Barefoot Running Advice from Dr. Dad

I hate running. I hate everything about it. I think that running is tedious and stupid. But now I run. So what kind of idiot would participate in a sport that they actively hate? Well, I also deal with constant blackouts and brownouts, washing clothes and dishes by hand, and cold showers. Part of living in Ecuador requires learning to live with things that you always hated. No power? Buy a bunch of candles, and forget any ideas of stocking up on food to store in the freezer. Staring at a mountain of dirty laundry with a sinking doom feeling in your stomach? Get grifota, put on some good podcasts, roll up your sleeves and just zone out and do it. It can actually be quite a zen experience once you get over the Am I really, I mean really, about to wash all this with my hands? thoughts that are going through your head. Have to take a shower in freezing ice water? Sorry, I have no help for you there. I’ve been taking cold showers for 1 year, 10 months, and 1 week and 2 days, and I despise them just as much today as I did the first day I got here. There is no getting used to cold showers. The dread that comes over you as you stand under the shower head, waiting for the piercingly frigid water to hit your poor unprotected and vulnerable body never goes away. Oh the horror…

All this to say, that one learns to adjust. I hate to run, but a number of factors have lead to me taking up the sport.

  1. The village where I work (Montañita) is about 4 km from the village where I live (Manglaralto) by road, which is well paved and has a nice shoulder, or 2 km by beach, which is beautiful and safe, and has perfect running conditions at low tide when the sand is nicely packed.
  2. I have two co-workers who also live in Manglaralto and who have suddenly decided that they want to take on something different from their usual workout routine (dancing in Caña Grill until the wee hours of the morning.)
  3. I am unable to come up with a passable excuse for not participating. I have no health problems, and pretending that I did would involve long term and intricate deceptions that may or may not be more work than the actual running.
  4. I’m getting a little tubby and could use some exercise. I blame it on coktéles and arroz with every meal. The gym is out since the only one in Montañita charges gringo prices which I am not down with. The free bailoterapia classes in Manglaralto are out since they are held by the park and always attract a crowd of people to watch. I’m not so into the idea of exercising with an audience. Yoga is out since the studio is still closed, and I’m way too lazy to make a good workout out of yoga when I’m alone. That leaves running, which is free, except for the equipment . . . right?

And this brings me to the meat of this post. Not only am I now a (reluctant) runner, I am also part of the new growing trend of barefoot running. It’s not because of the science, or because I like to be up on the modes of the day. It is for no other reason than that I have no desire to throw down my hard earned bucks on a pair of running shoes. Barefoot is free, and I live on an Ecuadorian salary.

Luckily for me I’m not going into this blind. My dad has been a gung-ho barefoot runner for years, and has already attempted to convert me at various points with no success. It took a move to Ecuador for me to come around. He also has the talent of taking a new health craze, researching it to death, changing and adapting it based on his years of medical knowledge and experience, and making it his own thing. For example he made a Dr. Dad version of the Atkins diet and is the only person I know who was able to make that diet work and then transition to a normal diet and stay lean. And that was like 10 years ago, so I’m a big proponent of the Dr. Dad version of things. Thanks to the miracle of modern technology, when he heard of my recent transformation into a barefoot runner, he was able to immediately give me the fatherly/doctorly advice and how to go about it, despite being a few thousand miles and several countries away. Advice that I shall now impart to you of the blogisphere. ¡Disfrutalo!

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How to Run Barefoot
by Dr. Dad

So here’s my barefoot running primer. I learned some of this stuff from Barefoot Ken Bob’s website, some from Christopher McDougall‘s Born to Run, and some from Harvard professor of human evolutionary biology Daniel Lieberman, but for 2 1/2 years I have distilled it and internalized it. By the way, Barefoot Ken Bob’s site used to have everything anyone would ever need for getting started. I wouldn’t have had to write any of this if he hadn’t removed most of his technique and beginners advice from the site, which seemed to happen around the time his $22 book came out, “Barefoot Running Step by Step: Barefoot Ken Bob, the Guru of Shoeless Running, Shares His Personal Technique for Running with More Speed, Less Impact, Fewer Injuries and More Fun“. I haven’t seen the book, but even if all he did was republish what he had on the website, it would be well worth it, and I’m sure it’s more than that. Can’t blame him from wanting a few $$ back for his decades of dedication to helping people discover this stuff.

So why should we fuss so much about technique when running barefoot should be perfectly natural and intuitive for our species? Maybe we don’t need to, and maybe you’re doing fine already, but here’s the theory: We learned through years of trial and error at a time when we were resilient and indestructible. Then at some point during childhood we stopped being barefoot, and then some time later we stopped running, and then years went by. So now, as the impatient and less resilient adults we are, if we try to learn again by trial and error like we did back then, we will get injured by all the errors before the trial is over.

Remember that most of these descriptions are imperfect approximations that try to describe complex motions in a few words. Make sure you do a lot of your running in a meditative state, focusing what you are doing, and on the feedback your body is giving you. Make minor intuitive adjustments to your form and sense the feedback from your feet, joints and muscles, and gradually work closer to the ideal of a smooth, impact-free glide. In other words, this or any other attempt to teach can only be rough guide. The real teacher is your body. Listen to it!

1. Don’t run on your toes!! (Or the balls of your feet.) Run on your whole foot. The forefoot, or ball of the foot contacts first, but the heel and toes are just above the ground at that point, and come down milliseconds later. By landing on the forefoot first, the calf and achilles absorb some of the energy, which makes for a low impact landing. When done properly, this is much more work for your calf/achilles than shod running, and you will build up strength to match it. But if you don’t bring your whole foot down, and “run on your toes,” then the calf/achilles takes all the force all the time and you will develop crippling achilles tendonitis and calf strains/tears. (Both happened to me at different times, and I didn’t even run on my toes. I just did way too much too soon. DON’T DO TOO-MUCH-TOO-SOON, or you will be plagued by the dreaded TMTS injuries. You are strengthening muscles and tendons that have atrophied during years of underuse. Be patient and do a very gradual build up.)

2. Run with your torso upright. Don’t consciously bend forward. In reality you are probably slightly bent forward, and to run faster you will need to bend slightly more forward, but at a comfortable easy running pace you should feel like you are pretty much upright. Relax everything that doesn’t need to be engaged at any given moment.

3. Bend your knees. Land with your knee already bent, and allow it to bend further as you land. This allows your quads to act as springs, and share with your calves the work of absorbing your landing. The idea is to unload the joints, and distribute the load among several muscle and tendon groups. Don’t be afraid to look silly. Do you remember a Groucho Marx routine where he carries a briefcase and walks around with his knees so far bent that he is low to the ground, but keeps walking so that his head and upper body move straight ahead? You’re going for a less exaggerated version of that. I couldn’t find the clip of Groucho doing it, but here’s two others:

4. Don’t bob up and down. The ideal trajectory of your head is a horizontal line. There will be a little up and down, but work to minimize this. If you wear a baseball cap or visor, you can judge your vertical movement by the the movement of the tip of the visor against distant objects. Or put an object about the weight of a cell phone in a loose upper body pocket and adjust your technique so that it bounces around less and less.

5. Don’t push off. You don’t want to generate forward thrust by pushing off with your foot. Just lift your knee to lift the foot off the ground. Your foot/ankle becomes relaxed and floppy as it lifts off, and stays that way until just before landing. And don’t pivot, rotate, or twist your foot on the ground. Most blisters are caused by unintentional, almost imperceptible, pivoting or pushing off. You should not get blisters. Just before landing, your foot reverses direction (relative to the “motion” of the ground), actually matches the speed of the ground going by beneath it, lightly touches down, then lightly lifts up. The actual impact force, measured in the lab, is less than easy gentle walking! It should feel that way when you run. When running on pavement your footfalls should be absolutely silent.

6. Cadence. (Minimum 180 steps per minute.) At any given speed, you want shorter strides and higher cadence than most shod runners use. Really long strides might seem fast and efficient because the longer the stride, the longer you are airborne. (Think of slow motion videos of olympic sprinters or deer just gliding through the air.) However, for low-impact barefoot running you don’t want to fly. Here’s why: Once you’re airborne, you don’t have any lift mechanism like wings or jet packs, and gravity is a constant. Therefore the only way to stay airborne longer is to launch yourself higher, and then fall farther/faster. That means harder landings and more time spent going up and down rather than forward. The shorter the stride length, the lower the impact of each footfall, and the less energy you waste launching yourself vertically, only to fall back to earth.

Ok, back to cadence. The purpose of paying attention to cadence is to keep stride length short. Do you remember the equation governing waves from your physics class? Yeah, thought so. Speed = wavelength x frequency. Same thing here, but frequency is cadence, and wavelength is stride length. Speed = (stride length) x (cadence). At a nice easy running speed (10-12 minutes per mile), a 180 cadence gives you the nice short stride length you are looking for, so start with 180. As you alter your speed, you will automatically adjust your cadence and/or stride length without thinking about it. 180 works for all usual speeds for casual running. If you increase your speed to a race pace, at some point the stride length would get too long (in terms of barefoot technique), so cadence must get faster to keep the stride length short. I think this all happens without thinking about it on the faster end. The point is, on the slower end (where most recreational/fitness runners are all the time), don’t go below 180.

I started doing this by running with a metronome app on my iphone set to 90 (for each pace) or 180 (for each step) and tried to internalize the rate. But I couldn’t remember what 90 or 180 felt like without the metronome, so now I use a much easier way which relies on just counting seconds (60 per min), which most people have internalized already without needing a clock or metronome.

Practice this while sitting:

Count in triplets: ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, ONE, two, three, where the “ONE‘s” are one second apart. You are now counting “ONE’s” at 60 per min, but you are counting syllables at 180. Now substitute “LEFT” and “RIGHT” for the ONE’s. LEFT, 2, 3, RIGHT, 2, 3, LEFT, 2, 3, RIGHT, 2, 3, and make the LEFTRIGHTLEFTRIGHT fall one second apart. Musically it’s 3/4 time with quarter note=60, and everything is eighth note triplets. Now try it running. Each syllable is a foot fall. Soon you can omit the “2, 3″, and just think LEFTRIGHTLEFTRIGHT at 60/min. The idea is you can always conjure up a good mental approximation of 60/min, but 90 or 180, maybe not. Sometimes I check myself while running like this: I start counting “ONE,two,three”, then omit the “two,three”, and change “ONE’s” to tongue clicks. If my clicking tongue sounds slower than that annoying battery powered wall clock in the kitchen, I know my cadence is too slow. Once proper cadence and stride length are full integrated into your technique (about a year, for me), you won’t have to count it or even think about it.

7. Stretch, Stretch, Stretch. After, not before. Stretching and warming up before a moderate gradual exercise (like running at an easy comfortable speed) is not helpful, and may even be harmful. This has been demonstrated and reconfirmed my multiple well designed studies*. (This does not apply to sprinting, tennis, baseball, where sudden explosive and high impact movements do require pre-stretching and thorough warm-up.) I don’t have any special wisdom about post running stretch except DO IT, and do it very soon after running, while your muscles are still warm. I do three: Soleus, gastroc, and hamstrings.

* ;)

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And that’s all he wrote. So, if you are looking to join the barefoot running army, or like me, are just too cheap to buy shoes, I hope this helps you. Buy Christopher McDougall and Barefoot Ken Bob’s books if you want more info because they seem pretty cool. And don’t sue me if you read this and then hurt yourself. This is personal advice from a personal email between my dad to me… personally. Which I then generously decided to share with you because I’m cool like that. So not my fault if you do something stupid and bust your knee.

And if you are in the area keep an eye out for that random girl running on the road to Manglaralto with no shoes on, because until the trend hits here or I can convert some more people, I may be the only one doing it!

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6 thoughts on “Barefoot Running Advice from Dr. Dad

    • Yes! I’ve been doing pretty well with watching that on my last 2 runs. What I have not been doing properly is stretching out really well afterwards. And, wow does that make a difference in how it goes the muscles feel on the next run. Yesterday I thought someone had switched my calves for blocks of wood.

  1. Fascinating reading, this advice from Dr. Dad. Christopher McDougall’s book is somewhere between me and amazon.com. I did the triathlon thing during the 2008 season up north before departing in 2009. I hate running, too. I considered running the price that I had pay to swim and ride the bicycle.

    • Damn! I used to be on a swimming team in Middle School, and I would also to go on 3-4 day bike tours in the Catskills and in New England, but putting all three together… sounds like there are always new ways to torture oneself.

      • With your experience, April, you are made to order for triathlons. How did I know that? It is not my intention to dominate the comments on your blog entry here, but I will explain why the triathlons immediately came to mind as I read Dr. Dad’s advice.

        The little sprint triathlons are where you would begin. Sprints consist roughly of a 750 meter swim, 20K bike ride, and a 5K run in that order. One is timed not only on those phases but also on the transition between those phases. For example, the transition between the initial swim and the bike ride from the time you cross the line coming out of the water to the time you cross the line to enter the bike course involves pulling off your wet suit and pulling on your biking shoes and getting on the bike. I am thinking that your transition time between the bike ride and the run should be excellent since you would not have to fool around with running shoes. (Not to mention the fact that the last pair I bought for this cost more than US$100.00.) Moreover, you would be a sensation running barefoot. A star right away.

        These triathlons are good sport no matter where in the United States. It seems like all triathlon people are great folks and immensely fun. Triathlons are actually one of the few things that I miss about the United States of America. The down side of the whole thing is that one is always craving better equipment—a better wet suit, a bike especially designed for triathlons, etc., etc., etc.

      • Actually a triathlon sounds pretty fun the way you describe it. I might have to try and train for one whenever I end up back in the States. Though if running barefoot is going to garner that much attention, I’m definitely going to try to be in better shape. Don’t want to give it a bad name by finishing last. I suppose it’s too cold usually to swim without a wetsuit? Or is there another reason people use it?

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