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Ask the Practitioner:  Barefoot Running - Why (or Why Not), What, How?


For this edition of Ask the Practitioner, we connected with Adam Daoud, an experienced runner and medical student, who while at Harvard worked extensively on research in the Skeletal Biology Lab.  His website states, "My current research interest lies in investigating the ways in which the human body is suited particularly well for endurance running and determining why Homo sapiens possess such incredible endurance running capabilities."  As a co-author of the studies cited below as well as work published in the journal Nature, Adam has narrowly focused in on the plusses, minuses, and implications of a growing trend among running enthusiasts, barefoot and / or minimally shod running.  Have you ever wondered if barefoot running would be good for you?  Read on for Adam's perspective......




rc: What are the potential benefits of barefoot running or running in minimalist shoes?

 

AD: I think that the biggest potential benefit of the barefoot style of running is reduced injury. The barefoot style of running that habitually barefoot and minimalist runners tend to use is a forefoot strike, landing on the outside ball of the foot before easing the heel down under the control of the calf muscles. This style of running minimizes the forces experienced at impact, which may help to avoid injury. Notice that this focuses less on what is under a runners’ feet and instead considers how footwear affects how runners use their feet and how this changes their style of running. My recent work looking at foot strike and injuries in collegiate runners found a nearly two-fold reduction in running injuries among forefoot strikers, none of whom were barefoot runners (Daoud AI et al. Foot Strike and Injury Rates in Endurance Runners: a retrospective studyMSSE, 2012.). This was a study about running form, more work especially prospective work needs to be done to look at the interplay between footwear, running form and injury. A singular focus on what runners strap to their feet can easily lead a runner into danger.

Another potential benefit would be financial savings. Since forefoot strike runners do not use the cushioning of a shoe to reduce the impact, shoes can be worn for many more miles before being replaced. As a forefoot strike runner, I usually wait until the upper is pulling off the lower before tossing shoes.

Studies on running efficiency have gone both ways. Our lab recently found that running in minimal shoes is more efficient regardless of foot strike and that there was no difference between heel striking and forefoot striking in terms of running efficiency (Perl DP et al. Effects of Footwear and Strike Type on Running EconomyMSSE, 2012.). While Rodger Kram’s lab has found that barefoot running is less efficient than running in lightweight, cushioned shoes (Franz JR et al. Metabolic Cost of Running Barefoot versus Shod: Is Lighter Better? MSSE, 2012.). But in general, a less injured runner is a better-trained, fitter runner so even if forefoot striking is not more efficient there may be performance gains by avoiding time off due to injury.

rc: What are the risks?

AD: While the major benefit of the forefoot strike running is injury reduction, the greatest risk is increased chance of injury during a runner’s transition from their current running form to forefoot strike running and possibly doing so in a more minimal shoe. Forefoot strike running puts very different stresses on the lower limb compared to heel striking. The muscles of the calf and foot have to do more work each time the foot strikes the ground while the bones of the foot incur impact and bending forces that are different than those experienced in heel striking. In addition, running barefoot or in a more minimal shoe will require increased muscle force to stiffen the arch of the foot and the bones of the foot may be subjected to less evenly distributed forces. Recent case reports have described instances of metatarsal injury in runners transitioning to barefoot running. Though if case reports were written up for all of the injuries sustained by “normal” runners, sports medicine journals wouldn’t have room for anything else.

Other risks are quite obvious such as injury to the sole of the foot due to surface conditions if a runner chooses to run completely barefoot. Though these risks can be greatly reduced by using your eyes and choosing smooth surfaces that are free of jagged debris. A hard surface such as a road or sidewalk can be a good surface.

 

rc: What are some sensible ways to experiment with barefoot / minimalist running to explore whether it is appropriate for you?

AD: The first thing to do is to decide whether or not your current form is working for you. If in your years, possibly decades of running you’ve found shoes that fit your running form and you’re not plagued by injuries then why change? But if you’ve struggled with injury as a heel strike runner then you might want to consider trying out forefoot striking. Unless they ask, my running friends don’t hear a word from me about running form until they get injured. This not only gives me a chance to figure out how much they’ve been injured in the past, but also transitioning to forefoot strike running can line up perfectly with returning from injury since you’re already running at a reduced volume and intensity. Transitioning should be done slowly and in accordance with what your body is telling you, just as you would any other new training technique such as weightlifting or plyometric exercises.

Concerning form, jump straight up in the air. Where on your foot did you just land? You should do the same when you run. Try out running completely barefoot on a track or smooth paved surface to try to get a feel for what it should feel like. Your bare feet will encourage you to run correctly as it will hurt to do otherwise. Don’t run barefoot on overly soft ground to learn good technique since the cushioning of the ground will allow you to run without good form. You can find more information including videos of forefoot strike running in various footwear on my past lab’s website.

The biggest mistake a runner could make would be to buy the newest, coolest pair of minimalist shoes and then go out and continue running in the same way they always have – heel striking – in their new minimal shoes. The heel cushioning of a standard running shoe will no longer attenuate the large impact forces of heel striking. Another mistake would be to consider the barefoot style as a panacea and to suddenly switch 100% of your running to forefoot striking. Your muscles need time to grow stronger and to learn the new firing pattern of a new gait pattern. And your bones need time to strengthen and remodel to adequately deal with the new loading patterns of forefoot strike running.




pilates_cropped

Can the Gym Help My Running?

Personal Best - January 2012


January is a time to set new goals.  Runners of every age and experience level often seek ways to improve performance and results outside of the time spent out on the roads.  As coaches, we are often asked if weight training, yoga, cross training, or other gym-based activities will assist an athlete toward their running goals.  This month in Personal Best, we consider the question with a few guidelines and tips.

Why not just run?
Certainly, the best way to improve your running is to run; however, moving your body in different ways can address various weaknesses that have built over time due to the repetitive nature of running. In addition, ancillary activities can help put the finishing touches on the fitness gains from a workout regimen begun in search of weight loss or aesthetic goals.

It all starts with the core....
If time and resources are limited, there are a number if ways to help your running with some simple core work.  Exercising the core helps strengthen the area from your chest to your hip flexors, allowing you to maintain good form and posture when at the end of a race. Your core stabilizes you not only when you're tired, but helps center your running form even when fresh, assisting in the achievement of good posture and range of motion in your stride.  We discussed the importance of one of these muscles, the transverse abdominis, in a previous column, along with a few easy and simple exercises to address it when you can steal a few minutes on the carpet after coming in from a run.

If you enjoy the social nature of classes they are a great way to stay on track with your core strength objectives.  In addition to stabilization, a strong core, and good spinal / pelvic alignment can help you maximize efforts spent on strengthening other muscle groups, another reason why it is a good place to start.

Flexibility is your friend

Activities like Yoga and Pilates are also tools used by many runners to help increase flexibility and strength when muscles are extended.  Greater flexibility can be a huge asset in the effort to stave off injuries, so if that is a big goal for 2012, these might be good options for activities to incorporate into your regimen.

Boost your metabolism and body composition
Along with general weight training, some of the latest trends in fitness include CrossFit, P90X, TRX, and a myriad of home and gym-based programs to challenge your body in a multi-directional, muscle-strengthening fashion.  Some of these also include a cardio component, and many of them build upper body fitness, demand lateral movement, and require more ballistic activities than a normal running routine.

These high intensity activities can complement your training by adding a new dimension of athleticism increasing your power.  However, anything along these lines should be carefully taken into account – some body composition changes are helpful, some are not, and anything that compromises your running by creating too much and untimely fatigue, may be more detrimental than it is worth.   Any of these activities are best safely incorporated with the help of a fitness professional at your local facility.


Ease strain on joints and muscles

Every runner occasionally requires a time of recovery or the need for a day or two of cross training.  Others enjoy incorporating spin classes, swimming, elliptical, or even a fitness activity such as Zumba into their regular routine.  If you are looking for a way to integrate in an additional day of cardiovascular exercise, but are concerned about the strain on joints and ligaments, one of these low or non-impact activities could be just the ticket to keep you headed in the right direction.

 

In short….the bottom line

Cross training and multi-dimensional movements can be beneficial for distance runners.  Consider some of the disciplines below to have an even better and more balanced 2012.

Core strength exercised, Yoga, Pilates:  At home, with an instructor, or in a class setting.  These primarily address needs for flexibility, core strength, and spinal / pelvic alignment.  Low / no impact, more meditative. 

Want to try a home-based core workout?  Check out Focus-N-Fly’s favorite whole body workout here:  

Weight / circuit training, CrossFit, P90X, TRX, etc:  At home, with an instructor, or in a class setting.  These require more dynamic, powerful movements, perhaps with greater intensity and resultant muscle development.  For those who enjoy an up-tempo addition to their week, and who are looking to add more power / speed.

Indoor cycling, elliptical, Zumba, swimming: At home, with an instructor, or in a class setting.  These activities can increase cardiovascular training time with minimal strain on joints and bones.  Could be used for variety or as a prelude to including an additional day of running into the schedule.


Focus-N-Fly Plyomterics and Warm-up Drills:  These can be run on a track, road, sidewalk, path or grass.  Even if you do not have time for an additional training session or two, these can be efficiently integrated into your already scheduled running to help strengthen your core and provide greater range of motion. 

Questions about the above?  Email us at info@focusnfly or tweet us a question to @focusnfly.

 




 

baby_plank_croppedTypically in this column, we look at a simple component of the running experience and attempt to help you be aware of how to maximize or at least benefit from the proper implementation of that component.  This month, we are talking about a muscle with a fancy name, but the concept is just as simple and important as topics like arm swing and hydration.

 

The transverse abdominis (TVA) is one of the innermost layers of flat abdomen muscle.  The name refers to the horizontal direction of its fibers, but the muscle stretches from the bottom six ribs down to the iliac crest, or pelvic region, helping to stabilize both regions.  The TVA also connects to the diaphragm, assisting with inhalation.  If anyone has ever encouraged you to “tighten your core” they most likely were encouraging you to regain posture that the TVA helps to provide.

As it is such a deep muscle within the body, the TVA can many times go unaddressed, even when we are making a concerted effort to do “abs” or core exercises. However as a long, strong, and deep muscle connected to many of the parts of the body that drive running performance, we want to provide some tips for how to activate and strengthen this part of the body.  As this month’s Pro’s Perspective featured athlete David Torrence attests – it really can help!

The Chek Institute of Vista, California provides a simple exercise with 4 steps for making yourself aware of the TVA and beginning the process of activating it.

1.     Kneel on the floor on hands and knees and let the contents of your midsection rest against the abdominal wall.

2.     Keeping your spine flat and straight, take a deep breath from your diaphragm.

3.     Exhale, drawing your belly button toward your spine by actively trying to use the bands of muscle connecting your ribs and your pelvis.  Do not flex the spine or rotate your pelvis area.

4.     Hold your belly button to your spine for ten seconds.  Relax for ten seconds and repeat the process several times.

Once you are aware of and comfortable activating your TVA, one simple exercise to begin with is the plank.

Plank exercises can be done in many different variations and difficulties, but to get started, lets begin with the simplest version.  Get yourself into a lifted push-up position.  Your back should be flat – one long line from your shoulders to your heels.  Your feet should be shoulder width apart, and your arms can be either straight with your palms on the ground, or bent, resting on your elbows/ forearms.   Your head should be neutral – just extending from your neck, not tilted specifically up or down.

Concentrate on engaging your TVA muscles much as you did in the previous exercise (pull your belly button toward your spine), while you simply hold this position for 20, 30, or even 60 seconds.   When you feel comfortable with this exercise, able to do 2 or 3 times at 30-60 seconds, you could try going from resting on your forearms to your palms with arms fully extended or lifting one foot off the ground at a time slowly, making sure to maintain the same weight distribution as much as possible.

When you have built confidence with these or similar exercises, you will find that activating this muscle is an important component of our Whole Body Strengthening routine. It is particularly important in these exercises: Left & Right side planks, partner punishment, and pointers.   

As David Torrence suggests, don’t let your core “crumple” at the end of your next race.  Get to know your transverse abdominis and prepare to finish strong!

 



Personal Best:  Mental Strategies for Hard Workouts

 

 

It has been sitting on the schedule since you first looked a week or two ago.  Your first 10 or 20 miler, or the first time you are doing a tough track session more challenging than anything you have attempted to this point.  Or, maybe it is a workout or a run you have done before, but it didn’t go so well.  If one of the primary reasons we run is to enjoy ourselves, how do we find enjoyment in these seemingly daunting tasks?  Below are a few strategies for taking these challenges head on, not so you merely make it, but so you conquer and thrive.

 

US 5k champion Lauren Fleshman talks about some of these and others in our September Pro’s Perspective as well.  Read it here.

1. Remember that although this may be a first time for you, others have gone before you and have been successful.

Whether you are beginning your first training cycle with Focus-N-Fly or have been with us for 10 years, you can rest assured that every workout you’re given is based on what has worked for other runners.  It is exactly through these successful experiences of novice and experienced runners that we have built the system that is helping you now.  Know that your path has been trod before, that it is possible, and that it can be done.

 

2. Take one step at a time

One almost universally shared tip is to take a tough workout and break it down into manageable pieces.  Notice how both our beginning runner, Terri Wojtalewicz, and our experienced professional athlete, Lauren Fleshman, both talk specifically in their profiles about taking a long race one mile at a time or a hard workout one interval at a time.  You may not know if you can run 20 miles, but if it is on your schedule, you can be confident you can run a large percentage of it because it wouldn’t have been on your schedule otherwise.  So, say you know you can run 15 miles.  Beyond that, promise yourself you will run at least one more mile.  Focus on a task that will take several minutes vs. one that might take hours.   Conquer the one mile and celebrate it to yourself as you finish it.  Consider if you can focus again for one mile. Buoyed by the sense of accomplishment from the 16th mile, you might just be able to.  Before you know it, you’ll be at your goal distance and you will have built up a reservoir of confidence and positive self-talk that will be helpful for the next challenge.

 

3. Take as many variables out of the equation as possible.

No, you can’t control everything.  However, if you can set yourself up for a tough workout with food you know will work for you, and your “go to” shorts/ shirt/ socks, it may take one element of worry from your minds.  Find a routine by experimenting with fueling and clothing approaches on easy days, you so are confident in your choices on hard days, leaving your mental energy for the task itself.

 

4. Prepare in advance with the positive self-talk you are going to give yourself when you are in the thick of a tough day.

There will come a time when the run or the workout will require bigger than average effort.  What are the keys you will remind yourself of when that time comes?  Do your shoulders hunch and get tight when you are tired?  Plan in advance that you will try to relax your shoulders for 30 seconds at a time when that occurs.  Does your breathing get too shallow?  Tell yourself in advance that when it starts to go that direction, you will commit to several long and deep inhales to help get you back on track.  What are the types of encouragement from others that really have helped you succeed in running or in life generally?  Tough barking orders, or soothing positive words?  Prepare with these phrases already on tap to remind your body that you and your mind are in control and not the other way around.

 

5.  Decide if knowing the workout well in advance is helpful to you or not.

If you find that you get too stressed out thinking about a big one in the week leading up, but know that every week on a certain day that type of workout will occur, resist the urge to look ahead or forgo the weekly email for a time and instead look at it a day or two ahead just for logistical planning purposes.  You will know what type of effort is required (tempo run, track workout, long run), but you won’t have the time to build additional pressure on yourself.

 

6.  Create accountability and a reward. Enlist others.

 For many of you, just knowing you will return to the computer to log your workout is motivation enough to complete each day.  For some, you are able to train with others who can keep you buoyed even when the running isn’t coming as easily as you had hoped that day.  Others are training for a big goal with an emotional motivation, such as to honor a friend or family member, or to note one of life’s milestones.  If so, one strategy would be to create a visual reminder around the house to keep track of the steps or miles you are logging on the way to that goal, and use it as a positive motivation to keep you going as well as a reminder to those in your household to help keep you on track with encouragement, even if they know nothing about running.   Think of your training as a tower.  You want a tower that is a tall and as strong as possible, but one sub par day doesn’t mean the whole thing falls over, it just means you need to put that next block on there the next time out.

 

On a lighter note, it is ok to concede to the occasional treat as motivator, whether it is the espresso and pastry Lauren writes about, a meal at your favorite restaurant, or perhaps a pedicure for your marathon worn toes.  It need not cost anything, but if it is something you enjoy doing every once and a while, it might serve as a fun carrot for you as you travel toward the conclusion of your miles that day.

 

Remember, doing every single difficult workout to perfection doesn’t guarantee a perfect race, nor does missing one/ falling short a time or two necessarily mean you will not succeed.  What we are looking for is a field of data points, from which you can reasonably conclude you are prepared for the race. Every challenging day you complete allows you to strengthen the argument you are going to make for yourself on race day when the going gets tough, and oftentimes, those days although difficult, can also end up being the most memorable.

 

 

 



Two weeks ago one of our runners wrote me about taking the "Albert Haynesworth Fitness Test". 

For reference, Haynesworth is a star defensive lineman for the Washington Redskins.  He made headlines at the start of training camp when the 'skins now coach, Mike Shanahan, refused to let him practice until he passed a "standard fitness" test.  According to Shanahan this test was basic and had been completed by every other player.  The fact that one of his most important players couldn't complete the test irked the new coach and gave cannon fodder to the media around the beltway for two weeks. 

Here's the test:

  • Run a 300 yard shuttle run in under 70 seconds
    • Do this by running goal line to the 25 yd-line and back 6X
  • Take 3 minutes and 30 secsonds recovery
  • Repeat the 300 yeard shuttle run in under 73 seconds

Upon first glance this looks like a run of 300 yards (~275 metres) in 1 minutes and 10 seconds, a big recovery, and then the same thing in 1 minute and 13 seconds.

Oh, it isn't.  Foot in mouth

The exercise is an accute assessment of explosiveness, quickness and balance.  There are no less than twelve separate accelerations required along with ten 180 degree directional changes.

Our runner who ran the test told me "I felt like I was doing a strength test" and to an endurance runner this makes sense as we have developed our slow twitch, arobically funded systems in preparation for 3, 6, 13 and 26 Mile races.  Even though Haynesworth (listed at 6' 6" & 350 lbs) could never hang with any of us in a 5K, his ability and fitness is undeniable for his trade.  In fact my guess is that if we took a random sampling of Focus-N-Fly runners and had them race Albert Haynesworth this is the percentage of people who would beat him by distance:

  • 5K = 100%
  • 1K = 80%
  • 100m = 50%
  • 50m = 25%
  • 25m = 15%
  • 10m = 5%

In other words none of us big, slow distance runners would have any chance against a professional football palyer like Haynesworth in a short burst effort that falls right in his wheel house.

Hopefully this is thought provoking but I still haven't given you any practical advice so here it is.

We use running drills to help develop fast twitch muscles, anaerobic metabolism, and neurological response.  These drills makeup less than 1% of total weekly mileage and less than 5% of total time spent training. We also use fast interval training (<1500m pace) as an extension of this development for 5-10% of weekly mileage.   Both these exercises have specific objectives and can be beneficial.  In fact if you weren't doing these then you would have no chance against Albert Haynesworth in any race of 100m or less.  The bottom line is that we weigh this part of the regimen according to perceived value (it is valuable but not as valuable as all the aerobic work we do).

So you will continue to see the majority of your assignments focused on maintenance/easy and threshold/comfortably hard paces.  We know for certain the benefits of extended aerobic stress and they are well documented for endurance races but could they help a high-performance, short burst athlete in the NFL, NBA, MLB or NHL? 

My guess is they probably could and I often wonder why more professional ball players don't utilize distance running in the off season.  It has been documented that the aerobic contribution is dominant in all races from 400m up so there is a contribution at shorter distances as well.

As distance runners we need to focus on the aerobic stresses that will help us improve the most.  Just don't forget about those drills and faster intervals when they're assigned.

Oh and the next time you're watching football on the weekend and you see those big guys gasping for air - just think of the Albert Haynesworth fitness test and the fact that all those guys have passed the test. 

Pretty incredible!

 

**BTW I am posting my Albert Haynesworth fitness test results on the forum in hopes that we might get a few others to take the test and post accordingly.

 



You're Going Out in That?

February 25, 2009

Unless you are nursing a lengthy consecutive day streak, there is probably a limit to the type of weather you will endure to complete or at least attempt your scheduled run.   This line is probably very personal decision point, honed over time and perhaps drawn at a different place than when you first began running.



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