Thursday, December 16, 2010

Natural Running, Volume I

The hot topic in the running industry, at least for the past year or so, has been what to make of the "natural running" movement. You can point to two specific triggers, at least in the New England markets: the sales success of Born to Run, and an editorial in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine asking, "What ruins running? Your body, or your shoes?"

Both advocate running barefoot, under the theory that it will force you to run in a specific style that will reduce your running injuries. They all point to a Harvard study that says running barefoot reduces sudden transient forces that occur during heel-striking. Sales of Vibram's Five Fingers exploded. You've probably seen at least a few people in them.

Sounds great, right? So why aren't we all running around barefoot?

Because the theory is wrong.

Here's the rub: that Harvard study I linked to? It does NOT say that barefoot running reduces impact forces. It says that it reduces sudden transient forces. What's that mean? It means the force generated by initial heel impact, transitioning through the gait cycle, which can be an extremely jarring experience, especially if you are aggressive with a heel strike. Well, there's none of that when you are running with a proper "barefoot" stride.

As for a barefoot stride: well, that's dependent on the runner. This leads me to point #2: running barefoot will not change your technique while running alone. Your feet are very, very dumb objects. They have to be told what to do. You alone control their action. This means that you have to be acutely aware of what your body is telling you: does something hurt? Then change it! This is what people mean when they say running barefoot changes their technique. The catch is, you have to be paying attention enough to listen to what your body is telling you. Without that, you'll be happily heel striking your way to a stress fracture, plantar fasciitis, etc.

Now, there's also a difference between barefoot running, and what I call natural running. Let's go with a simple fact: the human body was never designed to be on concrete or asphalt. We were meant for dirt and grass. Think about how you feel sometimes when running on pavement, versus running on trails. Feels softer, right? That's because the Earth was protecting you, absorbing some of the impact itself rather than you having to do all of the work.

If you're reading this blog, you're probably a road runner. So, what's a road runner to do with all of this information? Here's my position on natural running:

  1. If you are injury-free, and have not had problems, do not change a thing. Why try and mess with something that's working? If you are having success with your current running technique, don't add a different variable to the situation. Go with it!
  2. Recognize that natural running may not be for you. There are some foot-types that just flat-out are not going to work. Severe overpronators wearing the Brooks Beast, I'm looking at you.
  3. Barefoot work is a good thing. After reading the above, you're probably thinking I'm totally against going barefoot. That's not the case. I think the strongest point to be taken from this movement is to do a little light barefoot work, on softer surfaces, to help promote your form. Pay attention to what your body is telling you. If something hurts, you need to be changing something! I like to do my barefoot work as a recovery workout. I'm more aware of what my body is telling me when it's a little beat up, and recovery workouts are meant to be run slowly to begin with!
  4. Take this stride to your shoes. Again, your feet are dumb things. Shoes are dumber! They are inanimate objects. They can't tell your feet how to land. You tell your feet how to land. So, after doing some light barefoot work (I recommend once/twice a week, depending on your run volume, and usually no more than a 5K), try and take that stride to your running shoe, which was designed for roads, etc.
Now, what kind of shoe should you be in? That'll be my next post: minimal versus natural versus road shoes. As a teaser: results will vary, depending on body-type, running technique, and personal preferences.

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