’s trickily unpredictable: generally ok, but occasionally treacherous. The attrition of surface against skin slows the barefoot runner down. Running too fast, striking too hard, slipping and sliding become quite painful, forcing the runner to focus on short, quick, light steps. The pavement becomes like a stern master from a 1970s kung fu movie, doling out painful beatings as punishment for sloppy form.
Rooty deformations. The greenery of London can be perilous: roots deforming tarmac pavement can stub toes and scratch arches.
Death by a hundred tiny slicing pebbles set into concrete. Ow. This surface is horrible. The stern Kung Fu master of tarmac becomes an insane sadist, doling out punishment even for perfect form. Running on the rough tarmac of the road is preferable to this.
Deformations in the pavement take a while to get fixed. The barefoot runner will find his journey slowed by mucky surfaces. They are always traversable, but doing can often be taxing: you have to calculate how best to approach and tactically pick a path through the least agonising bits.
Puddles give welcome relief on surfaces like this: a quick cold refresh resets the soles to give you a boost.
Stone kerbs are another oasis; a cold and smooth respite from tarmac. With a bit of skill, it’s possible to keep a 5.20km per minute pace using the kerb as a tightrope.
Paint too can give you a breather: a super low friction, smooth surface. Search out zebra crossings for safety and comfort.
Highways through history. Old flag stones are bar none my favourite surface to run on. London is scattered with them: in the grander parts of central London and around churches and other historical buildings. Real stone is cold, smooth and silky. It feels amazing on the feet: it’s textured enough that you don’t slip, but has a satin softness to it. For something so uncompromisingly hard and dense, it feels giving, as though with every step it adapts and moulds to your foot. Stone oozes some nebulous poorly defined energy of the kind loved by homeopathy enthusiasts and people who believe in pleadian aliens: you can feel the spirit of the stone seeping into your feet. It’s old and alive. Running barefoot on stone makes you feel in touch with the city, with the history and with the earth itself.
Unlike flag stones, Cobblestones can be fairly traumatic. Lumps and bumps can bruise and bash. If you hit cobblestones too hard they’ll hit you back. If you slow down and treat them with respect, they can be as wonderful as flag stones to run on.
Nature boy. The relatively manicured parks of London are a lot more forgiving than real nature. Places like Dulwich Wood or Hampstead Heath have some fairly convincingly wild paths, but the mown grass in most parks makes for an easier surface: you can see twigs and stones which might otherwise be hidden and the ground is likely to have been rollered. This type of surface is great for gentle recovery runs and probably the best place for a London barefoot beginner to start experimenting without shoes.
Unctuous oozing mud. Poor drainage or excessive football in parks can produce welcome pockets of standing water or mud. The mud is amazing on your feet. It feels curative: like the nutrients are being absorbed into your feet and coursing round your body. Wallowing in mud is a natural antidote to city stress.
Mud can be dangerous though. Without studded shoes, you can very easily find yourself falling arse over tit or unintentionally doing the splits.
Ow. Ow. Ow. This is the surface of the Millennium Bridge, which was clearly not build with barefoot runners and hippies in mind. I’ve trodden on rocks running, I’ve landed on a screw, I’ve had glass in my feet, thorns lodged in my soles, but the Millennium Bridge is absolutely the most painful thing I have encountered. No amount of slowing down or walking softly diminishes the pain. It’s as though the bridge had been made from a thousand cut throat razors laid on their sides. Unless you are specifically practising some kind of meditation or exercise in pain transcendence, don’t run barefoot over this bridge.
Life’s a beach. Londoners will know about the two or three patches of sand on the south side of the river. Running alongside the shore of the Thames at low tide is a fun and funny thing to do. Most of it is unnavigable barefoot; there are simply too many bits of glass and rough rocks to pick through. The sandy bits, however, are not only navigable, but worth seeking out: cold, damp and impacted. As with mud, sand feels restorative in a way concrete could never.
For stats and maps, click here (although for some reason Runkeeper switched off for the last few kms..)