Tag Archives: training

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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Navigating the niggles

You’re midway through an otherwise phenomenal run. You’re feeling strong, just tackled that dreaded hill and have fully entered the zone. Suddenly, your heart sinks a bit as you feel a niggle coming on. Whether it’s an ache in your foot, a twinge in your knee, or tightness in your hip, these minor discomforts can be majorly disconcerting. Maybe it will dissipate in a minute … or maybe it will evolve into a serious injury. Sure, a smart runner will listen to their body. That’s easy enough when your body is screaming adamantly “Your foot is broken, dummy!” But how do you respond when your body mumbles incoherently “Yeah, I’m not feeling so hot. The ankle feels kinda blah … you might want to check it out … or not … I don’t care”. In these situations, neither intense trepidation nor denial of the warning signs are ideal approaches. But don’t fret, runner. There is in fact a middle ground on which you can cautiously and safely test the injury waters.

1. SLOW DOWN, SWITCH IT UP, SHAKE IT OUT

Sometimes a simple correction is all you need. If that niggle arose from pushing too hard, just slowing your pace could reset you back to normal.

We often think of over-use injuries as emerging after many days or weeks of too much running. But sometimes monotonous motion – even over the course of several minutes – can trigger over-use symptoms. If you’ve been running on the road, find some grass or trail. If the terrain’s been rough or uneven – for instance, a rocky path or canted road – switch to something more stable. The slight change in muscle engagement might be all you need.

If these quick fixes don’t fix, stop and shake it out for just a moment. Sadly, many of us have been taught that running breaks are a sign of weakness. Believe me, running yourself into a broken bone or torn tendon will leave you much weaker than had you taken a brief pause. Even a 30-second rest might allow an overworked muscle to recuperate, leaving you refreshed for the rest of your run.

2. FOCUS ON FORM

The onset of a niggle is the perfect time to check back in with your body. Often, a slight form correction can nip the problem in the bud. It’s not always obvious where the imbalance is coming from, so scanning the body – from tip to toe – will cover your bases.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Good running form, courtesy of the Mark Cucuzzella and the Natural Running Center.

Head. Starting with your head, assess your posture. Imagine a string pulling your head up from your shoulders, elongating your neck and spine into a tall, straight line. Keep the shoulders relaxed but don’t forget to keep the arms bent and active. The rhythm of your arm swing can have a powerful impact on your running cadence – which we all know is a critical element to strong, healthy running.

Core. Moving down, evaluate your hips and core. Stability in these regions are perhaps the most essential component of good running form, and – as the term implies – comprise the core of a runner’s stride. Imagine your hips on an even horizontal plane, the right and left hip bones perfectly aligned, neither dipping nor rotating with your stride. Keep a slight lean in the upper body, visualizing a straight planE from head to toe angled forward, being mindful not to bend at the hips.

Legs. Next come the legs. Bend the knees, and keep the gluts and hamstrings active. Check where your feet are landing. They should contact the ground directly under the hip, not in front (this is ovestriding – an all-too-common source of many problems!), nor at the midline (this is a cross-over gait, which can be the source of many lateral injuries). Sometimes mentally exaggerating these features can help achieve them – for instance, aim to make foot contact behind and to the outside (laterally) of your hips. You’ll likely end up striking right under the hips.

Feet. Lastly, check in with your feet. Keep them relaxed – your foot muscles are not “power muscles” as are your quads, gluts and abs, and thus should not be relied on to propel you through your stride. Especially if you are running barefoot or minimalist, there can be a tendency to unnecessarily over-engage the feet. Imagine landing as lightly as possible, lifting the foot at the moment it touches the ground, rather than pounding or slapping. And of course, keep your cadence high. Aim for a balanced foot strike that’s neither excessively fore-foot nor rear-foot. I find that focusing on a “pancake-flat” foot-strike (forefoot and heel striking simultaneously) works best for me, but play with this to find your comfort zone.

3. UNEARTH THE ROOT OF THE PROBLEM

Modifying your speed, terrain or form are great quick fixes for mid-run niggles. But the critical question for preventing a recurrent, or long-term injury, is what caused the problem in the first place? This is some great food for thought for the remainder of your run … reflect on what you were doing leading up to the onset of the problem. Revisit not only the moments before, but also the days and weeks before. Did you just summit a monster hill? Maybe you’ve incorporated more speed work than normal this week, or have been pushing your mileage recently. Subtle changes, even those unrelated to your training, can impact your running health. Sleep deprivation, poor diet or stress can all work against a runner, impeding recovery, promoting inflammation or increasing fatigue. Chances are, you might be battling several of these aggravators, making it challenging to pinpoint one root cause. So go ahead, take an extra rest day, treat yourself to a deep-tissue massage and indulge in an extra hour of sleep.

And remember, a niggle’s nothing more, unless you let it be. Embrace these moments as learning tools and you’ll only grow stronger and healthier!

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Spice! The secret running ingredient

Perhaps you know the type. Maybe you are the type. Every morning, she laces up her trusty worn-out sneakers, heads out along the same neighborhood route at the same sluggish pace. She’s satisfied to have gotten in her daily run, but for some curious reason, she witnesses no improvement, is developing nagging knee pain, and is bored to death!

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Time to spice up your routine, runners!

This was me a decade ago. I’ve gradually learned that this obsessive adherence to routine is a recipe for stagnation and injury. So what is the key ingredient to maintaining a healthy and impassioned relationship with running? SPICE!

Overuse injuries, the kind that plague so many runners, such as tendonitis or stress fractures, arise from excessively repeating the same movement patterns. This problem is inherent to endurance running, which demands identical motions for hours at a time, day after day. But spicing up your runs with minor day-to-day variations can minimize the trauma associated with repetitive, high mileage. And by variety, I’m not suggesting going to such drastic measures as diversifying with (gasp!) cross-training. If you’re anything like me, as long as I’m physically capable of running, nothing can get me into the pool or onto the bike. Even sprint training and hill repeats turn running into work, which I will not tolerate. Of course, if you have the patience for such things, more power to you!

Rather, incorporating even small differences between runs can offer great returns. This has been a primary focus of my training over the past few months, through which I’ve discovered several easy ways to make each run feel fresh and exhilarating:

Distance. You may love that four-mile route, but doing it day after day mounts only to junk mileage. By mixing up the daily mileage, you’ll find that both the long hard runs and the short easy runs become indulgent treats. For example, on a given week I’ll often log one solid long run to fuel my endurance (25-30% of total weekly mileage), a couple of moderate distance runs to maintain my mileage (30-50%), and a couple of short, easy recovery runs (25-30%). Most importantly, listen to your body. If you had a ten-miler on tap, but are dragging by mile six, it’ll serve you better in the long term to call it quits. Likewise, if you feel like tacking on a couple extra miles or bursting into a sprint – even if your training plan didn’t call for it – go for it!

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Trails aren’t dangerous. Clumsy trail runners are.

Terrain. Concrete will wreak havoc on your joints … The cant of a road will imbalance your stride … Grass and trails will make you trip or roll your ankle … We’ve heard it all. It appears there’s no ideal – or even safe – running terrain. Yet luckily, this is just one more fallacy with no scientific support. Rather, research has shown that although distinct surfaces alter our biomechanics (Tessutti et al., 2012), they are not differentially associated with injury risk (van Gent et al., 2007). (Okay, trails can sometimes be dangerous – but only for the exceptionally uncoordinated. See obligatory humiliating pic as proof.) So feel free to explore, venturing onto road, sidewalk, trail or grass and noting how your body adapts to each surface. For instance, I’ve found that running barefoot on even, smooth hard surfaces is wonderful for developing proper form. When I feel myself fatiguing during a long road run, switching over to grass or trail for even a few minutes can do wonders to rejuvenate my tired legs. Becoming an all-terrain-runner can open up a new world of running possibilities.

Footwear. I’m a firm believer that there’s no ideal running shoe, but there is ideal running footwear: none. As much as I embrace and encourage running barefoot, there’s absolutely a time and a place for shoes (burning pavement and sharp rocks aren’t fun, no matter what people say). The principal problem with shoes, however, is how they alter your gait in even the most subtle ways. We’ve all experienced the slight discomfort of running in a new pair of shoes to which we haven’t adapted. For this reason, most runners search for their “perfect” shoe and run religiously in nothing else. But running is all about adaptation. Minor challenges and stressors are what impart incremental strength and endurance gains over time. Alternating between various shoes (to the extent that your wallet can bear) forces you to work different muscle groups and prevents excessively stressing one particular area. For instance, my ankles tire easily when running barefoot, but my calves or hips tighten up in different shoes, depending on the support level. Therefore, I allow several days between runs in the same shoes, to ensure sufficient recovery from any shoe-induced aches or pains.

So is there one secret ingredient to running happy and injury-free? No, there are many! Go out and explore them all. Then share with me all the fun ways (that I’ve most certainly overlooked) that you spice up your runs.

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Fracture recovery: Running to rebuild

Of the many running injuries I’ve endured, my metatarsal stress fracture has been the most mentally challenging from which to recover. The internet is repleat with advice on how to treat a fracture: rest, supplements, bone stimulators … everyone has their two cents to offer. Yet there’s a perplexingly disproportionate dearth of information about how to return to running once healing has begun. What’s a safe distance to start with? How quickly can you ramp back up? How do you know if you’re pushing too far? Over the past six weeks, my struggle to answer these questions and ensure a safe return to running has incidentally proven to be an exceptional opportunity to retrain myself to run with greater balance, awareness and pleasure. While this has been a rewarding journey in retrospect, I certainly wouldn’t wish this anxiety-inducing learning process on anyone else. In the hopes of sparing others the same nerve-wracking self-experimentation, let me share a few of the lessons I’ve learned along the way.

When am I ready to run?

Running on a fracture before it’s sufficiently healed can delay recovery, or worse – result in a refracture. So how do you know when you’re in the clear to resume running? A good rule of thumb is to wait until you can hop on the fractured foot / leg without pain … and then wait another week. Everyone recovers at different rates, but for me, this would have been around six weeks post-fracture. However, I developed some uncomfortable nerve stimulation in my neighboring toes that delayed my first run to week seven.

How much is too much?

When returning to running from a muscle, tendon or ligament injury, the rule is simple: if it feels uncomfortable, stop – you’re pushing too hard. Not so with a stress fracture. That ache that first emerged at fracture onset will linger to haunt you throughout your recovery, whispering deceptive messages that you’re exacerbating the injury by running on it. But in fact, a certain amount of moderate physical stress is beneficial – and necessary – to stimulate ongoing bone growth and remodeling. The site will certainly ache, as the bone has not regained its full strength, and the surrounding soft-tissue may be aggravated, but this will gradually dissipate with regular, gentle weight-bearing stress. The key, however, is to be able to discriminate between that lingering harmless ache, and the emergence of a novel injury. While I hear claims that “you never refracture the same site”, there are also countless stories of runners who proceed to fracture neighboring bones or develop compensatory soft-tissue injuries. So while that familiar dull ache may be benign, you should probably take heed of new pain in neighboring metatarsals or that worsening tendon strain.

How should I train differently to prevent another fracture?

A bone becomes susceptible to fracture when the amount of stress to which it’s exposed exceeds its capacity to rebuild and recover. Such imbalances might occur for a variety of reasons, including an aggressive increase in training mileage or intensity, or poor biomechanics that incorrectly redistribute impact forces, for example from improper footwear or compenstation for weakness elsewhere. Whatever the cause, the critical step in preventing future fractures is identifying and correcting the original problem.

Leading up to my fracture, I had recently incorporated regular barefoot running into my already minimalist routine. Upon experiencing some mild achiness along the top of my foot, I made the mistake of giving up barefoot running entirely for a week while increasing my overall shod mileage. Granted, this certainly allowed me to continue running with relative comfort … temporarily. But unbeknownst to me, those shoes were not actually protecting my foot from injury, but rather, most likely permitting me to run with sloppy form while masking the sensory warning signs of an incipient fracture. Since my return to running, I’ve adopted the philospohy that if I can’t safely run barefoot, I shouldn’t be running at all. The beauty of running “naked” is two-fold: 1) You quickly learn to run with optimal form, or you pay for it with blisters, sore calves and strained achilles tendons. 2) Any functional imbalance will become immediately apparent as bare foot kisses bare earth, sending you an invaluable warning of the impending injury.

Barefoot running, Iron MountainI’ve kept my barefoot mileage at approximately a third of my total mileage, incrementally increasing both shod and barefoot mileage weekly (see training log below). Sure, this has kept me in check, restraining me from indulging in long shod runs for which my metatarsal is not yet strong enough. But the real perk is the fun of it. The muscle soreness, tension and anxiety I sometimes feel during my shod runs literally melts away once the shoes come off.

How quickly should I progress?

There are training plans available for every imaginable combination of race and runner, for novices and elites, from your first 5k to 100-milers and beyond. But how much and how hard should you run when recovering from a fracture? Although this is possibly the most critical consideration for a safe recovery, it’s also one of the least frequently addressed. To remedy this, I’ve shared below the ad-hoc routine I’ve followed, which has ensured a happy and (thus-far) healthy return to running.

But please take heed of a few cautions before launching into your first run. First, as every runner will recover at different rates, it’s impossible to set a one-size-fits-all recovery plan. For reference, before injury I would regularly log 60-70 miles per week. If your norm is well above or below this, you’ll obviously want to tailor your progression accordingly. Second, I’ve taken advantage of this fresh start to concurrently learn to run with heightened awareness and improved form. To this end, a significant amount of my mileage is fully barefoot, while the rest is run in minimalist shoes (3-6 ounces; 0-7 mm heel-toe drop). How this affects my progression I can only speculate; intuitively one would assume it would require more conservative training, yet in fact, I suspect the benefits of improved biomechanics might actually outweigh any risks. As a final caveat, note that these past six weeks haven’t been without considerable “growing pains”. Almost every run has been accompanied by some degree of achiness near the fracture site, along with mild aggravation in the surrounding muscles and nerves. These symptoms, if mild, are typical and should improve as the injury continues to heal.

Unlike with other injuries, when it might be optimal to couple longer distances with more rest days, I found consistency ciritical for fracture recovery, and therefore opted for higher frequency, but shorter runs. The table below shares these essential measures:

Run frequency: how many days run per week.

Longest run: distance of my longest single run each week, separately for shod and barefoot runs, and combined, since I often finish my shod runs with some barefoot miles.

Total mileage: weekly mileage separately for shod, barefoot and combined (shod + barefoot).

Fracture_recovery_log

And just because I love graphs …

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These are just the thoughts of one runner … one still experimenting, still learning, and crossing her fingers that these words will be validated by a lasting triumphant return as a stronger, smarter, healthier runner. A runner still looking for all the help she can get, and curious about your own experiences recovering from fractures – your successes, frustrations, tips and concerns – so please share!

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Altered runiverse

I’m not one for elaborate running gear or gadgets. It’s my personal preference not to run with music, a watch or GPS device, and in all honesty, I find the gimmicky marketing for schmancy running clothes and overpriced shoes quite disturbing. However, I recently discovered one running gadget worthy of shameless promotion. It is a genuine godsend to injured running addicts, such as yours truly.

Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill

The wonder-device to which I refer is the Alter-G anti-gravity treadmill. Yes, you heard me … anti-gravity ... as in, reduces the gravitational force on your lower body to allow you to run or walk with forces equal to a fraction of your full body weight. The mechanism is downright ingenious: the runner wears rubber shorts that zip into an inflatable “capsule” attached to the treadmill. The treadmill calibrates to the runner’s weight and pumps air into the region surrounding the legs, providing a subtle supportive uplift. The amount of inflation, and thus the degree of support, can be controlled to allow the user to run at 20-100% of their body weight in 1% increments. This allows runners battling injuries that prohibit weight-bearing activity, such as tendonitis or bone fractures, to run without pain or risk of further injury. The price tag isn’t cheap, ranging from $30,000 -$75,000 depending on the model. But Alter-G’s are continuing to pop up at gyms and medical facilities across the country, many of which offer pay-per-use options (usually also pretty pricey!) to the public.

My first indulgent Alter-G run was at M2 Revolution, a cycling gym in San Francisco. More than a month into a foot injury (metatarsal stress reaction) and in the throes of deep running withdrawal, the experience served as both reassurance that my body was still capable of running and an exhilarating reminder of why I love to run. Incredibly, despite its highly effective external support system, the treadmill allows you to run unrestricted, maintain a normal gait and foot-strike, and actually get a decent cardiovascular workout. In fact, my weakened quads and calves felt fantastically sore the next day!

Progression from 36% to 73% body weight

Thanks to the wonderful staff at the office of Dr. Ian Purcell in San Diego, who personalized a discounted pay-per-use package deal, I’ve been able to continue feeding my running addiction while successfully rehabilitating my foot. I’ve run on the Alter-G 6 times over the past few weeks and find it a great way to objectively monitor my recovery. For example, I was able to comfortably complete my first run at 36% body weight. My most recent run, 18 days later, was at 73% bodyweight, equivalent to an average gain of 2% body weight per day. Beyond providing my much-needed running-endorphin fix, the consistent progress I’ve measured with this tracking system has also shone a light at the end of the tunnel, keeping me sane and optimistic through this otherwise unpredictable recovery process.

Now who has an extra $30k they’re dying to spend?

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To wear or to bare?

A runner’s choice of footwear can be confusing and downright overwhelming. We’re fed mixed messages from shoe manufacturers that their latest motion-control, cushioned stability shoe with custom orthotics on the one hand – or maybe their lightweight minimalist shoe on the other – will guarantee our feet a smooth, fast ride. For years I believed that finding the right running shoe was like finding one’s life partner … we all have a perfect match out there somewhere, but it might take years of dating around to discover our sole-mate (sorry – couldn’t resist). Over the past several months I began to both test and question this idea in a recent personal experiment. But before sharing my discoveries, let me offer a bit of context …

I had been blessed with 14 years of essentially injury-free running. That is, until a fateful day in February 2010 when, while training for the Boston marathon, I returned home from my evening run with a torn achilles tendon. Needless to say, I did not make it to the starting line that April. The ensuing year was filled with a flurry of peroneal tendonitis, femoral-patella syndrome and trochanter bursitis (ie ankle, knee and hip injuries). Was my body just not designed to run this many miles (as my doctor informed me!) or was I doing something wrong?

Given many runners’ reports that going barefoot helped resolve their injuries, I began to look into the possibility that my shoes might be contributing to my own problems. Although initially skeptical of these seemingly radical claims, the more I researched, the more I found them intuitively appealing and scientifically sound. The logic was simple: the human body evolved to walk, run and jump perfectly fine without the need of external crutches like arch support or heel cushioning. It’s doubtful that our hunter ancestors had to slip on their Nikes before pursuing their next meal. Modern man has changed little from our predecessors, with one notable exception: for most of us a lifetime of shoe-wearing has fostered an epidemic of shoe-dependence. Held captive in footwear, our feet become weak, inflexible and ridden with bunions, fallen arches or crooked toes. We in turn attempt to correct these imbalances with more cushioned, structured and protective footwear, only perpetuating the cycle. The truth is, our feet are quite well suited to sustain the physical impact of these activities with their elegant support system of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 muscles, tendons and ligaments. Introducing an artificial support system like footwear transfers the impact burden from foot to shoe, which over time can 1) weaken our feet and lower legs, 2) alter our natural walking or running gait and 3) redistribute impact forces to place excessive stress on areas like knees and hips. While there is nothing inherently dangerous about shoes themselves (with maybe a few exceptions), the associated consequences of long-term foot support such as weakness and unhealthy gait are concerning. I’ll limit my explanation to this, in the hope of being minimally redundant with the countless articles already written on the topic. But I will refer the interested reader to a stellar investigation into the effects of shoes on foot-strike patterns and their associated impact forces, published last year by Daniel Lieberman and colleagues.

Thus, curious and excited yet still skeptical, five months ago I began to experiment with the natural potential of my own feet. This has not been a quest to become a barefoot runner per se, and I do not intend to provide a “how-to guide” for such a goal. Rather, it has been an exploration of my body’s response to removing my feet from artificial sources of support and protection. Heeding cautions that my feet would be weaker than expected, I began slowly … exceedingly slowly since I was concurrently training for another marathon and of course, stubbornly refused to compromise my mileage. My experiment involved the following core elements:

Walk barefoot. Babies aren’t born with the capacity to run without first developing the strength to crawl, then walk and finally run. Similarly, why would I expect to be able to run bare if I couldn’t first walk bare? On day one of my barefoot journey I lasted only a few blocks before my sensitive skin and tired feet screamed for shoes. But within just a few weeks I built up the strength and resilience to walk essentially everywhere and anywhere.

Run minimally. Various features of your typical running shoe can influence gait including cushioning, arch support and heel-to-toe drop, all of which were characteristic of my own standard running shoe. I therefore experimented with various shoes that minimize these factors to different degrees. Practically, this involved running most of my mileage in my standard shoe, while gradually increasing the percentage of miles run in a more minimal shoe. For instance, I began by running about 20% of my weekly mileage in a light-weight racing shoe and ramped up this mileage by approximately 10% each week. I also supplement my daily longer runs with one or two weekly short runs (1-3 miles) in minimal protection (huaraches or vibram five-fingers).

Listen and adapt. This has been critical for both the success and evaluation of my experiment. I’ve become increasingly aware of my body’s response to each new change and continue to adapt as necessary. When feeling strong I allow myself to increase my “minimal shoe” mileage. If I feel weakness or strain in my feet or calves, I introduce extra support until the issue resolves. For instance, I recently completed a marathon in a lightweight shoe but ran exclusively in a higher-support shoe for the entire post-race week to allow my strained feet and ankles to recover.

So what has come of the early stages of my experiment? I now exclusively walk barefoot, as I’ve grown to love the sensation of my foot contacting the earth as well as a heightened awareness of my environment. In fact, I find it rather awkward to walk in shoes and can’t imagine going back. While I won’t go so far as to claim that discarding my shoes has been a panacea, I’ve discovered that footwear significantly affects my lower leg strength, running form and overall running experience. Perhaps most remarkable has been the transformation in my gait. Trained as both a dancer and sprinter before taking up distance running, I developed an unusual tendency to excessively forefoot strike and supinate. But in zero-drop footwear I find myself engaging my entire foot – from ball to heel – and striking with better lateral balance. As my form corrected, the demands on my upper leg shifted lower, resulting in remarkably stronger feet, calves and shins as well as reduced tightness in my hips, quads and IT band. Generally, the less support and cushion under my feet, the lighter, smoother and more balanced I find my gait. That said, I appreciate some form of protection from rough terrain, as this frees my mind from worrying about rocks, sticks, or other potential dangers so I can simply enjoy the ride. Yet I still find value in a traditional shoe, particularly in providing extra support to keep me running through periods of soft-tissue weakness or strain. As conservatively as I tried to pace myself, my progression was just aggressive enough to ensure my share of achy feet, stressed tendons and tight calves. These past months have debunked the myth that any one shoe – or lack of shoe – is ideal. In fact, I currently alternate among 5 different models of footwear, depending on my support needs …

My embarrassingly large array of running shoes, from handmade huaraches (so fun!) at left to classic supportive sneakers at right.*

My barefoot / minimal journey is still in its infancy and I’m excited to witness its continued evolution over the coming years. These preliminary “data” indicate that for me, less is indeed more. Less shoe equals increased strength, a more balanced foot-strike and an overall more liberating running experience. However, the heterogeneous reports from others suggest that this is not a universal experience and that the runner, rather than the shoe, is the critical ingredient. So whatever you choose to – or not to – wear, if you’re healthy and happy then you’re probably doing something right.

* Although I try not to promote any particular product, I will gladly share my opinions if you contact me directly.
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n=1

The fundamental motivation driving most scientific research is simple: to discover the truth. To accomplish this goal, researchers attempt to find reliable patterns that explain why something is the way it is. But as hard as we might try, it is exceedingly difficult to boil down reality to simple rules and laws. More often, we might discover an effect that holds some of the time, under some conditions, depending on a multitude of frequently unpredictable or unidentifiable factors. In our quest for answers we therefore aim to control for the irrelevant variability across our sample in order to reveal meaningful differences related to our variable of interest. Although this variability can be the frustrating source of a finding that hovers just above the (arbitrarily) coveted .05 alpha, it can also be magnificently informative.

Recently, there have been growing efforts to integrate scientific understanding of human physiology, biomechanics and metabolism into the realm of athletic performance. While I entirely support and encourage every runner to self-educate from well-conducted scientific research, it can be dangerous to accept every claim without a certain level of skepticism. Peruse the countless running blogs, forums, magazines and books and you will find self-proclaimed experts confidently backing their particular running shoe, diet, training plan, pre-race routine, blah, blah, blah as the healthiest or most effective. Why, then, is much of the running community stuck battling frequent injury, fatigue and discouragement? As much as we try to generalize into tight, clean categories, the fact remains that immense variation exists between runners in terms of ideal nutrition, biomechanics and training. When was the last time you heard a claim along the lines of “The majority of people report increased (insert effect Y here) from (insert cause X here)”? Many will readily infer a universal, causal relationship between X and Y while overlooking that in a subset of individuals X did not increase Y. Again, variability can be informative. Assuming that such claims are based on properly designed and conducted studies (watch out – this is not always a valid assumption!) a likely explanation for such differences is that individuals have distinct responses to X. We like to assume that if it works for you it will certainly work for me, while forgetting the not-so-insignificant detail that we are different people. My best advice to become a stronger, happier runner is to value your own experience above that of others. In fact, you might want to stop reading this blog right now. The most informed expert about what will benefit you … is you.

Over the recent past I have approached my lifestyle as an experiment with n=1 and made the fascinating discovery that what works for my optimal health and happiness is often drastically different from what the media, coaches and even doctors traditionally advise. This exploratory period was sparked largely by a 6-month journey through Asia and Africa during which I ate, slept and exercised erratically. Upon returning to the U.S. I appeared thin, weak and scraggly. Paradoxically, I clocked each of my 7 post-travel marathons faster than my 3 pre-travel marathons, with an average 20 minute post-travel improvement (p < .0001; yes I am just that nerdy that I ran the stats). How had months of exposure to intense physical stressors and a clean break from running, all while abandoning conventional health advice left me with greater strength and endurance than ever before? It turns out I may not in fact be a freak of nature; rather, a wealth of research has demonstrated that mild to moderate stressors such as physical activity, caloric restriction or intermittent fasting, social or environmental stress are associated with diverse benefits including improved cardiovascular health and cognitive function, increased hippocampal neurogenesis and longevity (Lyons et al., 2010, Mattson & Wan 2005, Minois 2000Parihar et al., 2011) .

While I by no means advocate abusing or shocking your system into super-human running condition, there seems to be a delicate balance between positive and negative stressors that varies from person to person. Using a mindful approach of starting from the conventional center and slowly testing my limits, I am continuously discovering my individual zone of comfort, health and strength. In future posts I hope to share observations from my personal experiments with injury prevention and treatment, nutrition, footwear (and lack of) and training tactics. To any runner looking to these posts or any other resources for advice, I strongly suggest you take them with a grain of salt and then conduct your own experiment of one.

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Fallacy of fast

Among the more uninspiring comments from passersby I often hear while running are those regarding my speed such as “slow down!”, “nice clip!” or “pick up the pace!”. For instance, just this week one particularly obnoxious and self-amused kid informed me that I wasn’t going fast enough … fast enough for what? To impress him? To thoroughly exhaust myself? Clearly not, but it was certainly the ideal speed for the comfortable, restorative 10-miler needed to revive myself at the end of a long day in lab. From where has our modern running culture developed its current precoccupation with speed? Runners are constantly bombarded with messages that we need the latest and greatest timing device to monitor our pace, fancy shoes guaranteed to make us sprint with ease or a professionally designed training plan to achieve a race PR. But how did we form this misconception that speed, above all else, is the ultimate measure of running excellence? What about achieving proper form, improving endurance or simply maintaining a passion for the pure pleasure of running? While these might be priorities for some, they’ve clearly taken the back seat to the belief that fast is good, faster is better, and speed is the only way to establish yourself as a skilled and serious runner.

Sure, many are introduced to running as a competitive sport, by participating in track or cross-country teams or local road races. Understandably, in these contexts speed = victory, so yes, faster is better. However, I’ve encountered recreational runner after runner with no racing experience or racing intentions who remain convinced that their speed is a direct measure of their merit as a runner.

Many runners, competitive or not, set a target pace as their primary running goal. Training fast is certainly an important step toward racing fast, and setting a personal goal and working diligently to achieve it can be rewarding and fulfilling. However, taken to the extreme as many runners do, could this preoccupation actually be detrimental – mentally, physically or both? In my early years as a track and cross-country athlete and during my transition to marathoning, I too set time goals, monitored my pace on every run and even bought one of those ridiculous GPS watches that gave my wrist a fantastic strength workout. Not surprisingly, my perception of my running ability soared and plummeted with every insignificant variation in my speed, and pushing hard every run drained my muscles and motivation. Now, even while training, I adhere to the general principal that my body, not a watch or generic one-size-fits-all training plan, will tell me how fast to run. By allowing myself to take it easy when feeling worn out or weak or let loose simply because I have the urge, I’m able to run further and longer, remain healthy and avoid injury. And most importantly – run after run, fast or slow, I’m guaranteed that simple thrill of being carried along by my own two feet.

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