An admitted shoe geek waxes philosophical about running, triathlon, and life in general.
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Thursday, March 3, 2011

I am not a role model

Charles Barkley said that many years ago in a deodorant ad. For those who may not know, he was a known "bad boy" in basketball, a rough player, but made the famous "dream team" of pros that went to (and pretty much dominated) the Olympic games.

And it was a very, though unintentional, profound thing for him to say. He played basketball, and did it very well. That didn't mean that all the kids with hoop dreams should emulate his every word, thought, and deed.

I'm not some pro runner, nor am I some kind of running bad-boy. But... I am not a barefoot running purist. I'm not even a "minimalist running" purist.

I like shoes, though I walk around the house mostly barefoot these days (and in socks around work when I can get away with it). I guess I've just come to a place in my life where I want my shoes to fit, and enhance what I do rather than dictate it. I don't quite adhere to Jason Robillard's thoughts that shoes are tools to only be taken out when running barefoot isn't possible (due to cold or terrain). My feet are pretty tender, so "impossible terrain" is probably a lot softer to me than for him.

But there's a new term coming to use in the running community that I think is a far better descriptor of what's going on -- barefoot-form (or bareform) running. It speaks to how one runs, whether shoes are involved or not.

I see a lot of talk on the boards about forefoot and midfoot strike running, where people are trying to achieve that as a goal in and of itself. The problem is, they're missing the big picture.

Forefoot and midfoot landing (I hesitate to use the term "striking", as it sounds too much like impact) are only one category of many aspects of bareform running. And in fact, the point on your foot that makes first contact with the ground is more a result of the running form than a goal toward achieving it. You can still overstride while landing on your forefoot.

Arthur Lydiard was quoted once, when asked about running form, what his philosophy was:

Do what comes naturally, as long as it's biomechanically sound. Otherwise, do what's biomechanically sound until it becomes natural
That's why I've been harping on "more minimalist" shoes. I'm not trying to head towards things like the RunAmoc, or Luna sandals (nothing against those, I just have no desire to reduce my shoes to the thinnest possible protective layer between me and the ground). But I see the Merrel Barefoot line, the New Balance Minimus line, the Altra offerings, and a few others coming, as steps in the right direction.

What to do for that bareform running?
* Take shorter, quicker strides. Meaning your feet will hit the ground more often and spend less time on the ground on each step. The "180 steps per minute" mantra gets thrown around a lot, and quite frankly I have no idea whether I'm close to that or not. It's a cue, for those who want to run with a metronome or iPod filled with music at that cadence.
* Relax the lower legs. The stiff ankle causes much of the lower leg stress that is the bane of moving to "less is more" shoes.
* Keep your foot contact under your center of gravity. This means don't overstride. Much of the heel strike talked about so vigorously in the barefoot running community is a direct result of reaching out with your leg to meet the ground too soon, lengthening the stride by reaching forward instead of pushing behind.
* Use your hips and hamstrings for propulsion instead of the calves.

These four things will go a long way to getting any one on the path of bareform running. If you do these, chances are you're going to be making first contact with the ground at the forefoot or midfoot without even trying.

But when I did these things, I noticed something -- the heel of my shoe started getting in the way. And it was causing other issues with my feet (see my discourse on Frieberg's Infraction) because of the angle it put my metatarsals throughout my gait.

So when one tries to adjust the stride without addressing the footwear as well, problems can arise.

Likewise, problems can arise when one adjusts all these things and merrily goes about their training mileage as they always have. You have to make these changes almost as if you're starting running all over again. Many people aren't willing to do that. I believe this is why you see so many people saying things like "Vibram Five Fingers saved my running and cured all my injuries". Well, I think it's just that their injuries forced them to start over, and making the changes in their form forced them to ramp up slowly enough that they didn't get injured.

Anyway, I'm getting off track a bit.

I'm not some zealot trying to preach the evils of the running shoe industry. I think their intentions were noble at the time. They made what sold. And I'm seeing some changes in the industry. Some slow changes in mindset of at least a subset of the running community as well.

If I'm a part of that, so be it. I'm not a role model. At least not for any one other than my daughter.

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