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Monday, April 25, 2011

Propriocepation (i.e. That Barefoot Feeling)

It’s been about a week since I got on my soapbox to talk about good barefoot running form (here is that post).  For those missed it, here’s the recap: in my opinion the most important aspect of good barefoot running form is how you're feet are feeling.  That's it.  End of post.  Maybe that's all I should have written.  I'm sure some of you wish all of my rants were one sentence long.

Anyway, after that post I was contacted by the folks at VIVOBAREFOOT, the makers of my current favorite all-purpose trainer: the Neo.  They asked if I would write a little number on their new eBook, Proprioception: Making Sense of Barefoot Running, by Lee Saxby.  They also asked that I keep it short and sweet.  That's not usually in my wheelhouse, but I'll do my best.

For those unfamiliar Lee Saxby, he is a running guru.  He teaches a holistic fitness system called Wildfitness, which emphasizes natural diet and movement.  He knows his stuff, and he teaches it well.  His eBook is a great resource for new barefoot runners.

With credentials like that, I'm certainly not in a position to critique his methods.  That's okay, because I think our positions on the issue are the same.  Feeling first.  But what I will do is use his book as a vehicle to go into a little more depth on why that barefoot feeling is so important. 

When I talk about "feeling good" while running, I'm not just talking about avoiding pain or injury to your feet.  I'm actually talking about proprioception, the perception of how your body is oriented in the surrounding space.  While running, the feedback that you received from your feet doesn't just inform your brain whether they are experiencing discomfort.  It also tells your brain about your running form.  In fact, your feet carry most of the proprioception load.  As Saxby explains in his book, 70% of all proprioception feedback comes from pressure sensors located in your feet.  So by tuning in to how your feet are feeling first and foremost, you're most of the way to good running form. 

The converse is also true.  If you blunt the feedback coming from your feet, you reduce the information that your brain has to work with, and thus decrease the quality of your movement.  You don’t just do that by wearing cushioned trainers.  You also do this when you divide your attention.  If a new barefoot runner tries to adjust on the position of his/her arms, legs, posture, footsrike, and cadence at the same time, the brain can’t prioritize.  That reduces the quality of information coming from your feet. 

So when I run barefoot or in minimal shoes, do I focus only on my feet?  No.  I've done it for so long that it's second nature to me.  My mind is free to focus on other aspects of my form.  Once it becomes second nature to you, you can move on to other things.  Like Saxby explains in his book, learning how to run is just like learning any other complex movement.  Your brain learns it by breaking it into its component parts.  Saxby suggests that you master the barefoot feeling by working on barefoot walking, followed by barefoot squatting, and finally barefoot jumping.  Those movements involve the same “foot feel” you use during barefoot running.

Take that same approach when trying to master all aspects of good barefoot running form.  Consider “foot feel” to be the most important one of barefoot running form.  Master that before moving on to cadence, arm swing, posture, etc.  Work on each of those individually.  Then once your body has figured out all those parts, it will be able to put it all together into great running form. 

There is your quick MGBG barefoot running lesson of the day.  Happy running!


  1. It's "proprioreception," Christian, not "proprioception."

  2. Every dictionary I've checked has spelled it "proprioception". There is no extra "r". Also, that's how it's spelled on Saxby's eBook. It's correct.

  3. Isn't barefoot running kinda like sex....if you're thinking about your form, you can't be enjoying it?

  4. Exactly! Feel...don't think. Except during sex I think about baseball...

    Don't all guys think about baseball during? Maybe too much information for ya?

  5. Not a problem. I'm glad you pointed it out, because a lot of other words were spelled wrong in this post. Maybe I should remember the spell check?

  6. I guess baseball would be appropriate, since you're technically at 'home base', right? LOL

    Why do I feel like I'm cheating when I wear my ghillies to run?? I soooo want to go totally barefoot, but I don't want to have to cut my run short because my feet are rubbed raw.....yikes, I feel another sex analogy coming on....

  7. ..and there's no spelling during sex either...

  8. Well I always tell folks that barefoot running is a priority just like every other sports goal. Getting proficient at it means sacrificing other priorities like mileage. There's nothing wrong with not wanting to fully commit. Do it when it feels right to you. In the meantime, just sprinkle it in to your normal running routine. Do a mile or so before or after your regular run.

  9. I do want to fully commit..it's just that I'm a newbie runner as well as a newbie barefoot runner. I tried running many times over the years and it wasn't until I took the shoes off that I could run w/o pain. So now I'm wanting to build up distance but anxious to be able to do it barefoot. Your feet pics scared me.

  10. Another great post! It's hard being patient, but I'm excited for the day my brain puts it all together.

  11. Well just remember Kim that those foot pictures are from running 14 miles barefoot in the snow. It took a lot of stupidity to get to that level. I don't think you'll let it go that far.

    Other than a few small blisters when I first started, I've never had any other injuries to my feet. I promise the worse that you'll get is a blister or two, and some hot-feeling feet if you run on a rough surface a little too long. All that goes away as your feet get stronger and your form develops.

  12. thanks Christian...I'll give it a go.

  13. Ran about a mile in ghillies, then the last half mile or so barefoot. I have great ground feel in the mocs, but wow, after taking them off, it's amazing how sensitive the feet are to cold pavement and texture. It wasn't a bad feeling, just surprising. And exhilarating, too. I walk around outside all the time during the day, but early morning things are still quite chilly.

    Christian, how do you keep twigs and stuff from sticking to the bottom of your feet when you run? Are you constantly stopping to brush things off or do you just continue on until it comes off my itself?

  14. Most of it will come off by itself in a few steps. Your feet were probably a little sweaty from your shoes, which makes them collect more debris. If you can't get something off your foot, either stop to brush it off with your hands. Or if you don't want to stop running, turn your foot sideways like you're going to kick a soccer ball and gently brush the sole of your foot against the ground. I mean gently! Otherwise you will trip and look like an idiot, or cut your foot open.

  15. Oh, and congrats on taking the plunge Kim! I love hearing about the first barefoot run. The first is so exhilarating!

  16. Thanks Christian! yes, the feet were damp from running through puddles, so makes sense.

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