This guy is running 1,000 miles barefoot with a 50kg weight pack for the Royal Marines
Sports Scientist Ross Edgley is taking on one of the most extreme challenges we've ever heard of.
The so-called fitness adventurer is attempting to cover 1,000 miles in a month whilst wearing a 50kg weighted Royal Marines backpack.
But that's not even the most ridiculous part. He's doing the entire challenge barefoot.
But this eclipses even those crazy feats of human strength and endurance.
He is having to do a marathon every morning at 4am before doing a full day's work. Ross then hits the gym to do his normal strength routine before covering more miles on his bike in the evening. All barefoot and with his weighted backpack.
The theory behind it is fusing the Royal Marine's world famous military stamina and endurance with ancient "barefoot biomechanics" of the San Bushmen hunters of Namibia, Africa.
There is method to the madness and the techniques have made him a fitter, faster and more efficient runner as well as stripping body fat off him.
We spoke to Ross midway through the challenge to find out exactly why he's doing it - the science behind it, why it works, the diet he's eating and how he hasn't keeled over and died doing that many miles with no shoes on.
JOE: Why the hell are you doing this challenge?
Ross Edgley: Firstly, because after the World’s Strongest Marathon and World’s Longest Rope Climb I've developed (and become fascinated) with this idea of fusing strength and stamina in extreme (strange) circumstances. But more specific than that, I've chosen to do this barefoot since studies show running the event without shoes might actually be easier as it helps us to re-learn forgotten foot physiology.
Next, putting sports science to one side, it forms part of my commitment to bring awareness to two truly amazing eco-friendly causes in the form of Chester Zoo's deforestation project and the Caribbean Island of Nevis' bid to become the world's first carbon neutral island by 2017.
Do you really have to do it barefoot? And what impact does this have on your performance?
See this is what's most interesting. Firstly, the verdict is still out on barefoot running. The Journal of the American Podiatric Medical Association states: "There is no evidence that either confirms or refutes improved performance and reduced injuries in barefoot runners."
But after a pair of Royal Marine boots left my feet blistered and bruised I decided to do the 1,000 miles shoeless. How Mother Nature intended. All because (temporally) ditching the trainers has been shown to strengthen the feet. An idea supported by research from the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University who found, "A barefoot running style provides increased proprioception and foot strength".
Proprioception just means the body's ability to sense movement within joints and joint position and since running barefoot improves this ability, it makes sense it could also improve foot placement and technique.
What are the strength and conditioning principles that have gone into your training to complete this?
So this is going to sound strange, but I used to live with the great San Bushmen hunters of Namibia, Africa. They could (and often would) run a marathon a day without leading a single trail.
Their running technique was perfect. Gliding over the sand on their toes delicately and effortlessly, they also do this completely void of many running injuries that plague most runners.
Back home in England and I went to the Asics Lab to find out why. One theory relates to how we humans move. Known as "human gaits", it refers to the different ways in which we get from A to B, either through specialized training (cycling) or naturally (running).
One key variable in the latter is how our feet strike the floor, which can be categorised in three ways
- Forefoot Strike: Where the ball of foot lands first
- Heel Strike: Where the heel of foot lands first
- Midfoot Strike: Where the heel and ball land simultaneously
What's important is these three foot striking patterns will produce differing forces and stress on the body when running. When monitoring impact on my Suunto watch, it plots a graph and you will see with a heel strike landing there's an initial peak that shows the force/impact of your foot with the ground when the heel hits the ground first. But what's interesting is that initial peak in force/impact is non-existent when you're forefoot striking since the landing is much "softer" as you forefoot or midfoot strike and land on your toes or the front of your foot.
What this means is the forces that impact on your body and joints are far less severe and "cushioned". Knowing this and understanding how your body moves can therefore become invaluable when preventing injury.
An idea supported by a study conducted at Harvard University in 2012 where it was found that "competitive cross-country runners on a college team incur high injury rates, but runners who habitually heel strike have significantly higher rates of repetitive stress injury than those who mostly forefoot strike".
Lastly it's often forgotten that running is a skill. It's a movement pattern so more efficiency means more speed and less energy spent.
This is one reason the San Bushmen of Namibia were faster, fitter and more efficient than me. Gliding across the sand with an impeccable forefoot striking technique, they had a high cadence rate and wasted no energy.
Cadence is a term used to describe the total number of revolutions per minute (RPM) by your feet. Experts generally recommend you aim for 180 steps per minute since any lower and you might begin to over stride which can cause the knees to lock and the heels to slam into the ground.
As well as putting undue stress on your joints, this is also much slower as every step serves as a "brake" to your forward motion. But the barefoot running employed by the San Bushmen is said to emphasise a quicker, "more natural" cadence.
This is mainly because you don't want to be taking huge leaps and strides onto surfaces that might be riddled with thorns and stones. Instead, when running without shoes, you will naturally take faster, smaller and more precise steps.
How does adding a 100lb backpack change the physical demands on your body?
All of the above seems to support research from the United States Army Research Institute of Environmental Medicine that studied how walking speed varies with backpack load. Sixteen males walked with a weighted backpack of 6kg, 20kg, 33kg and 46kg and it was found as load increased from 33kg to 47kg, "stride frequency increased and stride length decreased".
Basically the weight produced a greater cadence. This higher cadence is "likely improving stability and reducing stress on the musculoskeletal system" as the "probability of fatigue and injury" increase with weight.
Which is why (again, in theory) running the mileage barefoot — which naturally lends itself to a quicker, "more natural" cadence — might not be a bad idea.
So will all of this theory work when you're out there running barefoot with a weight pack on your back?
To be honest I've no idea. But after analysing thousands of studies from years of research, scientists from the Department of Sport, Health and Exercise Science at the University of Hull stated there is no universally agreed consensus on the best way to train for endurance.
They added that: "there is insufficient direct scientific evidence to formulate training recommendations based on the limited research."
Which is why — in my own strange way — these 1,000 miles are my attempt to add to the "insufficient direct scientific evidence" with my own experiment that fuses ancient African running techniques with modern military training.
It's either genius, stupid or both. But by August 20 I will know which.
How have you been training for this? And what is the secret to forging this level of endurance doing weighted marathons every day?
It is just the Law of Adaptation. I love this about the Royal Marines, they understand that if you do more today than you did yesterday, you will get fitter, stronger and quicker.
There's no strict routines or blueprint, just proven principles all mixed with mental fortitude. Again I love this since too many people get caught up in studies, books and routines. The whole time Marines are doing it. Living it. Learning it.
How do you fuel yourself to take on something like this and then how do you recover to go again?
Great question. One thing that's come out of this stunt so far is how I eat completely intuitively. Because of the miles and sheer amount of hours training I don't have time to count calories, carbs, fat and protein.
I'm of course conscious of them, but I don't, and can't, count them. I joked with my friends who do the miles with me, but I said "If you're counting calories you're not training hard enough".
I was joking but does raise a good point that when I'm midway through Marine training. Face down in the mud. With 50kg on my back. I'm definitely not thinking of tracking my macros or calories. If there's calories/energy during a break, I eat it. It's primitive nutrition. It's intuitive nutrition. It's something we've forgotten.
How does this challenge differ in terms of the physical demands on your body compared to your other challenges
I think the main thing with this one is it feels relentless. Pulling a car for a marathon and climbing a rope the height of Mount Everest both took just under 20 hours and they were over. Whereas with this 1,000 miles the biggest challenge is fitting it around work. It's quite often a barefoot marathon for breakfast (that starts at 4am), then off to work. Then in the evening another one. Eat. Weight train (since I want to maintain my strength on key movements) then I'll make up the rest of the mileage on the bike for a leisurely evening bike ride on a bike FOCUS have custom built for me to cope with the weight.
What problems have you faced so far?
I won't lie, my feet have seen better days. But they're beginning to get harder and adapt. I hope I can run the Bear Grylls Survival Race in Cambridge on August 20 barefoot. Over obstacles, through lakes and through the woods.
What effect has it had on your fitness and your body composition and why?
My body is just becoming more functional. Body fat is dropping, smaller (less superficial muscles), tendons and ligaments are becoming strong and the body's energy systems (how I use carbs and fats) are becoming really efficient.
I've been tested in the Asics Lab before the 1,000 miles (lung capacity, lactic threshold, time to fatigue) and now I will be tested afterwards to see the change.
You can sponsor Ross's herculean efforts right here.