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Monday, April 11, 2011
The First and Only Rule of Good Barefoot Running Form
"You come to barefoot running with your head. You go barefoot running with your heart."
~ Yours Truly
Yes, I did just quote myself. Normally I would quote someone with actual barefoot street cred like Ken Bob or Barefoot Ted when beginning a post on barefoot running technique. But I came up with this nugget of barefoot wisdom a while ago, and I really like it. It sums up my approach to barefoot running instruction in one line. Plus, I'm excited to have thought of something that would look good on a t-shirt. Or one of those running-quote coffee table books.
As a local barefoot superhero, I spend a lot of my time teaching people how to run barefoot happily and effectively. I am always happy to answer email questions from my readers. I also lurk on various barefoot forums a lot more than I probably should. I do it because I like to spread my awesomeness around.
In doing so, I've given hundreds of people the standard advice: shorten your stride, increase your cadence, pick up your feet, relax. But I stopped giving advice like that a while ago. Not because it's incorrect. Good barefoot running form includes all of those elements. I just think there's a better way.
The best way to explain my approach to barefoot running form is by example. Very recently, I commented on a thread in the Runner's World forum from a guy looking for advice on his form. He was frustrated at his ability to only run a few miles before he got bad blisters on his toes. He concluded that he needed to work on not pushing off with his toes at the end of his stride. He said he thought he was having some success shifting his focus away from his landing and onto the end of his stride. But he was looking for more advice.
SIDE NOTE: Like all good little barefoot runners, this guy also has a blog chronicling his barefoot experience. I like his sense of humor. Here's a link.
His self-assessment of the problem is most likely correct. Usually barefoot runners get blisters on their toes when they push off at the end of their stride. What's the normal solution? Suggest some tips and tricks about how to better pick up your feet in order to prevent push-off.
My proposed solution to him: Get out of your head.
Let me explain. Like I've said before in previous posts, in today's society nobody starts barefoot running on a whim. We as a culture are programmed to think of shoes as a requirement when outside of our homes. So people come to barefoot running because they hear about it from an outside source, and through a process of rational though decide that it makes enough sense to give it a try.
There's a lot of thinking that goes into making that change. That's the "head" part of barefoot running from my quote. Where people have trouble when trying to run barefoot successfully is that they stay with that approach and try to think their way to good form.
Take the guy in my example. I have no doubt that he is pretty smart. He obviously has some insight into his situation. He knows exactly what his problem is. He pushes off. He knows what the solution looks like. Lift your feet.
So if he knows how to solve his problem, why isn't he having success? Because he's over-thinking. He doesn't need to concentrate on lifting his feet instead of softening his landing (his proposed solution). He needs to stop thinking about what he perceives that he needs to do and start feeling what he actually needs to do.
You can't blame the guy entirely for the way he went about looking for solutions. For the last year or so since barefoot running has gotten really popular, I've read several popular introductory articles to the sport that recommend to beginners the same four steps to good running form. Shorten your stride, increase your cadence, pick up your feet, and relax (not necessarily in that order). According to these articles, if you do all four of those things at the same time, you should be fine. Usually these articles also include tips and tricks to tweak your running form if you are having certain common issues. Not one of them talks much about what actually contributes to barefoot running success.
What is that one thing? HOW YOU ARE FEELING!
Even on Ken Bob's website, "listen to your body" is listed as the LAST element of good barefoot running form. Folks...it's the FIRST and ONLY element of good barefoot running form! Everything else will come naturally.
For as much as the advice in those articles is well-intentioned, I also think it is the primary contributor to peoples' problems getting started. Every article I've read talks about the importance of relaxation. I agree...that's the most important part of barefoot running. Then it goes on to mention the five or six other things you need to keep track of in order to run barefoot effectively (lift your feet, increase your cadence, etc.). But the instant you start thinking about a making a part of your body do something particular, it becomes more tense. This is the opposite of what should happen. Not only that, but it distracts you from what is actually important: how your feet are feeling.
Not that I don't think tips about form have their place. Once you have mastered my first step, you can add elements of good form in order to increase your running performance and efficiency. But you shouldn't make tweaks to your form before you know what your form looks like. That's a great way to put the cart before the horse.
Those of you who feel proficient at barefoot running probably remember the first time that it all clicked into place, and you began running barefoot without issue. Were you thinking about your 180 beat per minute cadence? Your posture? Your torso swing? Your forward lean? Or were you incredibly relaxed, happy, pain-free....and most importantly....NOT THINKING ABOUT YOUR FORM?! The first time you successfully ran barefoot is also the first time that you let you stopped thinking about all of the things the experts said you should to be doing, and let your feelings lead you in what you were actually supposed to be doing.
So now when I give people advice to people having problems barefoot running, I tell them nothing more than "stop thinking and start feeling". Feel your foot as it hits the ground. It should feel soft and comfortable. Feel it come off the ground. It should do so without effort or pain. If you perceive discomfort or pain take a deep breath to relax, slow down, and start over. One foot in front of the other. Repeat.
Quit running with your head, and start running with your heart! Cheers!