Tag Archives: running

Runner down, in body and soul

Since abandoning my running shoes in 2013, I’ve been blessed with the resolution of most of the debilitating overuse running injuries that plagued me as a shod runner (think torn tendons and fractured feet). However, life has a way of keeping the scorecard even, throwing a host of almost comically improbable accidents and injuries my way. It’s just three months into the year, and I’ve already battled a spontaneous low back strain and a sprained (possibly broken?) fourth toe (neither related to running). My patience and devotion to smart recovery have yet again paid off, as I’ve recently returned to a mostly-normal running routine. But consistent with its “Let Emilie never remain uninjured” rule, life has once more reminded me who’s boss and kicked me back down, literally … with a car door.

While dodging through the crowds of tourists on yesterday’s run through San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Warf, I felt as though I was racing through a virtual world, navigating the hazards of a video game. Feeling strong and anticipating a powerful finish to the day’s 11-miler, my gut suddenly exploded in stabbing pain and my vision momentarily when dark. Runner. Down. A child in a car stopped on the road beside the sidewalk on which I was running, had carelessly swung open his door at the very moment I passed. The door collided into my lower abdomen with epic force. My brain went blank. I could do nothing besides grip my belly, utter some profanities and wonder how much time remained before I died of internal bleeding. The sound of the crowds faded, but their stares and horrified dropped jaws further seared my aching body. As the boy’s and my eyes connected, his wide in shock and fear, a voice from the car cried out “It’s not the kid’s fault!” Without apology or concern, the car drove off. Relieved to discover I was still alive, I moved my hand from my abdomen to discover blood seeping through my shorts. I stumbled behind some dumpsters, the only remotely private corner I could find amidst the crowds of tourists, to further inspect. The collision had left a deep, two-inch long gash along my pubic bone (I’ll spare you the graphic image) and some very bruised abs. Borderline delirious but fueled with adrenaline, I somehow finished – in fact, nearly sprinted, as I fought back tears – the final three miles of the run. As I reflected on the incident on the run home, more painful than the gash in my belly was the disturbing realization that not a single person had offered help or asked if I was okay.

Over my decades of running I’ve been repeatedly impressed by the uniquely compassionate and supportive spirit of the running community. Perhaps the unifying thread is that mutual understanding of the common mental and physical obstacles we face each time we set out for a run. The struggles of another are no different from our own. Even in the fiercest competitions, this spirit shines through, with runners often sacrificing their own comfort and chance for victory to help another through fatigue, discouragement or pain. It was on the backdrop of this exceptionally caring community that made the crowd’s response – or lack thereof – to my situation so strikingly ugly. To the rubberneckers who witnessed the accident, I was not a fellow human who needed help, but instead the barefoot stranger who got doored in a running hit-and-run. I was simply someone’s amusing anecdote from their crazy San Francisco vacation.

I’m committed to tackle this hurdle with the same determination as I’ve done with each past injury. The physical and emotional trauma of yesterday’s accident took this runner down, body and soul. But my love for running is too strong to let a bump in the road keep me off that road. The incident admittedly shook me and undermined my faith in humanity. Yet, it’s also been an invaluable reminder of what sets runners apart from the masses. Now more than ever, I’m deeply grateful to be part of such an extraordinary breed whose compassion for their fellow humans runs true and deep.

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Embracing sadness

Years ago, I was a chronically injured runner – stress fractures, torn tendons, you name it, I had it. This came to a blissful end about a year ago when I bid adieu to my most frustrating injury, a chronic hamstring tendinopathy that’s haunted me nearly my entire running career. Since then I’ve enjoyed remarkable growth as a runner, witnessing improvements in my strength, endurance and technique. I’ve returned to racing after a several-year hiatus and recently registered for what would be my eleventh marathon and first barefoot marathon!

My mirage of invincibility disintegrated suddenly just 10 days ago. Having completed a particularly hard week including a great 18-mile barefoot run just a few days prior, I was fatigued and sore. Just five miles into an “easy recovery run”, my hamstring seized up and left me limping home. My heart sank, recognizing that all-too-familiar pattern of pain that I’d battled since high school track and cross-country. I had re-strained my hamstring.

Over the years of incessant injuries I developed resilience and adaptability as I learned the invaluable benefits of a positive attitude for healing (and sanity!). This optimism has kept me on the fast track to healing, nurturing my health for optimal rehabilitation. During past injuries I would attack cross-training and strength work, diligently adhere to my physical therapy, and target my diet to heal as efficiently as possible. I have always been convinced that this is the best way – the right way – to approach recovery. The athletes I most admire would never let injury get them down, but attack it head-on with hard work and determination. The first few days after re-injuring my hamstring I was similarly optimistic. This is a minor bump in the road … just some fleeting soreness that a little massage, active release and acupuncture will nip in the bud, I convinced myself.

Yet 10 days of essentially no running (excepting a few very painful failed efforts) later, I can no longer feign positivity. I am in mourning and I am embracing it. This is a sadness that only a runner could understand. I am sad to have lost a defining piece of myself. A source of inspiration, energy, passion and power. My source of life. This admission comes with a heavy dose of embarrassment and guilt for such distress over what is truly a trivial matter. Rationally I’m deeply grateful for my remarkable fortune for my otherwise great health, a job I love, and the most wonderful friends and family. I have tried to deny this melancholy, to convince myself that this sadness is no match for my optimism. But that is a lie. Pretending that I don’t miss those hours alone on the road, that I don’t fear another long struggle with injury, is perhaps even more toxic than the negativity itself.

One day I will heal. One day I will run again. I know this. But for now, I am sad.

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Astrocytes may Hold the Key to Exercise-Induced Cognitive Enhancement

Originally published on the PLOS Neuroscience Community


Forget expensive pills or exotic miracle supplements. Exercise may be the most effective – not to mention free and accessible – cognitive enhancer on the market. Research in humans has shown that physical activity can improve cognitive function and may help stave off dementia, yet the biological mechanisms underlying these benefits aren’t fully understood. Animal studies have made substantial progress on this front, demonstrating such positive responses to running as enhanced neurogenesis and elevated levels of neural growth factors. However, much of this research has been relatively narrowly focused, with particular attention devoted to neuronal changes and one notable brain region – the hippocampus. The hippocampus is selectively important for certain functions like learning and episodic memory, but exercise improves a range of cognitive processes, many of which depend on other, non-hippocampal brain regions. Therefore, researchers from Princeton University looked beyond the hippocampus and neurons to more thoroughly characterize the neural events that impart cognitive protection from physical activity. In their study recently published in PLOS ONE, Adam Brockett and colleagues report that running enhances performance on various cognitive tasks, improvements which may be mediated by changes in astrocytes, the lesser appreciated brain cells.

Running selectively boosts some cognitive functions

To manipulate levels of physical activity, rats were divided into a group of runners who were allowed free access to running wheels for 12 days, and another group of sedentary controls. Prior studies have shown that running improves performance on tasks requiring the hippocampus, like learning and memory. Here, the runners and non-runners were subjected to three tests to determine how exercise affects cognitive functions that are not dependent on the hippocampus. An object-in-place task, which tests how well rats remember the location of previously encountered objects, relies on the medial prefrontal cortex, hippocampus and perirhinal cortex. A novel object task, in which rats distinguish novel from familiar objects, selectively depends on the perirhinal cortex. Lastly, a set-shifting task, supported by the orbitofrontal and medial prefrontal cortices, measures attention and cognitive flexibility.

Compared to their non-runner companions, the runners performed better on the object-in-place test and on several measures of the set-shifting task. However, there were no differences between runners and non-runners in performance on the novel object recognition test. Of course, the cognitive benefits of running don’t end here, since many cognitive domains were not assessed in this test battery. But these findings highlight a striking selectivity of the brain-boosting powers of exercise. In particular, they suggest that running may enhance functions that specifically depend on the medial prefrontal and orbitofrontal cortices, along with the hippocampus, but it does not appear to modulate perirhinal-dependent functions.

Cognitive enhancement is linked to astrocytes

Although behavioral changes provide a window into the underlying neural events, they do not tell the complete mechanistic story. To directly examine how running affects the brain, the researchers assessed changes to both neuronal and non-neuronal brain cells. Running induced widespread neuronal changes, including higher levels of pre- and postsynaptic markers throughout the brain (including in the hippocampus and orbitofrontal, medial prefrontal and perirhinal cortices), and increased density and length of dendritic spines in the medial prefrontal cortex. While these effects suggest that exercise elicits generalized synaptic changes, they do not explain why particular cognitive functions are selectively boosted over others.

The researchers therefore looked for this crucial link to behavior in astrocytes. As Brockett explains, “We hypothesized that all cells likely change as a function of experience. We chose to focus on astrocytes because there is lots of evidence suggesting that astrocytes could be implicated in cognitive behavior. Loss of astrocytes correlate with impairment on a cognitive task and astrocytes connect the majority of neurons to blood vessels. They extend numerous processes that envelop nearby synapses, and gliotransmitters have been implicated directly in LTP-induction.”

Confirming their suspicions, in runners, astrocytes increased in size (Figure, A-B) and showed more contacts with blood vessels (Figure, C-D). But these changes only occurred in the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex – critically, all regions that support the tasks showing running-related improvement. In contrast, running did not alter astrocytes in the perirhinal cortex, a region necessary for novel object recognition, which did not benefit from running. Thus, while running modified both neurons and astrocytes, the pattern of selective cognitive enhancements corresponded only with changes to astrocytes.

In the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, astrocytes were larger and made more contacts with blood vessels for rats who ran than those who did not. Brockett et al., 2015

In the hippocampus, medial prefrontal cortex and orbitofrontal cortex, astrocytes were larger and made more contacts with blood vessels for rats who ran than those who did not. Brockett et al., 2015

Implications for the active human

Although the varied and widespread cognitive benefits of exercise have long been appreciated, this study provides some of the first insight into the remarkable selectivity of these enhancements. Follow-up studies will help elucidate why, from both biological and evolutionary perspectives, running would demonstrate such selectivity. Might, for example, attention or task-switching abilities have been more important than object recognition for the efficiency of both animals and our persistence-hunting, distance-runner ancestors? Does running more heavily recruit certain brain regions over others, making them more susceptible to remodeling?

Given the cognitive and neurobiological differences between rats and humans, future research will be important to help extrapolate beyond rodents. Currently it’s unclear how different forms of exercise enjoyed by humans – for instance, swimming, yoga or strength training – uniquely influence distinct cognitive functions. According to Brockett,

“There is a lot of evidence that running has numerous beneficial effects on rodent and human cognitive functioning, but it is likely that aerobic exercise in general is responsible for these effects rather than running per se.”

Perhaps most notably, these findings add to the growing pool of studies underscoring the importance of astrocytes in neural processes that support cognition, and reveal a novel role for these cells in experience-dependent plasticity. As Brockett explains:

“Astrocytes are a unique cell type that haven’t been explored as much as neurons by the field of Neuroscience at large. Few studies have directly examined the role of astrocytes in complex behavior, and this was our first attempt at investigating this question.”

References

Alaei H, et al (2007). Daily running promotes spatial learning and memory in rats. Pathophysiology. 14:105–8. doi:10.1016/j.pathophys.2007.07.001

Brockett AT, LaMarca EA, Gould E (2015) Physical Exercise Enhances Cognitive Flexibility as Well as Astrocytic and Synaptic Markers in the Medial Prefrontal Cortex. PLoS ONE 10(5): e0124859. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0124859

Gibbs ME, O’Dowd BS, Hertz E, Hertz L (2006) Astrocytic energy metabolism consolidates memory in young chicks. Neuroscience 141(1): 9-13. doi:10.1016/j.neuroscience.2006.04.038

Henneberger C, Papouin T, Oliet SH, Rusakov DA (2010). Long-term potentiation depends on release of D-serine from astrocytes. Nature. 463:232-6. doi:10.1038/nature08673

Kramer AF, Erickson KI (2007). Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends Cogn Sci. 11: 342–8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.06.009

Marlatt MW, Potter MC, Lucassen PJ, van Praag H (2012). Running throughout middle-age improves memory function, hippocampal neurogenesis, and BDNF levels in female C57BL/6J mice. Dev Neurobiol. 72:943–52. doi:10.1002/dneu.22009

van Praag H, Kempermann G, Gage FH (1999). Running increases cell proliferation and neurogenesis in the adult mouse dentate gyrus. Nat Neurosci. 2:266–70. doi:10.1038/6368

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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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The Vancouver Half, a victorious defeat

When life gives you lemons … suck it up. Isn’t that how the saying goes? Well, at the Scotiabank Vancouver Half Marathon last weekend – my second barefoot half – I sucked it up and it was sour.

The saga began a few weeks prior, when I was spontaneously struck with debilitating chest pain. It gripped me intensely, leaving me barely able to breath and fearing a heart attack. An X-ray showed a healthy heart, lungs and ribcage, yet the pain persisted for weeks. Massage, active release and chiropractic adjustments brought some temporary relief, and although I’ll never know for sure, I now suspect it was a strained pec or intercostal muscle. Many days, running was impossible. On good days I could eke out a short, slow, uncomfortable trot. To make matters worse, the stress and tension in my chest and back trickled down to knock the rest of my body out of wack. My opposite leg felt weak and limp, as if it were dragging powerless behind me … as if it belonged to someone else, completely out of my neuromuscular control. As race day neared, I began to abandon my hopes of running at all, mentally preparing for a restful vacation exploring a new city.

Come race morning, I convinced myself anything was possible and knew I would regret not at least trying. The gun went off and to my great surprise, my chest quickly loosened up and my breathing was fluid. My right leg, on the other hand, forgot how to move. For the first seven miles, it took every ounce of mental focus to coerce my muscles into lifting and propelling forward my dead leg. The sun blazed as the pack of runners hugged every smidgen of shade to escape the 80 degree heat. My battle to maintain a semblance of a functional stride intensified as I pranced precariously over nasty stretches of gravel. Eight miles in, a tiny stone sent a zinger through my toe and I pulled to the side for several minutes waiting for the ache to subside. I fought the discouraged voices rationalizing an early finish and pushed ahead. The toe pain gradually dissipated and I even enjoyed a brief surge of strength and fluidity.

But by that point, it was too late and the damage from my wonky gait coupled with the hot, rough and canted roads, had been done. My right heel began to burn and I felt an escalating squish as my bare foot struck the pavement with each step. I refused to inspect my foot and acknowledge that a monstrous blood blister had developed, with four miles still remaining. I refused to focus on the distance ahead, allowing myself to think only of the present moment. “Just take one more step. One step is nothing. Then, just take one more.” I convinced myself that the pain was illusory – that it only existed if I gave it life – and somehow, this denial empowered me through, single squishy step by squishy step. As I sprinted to the finish, a huge smile was plastered on my face and a flood of endorphins masked the havoc I had wreaked on my body. And just like Cinderella at midnight, as I crossed the finish line and broke that invisible endorphin wall, my ecstatic sprint transformed into an awkward hobble over to the medical tent.

VacnouverHalf

As I saw my finish time, I was surprisingly unfazed by learning I had raced my slowest half ever. Those 13.1 miles were more painful than any I had raced before, but they hurt far less than a DNF or worse – a DNS. Despite the physical pain and frustration, I genuinely enjoyed almost every moment. There is a reason runners return again and again to race, through heat, injury and fatigue … the energy of the running community, the intoxication of the journey, and the discoveries along the way entice us back as addictive rewards.

Several years ago this race would have devastated me. Indeed, by dwelling on insignificant matters of time and speed, racing can destroy a runner and quench the very passion that fuels us to run. But by embracing each experience as a novel opportunity for growth and self-discovery, we can only evolve into better runners – and better human beings. For me, the aggregate challenges of my years of running have reinforced one invaluable lesson. We runners are so much stronger, and our bodies capable of so much more, than we’re aware. Our power is only bounded by the limits of our mind and the integrity of our spirit. To paraphrase a particularly accomplished marathoner, my fastest days may be behind me, but my best running days lay ahead.

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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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A sitting injury in disguise

Six months ago I wrote in jubilation that I had finally overcome my 17-year long struggle with high-hamstring tendinopathy. What first emerged as a nagging high school running injury has since haunted me with its frustratingly sporadic flare-ups. It seemed to rear its ugly head at random, with no clear relation to any aspect of my training – not distance, speed or hills. It must be my form, I reasoned. Since rehabbing with PRP, I’ve devoted these past several months to optimizing my running mechanics to prevent another resurgence of the dreaded hamstring pain. And these efforts have been paying off, as I’ve felt stronger and more fluid in my running than perhaps ever before. I considered myself officially victorious over this decades-long injury.

That is, until one week ago … one week ago, on a rest day (i.e., no running) at the end of an easy, low-mileage recovery week. After some light morning yoga and a day spent sitting at lab, I began to feel an achy spasm and cramping in my hamstring – an all-too familiar sensation that literally appeared out of nowhere on my drive home. The pain escalated over the subsequent hours and I was soon in the throes of my worst hamstring flare-up in a year. Tension and pain radiated from my neck down through the back of my knee and I fantasized about a chiropractic adjustment of my misaligned back and pelvis. I struggled through each run this week, but rest was not an option. In fact, the greatest pain was at rest; sitting, and especially driving, were torturous and even sleeping was a challenge. A week later, I’m finally seeing some light at the end of the tunnel, thanks to some aggressive ART, Graston and dry needling. While encouraging, this does not answer what caused the flare-up in the first place. I had done nothing obvious to exacerbate it, and had even been cautiously respecting my recovery week.

04The answer, I’m now convinced, lay in a tiny skin irritation at the ischial tuberosity where the hamstring tendon attaches to the sit bones – the exact spot where I felt the most intense pain. The spot appeared coincidentally – or so I thought – around the same time the hamstring pain first set in. The “coincidence” didn’t faze me until a week later, and I finally began putting two and two together. The irritation was at the epicenter of my pain, which escalated to unbearable when sitting. Incidentally, there have been only two periods of my life when I’ve enjoyed extended relief from the injury: First, during a six-month trip around the world, during which my days were spent walking, hiking and exploring. Second, another six-month period while briefly working in a lab that required me to be on my feet at length. A clear pattern began to emerge. Freedom from desk-work and sitting correlated with symptom relief, whereas excessive sitting (with a sore on my tush as proof) correlated with spontaneous hamstring flare-ups.

Could my running injury have been a sitting injury all along? Perhaps this is wishful thinking. Perhaps there remains a running training error at the heart of the issue that I have yet to discover. But until then, I’m confidently adding hamstring trauma to the growing list of reasons sitting is hazardous to our health and a threat to the sanity of a running addict.

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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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The shoulder-hip rotation equation

Stabiliity. Mobility. Activation. Relaxation. Each of these features has its place in a strong, efficient running stride. Yet, an excess or lack of one at the wrong place in the gait cycle can seriously throw off a runner’s biomechanics. Through some recent trials and experimentation of my own, I’ve learned how profoundly true this is for a proper kinematic balance throughout the core, extending from the pelvis up through the abs, back and shoulders.

Those who’ve been following my blog will be aware of my history of hamstring and foot injuries. I’ve struggled with disproportionate left hip/hamstring tension and tendinopathy for years, and have sustained beyond my fair share of right foot fractures and tendinoses. While these issues are more or less under control due to gradually improving biomechanics, more mindful training and frequent self-care (massage, ART and physical therapy), they continue to linger as minor annoyances on most runs. A couple weeks ago, my physical therapist performed a gait analysis to get to the source of these longstanding imbalances.

She noted three main issues:

1) Excessive left shoulder rotation. I tend to pull my left shoulder back too much right before left foot-strike. The arms should swing in the sagittal plane, but there should be minimal rotation at the shoulders.

Left shoulder rotates excessively

Left shoulder rotates excessively

2) Insufficient right leg drive. Compared to my left leg, my right leg does not come up as high during the swing phase. I can feel this while running, as if the leg is dragging behind me instead of driving back powerfully. In fact, I have a tendency to occasionally stub my right big toe due to my inability to lift.

Right leg lifts lower than left

Right leg lifts lower than left

3) Externally rotated right foot. When the foot strikes, it tends to land with the toes pointed outward. I am also keenly aware of this error, as it feels like the entire right leg is uncontrollably turned out.

Right foot rotates outward

Right foot rotates outward

Mental trick FAIL

For the past week, I’ve attempted to consciously correct each of these biomechanical errors in turn … without success. Efforts to stabilize my shoulders left me with excess tension from the neck down, through the shoulder and back. Empowering my right leg drive felt unnatural and exhausting, and turning my right foot inward was even more awkward and resulted in lateral ankle pain. Form correction FAIL.

My physical therapist prescribed some drills to ingrain proper shoulder and foot motor-memory; yet these changes will take time and I wanted a quick fix. I knew something major was off with my gait, so I launched my own investigation. I came across an article discussing the balance between shoulder and pelvic rotation (which I can no longer track down) that struck a chord. Excessive amounts of shoulder rotation, they explained, may signal insufficient hip rotation. If the hips are too rigid, the upper body compensates. Prior to my long run this week, I practiced this simple exercise to reinforce what proper pelvic rotation should feel like … and to no surprise, this was a novel sensation for my typically rigid running hips.

Mental trick SUCCESS!

Throughout my long run, I repeatedly checked in with my form, this time drawing on some new tools in my belt. Rather than forcefully immobilizing my upper body, I focused on relaxing the shoulders, keeping the neck extended, and leading with the chest. I increased my forward full-body lean and was cautious not to overstride. Most critically, I experimented – for the first time – with exaggerating my pelvic rotation. As my left leg began to swing back, I let the hip pull back with it … this was a remarkably new sensation, but felt fluid and right. I was suddenly able to attain much greater leg extension that usual, without force or effort. Further exploring the movement, I discovered that emphasizing rotation on the left compared to the right seemed to balance and better align my hips. The pattern of tension that typically evolves over my long runs – extending from my lower back down through the left glutes and hamstring – was oddly absent. Not only was my left leg moving with new-found fluidity, but my right leg had inadvertently gained strength and alignment as well. By increasing my left pelvic rotation, my right leg and foot were now freed to glide naturally through their stride. Without effort, the right foot was now striking straight and both legs were driving back with equal strength.

So how does a runner know how to balance stability with mobility? When during the gait cycle to relax and when to engage? It’s truly a delicate balance, and one that doesn’t always come naturally. Injuries that cause compensatory movement, or years of running with even slight dysfunction can further exacerbate and ingrain poor motor patterns. Critically, as each runner is unique in terms of structure and function, there is no one-size-fits-all biomechanical prescription. Even running experts agree there’s no “perfect” form, and it can be risky to change your form unnecessarily. My advice to you, runner, is to experiment with your gait if there’s a preexisting problem. Then, play with various adjustments and assess your body’s response until you hone in on changes that benefit you.

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