Barefoot Monologues

A Journey of the Sole


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Runners and Team Sports: A Match Made in Hell?

I have a question for my fellow runners:

How do you feel about team sports?

I’m not talking about plopping down in your easy chair on Sundays to watch Football. I mean more like how you feel about playing team sports? How did high school gym class go for you?

Because for me, it was pretty freaking terrible. And I was quite vividly reminded of that trauma today in my morning Boot Camp class, when the trainer instructed us to get into two teams (based on the color of our sneakers – white vs. other…I was an “other”) and stand on opposite ends of the baseball field. There was a small medicine ball in the center, and when the whistle went off, we were all supposed to sprint toward the ball, grab it, and then pass it teammate to teammate on the way to our respective goals. Kind of like football, only each receiver could only take three steps before they had to pass the ball.

The second the whistle went off it was like gym class all over again. Even though I was neither the only Boot Camp “newbie,” nor the shyest, nor the least fit, I somehow immediately reverted back to that insecure, chubby, buck-toothed, not-cool-kid I was in school. Nobody wanted to pass me the ball. There were times that I was the only person open, and I still didn’t get the ball. Then, when finally someone threw it to me in a moment of sheer desperation (her favorite friend wasn’t paying attention), I was so shocked and nervous that I started running in the wrong direction! Of course then everyone started yelling at me, and I had to fight the urge to throw the ball on the ground, run to my car in tears and drive home.

I’m still shocked at how easily my mind regresses back to those insecure childhood days whenever I am thrown into a team-sport situation. I have never done well playing any game where others depend on me to excel, especially if speed, agility and a ball are involved. I’ve always been far too polite to fight for the ball, and not physically aggressive enough to spike, nudge or even run after another person. The whole activity always feels like some sick sort of popularity contest that I lost even before I stepped onto the field. It’s like I exude “I SUCK AT THIS” fumes and everyone automatically knows to stay away.

Either that, or women are simply mean and spiteful, even well into adulthood (and to some degree it may be true with this particular group, as there is one alpha female in class who has spent a great deal of class time watching to see if she betters me at every exercise, and if she doesn’t I’ll get a dismissive comment or a well-aimed dirty look. It’s a little disturbing, in a “Single White Female” sort of way).

But I digress.

Interestingly enough, there’s a very distinctive space in which my comfort begins and where it abruptly ends. Beach volleyball games with friends at a barbecue? No way. Office softball game? Count me out.

But throwing a football back and forth? Totally fine. Yoga? Pilates? Kung-Fu? Let me at it. Run with a buddy? Absolutely. And even if I’m the worst in the group, I’m totally fine with it. I guess there’s just something about that full-contact, aggression-driven competition…it simply makes me cringe.

I guess I’m lucky at least we didn’t have to pick teams today. Yikes.

So once I got home and had enough time to absorb what happened, I started thinking: Is it just me, or do other runners feel this way as well? Do most of us share the same traumatic feelings about sports that involve aggressiveness and mob team mentality? Is it that we are just more suited to sports built around endurance and body form? Do we all possess that independent “loner” sensibility, and find it more comfortable to rely on ourselves, rather than on a team of others? How else does this translate into our lives?

If so, it’s not such a wonder that I was glued to the television when the Olympic Gymnastics, track and field, swimming and diving were on, but couldn’t be paid to sit through basketball, volleyball or…any of the other sports ending in -ball. Maybe it’s not such a wonder that I roll my eyes at my Boston friends when they post incessantly about their favorite sports teams.

Maybe it’s not such a wonder that I love to run. Alone.

What are your thoughts on the matter? I’m curious to know how many of you runners out there feel much like I do about team sports, and whether there’s really something to this theory. Are you a runner who also excels at playing team sports, or are you like me and would rather pull out your eyelashes?

And, if you are the runner/team sports type, I wonder what kind of runner you describe yourself as: marathoner, sprinter, do you prefer speed workouts or long slow distances? Same for the latter group.

I’d love to hear your thoughts.


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NSAIDs and Foam Rollers: Active Recovery or a Delay in Progress?

Aside from looking pretty ridiculous, are these guys helping their legs recover, or simply enduring an act of needless torture?

Last week I ran barefoot out at Carlsbad Beach for the first time, and running through the waves was so much fun that I may have gone a little bit overboard. I stretched when I was finished, but by later on that night my calves were sore and hard as rocks. Hey, it happens sometimes…especially if you run in little to no shoe. So I popped a couple Advil to keep the inflammation at bay and went to bed.

The next day my legs felt a little better, but I was still overwhelmed with guilt because I couldn’t find time to use my foam roller on them. So I threw on my blue calf sleeves for a quick run with some friends that morning, hoping that the compression would encourage blood flow to my torn-up calf muscles. Later on that next night I did find the time to sit down and roll them out – and it was absolute effing torture.

“It’s a good pain,” says just about every person who has ever used a foam roller. I pretend to agree and carry on the message, but secretly I hate it. I still do it all, anyway…as a sort of guilt-induced process toward progress. I roll my legs, I stretch, I wear calf sleeves, douse myself in ice and sometimes even take NSAIDs, all because I have been taught that these are the steps I should take to avoid injury, aid muscular recovery and become a stronger runner.

But do I really need to assist my after-run recovery? Why, exactly, can’t my body do it just fine all on its own? What did all the runners throughout history do before they discovered foam rollers?

Do our muscles actually benefit from all this help, or have we been adding unnecessary steps to the end of our workouts, and possibly even stunting our own progress with it?

I recently read this thought-provoking article by Kyle Krantz, Social Media Coordinator of Skora Running, called “Artificial Recovery.” In it, he talks about just that: perhaps, using artificial means to speed up our bodies’ recovery time after exertion is actually holding us back.

If you reduce the duration of the recovery period, could you be reducing the adaption as well?

And it really got me wondering whether Kyle is really on to something here. If you’re expressly trying to reduce the amount of time your legs have to adapt to a new or difficult exercise, then are they even getting the full effect of the exercise? Or are you just working out all the kinks for your muscles and never letting them figure it out on their own? The more I think about it the more it sounds kind of like paying the rent for your 27-year old child’s apartment and then wondering why their credit card balances are still so high. Students never learn what you fail to teach.

What if, like the softie parent, we are aiding a slow learning process for our muscles by artificially assisting their recovery, and thus, their adaptive learning? Would they be better off if we gave them some “tough love” by relying less on all those chemicals and gimmicky products? Possibly.

Based on this theory, I would be able to delete a lot of my runner’s guilt from all those ice baths I didn’t take, and all those days last year that my foot hurt and I failed to make a date with my foam roller. Perhaps not having done those things helped more than I ever realized.

Moreover, lessening our dependence on artificial means to recovery might help us rely more on all the natural ways. Things that people never talk about, like getting enough sleep or utilizing proper hydration and nutrition. Think about it: have you ever been complaining to a friend about your sore quads after a hard run and heard her say “Take my advice: go home, eat some kale and then get to bed early.”? Yeah, none of that here, either.

That said, I still believe there is a proper time and place to utilize the artificial solutions: when recovery needs are above and beyond the usual after-workout soreness, i.e. when there is injury involved. Last year I injured the tendons on my left foot and it took months to heal. Now, ever so often I (stupidly) over-do it and have to spend a few days on the sidelines to circumvent re-injury. In that case I might pop a few NSAIDs before bed and roll out all the muscle tightness that caused the sore foot chain reaction. But perhaps now, in addition to that, I will always make an effort to consume more lean proteins and vegetables, drink plenty of water and get some extra sleep. I’m not entirely sure what part of that habit will be the magic bullet (or if there even is one), but it can’t hurt.

So, next time you don’t have twenty minutes to suffer through an ice bath or forget to wear your compression socks to a race, skip the guilty feelings. Your legs just might benefit from the tough love.

What are your thoughts on this issue? Do you use a lot of artificial recovery methods, or just let your body work it out naturally?


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Training for a Race by Not Running: A Study in Counter-Intuitiveness

So, I’ve been hearing a lot of the following things lately:

  • If you do nothing but running, you’ll suffer from muscle imbalances.
  • Train better for running by weight training.
  • Running makes you better at running, but Crossfit makes you better at everything (eye roll).
  • Do Burpees.
  • Do squats and lunges.
  • Do deadlifts.
  • You want to run better? Faster? Then you gotta stop running!

And on and on with the ridiculousness. If you know me at all, you probably know how annoying I think Crossfit is. Nothing against you people who love it, I just…don’t. I really just dislike all that chest-beating, grunting, beastly, anti-runner dogma that seems to emanate from so many of Crossfit’s devotees. In some ways it seems pretentious and showy to me. And not to mention I just hate the idea of having to be inside a gym to work out.

For awhile most of that strength-training noise was coming from the Crossfitters exclusively, which makes sense because most Crossfitters think they’re better than runners. But lately I’ve been hearing more and more support of these crazy ideas emanating from the ultra runner crowd.

I know, it sounds totally counter-intuitive, right? Train for a run by not running? But it really seems to have worked for some of my ultra runner friends, especially the more injury-prone ones. For instance, my friend Krista trained for her first 100k without ever really doing long runs. And my friend Christian does Crossfit workouts almost every day (at least he does them at home) and hasn’t run more than ten miles since probably last spring (nor has he written a single blog post, I might add). But they both do quite well when they get to the starting line, despite spending over 90% of their workout time in the weight room.

Let me say this right now: I will never do that non-running crap. I run. I do it because I love it. And I mean I really love it. I don’t even see distance running as exercise, it’s simply something I want to do. It’s part of my lifestyle. Giving it up altogether in lieu of squat thrusts and 100-Burpee-a-Day challenges would be totally idiotic and counterproductive.

But…

I think there is something to be said for all-around strength and muscle competency. I mean, right now I can’t even do a pull-up. Not even one. Not even with 50 pounds of assistance. And I mean, if you think about it practically, such a lack of upper body strength could potentially translate into a major disadvantage for me in the event of a zombie attack. Sure, I could run pretty consistently until most of them lose interest or manage to die, but what if I have to climb a rope up to a third story building to avoid them? Right now I’d be totally screwed.

Yes that’s right, I measure fitness by one’s relative chances of living through a zombie attack. Don’t judge.

I’d totally live longer than this chick in a zombie attack.

So, here’s what I’m getting at: I have signed up for the Raptor Ridge Half Marathon on October 14th. That’s three weeks away. And because of all the uproar of this move, I really haven’t been training the way I should. I haven’t even run longer than seven miles in over six weeks. But that doesn’t even worry me. Thirteen miles is not much of a feat for me anymore. The problem is that a vast majority of the race involves climbing one giant hill, going back down, and then turning around and coming right back up. And since I have spent the last 9 years running on almost completely flat roads and rail trails, hills and I really aren’t friends yet. In order to complete that half without DNF’ing or dying (which would also result in a DNF), I’m going to need a major strength and endurance overhaul.

Which is why I signed up for a butt-crack ‘o dawn, weekday morning Boot Camp.

This isn’t my class, but yeah. It’s dark at 5:30am. Prime time for a zombie barrage. Just sayin’.

So for four days per week, from 5:30-6:30am, I have been paying someone to force me to run up over picnic tables, sprint and grape-vine across baseball fields, run obstacle courses, lunge, squat, do pushups, situps, burpees, tricep presses, and so on, until I’m slightly nauseous. I’m curious to see how it will affect my speed and endurance, and I am even more curious to see whether it’s going to matter if I ever do any real-deal long runs before Raptor Ridge.

In addition to Boot Camp, I plan to spend as much time as I can doing hill repeats up God-Forsaken Hill (my nickname for the crazy steep hill that sits directly in the center of Buena Vista park, right across from my neighborhood), running up and down Raptor Ridge and the hills at Lake Hodges with my buddy Kate, and cross-training by riding around on my bike. Which I haven’t done yet, but I will…I swear.

So I guess, in my lack of recent mileage, I’m about to learn how much I really need to actually run in order to be able to run better. Will I become a cross-training believer, or will I regret not running more? I’ll let you know in about three weeks.

So, what’s your take on the whole “cross-training as race training” theory?


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On Being a Poseur

If you have read this blog for more than thirty seconds, you have probably picked up on the fact that I really love running. For better or for worse, over the past three years or so running has become a HUGE part of my life. Most of my friends think of me as “the runner,” they come to me for advice on minimalist shoes, tease me about my penchant for going barefoot, and ask me when my next big race is. I spend a lot of time writing about running on this blog, or having my thoughts published elsewhere. I love being thought of as “the runner.” I also spend a lot of time running, too (strangely enough). For the last month or two my mileage has gone down, while I dedicate more of my free time and energy toward our cross-country move. And I am starting to feel the difference down to my bones.

I need to run. It’s my exercise, my escape, my reward, my alone time and my social hour. Running is where I learn the most about myself. It’s where I feel the most accomplished, and sometimes it’s where I fall the hardest. Running has renewed my self-confidence, and it has also broken my heart.

Last Sunday I lined up at the back of a pack of runners at a local 10-mile trail race, pumped full of nervous energy. The race started off really well, and for a trail run my pace was excellent. But in an unexpected turn of events, I couldn’t finish the race. At mile 7 I started to feel some pretty bad stomach cramps and I had to listen to my body and drop out. As I jogged uncomfortably toward the end of the third loop (and the porta-johns), I passed by a running friend of mine who had finished with an impressive personal record and was so kindly waiting to see me cross the finish line. It killed me to announce that I was dropping, because I wasn’t even tired yet….and also because I had spend the last year or two talking so much shop with him and others I’ve never met on Facebook, that it doubled my shame.

In my growing love for this sport, I have spent years waxing poetic with people about running, and it turns out it’s been enough to make them all believe I’m some kind of runner.

But right then I didn’t feel much like one. Instead I felt like a bit of a poseur. And I felt even more like a poseur later on that very afternoon, when I just happened to decide to sign up for my first marathon. The two events of the day were not even related in my mind. To me, a bad ten-miler today really has no bearing on a marathon that’s happening in five months. But, I can see how it may have looked sort of weird to someone else. If I couldn’t finish a ten miler today, what would motivate me to sign up for a marathon? Am I just digging myself a hole to fill with failures?

Perhaps this dude doesn’t even think of me as a poseur, who knows. But even if he does I don’t suppose it would make much of a difference to me anyway. Despite my wordy posts on the subject, at the end of the day I don’t really care what anyone thinks about me as a runner (hence my lack of hesitation in signing up for that marathon). I’m certainly not a great or talented runner, and I’ve never tried to make others think that I am. I just like to run, and that’s all the promises I’ve ever made to anyone.

But on the other hand, is signing up for something like a marathon or a 50K a promise? Is it a promise that I’ll have trained well enough to complete the race in a decent amount of time (preferably, well before the embarrassingly long cutoff time)? Are my shoe and swag reviews my promise that I’ll consistently be running 30-mile weeks? Is my signature at the bottom of an ultra-marathon application a contract that I’ll at least keep up with the runners in the middle of the pack, rather than closer to the back where I typically end up? Or am I letting my readers and my friends down if my pace is slower than 9:30, or if I drop out of a race or, god-forbid, wind up finishing dead-fucking-last?

What kind of expectation am I setting up for myself by writing an entire blog about training and signing up for all these big races? If I’m not all that great a runner in the end, is my influence on others essentially all smoke in mirrors?

Truth is, I never meant to be influential (nor do I really believe I am). It is amazing, however, whenever I hear that I’ve inspired somebody to start running, or that they became interested in barefoot running after they read an article in my blog. I’ve got nothing but confidence about my talents for writing. But all I’ve ever wanted to do was use that writing talent of mine to share my love for running (and geek out about running shoes) with my readers…whomever they are. I’ve never meant to fool anyone into thinking I’m a great ultra marathoner. I’m not. I’m a deeply flawed runner with much more will and drive than natural talent. And I happen to get a huge kick out of setting high goals and writing about how I work toward them. I make mistakes, I fall, and I write about that too. And then I set even higher goals. This blog is a documentation of my personal journey, not a sermon on great running.

So far I haven’t figured out how to turn off that feeling of fraudulence that happens every time I meet a talented runner who also happens to read my blog. Nor the feeling of injustice that comes with being reminded of how unskilled a runner I actually am, despite how much I know and love the sport. Yet none of this comes with an expectation that others should pity me or waste any time encouraging me to continue. I don’t really need encouragement to keep on running and signing up for races, and I think that’s what perplexes people the most.

I run because I want to get better at running, sure…but mostly I run just because. And whether I suck at it or not, because is enough of a reason.


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The NEW New Goals

One thing to know about me is that while I’m really good at setting goals, I’m not always too spectacular at keeping them alive. Kind of like if you bought a really pretty bonsai plant for your house and then only watered it for a week. Some goals are just impossible for me to complete without first getting bored or otherwise distracted.

Sometimes my goals are met, though, at least partly if not fully. As planned, I completed my first 50K race this year. Also I ran a better half marathon. And in about two weeks my husband and I are moving across the country to San Diego, a goal we have had in mind since sometime around forever. Not too bad for 2012, I’d say.

And then there’s the goals I never completed: lose 30 pounds before the Pineland 50K. Finish a 20-mile training run. A 30-day running streak. 100-ups. The Paleo diet. Learn to love gardening.

All of these things were somewhat of a failure. And I think that’s because they were all things I thought I should try, rather than what I really wanted to do. They are all similar, though, in meaning: a way of working toward self-improvement, and added self-awareness.

(Well, except for the gardening stuff. I’m never going to learn to love mowing the lawn and planting flowers. Forget it. So instead we are hiring a gardener to deal with the new place.)

It is a good thing to always aim at improving yourself. No matter where you are in life, there’s always room for a challenge or a change. So I have revised my short-term list of goals, based on my own current version of self-improvement and upward change. It’s not your list of goals, or Scott Jurek’s, or Vanessa Runs’…it’s mine. It’s not a long one, either. And I think that is why it just might work.

1. More Ultras

This one is simple. I want to run more ultras. 50k’s, 50 miles, and perhaps beyond that. Or perhaps not. Thing is, I don’t have a set time goal for any new distances (beyond 50K), because that’ll just set me up for stress and ultimate failure. Also I haven’t signed up for anything at all, yet. And I still like my half marathons and 10k’s, so I’m not sure I’ll ever completely eliminate them from my repertoire like some of my ultra friends have. I just know that I have so much more to learn from the ultra marathon, and I’m finding that I very much look forward to the experience.

2. Trails + Hills

This year I fell in love with the trail, which is very awesome. But I am still really fucking bad at running up and down hills. It’s not that I can’t do it. I really just don’t do it. Not very often, anyway. There aren’t a lot of hilly trails near me, and I don’t spend much time looking for them, either. So as a result, when I do find myself at the bottom of some hills, I run out of gas pretty quickly. But I can get better, I know it. I am strong and enduring. All it will take is some practice and some dedication to the other goals I’ve got listed here.

3. More Challenges

I have a lot of very talented mountain-running trail monkeys as friends. Shelly and Jason Robillard, Jesse Scott, Mr. Shacky-Shackleford, Vanessa Runs, Pat Sweeney, et al. Contrary to what you might think, I don’t want to be them. I don’t care if I run as fast or as far as any of them, ever. But, what they’ve shared about their journeys is very helpful to me. I have learned a lot about myself by watching them, following the goals they have achieved, and even by getting to run with some of them. I want more challenges, I want to experience more of the things that running can offer me, and I want to grow as a person because of it. I want to be faster, fitter, and to enjoy longer runs. And once I get there, hey…I guess I’ll have those crazy monkeys to thank for it.

4. Healthier Eating Habits

Yeah, I say it every day. I really gotta stop eating pizza and chocolate. Start counting calories again. Get back on Paleo. Maybe try vegan. Soon. Next week. Once we move. before my next ultra. Someday. Blah, blah.

Blah.

It never works. So, to hell with diets. It really just time for me to grow the fuck up and stop eating like a twenty year old. I’m 33 now. Pasta makes my belly fat and my belly fat keeps me from running fast. With the rest of my goals shifting towards better training and ultras, this is my goal to eat for the purpose of running fuel. Chances are, if I do this right and run as often as I want to, I’ll lose weight reasonably fast. And then I’ll finally be able to run reasonably fast.

5. Cross-Training

I am notoriously bad at cross training. I tell people that I don’t run for exercise, because if I did I’d probably only run twice a year. I don’t do well with exercise for the sake of exercise. It has to be a challenge, a game, or an art form for me to even consider wanting to do it regularly.

But I really need to get stronger to become a better runner. Something has to change. So next week I am cancelling my gym membership in Boston, and I’m not getting another one in San Diego. And I’m not joining any expensively ridiculous Crossfit gyms, either. Nope. Instead I’m buying myself a mountain bike, and I’m going to ride it on off days and for simple errands to cut down on gas usage. And I’m going to make myself a slosh tube (thanks for teaching me, Jason!) and get better at things like burpees and squats. I don’t need a gym membership to cross train. I just need some fucking motivation.

And that concludes my list. My hopes are that the change in scenery, the complete overhaul of my work hours and lack of commute, and my ultra-badass friends living nearby will all be helpful motivating factors. If nothing else I’ll be totally out of excuses.

 


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Think Running is Boring? Then Go Find Some Trails.

Like most people who don’t run much, I used to think that running sucked because it was boring. Back then I would gut through a couple miles on a treadmill twice a week and talk to my friends about how much I hated it. Then once the hamster wheel got so monotonous that I would work through my lunch break just to avoid it, I took my boring two-mile lunch hour outside. I liked running outside better; there were cute dogs, hills, some good people watching. But it didn’t take more than a couple years before that got rather boring too.

So I took my runs to different places; I ran around my neighborhood, sought out a different lake near my office to jaunt around during lunch, started going after work, got myself a dog to run with. In that time I started running barefoot/minimalist and grew to love it. I even mapped out a 10-mile loop around my town to train for my first half marathon.

But, soon enough, that got boring too.

It wasn’t until I signed up for my first spring 50K race last winter that I learned exactly how not to get bored of running. How? Well, you gotta run trails.

Because the 50K I’d signed up for was on trail, I knew that I probably should start training on them. And at first I wasn’t even sure I understood why it was so important; I mean, running is running, right?

Wrong.

What I discovered during my training is that trail running is a totally different animal. And trail running can turn you into a totally different animal. All of my ultra-running friends know this, but almost everyone else does not. Running trails can turn you from a lazy-ass who jogs around the block on the weekend just to work off Friday night’s beers and pepperoni pizza, to an ultra-marathoner who gets up extra early on Sunday mornings just chomping at the bit to get a few hours of undisturbed miles in. In other words, running trails has the potential to change your mind about running entirely.

Recently, I had a revelation of sorts. It was about 11 o’clock on Sunday morning and I was running down some rough, gnarled New Hampshire trails with my best friend, Kathy. We were aiming for somewhere around 10 miles, and we were already at mile 8. A couple miles back, we had turned off the main trail onto a 3-mile long fire road we’d never run before. It was unmarked, rocky, hilly and so narrow we had to run single-file. At a few points the terrain was so rough we couldn’t run without falling on our asses, so we walked. We tripped over vines and roots a lot. At one point I kicked a rock the size of a basketball that I should have seen but didn’t. Kathy laughed. In fact, we were both smiling and laughing pretty much the whole time, despite the fact that the rain had washed off our bug spray and we were being eaten alive by mosquitos and I-don’t-know-what-else.

At one point during this run I looked up from my feet and noticed that we were traveling in a scene of utter beauty. The trees around us were tall and magestic, with all their branches way up over our heads. The undergrowth was lush and so bright it seemed to be lit from within. Everything was a shade of green so ethereal that it could never be replicated by any hi-def computer graphics in this world. This place, not more than 12 miles from my home, was timeless and magical, really something to behold.

I will say with complete honesty that I have never enjoyed a run so much in my entire life (one or two have come close, though, and they were also trail runs). When it was over I wasn’t tired, and I barely noticed that my hamstrings were sore and that there was a half pound of dirt in my brand new trail shoes. In fact, probably the only reason we stopped was because we were starving and tired of batting away the swarms of insects. After our feet were freed from our filthy shoes and the bagels and juice were gone, I think we both felt a little let down that the run was over.

That morning held all of the reasons I love to run. And I think more people who profess that running is boring should try running trails. I mean, try it in earnest. And I’m talking about real trails, too: winding, hilly paths of dirt that challenge your balance, not just those stick-straight and flat ones cut artificially into the land.

If you hate running, I think the right trails can change your mind. And here’s a few reasons why:

Trail Running Brings You Closer to Nature

Yeah, you’re probably thinking this one’s too obvious; of course, you’re not only going to be close to nature, you’ll be in it. But I’m not just talking about spacial geography here. I believe there’s a little part in all of us that needs to feel primal, animal-like. Many of us have lost that intrinsic part of ourselves, and running trails can bring it back.

This may sound corny to some of you, but when I’m flying over rocks and roots, splashing through puddles and sliding around in mud, I can feel the rich and layered history of my ancestors. Trail running calls to a side of me that is purely instinctual, a side which understands the movement of the wind and the growth of the trees. I feel the hunter and its prey, I hear my steady breath, I trust my legs. Running in nature is meditational in a way that doesn’t feel forced, but totally natural. Afterward my body sings and my mind is at ease. It’s better than years of therapy.

Mental Distractions Become Unnecessary

Used to be I had to have music in my ears on every run. In fact, I have skipped runs altogether, turned and gone back home because I forgot to bring my iPod with me. True story. And if you think running is boring, you probably have your head plugged in at all times too.

Well, all that changed once I started running more trails. And it wasn’t like I stopped bringing music with me out of some hippy/purist sensibility to never run with it. I stopped bringing my iPod because it was a distraction to my run, and I didn’t want to be distracted. At some point I found the music irritated me, made me feel clumsy and blocked off from the experiences of my surroundings, which were renewed and different every second. I think it’s a lot like when you’re driving somewhere new, and once you’re close to your destination you turn off the radio so you can concentrate. You don’t need your ears to find the right place with your eyes, but somehow the noise still becomes an obstacle to your concentration.

With no extraneous sound pumping into my ears I can monitor my form, enjoy the sounds of my dog’s panting and happy frolicking through the underbrush, and take in everything around me with all five senses at once.

Another point I want to make is that running trails can be just as much a mental workout as a physical one. This makes it a lot harder to get bored. During the tougher trails my mind is on overdrive, constantly measuring distance and making thousands of calculations on where to land and how to maneuver around rocks, brush and roots without falling. It’s so much fun! And when I’m not watching my feet, I’m taking in all the minutia of my surroundings: the flowers growing just off the trail, the variation of trees around me, the way the sun casts shadows in the soil…my scenery changes every second, and I don’t need any other diversions to help me enjoy my run.

Trails Strengthen Your Feet, Ankles and Legs

Mental advantages aside, going out on trails can have a huge impact on your physical strength as a runner. When you’re traveling on smooth paved roads, your feet touch the ground in the exact same spot each time, without variation, for thousands upon thousands of strides. Roads may feel easier than trails, because in many ways they are. There’s just not much there on roads for your body to contend with or learn from. No wonder you’re bored.

Trails, on the other hand, tear up your muscles by making all of them work harder to keep you upright and moving forward. On such varied terrain, each and every landing is different from the last, which keeps your proprioception wide awake and in a constant state of practice and adaptation. The day after your first trail run your ankles and calves will likely be on fire for the first time in ages. And yeah, that’s because you actually used them the way they were supposed to be used. Muscle imbalances solved. How novel.

But Trails Are Easier on Your Joints

Although I have no real prejudice against running on roads for speed or for an easy short jaunt, I will say I have noticed that over longer distances (greater than 8 miles), trails are much easier on my hips and ankles. The constant, consistent pounding of the pavement makes me sore and achy the next day, while I’ll typically feel just fine the day after running the same distance on trail. I believe the lower impact on dirt and natural land, combined with the variable foot landings, is what makes all the difference.

No Traffic, No Fumes, No Noise

Sure, I tend to run in places where I’ll cross paths with a lot of cyclists, dog walkers, other runners and even folks on horseback (and, further down the path, piles of horse crap). But I prefer it to all those honking, fuming hulks of loud metal that populate all the roads on my dangerously sidewalk-scarce hometown. It’s pretty hard to relax into a nice run while you’re dodging oncoming cars and trying to keep your confused dog from running you into traffic. Besides, I don’t really think I want 20 people at a stop light to see me blowing snot rockets into the bushes, anyway.

It’s Better for Your Dog, Too

Like to run with your favorite canine? That’s wonderful! And I mean it. All dogs need plenty of exercise and not enough people take the time to do it (especially my neighbors). But physical exertion isn’t the only thing that makes a simple walk so fulfilling. Dogs need a mental outlet too. Just like us, being cooped up within the same four walls day in and day out can drive a dog to tail-chasing. And walking the same route around the block is just as monotonous to them as it is to you.

Dogs live for running in the woods, just watch yours once and you’ll understand. Whenever I take my Boxer, Oscar, out for a trail run, he embodies the mere definition of happiness. He is exuberant and beautiful. He holds his tail up higher, he bounds bigger, and he acts, well…like a dog is supposed to. When there aren’t a lot of people around I let him off his leash so he can chase squirrels up trees, pick up sticks to carry with him, sprint and stop and then sprint again (a running pattern that is more natural for dogs than our near-constant steady pace). I let him cool off and have a drink in the natural ponds. When we get back home Oscar is usually exhausted, panting and drooling up a storm, and I know he loves me for it.

Oscar smiling after a nice long trail run.

I will admit that I do find road running to have its merits, and I spend a good deal of time on them. But if you don’t run, or don’t run enough because it’s boring to you, then really…try running out in the trails sometime. Just don’t forget the bug spray.

*nevermind the fact that at about three miles in, some bug bit or stung my forehead and drew blood. I cleaned it off and ignored it for the rest of the run, but by the time I got home, my entire face had swollen so much that I looked like Sylvester Stallone at the end of Rocky 2. Lesson learned: early morning rain makes bugs come out in droves, not hide in shelter as originally thought.


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Building a Better Toolbox

Photo blatantly stolen from competitor.com. Click on image for source.

Barefoot and minimalist running is growing in popularity by day, but right now it’s definitely still a lifestyle niche. As with any niche and the folks involved in it, differing opinions fly, people get segmented into this group or that, and elitists are born.

Personally, I try to stay clear of all that. When the debate over shoes versus barefoot circles again as it always does, I just roll my eyes and wait it out. I don’t like to pigeonhole myself into any one role in life. When it comes to this topic, mostly I just identify as a runner and leave the barefoot part out unless it’s pertinent. Frankly, the barefoot part is only a small fraction of what my running life is about. Obviously, I prefer running with much less on my feet than most people, but that’s because to me it means good form with less injury, and it feels more natural. And I enjoy running much more when it feels natural to me.

My opinion on the whole barefoot vs. minimalist shoes debate is that there should be no debate. I feel strongly that it’s important to embrace all aspects of something important to you, or else you’ll never see the whole picture. I agree that barefoot is your best learning tool. I agree that shoes are tools. I agree that good running form requires a mid-foot strike, straight posture and high cadence. I agree that minimalist trail shoes are good for trails, and that you can go barefoot on trails. You can call me wishy-washy, but I believe that to truly understand something you must welcome all facets into your study of it, not just one or two specific ideas.

People who go barefoot 100 percent of the time arrive at limitations when it comes to extreme temperatures and certain aggressive terrains, and there may be some experiences they will have to avoid because of it. People who never go barefoot remain numb and consequently miss out on the glorious wealth of the world that can be experienced through the soles of their feet. Only those of us who fling aside the puritanical garble from both far ends of the spectrum can really gain the benefits of both worlds.

Like I said, I am a runner first, and a barefoot/minimalist second. Like the rest of the folks in the minimalist niche, I use my choice of footwear (or lack thereof) as a tool to allow good technique and improve my joy in running. I am also a bit of a minimalist shoe geek. I love to test and review all kinds of minimalist shoes for running and casual wear. I believe in minimal footwear and enjoy promoting it over shoes that alter or try to “fix” one’s gait. It makes me happy to think that even in some miniscule way I am serving to shape the future of the sport through the quality of its products.

No shoe company has ever paid me to write a review of their shoes, good or bad, but most of the time the products I write about are given to me free of charge. On occasion, if I want to try out a certain shoe badly enough, I will purchase it myself if the company’s PR department is unresponsive. Some people will tease me by calling me a “shoe whore,” and well, I suppose that’s partially true. I relish in my growing choice of footwear each time I head out for a run (and likewise, in giving some away to others who will enjoy them more). But my intentions are pure: my childlike curiosity and desire to be as involved as I can in this sport are my driving forces.

But I am most certainly not without a canyon of flaws. For the last two years I have run almost exclusively in minimalist shoes. Yes, you read that right. Except for on rare occasions and really good moods, I all but avoided running barefoot out of a fear of nasty blisters and uncorrectable form issues. And the few times I tried to run bare, it felt too difficult and had some less than desirable outcomes. For the longest time I lived by the resolve that it would take too long for my feet to adapt, and in the meantime I want to bank mileage at every run, not limp around over tiny stones that my baby-soft feet can’t handle.

But in the last couple of weeks I have finally taken the opportunity to set aside my hesitations about running barefoot, and just started doing it. I guess you could say I’d finally had enough of hearing myself talk. One night I came home from work, got into my running skirt and sport bra, leashed up the pooch and left the toolbox of shoes at home. I didn’t take a pair with me as a back-up, just in case, like I’d always done (and invariably put them on half a mile later). I left my front door just as barefoot as my beloved dog Oscar, and I found out that it wasn’t nearly as scary as I thought it would be. I ran a mile around the neighborhood and I didn’t get any blisters. So I did it again a few days later and it was a little bit easier. Last night I ran two full miles completely barefoot, for the first time ever. I came home, washed my feet off and started dinner like it was no big deal. Because it wasn’t, not anymore. What a triumph to know such simplicity! In a few weeks my feet will be tougher and I’ll take on more challenges. I am thrilled that I’ve finally overcome my fears and feelings of inexperience related to running barefoot.

So I guess you could say that I am finally coming to a point in my experience where I can make an argument for or against running totally barefoot, because I’m actually dedicated to the use of both toolboxes. But I actually have less of a need to argue about it now than ever before. Why? Because there’s really no point.

Many barefoot purists have felt the glow of enlightenment as they shunned those who choose to wear shoes in their daily life. Many shod runners have felt smart in their cushioned shoes while they shook their heads at those weird barefoot hippies. But I have never felt more enlightened than I did the day I realized that I don’t have to make a choice. I can have the whole toolbox for myself, and I can be ready for anything.


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How to Find Your Mid-Foot

Over the last few years, more and more runners and training professionals have been touting the benefits of utilizing barefoot running form (or “bareform”), with a mid-foot landing, rather than the more common heel-strike. Many agree that a mid-foot landing is more natural, and I absolutely agree. Have you ever tried running in place with no shoes on? You’ll never land on your heel.

The human foot is an amazing structure, built with 26 bones, 33 joints and over one hundred muscles, ligaments and tendons. The arch is a beautifully designed spring mechanism that feeds energy to our calves, quads and hips and lets us run gracefully and painlessly…that is, if we just let it do its job.

The running shoe we see most often today has been around since about the mid 1980s, when more of the general masses started to take up running. The athletic shoe industry figured that the average jogger might want more comfort than the serious athlete, who had up until then influenced the market toward a more lightweight racing shoe.

So, all the major shoe companies started to add cushioning and a raised heel to the running shoe, leading to the heel-strike running form that’s so common today. Essentially they made running feel like walking. It must have seemed like a good idea at the time.

Since then we have seen an explosion of runners in all shapes, sizes and athletic abilities. But we have also seen an explosion of knee problems, heel spurs, plantar fasciitis, ankle sprains, and the list goes on. The super-cushioned, gel-filled, motion-control features of the modern running shoe have dimmed the natural movement of our feet and upset our skeletal balance, causing unnecessary injuries.

Because of this, some runners are setting their feet free. Some go completely barefoot while others are choosing to lighten up on their footwear, wearing shoes closer to what runners wore in the old days, with little to no cushioning and no pronation control. No bells and whistles.

Runners today are taking back their mid-foot and reaping the benefits with less injuries and more enjoyable runs. If you’re up for the challenge of finding your mid-foot and improving your running form, here are some tips to follow:

1. Lose Those Cushioned Shoes

Bare feet are your best teacher. If you aren’t comfortable going totally bare, try some lightweight footwear. You can choose anything from huarache sandals to a high-tech pair of minimalist running kicks.

The things to look for in a minimalist shoe are:

  • no significant lift from the toe to heel (4mm or less) or none at all (often marketed as “zero-drop”)
  • very little to no cushioning
  • an extra-flexible sole
  • plenty of room for your toes to spread and move

Here are some of my favorites:

Merrell Pace Glove
Merrell Dash Glove
Vibram FiveFingers SeeYa
Skora FORM
VIVOBAREFOOT Lucy Lite
VIVOBAREFOOT Breatho
NewBalance Minimus Zero Road

If you’re just too stubborn to part with your cushioned trainers, well…that’s okay. You can still be better off if you improve your running form by following the rest of these steps.

2. Stop Landing on Your Heels

The key to good form is in contacting the ground with the front half of your foot first. This is more difficult to do in heavy trainers, but it’s next to impossible to avoid when barefoot. The exact contact spot varies from person to person. Some land on the ball of their foot (forefoot landing), but most land somewhere in the middle (mid-foot landing).

Your heel should still touch the ground briefly. However, it should not carry a large weight load. Your foot must land directly under your center of gravity. As soon as your heel makes contact, your arch and lower leg muscles will gather the spring they need to move your body forward. This way you can land much more lightly and bounce out of each stride rather than pound the ground. I like to tell people that proper running form feels more like bouncing than stepping. And it really is.

Jason Robillard, bareform running coach and author of The Barefoot Running Book and the super-informative website Barefoot Running University, recently taught me that the best mental trick for learning a proper foot landing is trying to land with your foot flat. Yes, flat. All at once. Your mid-foot makes contact with the ground first, but the rest lands almost simultaneously, too fast for you to control. You don’t want to anyway, it’s supposed to be automatic. So if you just focus on landing flat-footed, you will land correctly, and avoid those weeks of ignorantly keeping your heel too far off the ground and busting up your calves while doing so.

Yeah, you know you did that. I’ll admit I did, too.

3. Stand Up Straight, and Shorten Your Stride

Remember what your mother told you: don’t slouch. A slumped-over runner wastes energy and allows for over-striding, which means extending the leg so far ahead that the foot lands in front of the body’s center of gravity.

Over-striding is the main reason why a heel-strike landing is so bad. Because over-striding essentially puts the brakes on every stride you make, it can lead to a host of problems, joint pain and knee injuries in particular. So keep your back straight, lead with your chest and focus on every footfall being directly under your center of gravity, not in front.

Shortening the length of your stride and increasing your cadence makes it easier to straighten up and resist over-striding. The average heel-striking runner uses longer strides and a cadence of 90 to 120 beats per minute (BPM), but the recommended cadence for optimal mid-foot running is about 180 BPM.

Getting this cadence down was the main factor in my learning proper form. Even now if I get tired on a run, I’ll take a quick look down at my watch to make sure that my cadence is at least three steps per second.

4. Relax

Finding your mid-foot will make you a more graceful and energy-efficient runner. But there’s nothing graceful about running with stiff, robot-like limb and tensed-up shoulders. Loosen the heck up!

Relax your shoulders, neck, hands, toes, and even your legs. Focus on only using the muscles you need to make each stride. Extra tension in your muscles wastes energy and can cause a lack in flexibility and extra soreness. Bend your knees, shake out all the stiffness and let your body choose which muscles carry you forward.

5. Follow Your Body, Not Your Mileage Goals

Switching from a heel-strike to a mid-foot strike is serious business at first. In the long run, good mid-foot form is easier on your joints and spine and strengthens your ankles, feet and lower legs. But it is a big change for your very underused lower leg and foot muscles, which have essentially been in an immobilizing cast your entire life!

It is important to start slow—even slower than you think. And then slower than that! Build mileage gradually and always listen to your body whenever you think it’s probably telling you to stop. How do you know? Just use common sense! If you need a place to start, most knowledgeable barefoot runners recommend no more than 1/8 to 1/4 mile at first, and increasing distance by 10 percent each week.

For longer distance runners, this may seem ludicrous. Believe me, I understand the desire to continue your weekly mileage without interruption. And, runners are not known to be the most patient people in the world. However, learning a new running form is the equivalent to being a new runner. With that said, every runner is different. The smartest thing you can do is be patient, pay attention to how your body feels and avoid injuries by taking it easy during your transition period.

And if you overdo it and end up with PF or a stress fracture, you’ll have nobody to blame but yourself.

6. Learn from the Masters

Finding your mid-foot takes a little more finesse than just throwing off your trainers and heading out the door. Fortunately, there is a wealth of advice out there on running with good form. Helpful guidebooks by masters of the sport can be useful tools no matter what you wear on your feet. Here are some of my favorite:

The Barefoot Running Book by Jason Robillard
Born to Run by Christopher McDougall
Barefoot Running Step by Step by KenBob Saxton
Barefoot Running by Michael Sandler and Jessica Lee

You can also look to instructional YouTube videos, informational minimalist running blogs and helpful runner forums for your education. There are even some barefoot and minimalist running coaches all over the country who can help you correct your form one-on-one in person or through email. You don’t have to learn all by yourself.

So go ahead and find your mid-foot. Your feet will thank you for it.


6 Comments

A Lemming’s Argument

Three people have sent this image to me this week:

And each time I laughed a little.

It’s silly and funny, and it’s flattering to know that people think of me whenever the subject of barefoot running is brought up or joked about.

I get it.

. . .

BUT HERE’S THE MYSTERY:

The average person looks at a pair of “toe shoes” and automatically thinks:

“wow, those are weird.”

We all agree that Vibram FiveFinger shoes are weird-looking.

Right?

Well…but what’s the logic in that, anyway?

They’re shoes, shoes shaped like feet. Feet, which are a lot like the feet we all have beneath our ankles. We see them and walk on them every day. So…why would something that’s shaped like a foot freak us out so much?

*scratches head*

. . .

So, by definition, we should all agree that GLOVES look weird too!

Don’t we?

No?

WHAT THE…

. . .

AHH, YES…I GET IT:

Nobody thinks that gloves look weird, because nobody TOLD US to think that gloves look weird.

Another mystery solved.


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Thirty (Sixty…Ninety?) Day Running Streak: The Demise of My Sanity

Today I decided that I would start a 30-day running streak. And no, I don’t mean running naked in public as well as barefoot, get your mind out of the gutter! This challenge is to run at least one mile every day, for thirty days in a row, and see if it ends up turning into 60 or 90 days. I’ve been letting the idea to roll around in my head for a week or two now. But at some point this afternoon it donned on me that if I head out today, then I’ll actually be on day 2 already, since I ran yesterday as well. Retroactive inclusion is always a good motivator.

What inspired me to this new feat of ridiculousness, you might ask? Well, there have been many things. The first is my buddy Brad, who is just about to complete his own 120-day running streak, as part of a challenge proposed by our friend Jason Robillard on Facebook. And it wasn’t just that he did it that inspired me, it was how the streak has benefitted him over the past four months. He has become stronger, leaner and it helped him complete his first ultra marathon with almost no whining and shockingly few long training runs over 10 miles.

Another motivation is my new set of goals for running improvement. I figured that since the goal of completing my own first ultra has been completed, I might as well set up a few new ones for the summer (you know, so I don’t get bored):

  • speed
  • endurance
  • weight loss

These are three ingredients that I will use to reach my goal of becoming an overall stronger runner. While I am not obsessed with speed, I’d like to become a faster runner so my next ultra will conclude in a more reasonable time period. I’d like to build my endurance over a longer distance, so that I will require fewer walk breaks after the 10-mile mark. Working on my endurance will also help me to tackle hills better. And weight loss is an absolute must for the other two things to happen. Because, all training aside, there comes a point where your muscles may be at their peak performance, but the more weight they have to move the less efficient they are.

I have the same weight issues that 50% of the country has. Slow metabolism, heredity, lack of motivation and a gratuitous love for things with sugar in them. Running helps, but even running 25 miles a week isn’t enough if you’re still drinking beer and eating ice cream after dinner. So this last part is probably the hardest in the group. However, burning an extra 100 calories (per mile) every single day couldn’t hurt, right?

Not to mention the other positive effects a running streak would allow for. More responsive and resilient leg/foot muscles, better cardio-vascular health, extra stress relief, more frequent speed and hill training, more time to test new shoe models, and the list goes on. Not to mention my dog Oscar would get way more exercise during the week too, while I do my best to squeeze in a mile before or after work on really busy days. It’s going to be challenging, but it’s really nothing but a win-win situation.

Only downside is I’m going to either have to do laundry a lot more often or buy some more sports bras (since going braless is just not an option for me). And I might smell of B.O. more often, as I’ll not always have time to shower after running. Ahh, such is the fine stink of Eu de Running Sweat.

So, anyone wanna streak with me?