Getting bored of your normal footwear and keen to try something a bit different? Well, Billy Vosnakis from Greece got in touch with Precision Hydration recently to tell us how helpful he’d found PH and how he competes his endurance events – including the Athens Marathon - either barefoot or in sandals.
Our interest was piqued by a 52-year-old who in 2011 weighed more than 90kg and was, by his own admission, an “overweight smoker who loved alcohol and junk”. So, how did Billy transform from being out-of-shape into an athlete who has inspired family and friends to compete in races without ‘traditional’ footwear?
Hi Billy, thanks for getting in touch. So, tell us why you prefer to run either barefoot or in sandals to running in trainers...
Hi PH! Well, I believe your feet stay in a natural position and strong when wearing sandals, whereas wearing trainers with cushioning makes your legs, knees, feet very weak as your muscles don’t do the proper work. I like to use the analogy of imagining sleeping with five pillows – what happens to your neck? It becomes weaker.
So, running with cushioned trainers weakens your leg muscles, quads, knees, hamstrings, hips, calves etc, which in turn leads to injuries. With barefoot running, sandals or minimalistic shoes like Altras or Merrell, they allow your muscles to support your feet and become stronger.
There are several sandals in the market – I like Luna sandals, Bedrock and Xero – and they can cost around £100, but they last from 2000km up to 3000km.
Interesting, so why should our readers consider throwing away their uber-cushioned trainers for a pair of sandals?
Firstly, it’s worth reading the book ‘Born to Run’ by Christopher McDougall – it’s about a tribe called Tarahumara, who run crazy long distances with sandals made from pieces of car tyre ( I have made two pairs of sandals from car tyres and done many long runs with them).
But I honestly think it’s a healthier way of running, particularly as it feels better for your posture, and it’s worth remembering that we’d been running barefoot for millions of years before the big trainer brands came along.
Is it that more ‘traditional’ and ‘old school’ element that influenced your decision to run the Athens Marathon in your home country then?
Running the Authentic Athens Classic Marathon is a unique experience and running it barefoot or with sandals gets you closer to the stories of the Ancient Greek Soldiers and one in particular.
There’s the famous story of Pheidippides, who ran 246km from Athens to Sparta to deliver a message, before running another 246km back to Athens. All in less than 36 hours.
The next morning all of the army went to Marathon to fight.
They again got Pheidippides to deliver a message to Athens, this time running the 40km from Marathon to announce the Greek victory over Persia in the Battle of Marathon. He did all of this whilst wearing his heavy gear and, of course, his sandals. He delivered the message but sadly collapsed and died after reportedly stating, “Joy, we won!”.
For me, it’s an honour to run the Athens Classic Marathon like the ancients.
Beyond the Athens Marathon, which other big events have you completed with minimalist ‘footwear’?
There was the extreme, long distance triathlon – The Norseman – which involves a freezing 3.8km swim in a fjord, a gruelling 190km biked leg and a marathon that goes from sea-level to 2,000m in height, including the infamous ‘Zombie Hill’.
The final stretch of the race is basically a goat trail up to the finish line at the top of the mountain, so everyone was staring at me when they saw I’d done it with my sandals on, but I like to think I showed that anything is possible with the right frame of mind, which is something my good friend Alex Croucher helped me with.
It was actually Alex, who is a mind-set coach, that introduced me to Precision Hydration as I’d become known as ‘the lizard’ when trail running as I wasn’t drinking enough. After using a few other brands without much success in the past, I’ve found using PH has helped me get the proper electrolytes on board and has improved my performance considerably.
It sounds like you’ve come a long way in endurance sports since 2011 – what’s been your big takeaway from running without traditional footwear?
Well yes, I’ve done three Ironmans, but I stopped after seeing so many accidents on the bike and the ambulance picking people up. I changed to races that involved less competitors, but more extreme conditions.
So, I’ve done the Celtman five times, the Norseman three times, the Swissman twice, as well as the Greek Extreme Triathlon. I’ve also completed at the OtillO Swimrun World Championships and the 1000 Lakes. Although my more extreme races were done in sandals due to the technical terrain and difficult weather conditions.
Ultimately, I’m pleased to say that I have motivated my own family and several athlete friends to take up running with sandals, and they all say it has changed their running for the better. It offers more freedom and less injuries.