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.

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.