First 10k “barefoot”

10k, 1100ft climbing, 46:57 mins, barefoot style. (Using Vibram Five Finger minimalist shoes)
Running is a great way to “recover” from monster cycling competitions. Cycling muscles might still be very tired but the moment you start to run you feel good and fresh. It feels right.
Monday 4th July – second day after La Marmotte – I chose to attempt to run my first ever full  “barefoot” 10k. Last week after running a faster than usual 6k there were three days of slightly debilitating d.o.m.s. (delayed onset of muscle soreness) to deal with, not helping to generate top form for the Marmotte. Although d.o.m.s. from running isn’t felt as pain on the bike there may be a general tiredness associated. The d.o.m.s. was due to having increased pace considerably  – a natural process now that the coordination had improved and there was a clear awareness of how the movements integrate.
3 Years to Shift Perception
It has taken at least three years to get to this stage – from beginning to investigate alternative running techniques simply out of curiosity – and almost two years since suffering plantar fasciitis which stopped all running for about a year. The plantar fasciitis occurred when doing regular 17k runs with low profile (cushioned) shoes using a heel strike. Most of the difficulty in changing has been from not accessing the best information.  The biggest issue holding up this process was quite simply “perception”. I incorrectly assumed that changes would be simple, superficial and direct. They were none of this. This “anyone can run so I have nothing significant to learn” attitude led me to interpret things on a superficial level – so running with a forefoot strike meant staying on the forefoot all the time (as perhaps in sprinting) – which is wrong and caused me a lot of calf muscle pain. Eventually I gave up frustrated and returned to heel striking and eventual injury. Starting the process again this year, when focussed mainly on cycling, gave an opportunity to develop slowly with no pressure to perform as I got all the exercise needed already on the bike. I decided to dig deeper into the understanding of the subject and patiently work through any issues that seemed to create an impenetrable barrier. The first clue was that calf pain – although unpleasant – was never an injury, so the body was adapting – and that is clearly positive.
3 Sources
Several books that I bought on the subject didn’t shed much light either. I’d steered away from obviously esoteric titles such as ChiRunning and Pose Method which seemed to be more about marketing than anything else – but some of their information was trickling through anyway – thanks to the internet. Gradually perceptions altered, body awareness altered and the counter-intuitive nature of the required changes sunk in. Three sources counted most. Gordon Pirie’s “Running Fast and Injury Free”, ChiRunning (the book) and Pose Method (gleaned from the internet). All three sources are packed with incredible insight. You will not figure this stuff out for yourself – ever – but with the right information it is natural and simple – as most counter-intuitive things usually are. It’s our brainwashed perception that prevents us from seeing them. 
From the Pose Method I first understood about gravity becoming the source of propulsion. Forefoot landing and elimination of the “push off” both play a critical role in this method, plus the high lifting of the heel and the need to avoid reaching ahead with the leg. This is almost identical to ChiRunning but in ChiRunning there is an emphasis on erect posture and a forward lean of the entire body – which I find to be correct. ChiRunning however focusses on a midfoot landing which I think is wrong – the author wearing wedge soled training shoes himself. Pose Method stipulates forefoot landing. Gordon Pirie is the only one to correctly explain in detail how to execute a forefoot landing and how it connects with the rest of the body. Pose Method is more scientific – but ChiRunning lends more insight and correctly identifies the critical role of the core muscles. From those three sources it has been possible to make physical sense out of the subject – so that it feels amazing when running. Some article I read along the way also clarified that the shock absorption on correct foot landing comes from the calf muscles – thus clarifying why the calves have to adapt to proper “barefoot” running technique.
This 10k was an exercise in increasing distance not pace – so I didn’t try to run fast. The relatively fast pace was more due to increased cadence – between 180 and 200 strides per minute – than any attempt to go fast. The high cadence is now becoming “normal” for me – it feels easy, like spinning on a low gear on a bike. The gears however – as explained in ChiRunning – are related to the stride length – which I deliberately kept reasonably short and manageable so as to focus on good form and coordination.  Here is a list of the focusses used on the run:
  • Cadence  Verified with a Garmin footpod I can now recognise a cadence over 180 without the feedback from equipment (Registers as 90 on the Garmin which measures complete cycles) Whenever the cadence was dropping it was easy to bring it back up by shortening the stride (lowering the gear!)
  • Stride Length I only permitted the stride to lengthen behind the body and did so when descending and maintaining speed on the flats.
  • Forward Lean  Using adjustment of forward lean (from the feet not the hips) to alter speed – through adapting stride length and cadence.
  • Core Muscles The muscles I was paying attention to were mainly the psoas muscles – used to pull the bent leg forward from its position behind the body. When this is working correctly it feels strangely like the guy ropes of a tent being tightened and secured in the way it takes hold of the entire posture. The perineum area becomes secure naturally, without having to work at it as is done in Pilates classes. This is the prime area of focus for physical “effort”.
  • Eliminating the “Push Off” Along with pulling with the psoas muscles an effort has to be made to avoid pushing off with the feet and claves. There is zero propulsion (push off) required – but it is easy to push without being aware of it. Gravity does all the propulsion.
  • Foot Pick Up Making sure the foot is picked up (instead of pushing off) and that it comes up high so that the lower leg is horizontal or higher. This turns the leg that is being recovered into a much shorter pendulum and so makes it easier to pull forward with the psoas muscles – reducing effort.
  • Relaxed Ankle Relaxing the ankle helps to avoid the push off and allows the forefoot to drop lower helping to ensure a clean forefoot landing. Relaxing the ankle seems to also make it easier to relax other joints including the hips.
  • Forefoot Landing Placing the feet almost in front of one another, landing on the outside of the forefoot and pronating onto the ball of the foot, then continuing to absorb the landing through the calves by sinking down onto the whole foot with the heel just touching the ground. Linking this with a high cadence there is only a brief foot to ground contact and a certain springiness can be felt. Tendons only produce elastic rebound if tension lasts a fraction of a second – beyond that they lose all the stored energy – which is one explanation of why a cadence over 180 strides per minute is optimal.
  • Arm Swing Hands are held curled with thumbs pressed lightly against the side of the forefingers. The arms are bent about 90° at the elbow the the swing doesn’t cross the centre line of the body. The push back of the elbow links the upper body – through the core muscles – to the pulling forward of the leg on the same side. If you use a strong arm motion it should be strong on the back swing not the forward swing. Don’t lead with the arms being the focus because it causes coordination to disintegrate. Allow the legs and core muscles to dictate the power and rhythm to be used by the arms. Good arm use prevents a side “stitch” because that’s caused by the body compensating for the leg activity when the arms are not helping enough or appropriately.
  • Flexed Stance Because the leg is not stretched out in front preparing for a heel strike it remains in a more flexed position when the foot lands below the body. This is part of the natural shock absorption. You don’t have to try to flex – just make sure the foot lands below the body. This requires more attention when going downhill because there is a stronger tendency to reach ahead then.
  • Pelvic Rotation  Gordon Pirie suggests that one foot lands almost in front of the other and this certainly makes it easier to land on the outside of the foot, but it also generates more movement of the pelvis – allowing for a longer stride. The core muscles link this pelvic motion with the arm swing. It’s a complete global coordinated body movement with the pelvis at the centre. As the right foot goes behind the body (on the ground) the right side of the pelvis should follow it backwards – the right arm going forwards. This engages even more core muscles through the lower and upper abdomen. 
  • Pelvic Tilt It’s important to have “neutral” pelvis throughout all of the above. The pelvis must not be tilted either up or down relative to the rest of the body and the natural curvature of the base of the spine must be maintained. Different people have different requirements here to correct for this. There may however be a tendency for problems with people who have hollow backs with the pelvis tilted down at the front. This could be due to the stride opening out behind the body and so pulling the pelvis down at the front. It seems that the best practice is to pull the pelvis up slightly at the front when running – especially for such individuals as mentioned. Normally I have to do the opposite but even though my own back is too flat I’m still having to pull the pelvis up a bit at the front when running this way. Active use of the core muscles probably helps anyway and the correct use of the feet probably activates involuntary postural muscles naturally – this is what I mainly appear to feel instead of any deliberate action.
  • Breathing rapid, shallow breathing dictated by cadence seems to be best. I try to breathe with the diaphragm and the use of the core muscles seems to support this “belly” breathing. But the breathing is not deep. I find that at a moderate pace the in breath is natural on 3 strides and out breath 3 strides. This might switch to 2 strides at higher speed. At lower speeds nasal breathing is preferable – and perhaps even at higher speeds if you can manage to adapt to it.

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