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Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Better squats = better barefoot running

I have a few serious man crushes citizens. The first is with Jason Robillard. Especially when he wears these shorts.

I hope the feeling is mutual or I will be more crushed than when they discontinued Crystal Pepsi. I friggen loved that shit.  From the looks of it, I think it is...

The second is with the squat. It's the undisputed king of all exercises. It's a basic human movement that we naturally do from the time we're children. It has the ability to both increase your strength and improve your mobility at the same time. It makes women stick their butt out in your general direction on purpose (giggidy). And it's a pretty dang good assessment tool for the barefoot runner.

Now I'm of the opinion that for the most part, your average person doesn't need to do any kind of pre-training in order to be able to go out and barefoot run. I'm not a fan of foot strengthening exercises or any of that garbage. I think that the best way to transition to barefoot running is to go barefoot running.

At the same time I think that because us modern humans are a largely sedentary lot, many people come to the sport with a lot of mobility and strength issues. And those issues can lead to injuries quickly when beginning an exercise program. Especially a barefoot running regime, where you are using muscles you've literally never used before.

When I go onto chat forums like Runners World and the Barefoot Runners Society, I see hordes of postings on injuries like Achilles tendinitis, IT band syndrome, runners knee, and many more pop up every day. Most of the time, those injuries are caused by muscle tightness or imbalance. And a lot of it could have been discovered ahead of time with a simple assessment of mobility and strength.

When we talk about strength and mobility in your legs, it's helpful to think about them as a series of joints. A good functioning leg should have the following characteristics (from bottom to top):

Ankle mobility
Knee stability
Hip mobility
Lumbar spine stability (yes, I realize that this isn't part of the leg)

Want to nerd out on mobility stuff.  Read this article

Aaaanyway...squats have been used by trainers and other fitness professionals for years as a strength and mobility assessment tool. When a person has difficulty doing the exercise, their form generally breaks down at one of the joints listed above where one of those things are lacking.

What does a good squat look like? I could (and will eventually) spend a whole post on squat form, but here's a video on the subject

There are a million points to a good squat. For my purposes in this article, I think a barefoot runner needs to focus most on the following four:

Heels on ground
Knees out
Hips past parallel
Maintain lumbar curve

If you are unable to do one of the four things above, you have a mobility or strength issue in your legs that could affect your running. Here's how each issue relates to your running.

Feet don't stay on the ground:

If you can't keep your heels in contact with the ground, you have ankle mobility issues. Most likely, you have overly tight calf muscles or an artificially short heel cord. As I've said before, folks who lack range of motion in their ankles are at risk to develop Achilles tendinitis upon starting a barefoot running program. You need to spend some time stretching out your calves.

Knee issues:

If your knees knock around like Bambi on an ice rink, you have poor knee stability. The most likely culprit is a lack of quad strength. Not surprisingly, your quads also do a good amount of stability work while you are running. Weak squat knees will be weak running knees. And those with weak knees are prime to develop ailments like runner's knee or patellar tendinitis.

Can't go past parallel:

Those who can't get depth in their squats often have poor hip mobility or strength. The hip is a joint that needs to be simultaneously mobile and strong to function properly. You know who has notoriously tight and/or weak hips? People with IT Band syndrome. Not to
mention a host of other injured people. In my opinion most running injuries start from the hip.

It is especially important for barefoot runners to have strong and mobile hips (here's why), since we tend to suffer from more muscle-related overuse injuries.

Rounded back:

Even though it's not part of your leg, I throw it in there because posture is particularly important to a barefoot runner. Every barefoot running guru will tell you to start with a stick straight back. You can't maintain that unless you have good midline stability. And if you can't keep your core engaged during a squat to full depth, your midline sucks.

I'll give you one guess as to how to improve all of those mobility and strength issues at once.

What did you think I'd suggest? 100-Ups?

Yes, squatting with good form is the best medicine. I don't care if you back squat 300lbs one time, or air squat a thousand times. There is not ailment ailment for which the squat is not a cure. As squatting spreads worldwide, I expect it to usher in world peace. Hopefully it will also eradicate the use of skinny jeans (you have no excuse fellas...none!).

More squatting with better form will make you a stronger, more flexible, and more injury-proof runner folks. Running and squatting go together like Hall and Oates. Or beer and another beer.

Yes, this is another post telling you runners to do some weightlifting. Get used to it. I will preach as such until you all stop being such weak, inflexible bastards. This could take a while...

Get out there and squat citizens! Cheers!


  1. Yet another informative post. Little did I know, but I have been doing squats all wrong, i.e. toes pointed straight ahead and never going past parallel. I am slowly unlearning all the bad technique I learned in high school and college.

    I tried a couple of sets with better form, and I could really tell the difference. My K-Fit workouts are going to be a lot different now, I can tell.

    I have some questions: 1. For a non-CrossFit guy like me, is there any difference in doing squats fast versus slow? The pace they were going at in the video was nuts, but totally impressive. 2. Do you, being as tall as you are, modify your squat form at all? I am 6'2", with long legs. 3. Is it safe to assume that the form demonstrated in the video would apply to me or you, just as it would for the woman in the video, who is a good two feet shorter than you?

    Thanks again for passing it on down to us mortals.

  2. I don't modify my form just because of my height. Squats are harder for taller people because we have further to travel and thus do more work. But otherwise, the method is the same.

    The only thing that fast squats will do for you that slow squats won't is give you some conditioning work as well as strengthen your muscles. Also, if you squat quickly under a load, it's called a "dynamic effort" squat, which in theory will help,your speed strength

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