Monkey See, Monkey Do – A Barefoot Running Clinic

sf leap courtesy of foxtongue

If you’ve read Born to Run, and you’ve been overcome with a desire to throw your expensive, cushioned running shoes away and run barefoot, you’re not alone.

Barefoot Ted, profiled in the book, was running a couple of clinics down at ZombieRunner, in Palo Alto, and it seemed too much like serendipity not to give it a try. (In case you’re wondering how much he’s like the character McDougall profiles in the book, well he sure can talk, but he’s more humble and less frenetic in person, which was a nice surprise.  He was sporting a rather large silver monkey necklace, inspired by the El Mono animal nickname he picks up in the book.  Ted was of course barefoot, and the feet are not freakish as you might suspect from years of being barefoot, rather they appeared very smooth, as if coated on the base with a supple leather.  No one got to actually touch them!  Also, ironically, Ted claims to now have more shoes than he ever did before gaining notoriety, because all these shoe companies are sending him their back to nature shoes, seeking his endorsement.)  Final sidebar, Zombie Runner offers fantastic espresso available from a small cafe station within the store, an unexpected supplement to a very nice collection of running gear and excellent service.

Barefoot running is full of surprises.  If you’re like me, you probably have this mental perception some part of your body is going to break if you try running or jumping without the protection of your running shoes and orthotics (if you have them).  If you’re going to be crazy enough to run without  shoes, surely you start on nice soft grass?  Not so.  It’s a “mystery surface” according to Ted.  You never know what bumps, sticks, insects, or sharp objects might be hidden amongst all that green plushness.  So we started on asphalt.   We started walking first on our heels and then on our forefoot and back again.  You can literally feel the impact up through your heel, calf bone all the way to your knee when you heel strike.  Ouch! You instantly know instinctively that you couldn’t possibly run with a heel strike without a cushioned shoe.

Running barefoot is such a surprise.  I dare you not to break into a smile the first time.  Maybe not quite as ecstatic a leap as in the picture.   It’s like one of those other incredibly liberating physical experiences, a flow moment, where you feel like a kid again, in touch with the earth and your body.  Like in the book, you start with easy, and go for smooth.  Ted has a post on the technique. Small, quick footsteps, fast cadence (about 180 steps per minute).  Touch ground for the shortest possible period, with least possible noise.  Imagine you’re hunting – you can’t surprise the prey if you’re feet are slapping loudly on the ground.  Core strong, arms pumping straight back and forth.   We ran back and forth and received our critiques.

We also jumped up and down some concrete stairs at the Caltrain station.  I found this terrifying at first, but it rapidly builds confidence.  Jump deliberately and stop between jumps.  Use your arms to counterbalance.

The trick to transitioning to barefoot running seems to be building up to it slowly.  You don’t just head out for 6 or 10 miles tomorrow.  Start with barefoot around the house.  Then maybe walk the dogs barefoot.   Then start at 1/2 a mile and gradually add distance.  Tendons, muscles and skin in your feet and legs will adapt.  I don’t really understand how it works (the foot is an architectural marvel), but it feels good enough to keep working at it. Thank you Ted.

Let me know if you’re interested or given it a try yourself.  I’d love to hear about your experiences.

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We have a reserve tank

When your brain tells you you’re done, it turns out you’re not. Just like in a car, it’s a conservative safety measure designed to make sure you always have something left, even when you think you don’t.  If you’ve ever worked out, you’ve probably experienced this.  If you can quiet the mind, you can always do a few more reps.  Sometimes people on drugs chemically turn off the safety valve and exhibit superhuman strength.

Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich from WNYC’s marvellous Radio Lab explored this in their recent show “Limits“. From the transformational tale of Julie Moss, who collapsed at the finish line of the Hawaii Ironman in 1982 (you’ll probably remember the video).  The voice in her head said “get up”.  In their description of the amazing 3000 mile  Race Across America, you’ll hear about what happens when the cyclists push through this safety valve.  For example, a soldier in the race thinks he is being chased by Mujahideen and just takes off, sprinting like crazy.  A fascinating piece of research found that cyclists directly injected with glucose into their muscles experienced no improvement in endurance, but if they swirled sports drink in their mouth and then spat it out, it tricked the brain into thinking more energy was coming, and the conservative empty signal was temporarily shut down resulting in an increase in endurance.  (Perhaps related, in Born to Run , it describes Kalahari bushmen taking a tiny sip of water and swirling it in their mouths to revive themselves, rather than gulping it down.)

To me, this explains what ultrarunners do when they find a way to keep going.  If you’re running for 8, 10, 12, 18, 24, 36, even 48 hours, you’re going to run out of steam at least once .  Like the example of Scott Jurek, arguably the greatest ultranunner ever, 7 time champ of the premier 100 miler, Western States,  lying down exhausted in the “world’s toughest foot race” the Badwater 135 mile race from Death valley to the portals at Mt Whitney.  As retold in Born to Run, he was way behind the leader, he has a conversation with himself while lying on the ground, gets up, and somehow finds a way to not only keep going but to blow the competition away and win.

In my upcoming 50 miler, if I end up feeling like I can’t go on, I hope the voice in my head says “keep going”  🙂 At any rate, it’s handy to know my brain is just trying to trick me, and if I dig deep, should be able to tap into that reserve tank.

Were we born to run?

Do you remember running as a child? If you’ve got kids watch them run. Unbridled joy and beautiful form in any kind of shoe. Why do so many lose this as they get older? What happened?  Currently, I’m training for my first 50 miler, the Quicksilver 50 Mile on May 8th. Tell people you’re running 50 miles and they look at you like you’re crazy. But lately, I’ve been enjoying running like I was a child again.

The unabridged audio version of Chris McDougall’s Born to Runhas only fanned the flames, filling me with conviction that I’m rediscovering what we were all meant to do. I was heading out in some brand new shoes when I got to the section which argues the heel strike advocated by Nike’s Bill Bowerman was only enabled by the cushioned shoes Nike was trying to sell, and this modified foot strike, is the source of most running injuries. Apparently, people get injured running more often now than they did in the 70s before the rise of this new foot strike and shoe type.

I was a prolific teenage runner, who used to have a natural midfoot-toe strike and who used to love just running.  About 10 years ago, I developed knee problems with a heel strike and overstriding (extending the leg straight out in front prior to impact).  Since reverting back to my natural style and spending more time barefoot, I’ve been running faster and with less injuries.  Chris McDougall tells of similar experiences.

The Vibram Five Finger shoe is the poster child for this new barefoot/natural running movement.  It’s a bizarre invention to those of us used to the modern running shoe, and certainly a conversation starter – a Vibram rubber glove for your feet.  You only have to look at the customer reviews to see how much people love these things, injuries decrease and they never want to wear heeled shoes again.  I’m going to get a pair myself to see if they address the chronic ilio-tibial band (ITB) issues I’ve been dealing with.

BTW, the book is fantastic on a number of levels and also a wonderful audio book that will make any workout fly by.  It builds to this incredible 50 mile race on the Tarahumara‘s home turf, by way of Chris’ personal story, and many wonderful side bars on legends and characters in the sport of ultrarunning like Scott Jurek, 7 time Western States 100 mile winner, and Ann Trason.  He explores nutrition and running shoes, and the amazing story of persistence hunting – a technique still practiced by a very few Kalahari bushmen, and a theory that we evolved to be able to actually consistently run antelope and other pray down via exhaustion (the key is not speed, but 3-5 hours of endurance and team work) and we evolved very specific body parts to assist with this.  In other words we were born to run.  If nothing else, I no longer feel like I’m the odd one for taking on a 50 miler.

How I ran an Ultra on 3 days/week with bad knees

Me, happily finishing the 2009 Quad Dipsea

Health and wellness are key components of a rich life.  You only have to lose them for a day to realize how precious they are.

On the Saturday of Thanksgiving weekend, I successfully finished the Quad Dipsea (roughly 29 miles and 9300 vertical feet of climbing) in 5 1/2 hours placing me at 29th out of a field of 250.  The feeling of joy and sense of accomplishment as I crested the final hill and knew I was going to finish almost brought tears to my eyes and will be with me for a long time.  An unlike a road marathon, I was walking well the next day, and headed out for a little trot on Monday to stretch out the legs.

This is the first ultra I’ve run since Way Too Cool 50k in 2003 and I wanted to share a few tips on how I pulled this off with a 12 week training program including only 3 cardio training sessions per week.  For those of us who want to take on a significant athletic challenge but have families and careers, I thought it’d be helpful to know you can do it.

For the last 10 years, I’ve been nursing temperamental knees, ankles, plantar fascitis, achilles tendons and hamstrings, yet somehow managed to avoid surgery or stopping running altogether, so several of the tips pertain to preventative maintenance which becomes more important as our bodies age and tighten.

1. Periodize Your Training

The human body gets stronger through a process of increased intensity followed by rest.  This is why they don’t climb Everest in one shot, but go up and down between the base camps getting used to progressively higher altitudes.  What this means for a training program is don’t build from your base to the max in a continuous line, but add a little, maintain, and then back off, before building again.

My 12 week training plan for the 2009 Quad Dipsea

For a 12 week training period this would mean breaking it up into 3 x 4 week periods each containing 2 Medium, 1 Hard, and 1 Easy week.  You can see my training plan on the left, and read an explanation of the key components in following sections.  The great benefit of this is you can typically take it really easy in the Easy week following a Hard week if you push it too hard and some body part gets aggravated (quite likely on an accelerated training program like this).   Also, its much easier on the mind to break down the challenge of the 12 weeks as 3 manageable chunks each of 4 weeks.

2. Long Runs are Top Priority

Time Commit: Build from 2.5 to 5 hours per week.

There are a number of reasons for prioritizing long runs:

  • If you can finish a long run at 2/3 – 3/4 of your ultra (I built up to 21 miles  for a 29 mile ultra), you can finish your ultra.  Long runs give you confidence.
  • Once you start going over 2 1/2 hours, you use up all the carbohydrate (glycogen) stores in your body and the body starts to turn fat into energy.  This is typically associated with “hitting the wall” in a marathon (the point in time at which  your body turns to fat as a fuel source). You’ll need to train yourself to keep running when you reach this point to successfully run an ultra.
  • You can practice using different nutrition and pieces of equipment to find what works.  What are you going to eat and drink, when to provide rehydration and energy without causing nausea or cramping?  How are you going to carry all this stuff ?    Do you need to lubricate certain areas to prevent chafing?  What socks and shoes won’t cause blisters?

I highly recommend training on terrain as similar as possible to the ultra, at race pace (more on this later).  Find some beautiful trails close to home that you can enjoy running on.  After long runs, take a 10-15 minute ice bath (I’ve had good success with just cold water), very unpleasant on entry, but brilliant for recovery.

This is the most intensive time sink on the weekends, so start as early as possible to minimize the impact on family time, negotiate in advance with any significant others for the time, and find some interesting podcasts to listen too (I’ve enjoyed learning French with Coffee Break French, listening to Free by Chris Anderson and Triibes by Seth Godin (both free downloads), TED talks, iinovate, and the Economist).

3. Interval Workouts with Stairs & Hills are 2nd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1.5 hours per week.

If you’re doing an ultra with a lot of climbing, stair climbing sessions are a necessary evil.  My “favorite” 1 hour workout combined 20 minutes of stair climbing with approx 25 minutes of walking at 4mph on a 15% slope, finishing with a couple of miles at a fast clip.  Fast walking uphill when tired is an extremely useful skill in ultras as is getting used to the transition from walking to running when you crest a hill.  If you substitute elliptical or bike for the run at the end, you have a low impact workout.

4. Mid-week Run and other Cardio are 3rd Priority

Time Commit: Build from 1 – 2 hours per week.

Don’t add miles for the sake of it.  But a second run is good conditioning for the legs (at the end of the day the best training for running is running).  If cardiovascular endurance is your main challenge and the musculature is strong, add more runs.  If  you’re worried about injuries, use elliptical or bike to add endurance.   The bike is great at the gym because it’s so easy to read while you’re on it (use a HR monitor until you know what level to ride at), and out on the roads for building quad strength climbing hills.

5. Use Trail Races to Test Race Pace and Nutrition and Build Endurance

Time Commit: 3-5.5 hours once per month

There’s nothing quite like an organized run to get the competitive juices flowing.  I’m a big fan of the runs put on by Pacific Trails.  They’ve found the most fabulous scenic and hilly trails in the Bay Area, they have about 25 events per year, each one offering distances from 10k to 50k they’re great hosts and very well organized with clearly marked trails and well-stocked aid stations.  And they know the ultra community so well, so you can learn anything you need to.

One of the key things to do in races is to learn how hard you can go without blowing up.  Its good to get on the wrong side of the line a few times for the conditioning effect and reminder of how humbling that can be.

The other key component is getting your nutrition right because its under stress that things start coming undone – especially dehydration, cramps and nausea.  I nearly blew the Quad via nausea by taking watermelon with salt at the first Stinson Beach turnaround because they had no potatoes.  So use the trail races – about 1/month to work out what works (and, more importantly, what doesn’t).

6. Use Yoga to Build Core and Flexibility

Time Commit: 2.5-3 hours per week

Yoga has been the big find for me this year.  It provides great core strengthening, balance and flexibility improvements.  I’m particularly inflexible and yoga has offset the compression of running to keep my iliotibial (IT) band stretched enough to not bother my kneee. Twice a week of Vinyasa or other flow-based practice seems to do the trick.  And learning how to be grateful and at peace with yourself while practicing a little flow is good for your happiness as well 🙂

7. Roll, Stretch, Strengthen, Ice, Repeat

Time Commit: 30 mins in front of the tv, 3 times per week

I’ve got to believe most people have a long list of items to watch on their Tivo/DVR.  So its just something productive to do when you’d otherwise be completely immobile on the couch.  Using a foam roller will really help to break down scar tissue forming on your legs. Roll until you find a sore spot, hold for 20 seconds, roll to the next spot.  Then stretch out problem areas – nice long gentle stretches of up to 2 minutes duration without bouncing (believe it or not, stretching improves through relaxing, not forcing the muscles).  If you’ve got a few strengthening exercises (squats, 1-legged squats, leg raises, crab walks, etc) from your physical therapist or chiropractor now is the time to do them.   A few sit-ups, planks, crunches, and  back extensions are good if you’re not doing any yoga.  Then strap an ice pack on to the tender areas (in my case, knees) for 10-15 minutes.  You should ideally roll and stretch before exercising. 

8. On Race Day, Back off  the Pace, Have More Fun and Finish Quicker

Time Commit: 5.5-9 hours, Memories: Priceless

This is the most critical piece of advice I can give.  From bitter experience, if you go out too hard, you’ll most likely blow up.  Back off, enjoy the beautiful scenery and if you feel good later, pick up the pace.  If I go out too hard, (typically characterized by getting anaerobic on the first couple of hills) I typically get severe cramping after 2.5 hours, no matter how many salt tablets and/or water I take or stretches I do.  If I back off 5-10%, the cramps don’t happen.  In the Quad I ran the Double in 2:37 vs. my personal best of 2:27.  Those 10 minutes made all the difference in the world.  I had to consciously keep reminding myself to slow down on that first leg – coming into Stinson Beach the first time I just felt fantastic.

I hope this experience will provide some guidance and inspiration for others.  You really can make this happen off a pretty small base (say 3 days of cardio a week with an 8 mile long run) even with less than perfect knees.