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Barefoot Running Workshop 3: Hills, Speed & Precautions

Many thanks to all who attended the final session of our Barefoot Running Workshops! In today’s workshop we built on the fundamentals of running mechanics covered in the first and second workshops. We tweaked our speed and hill running techniques, addressed safety issues unique to barefooting and took running video selfies for gait analysis. Here are some of the highlights of the day’s fun …

Happy, dirty feet, post-hills and sprints!

Happy, dirty feet, post-hills and sprints!

HILLS

Downhill

When running downhill, the impact on the body increases due to acceleration from gravity. When you drop a ball, it will fall faster when it hits the ground if dropped from 10 feet than 5 feet; similarly, your body will actually descend faster towards the ground when plummeting downhill than climbing up. The secret to effective downhill running lies in using that acceleration to your advantage, rather than letting gravity get the better of you.

Minimize bouncing. With that extra distance between you and the earth, downhill running comes with additional vertical motion. Try to minimize any unnecessary upwards motions, like jumping or bouncing, that will only exacerbate the stress from the downward fall. Aim to stay low to the ground and level on the horizontal plane.

Bend the knees. The knees serve as shock absorbers, so bent knees can greatly counter the added stress from downhill running. This also facilitates a low, steady stride, making it even easier to avoid bouncing and pounding.

Avoid breaking. Embrace gravity, don’t resist it. Steep inclines will automatically increase your pace, and a faster than normal clip can feel uncomfortable. A natural – often subconscious – response is to put on the breaks, stiffening the joints to counter the impact. This defense mechanism is far from beneficial, creating unnecessary tension as we clench in resistance, which only opens the door to injury. Take advantage of the acceleration and allow yourself to float. Once you release and embrace the descent, the ride will feel more like flying than a downward crash.

Don’t over-stride. Over-striding is always dangerous, but exceptionally so when running downhill. What’s worse, downhills actually encourage over-striding, as they entice us to extend the leg out in front as a protective mechanism. This only forces you into a heel strike and increases stress on the shins and knees – a dangerous combination when coupled with an already elevated impact from the incline!

Uphill

In contrast to downhills, uphill running requires us to fight against gravity. Maintaining proper form will keep you strong to efficiently conquer these demands.

Lean into hill. Exaggerate your forward lean to counteract the incline. But take care to lean not at the waist, but with the entire body. Collapsing forward will only increase your workload and make that hill feel extra torturous!

Stay tall. Since the goal is upward movement, aim to lengthen the body upward. This is where good posture is key, keeping the back tall and long, head high and looking forward.

Steady effort. Powering up a daunting hill may not be the best tactic to smoke your competition. Your strong sprint could easily backfire, leaving you exhausted by the time you summit. Rather than keeping a steady pace, aim to maintain a steady effort. This of course, means slowing it down on those inclines. To track your effort, monitor your breathing rate; regular breathing means regular effort and is a good indication you’re not over-exerting yourself.

SPEED

Increase forward lean. To run faster, we need to increase the amount of forward motion per step. This extra ground coverage can be achieved relatively easily be simply leaning forward.

Light feet and high cadence. Faster speed does not in fact require higher cadence (leg turnover rate). You should strive for the same high cadence as always (at least 180 steps per minute). However, when sprinting this high cadence will even further work to your advantage. Speed can be more strenuous on bare feet, encouraging shearing and friction. Keeping your foot-strike light and cadence high can minimize these effects by reducing your ground contact time.

Open stride. Don’t be afraid to open up your stride. Barefoot running often encourages a shorter stride, but a longer stride can help support speed for any runner. Allow your hips to open a bit more and your leg to lift a touch higher than usual, but remain fluid and never force a gait change.

 

PRECAUTIONS

Blisters & Abrasions

Blisters and raw skin are relatively common for novice barefoot runners. While unpleasant, these can be valuable training tools as they’re telltale signs of sub-optimal biomechanics. Use their appearance and location to pinpoint your weaknesses. Blisters on your toes? You may be pushing off or gripping excessively. Calluses on your heel? You may be striking too far back on the rearfoot. Abrasion on the ball of your foot? Try not to scrape, shuffle or shear the foot on landing, but lightly place and lift instead.

Dangerous” debris

The greatest concern for the new barefoot runner is cutting or bruising their feet on all the glass, rocks and dirty needles littering our earth. In truth, such dangers aren’t prevalent and are relatively innocuous to the conditioned bare foot. That said, there are of course certain encounters that are best avoided by even the most experienced barefooters. 

Urban debris. Most obvious are artificial hazards such as shards of glass or rusty nails. Large dangers are easily avoided by scanning the ground, and smaller ones may not even penetrate the thick, tough skin of the foot’s plantar surface. Of course, in the unlikely case you sustain a bad cut or puncture, seek medical attention!

Natural debris. More likely to take down a barefoot runner are hazards lurking naturally in the trails and grass. Thorns and burs love attaching to feet and although painful, are easily pulled out. Landing hard on a stone can bruise, but the feet will become resilient to even the most daunting rocks and pebbles as the feet strengthen with experience. A less often considered risk, but one that’s taken down yours truly on countless occasions, are bees. Depending on your reaction to bee stings, you may want to seriously reconsider running in grass, especially during the spring and summer, when bees love frolicking through the grass as much as we humans do.

Environment

Heat: Depending on your foot conditioning and tolerance, hot ground can pose unique challenges to the barefoot runner. But because of the reduced foot-contact time when running compared to walking, it’s surprisingly easier on your feet to run on hot terrain. Some surfaces heat more readily than others, so stick to concrete or dirt over pavement. The painted white lines on roads can offer some refuge, as long as you’re careful to avoid cars!

Cold. In some aspects, the cold can be more hazardous to the barefooter than the heat. In extreme cases, the feet can go numb, which reduces sensory feedback and encourages poor biomechanics (not to mention posing a risk of frostbite!). Feet often warm up after just a few minutes of running, but if you do lose sensation, stay smart and stop or put on some protection. Just a pair of socks will often suffice to keep the feet warm while retaining a mostly barefoot feel.

Wet: Running through the rain, mud and puddles can be one of the most exhilarating barefoot experiences. But stay cautious of smooth surfaces, which can become dangerously slick when wet. Water can also soften the skin, making it more likely to rub raw on rough terrain or long runs.

As both a student and teacher, these workshops have been a far more rewarding and educational experience than I originally anticipated. More importantly, they’ve also served as a fantastic tool to connect with the small but passionate community of barefoot runners in San Diego. Given how fun and successful this “pilot” series has been, there will definitely be more! Please don’t hesitate to get in touch with suggestions for what you would like featured in upcoming workshops, and stay tuned details about future events.

Happy barefoot trails!

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Barefoot Running Workshop 2: Lower and Upper Biomechanics

In the first of our Barefoot Running Workshops, we explored facts and fiction of barefoot running, sensory awareness and mechanics of the foot. In our second workshop today, we introduced basic running kinematics before moving north from the foot to cover mechanics of the lower and upper body. Here’s a recap of the workshop highlights for those who missed it.

RUNNING KINEMATICS

Before diving into the nitty-gritty of leg, hip and torso function, it’s essential to understand how one gets from zero to running in the first place. Running has been described in a multitude of ways, from a controlled fall to alternating one-legged hops to a springy, aerial variant of walking. Given this confusing jumble of terminology, what then are the essential movements that convert a stationary body to a running body? The basic motion is far simpler than most runners would imagine. There’s no jumping, bouncing or flying required! In essence, running is nothing more than marching while moving forward.

March. Simply pick up the feet, the ankle gliding parallel to the shin up to the knee. Return the foot to its starting position and repeat with the other leg. That’s it. The 100-ups are a great exercise to reinforce this motor pattern.

Lean. Once you’ve mastered marching in place, it’s time to transform this into forward motion. This too is simpler than it sounds. To move forward, the body must lean forward. This lean should NOT come from bending at the waist; “sitting” or folding forward will cause a host of problems from the back to the hips to the knees. Instead, the lean should originate at the ankles, the entire body leaning angled together along the same plane. By simply adopting a slight lean from the ankles, you will fall forward and be propelled from stationary marching into forward travel. March, lean, and BAM … you’re magically running!

BIOMECHANICS II: LOWER BODY 

Lift the legs. A constant upward motion should be maintained throughout the gait cycle. This is especially important after striking, when the legs should immediately lift up. The feet should land directly under the hips, neither reaching forward nor crossing over the midline. Both overstriding and a cross-over gait can lead to various injuries. The Gait Guys offer an excellent series of videos on correcting a cross-over gait (part 1, 2 and 3).

Bend the knees. To facilitate a smooth ride, bend and relax the knees. The knees can serve as shock absorbers when allowed to flex, so the greater the bend, the less impact will be sustained upon landing. This is especially helpful when running downhill.

Stable hips. The shin bone’s connected to the thigh bone … the thigh bone’s connected to the hip bone … Yes, it’s all connected, and these chains are particularly notable in the context of how the legs move in response to the hips. The hips are indeed the powerhouse and main driver of a strong running stride. Strong, stable hips are essential, and muscular imbalances or poor hip mechanics are the source of many leg and foot injuries. Don’t let the hips sink or drop, but keep them level on the horizontal plane. The hips serve as the body’s steering wheel, so be sure to keep them facing forward and aligned with the shoulders.

BIOMECHANICS III: UPPER BODY

Core rotation. Some rotation is key to balancing the body’s left-right movements, but excessive rotation, or from the wrong place, can be problematic. Most of the rotation should originate in the core. Imagine the pelvis as a chandelier, the torso as its suspension cable and your head as the ceiling. The pelvis should dangle, relaxed, and rotate freely from the waist, supported by the strength of the strong, elongated core. As the right legs swings back, the right pelvis rotates back. It’s not forced or pulled, but swings naturally, allowing greater leg extension without over-stressing the hips. (The chandelier example was adapted from this excellent article.)

Shoulders and arms. Keep the shoulders low and relaxed, but don’t slouch. Some shoulder motion is fine, but be careful not to dip them or overly rotate the chest. After the hips, the shoulders serve as a second steering wheel, so they should remain stable and facing forward. Keep the arms close to your sides, elbows at a 90 degree angle and swinging forward and backward rather than across the chest. The rhythm of your arms directly affects hip and leg motion; a rapid arm punp can encourage faster leg turnover, and fluid forward-backward swinging will minimize inefficient lateral movements.

Head and posture. Your head leads and guides its body below. Keep your head up and neck stretched tall and long. Unlike owls, humans are blessed with eyes that move independently from the head, so you can still look at the ground without titling the head down. The entire body – from the ankles up to the tip of the head – should form a strong, continuous line, without kinks from poor posture or bending at the waist. Imagine being lifted upwards, suspended by a bird or plane (or pick your favorite flying power-creature) directly above your head.

PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER

Now it’s time to integrate these elements into your perfect running form! This video from the Natural Running Center is a beautiful example of a strong, efficient stride. Revisit this video and try to mimic Mark’s fluid, light motion whenever you need a refresher.

The final key to optimizing your stride is forgetting everything you just read and just run. Yes, I am (mostly) serious. Sometimes less can be more in terms of tapping into your optimal gait. Running is one of the most natural movements for humans, and a strong, healthy body will readily fall into it’s own unique running stride. Obsessing about every component of your form will not only take the joy out of running, but can also backfire, inducing unnecessary tension or forced, inefficient motor patterns. If you find this occurring while tweaking your running mechanics, abandon the effort and simply allow your body move fluidly and aimlessly. You might find that your muscles were one step ahead of your mind, and knew the route to efficient running all along.

Join us for the final session of our Barefoot Running Workshop series Sunday, July 12 at 3 pm. As usual, we’ll meet at the Founder’s Statue at the northwest corner of Balboa and El Prado in Balboa Park. In this final session, we’ll wrap up with how best to run hills and do speed work, as well as safety and practical considerations of running barefoot. More details and RSVP here.

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Barefoot Running Workshop 1: Myths, Sensations, Foot-strike

Thanks to the awesome crew who attended my first Barefoot Running Workshop, lessons were learned and loads of barefoot fun was had! We dispelled myths, explored the pleasantness of soft pine needles and the not-so-pleasantness of hot, rough pavement, and most importantly, left with happy, dirty feet.

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As a recap for attendees or those interested in future workshops, below is an overview of the highlights from our first session. In this introductory meeting, we covered: 1) the facts and fiction of barefoot running, 2) the importance of sensory feedback and awareness, and 3) mechanics of the foot (don’t fret … we’re not foot-centric and will address mechanics above the foot in the next workshop).

BAREFOOT RUNNING: FACT & FICTION

MYTH 1. Barefoot running will cure my injuries.

Fact: Injuries are often the result of training errors, such as overtraining or incorrect form. Taking off your shoes can’t compensate for these mistakes, but the increased awareness and sensations from being barefoot can help you better listen to your body and train smarter.

MYTH 2: Barefoot running causes foot fractures, Achilles tears and calf strains.

Fact: Running carries a risk of injury, regardless of what is or is not on your feet. There are certainly reports of sustaining such injuries when running barefoot, but these are almost always due to transitioning too aggressively, or doing too much too soon (see also here and here). A gradual, conservative transition while respecting your body’s warning signs will let you run safely and injury-free.

MYTH 3: Barefoot running is just another fad and a gimmick.

Fact: Barefoot running is as old as man, and was how humans first began running. Conventional running shoes are only a very recent invention (introduced only in the 1970’s with the advent of recreational jogging). Despite misleading marketing, the cushioned soles and raised heels of typical running shoes have never been shown to improve running or prevent injury (See Pete Larson’s great book for more on the science of running shoes).

MYTH 4: I will cut my feet on glass, step on rocks or catch a disease.

Fact: Sure, these are possibilities, but the ground is much less dangerous than the fear-mongerers will have you believe! Most of the earth is not, in fact, littered with broken glass and dirty needles. You will quickly learn to automatically pay attention to your surroundings to easily avoid such dangers. Your feet will also become more resilient against lesser dangers like stones, twigs or gravel.

MYTH 5: I need to build up calluses to toughen up my feet for barefoot running.

Fact: Calluses results from excess friction and are a sign of poor form. If you develop calluses or blisters, you are likely shearing, shuffling or pounding excessively. Over time your skin will become thicker and more resilient, but should not be rough or callused.

MYTH 6: Barefoot running will make me a faster or more efficient runner.

Fact: While barefoot running will change how you run and is unlikely to impair it, there is conflicting evidence as to whether it will improve or not affect your running economy. When first learning to run barefoot, the body will naturally demand a slower pace and reduced mileage. But as the body adapts over time, runners will gradually return to their earlier performance level. One’s response to going bare depends on many factors, including training history, running conditions and distance.

MYTH 7: You cannot run competitively or quickly barefoot.

Fact: There have many exceptional competitive barefoot runners throughout history, including Abebe Bikala (winner of the 1960 Olympic marathon in Rome) and the 1980’s Olympian Zola Budd.

MYTH 8: It’s best to run barefoot on the grass or sand.

Fact: If you’re looking for a bit of fun, go ahead and frolic barefoot through a grassy park or along the beach. But if your aim is to learn proper running form, stick to firm ground. Soft surfaces – just like cushioned shoes – can encourage lazy technique, particularly heel striking and heavy landing, and may even be more stressful to the body. Firm, even surfaces will provide the best feedback and sensations to train your neuromuscular system to run well.

MYTH 9: I can get the same benefits from minimalist shoes, without the risks of going barefoot.

Fact: Running in footwear – yes, even the most minimal shoe – will change how your run. Zero drop and thin-soled shoes carry certain advantages over conventional shoes, but a key benefit of being barefoot is the rich sensory feedback from your skin. You cannot experience these benefits with rubber between your foot and the earth.

MYTH 10: I can’t run barefoot because I’m flat-footed, overweight, too old, etc …

Fact: Anyone can run barefoot, regardless of age, shape or size. Running barefoot naturally encourages you to run lighter, easing the impact on your joints and tissues. Weak feet result from disuse, and will quickly become stronger with foot exercises and barefoot activities.

SENSATIONS

Enhanced sensory input lies at the heart of the many benefits of barefoot running. To maximally reap these benefits, we must become aware of our body’s response to the environment. What do you feel when running on concrete, pavement, gravel, dirt or grass? How about on hot, cold or wet surfaces? How do your sensory experience and gait change on various terrains? Note any sensitivity on the skin of your feet, your sense of stability and your proprioception. Do you run more lightly, quickly or fluidly on any particular surface?

AWARENESS

Along with intensifying sensory experiences, running barefoot also heightens awareness of your internal and external environments. Running requires constant feedback to the body from its surroundings, and listening to these messages is key to safe, healthy and strong running. Take advantage of all your senses – especially your vision, hearing and touch – to maintain contact with your external environment. With a bit of practice you will begin to automatically scan for hazards (rocks, thorns, traffic, cyclists or playing children!) and for the optimal placement of your next step. At the same time, your internal awareness will naturally increase. Acknowledging your body’s responses to the environment will help refine your form, correct mechanical errors and prevent injury. If something feels off, play with your stride until you regain fluidity. But if you feel you’re pushing too far, listen to your body’s call for rest.

BIOMECHANICS I: THE FOOT

Foot-strike. What part of the foot touches first (forefoot, heel, midfoot)? Barefoot running encourages a mid- to forefoot strike, which research suggests may beneficially redistribute impact forces compared to heel-striking. However, there’s still no clear consensus over the “right” foot strike, or whether it even matters for injury prevention or performance.

Do you land more on the outside or inside of the foot? A natural strike will involve both pronation and supination, beginning with a slight inward roll followed by an outward roll at push-off. As these motions should come naturally, it is best not to force them, but to focus on landing with the whole foot at once. A helpful tool is visualizing the foot as a tripod; it is most stable when all three corners – the base of the big toe, base of the little toe and the heel – all contact the ground together.

Relax. Are the feet tense or relaxed? The feet may clench as a defense mechanism, especially on rough terrain. This can be dangerous and lead to excessive foot slapping, heavy impact and foot or shin pain. Relax the ankle and let the foot land softly.

Lift, don’t push. Do the feet push off or pound the ground? They should instead touch only briefly, followed by an immediate lift. The overall motion of the foot should be upwards, lifting from the ground rather than slamming downwards. This will prevent shuffling, shearing or twisting, which can lead to blisters or calluses.

Over-striding. Where do the feet land relative to your center-of-mass? They should land directly beneath the hips, not in front. Over-striding – or striking with the feet too far forward – is one of the most common sources of running injuries.

Cadence. Are the feet turning over rapidly? Aim for a high cadence (turnover rate), as this may help minimize impact forces and improve efficeincy. 180 steps per minute is roughly considered ideal.

Check out the recap from our second session, in which covered the fundamentals of running form, including lower and upper body mechanics. In our third and final session July 12, we’ll explore hills and speed and practical concerns of barefoot running.

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San Diego Barefoot Running Workshops

I’m thrilled to announce … the first in a series of FREE San Diego Barefoot Running Workshops!

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THE MOTIVATION

This past International Barefoot Running Day, the small crew of San Diego barefoot runners gathered to share our love for natural running. This was my third consecutive year celebrating #IBRD and each year I come away with a renewed appreciation for the barefoot running community and new insights into how to maximally reap the benefits of the practice. Each of us have come from distinct backgrounds, have traversed unique paths and have made our own discoveries along the way, but we’ve all arrived at the same conclusion … Barefoot running is the way for us. For several months I’ve been toying with the idea of how best to share the lessons I’ve garnered from barefoot running with others in the hopes that they too may experience similar joy and growth. Reuniting with other barefooters last weekend reaffirmed the conviction that sharing these experiences and supporting others in their barefoot journeys is a worthy endeavor. As such, I’d like to invite you to participate in my San Diego Barefoot Running Workshop Series. These workshops are crafted with the novice barefooter in mind, but will ideally also serve as a welcoming environment for all – even lifelong barefooters – to nurture their evolution as strong, healthy, empowered runners.

WORKSHOP FORMAT AND AIMS

This first (beta-series, if you will) of workshops will comprise three meet-ups, each session focusing on a unique aspect of barefoot-running form, training and lifestyle. Each session will involve discussion and drills, and will conclude with a short fun-run to put into practice what we’ve learned. These runs will be designed to develop technique, rather than speed or endurance, so they will be short, easy and appropriate for runners of all levels. The workshops will be spaced apart (between two to four weeks) to allow runners sufficient time between sessions to incorporate lessons into their training. They will be casual, interactive and collaborative, with the hope that all participants will share their knowledge and experiences, and continue to learn from one another. The ultimate aim is to re-discover the pure, basic joy of running, by reinforcing natural movement patterns, learning safe training practices and increasing awareness of our bodies and environment.

Workshop #1 will take place Sunday, May 31 at 3 pm in Balboa Park.

We’ll meet at the Founder’s statue at the northwest corner of Balboa and El Prado. Please wear comfortable clothing (but leave your shoes at home!) and bring any hydration or supplies that you’d like. We’ll schedule the time, frequency and location of future workshops based on feedback from this first session. If you have suggestions for topics you’d like covered or how these workshops should be organized, please comment below. If you plan to attend (which I hope you do!) please RSVP at the Facebook event page, and please pass this along to other runners or barefoot enthusiasts. I’m looking forward to sharing the joys of barefoot running with you!

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