Barefoot Running in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia – a few pitfalls.

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I have been doing a lot of barefoot running but mostly on the roads and sidewalks.  I have to be careful in some areas. The desert is not pristine!  There are a lot of sand dunes here but there are … Continue reading

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Proprioception can interfere with the ability to run barefoot.

From my own experience and from doing some online research I have formed an opinion about foot proprioception – or the foot’s ability to feel and react dynamically to different surfaces.

My hypothesis is that certain population groups have excessive proprioception sensitivity diminishing their ability to run barefoot. These population groups have been wearing shoes long enough that their genetic predisposition is for increased sensitivity. The shod population’s survival favors individuals with high proprioception ability because the loss of natural proprioception as a result of foot covering is mitigated by a higher sensitivity within the shoe. When barefoot the same population is overly sensitive, reducing their ability to run as fast or as capably over challenging terrain.

A discussion of genetic differences between people is always fraught with peril. For many only the most superficial traits such as skin or hair color are allowed to be considered . However it is logical to assume that other traits have developed as humans from different geographical locales have adapted to their environments.

The anthropological debate about when people started wearing shoes is unresolved because the remnants of shoes never seem to be around when old bones are found. However, we can make a few logical deductions (elementary my dear Watson.) The most accepted theory about the origin of modern humans is that they developed in Africa somewhere between 100,000 and 200,000 years ago. Modern humans began to leave Africa around 60,000 years ago and were in Europe 40,000 years ago. It is cold in Europe. No modern humans of any race have fur or special foot protection. It is logical to assume they were wearing animal skins and shoes for thermal protection. So there. Debate over.

Some people have told me that my theory is wrong because there would not be enough time for such a genetic change to have occurred. I respond by saying that people from different locales look different and that proves that genetic mutation has occurred within population groups in the “short” period of only 40,000 years or so. Lighter skin people live in higher latitudes: darker skin people live in equatorial regions. There are tall and short populations and without a doubt there are populations that are shod and those that trend barefoot. It all happened in that period of time. Why can’t proprioception be one of those changes?

So what does that increased proprioception sensitivity buy the shod population? I submit that a person with greater ability to “feel” the ground through foot covering has better balance and may have a survival advantage over someone with less sensitive feet. Those individuals were chosen by pure Darwinian natural selection over many millennia.

The worst cases (for barefoot running) are any of the population groups living in the coldest regions. For me that is the northern European genetic package. Our feet have been in foot coffins for tens of thousands of years. We clambered off of Viking ships and attacked our other northern European brethren while wearing big fluffy shoes. The ones swinging the swords with the best balance lived on.

Here is a excellent video demonstrating just what I am talking about: an “expert” barefoot runner of obvious northern European heritage attempting to run barefoot over rough terrain. I have used the video before in another blog post about barefoot running speed. Sure the guy is flying on flat easy terrain but when he gets into those rocks he is dancing around like a ballerina. As I mentioned in my other post, on that terrain, even an old guy like me wearing shoes would pass that 25 year old barefoot runner.

A quick search for world class barefoot runners turns up names like Bikila, Singh, Budd, Loroupe. All of them come from Africa or in the case of Singh, India. Even now, the current shoe-wearing habits in those areas are low compared to – say Norway. Based on my theory they have much tougher feet genetically and will always be able to have an advantage when running barefoot.

I understand there is something to be said about the “nurture” element of nature vs. nurture. We northern European heritage individuals are shedding our shoes and heading out on the road barefoot. Some individuals have reached a high degree of barefoot running expertise through a lot of dedicated work. We can train ourselves to a pretty good standard – and I am saying “pretty good” – not great. My assertion is that we “genetically disabled” barefoot runners will NEVER be able to reach the level of a Kenyan or Moroccan! But of course that pertains to many of the other genetic traits of those runners too!

Happy running!

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Speed and Barefoot Running – the unmentionable.

I like to race. I belong to a very competitive running group where racing is an integral part of our mindset. I understand that there are people who “say” they don’t race, enter a 5k race, and immediately search the results afterwards to see how they did. Yes they were racing.

In order to race you need to train, and that means running fast. Training is not just about running a zillion miles a week. It is about mixing mileage with interval training. You are trying to condition yourself to run faster and to push your anaerobic/aerobic threshold down the road. You have to train faster than your aerobic threshold and that can only be done with interval training.

So what about barefoot running? I would say 95% of forum posts, blogs, articles , YouTubes, whatever, talk about barefoot running as if it was a state by itself. I think a lot of these individuals are true “fun runners” who have never run faster than a 12min mile in their entire life. They think of running as “not walking”. Speed is never mentioned. So learning to run barefoot is just a matter of translating your 12min mile pace to a barefoot 12min mile pace and that is that. Barefoot running is some sort of Yoga-like transcendental experience designed to get in touch with your inner being (whatever that is.) Here is a great YouTube that epitomizes that mindset. I understand it is meant to be a “training” class in barefoot running but it looks really funny to me. The instructor is teaching the people to run like hamsters with itty-bitty strides and then talks about how sensual barefoot running is. Yes – a true fun runner. My guess is that he has never run a 5k faster than about 30min.

The difference between running 12min per mile and 6 min per mile is huge. The loads exerted on the ground by your body are several magnitudes greater as you go faster. If we translate that into a barefoot running scenario there are added challenges to adaptation. The barefoot “fun runner” may feel they have totally mastered the art of barefoot running and can do their 12min mile pace on many varied surfaces, but when pushed to run faster find that they are no longer adapted.

I have been running barefoot about 5 months now. Before that I ran with Vibrams for a couple of years. If I had it to do over again I would have reversed the process (see my other post). The one thing I have noticed is that running barefoot over my usual route is typically just as uncomfortable as it was 3 or 4 months ago. Why? Well I am doing it faster. My usual shod jogging pace is about 8:30min per mile. Barefoot I started about 11-12min per mile but have been steadily increasing the speed. I am now ok at about 9:30 pace which is nowhere near my 8:30 “normal” pace.

So let’s say that in a few more months I can get to a comfortable 8:30 mile pace on the varied (I purposefully pick prickly) surfaces. How much faster can I go? We have races that actually are on those surfaces. They are worn weather beaten sidewalks and asphalt torn up, cracked and very tough to run on. Racing with shoes you don’t even notice. Barefoot I am ouching through it if I get very fast.

Frankly I don’t see ever being able to match the pace of my shod-self racing on these surfaces. For an old guy – 55 – I am pretty fast. I run 5ks in 18min high. I did a marathon a few years ago at age 52 and ran it in 2:57 – which is about 6:40min mile average. It is unimaginable for me to be running barefoot over any sort of prickly terrain at those speeds.

What about really fast runners? I think most of them are limited too. Check out this guy. He is supposedly an expert barefoot runner. On flat dirt / trail terrain he is absolutely flying. Now watch him as he goes into the rocky terrain. Big difference. Our club has XC races on this sort of terrain. On that rocky terrain I can unequivocally say that even though he is 30 years younger and a lot fitter, if I were wearing shoes I would pass his barefoot tiptoe act like he was standing still.

Finally, I have a theory about our bipedal hominid inability to run barefoot very fast. I will share it in another post…..

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Barefoot to Vibrams – the logical progression.

Ready to head out barefoot.

Look ma.  No shoes.

I am a barefoot runner, a Vibram runner and a running shoe runner.  I do them all.  However a few years ago I bought a pair of Vibram Five Finger running shoes (the original) and within three weeks had a proper ”march fracture” of my third metatarsal.  What happened?  Should I be one of those people ganging up and suing Vibrams for deceptive advertising? Besides being against litigious zealotry and for personal responsibility I cannot in good conscience hold Vibrams responsible for my injury.  They created a new product based on solid research with the hope of correcting the failures of the established running shoe design.  They just left out the itty-bitty subject of transition.

The itty-bitty subject of transition…

It is my opinion that Vibram running shoes do everything they claim.  Once you have established a new, more efficient, lower impact, and injury preventing running style, you will reap the benefits.  But how do you get there?  In reality the damage done from years of running in conventional shoes cannot be undone overnight by slapping on a pair of Vibrams.  Doing that will invite major problems like the metatarsal break I encountered.  To understand why, it is important to look at the nature of the barefoot running style.

The basic theory of barefoot/Vibram running is that a “new” forefoot/mid foot strike will develop replacing the more common heel strike method encouraged by the traditional big cushy heel running shoe.  I won’t go into the details of that here, but suffice to say that modern human locomotion experts such as Dr. Daniel Lieberman from Harvard contend that the forefoot / mid foot strike is a lower impact and more natural running style.

A very dramatic condition occurs when you put on those Vibrams for the first time and head out on the road: you instantly need to change your running style.  Why?  Well if you have been crashing down on your heel for years and really did not feel the impact through all of that foam rubber: you will now.  It hurts.  The correction away from heel striking will be nearly instantaneous.  You are now running “properly” with a little shorter stride and have progressed to either a mid-foot or perhaps a forefoot strike.  But now there is a problem.  Your feet are not used to that new loading.  The muscles are not ready.  The ligaments are not ready and even worse your bones are not ready.  You need to go slow.

If you are like me – an avid and competitive runner – going slow is not in my vocabulary.  After my Vibrams arrived in the mail, I put those babies on and headed out for long runs on rocky desert terrain.  Yippee, I am running with Vibrams!  What could go wrong?  Well the horrible pain that developed a few weeks later and would not go away was finally diagnosed by an x-ray as a “march fracture.”  That is a common metatarsal fracture and got its name from soldiers getting it on long marches.  So I was off for 6 weeks or so and then even after that had to go slow another month or two.   So what should you do to avoid “me?”

The way to transition to Vibrams is to run barefoot first

Run barefoot.  Yes, the way to transition to Vibrams is to start without any shoes.  Sounds crazy but here me out.  Strapping on those Vibrams will certainly makeyou start running barefoot style.  Of course, that is why you bought them.  However the Vibrams short circuited an important protection system built into your feet called proprioception.  Your feet are very sensitive.  You know that when you walk barefoot on rocks or prickly terrain.  Proprioception is the firing of all those sensory nerve endings to give you the feel of the ground.  Some researchers such as Dr. Steven Robbins believe that barefoot running is the only safe way to run “barefoot style”.  Dr. Robbins does not like Vibrams because he feels the loss of feeling leads to injury because with proprioception the foot naturally redistributes loads distally – a natural injury preventer.  I don’t necessarily agree with that in its entirety (watch for another blog on this subject) but he is certainly right that proprioception is a very important injury protection tool.  So let’s use it.

I don’t care how crazy you are, how competitive you are or how fast you run, when you go outside for your first barefoot run you will be a snail.  It hurts.  It is uncomfortable.  Ouch is every other step.  That first pebble is a nightmare.  So you end up running at 12 min per mile pace and maybe a mile if you are lucky.  Perfect.  That is exactly how you need to change.  You now have a new running style and there are new loads on your feet.  Your muscles need to get trained and at the same time you have to develop a little thick skin (more than just a pun here.) It will take some months.  In fact it may take 6 months to a year before you can get anywhere near your mileage or pace of conventional running shoes.  When that happens you are ready to start the transition to Vibrams.  You can now safely do those rugged trail runs and faster interval training sessions you can’t really do barefoot.   So what about those pesky bones?

So what about those pesky bones?

The bones get stronger too.  Yes bones get stronger when you stress them.  They remodel themselves in a clever way to resist the apparent stress fields they see.  It is common knowledge that weight training and impact sports have a positive effect on bone mass and strength.  Stressing the bone is really good for it.  The opposite of stressing bones was demonstrated by NASA during testing of astronauts in long term space flight.  They lost bone mass in zero-g  and it was not a small amount.  Nowadays the space station astronauts go through rigorous treadmill and weight training.

The main problem with bone development is that it is the slowest to make the change.  I saw a forum post recently describing barefoot running transition.  Very simple: two months to desensitize your feet and build up a little more skin, six months to train your soft tissue muscles and ligaments, and a year to strengthen your bones.

So by all means make the change.

So by all means make the change.  I am not a religious zealot about barefoot running.  As I said in the opener I do them all.  I think each has a place in your training regime.  Barefoot running is a great way of getting in touch (intentional pun) with the world under your feet.  Vibrams are a great way to do interval training, trail runs or very long varied terrain running.  Racing flats are still my preferred racing footwear.  Why?  It is called “wild abandon”.  The racing flat takes your brain away from your feet and keeps it focused on the race.  I don’t care how experienced you might be as a barefoot runner, you will still dedicate a little processor time (computer analogy) to foot plant.  It might mean you will avoid a grate or a rocky area where your opponent just charges through.

I now run about twenty miles a week totally barefoot.  I run at least that many – up to maybe thirty or more miles a week with Vibrams.  The remainder will be trail running shoes for desert racing or racing flats for races or pace runs.  I used to have lots of Achilles and calf problems.  They have evaporated.  I’ll discuss those in another blog.

Happy running!

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