From the monthly archives:

July 2010

Seaton Smith was the guy I was most looking forward to at TEDx, and by the end, he owned the joint. Way more interesting than some guy who thinks he knows all the answers is someone who’s hot on the scent and getting close. You’re not forced to sit back and be lectured; you’re invited to lace up and join a brain expedition in progress.

Jenn Shelton took questions live online yesterday at Portland’s Mail Tribune. No surprise, the conversation went directions others rarely do. Jenn criticizes the sub-title of the book and what she feels is a romanticized portrait of the Tarahumara, but if she wasn’t insightful and out-spoken, I wouldn’t have recognized her. Archived video is at bottom. Highlights include:

I don’t like cougars much. I’m okay with bears, though.”

Q: Remember when you babysat my gerbil and fed him to a snake?”
Jenn: That gerbil was a nasty, vicious little… [or something like that]

i’m hoping hip-hop will work as weight training.

Pacing Tony Krupicka at this year’s Western States 100:

If two of America’s greatest runners can get healthy by getting off their heels, why shouldn’t you? Three years ago, Alan Webb was one of the world’s best milers. In 2007, he ran the fastest time in the world in both the mile and 1500 meters. Then he began to get injured and sank into a slump. Recently, as the Portland Tribune reports, he put himself into the hands of Alberto Salazar, the distance running legend who’s now head of Nike’s elite training program. And one of Salazar’s first moves? Just as he did with Dathan Ritzenhein, Salazar immediately got Webb to begin running barefoot-style.

Webb was also landing on his heel, in effect slowing himself down.
“We want to eliminate his braking motion,” Salazar says. “We want to no longer detect any forces coming back. With Galen, there are no forces going back. With Alan, there still are. It’s like having a tire with a nail in it.

Curiously, Webb was once known for appreciating the benefits of a bare foot. When I interviewed him back in 2005, he told me that in high school, he was a size 12 with a flat foot and constant injuries. After his coach got him doing barefoot drills, his feet began to transform: by the time he graduated, Webb told me, he was a size 9 with a raised arch and no more ailments.

So what went wrong? Same thing that happens to the rest of us: he aged, he got bigger, he got a little sloppy. As Salazar puts it,

As he got older he gained too much muscle weight and his form got worse.

Salazar is making it clear that graceful running is a skill you can learn and perfect, not some rare genetic gift you’re either granted or denied at birth, like a single purple eye. Makes sense, right? The first time you try chopsticks, you’ll spray fried rice all over the table. Practice, and you’ll become quick and efficient. Children in Beijing aren’t any more hardwired for digital dexterity than kids in Boston; they just pick it up by application and necessity. Now contrast Salazar’s belief — that there are good and bad ways to run, and the only difference between them is logic and practice — with the doomed sense of predestination you get from comments like these, as Amby Burfoot watches Haile Gebrselassie:

The truth is that Haile’s stride is a gift delivered to him the day he was born. He has a combination of muscle-fiber types, tendon springs, and body-length ratios that are unique to him. He never had to practice his running form; it’s simply the way he runs because it’s the way he was born to run.

Seriously — the greatest distance runner in history never thinks about what he’s doing? Van Gogh obsessed over his draftmanship; Michael Jordan fired up thousands of jump shots a day in the off-season and formed “The Breakfast Club” during the Bulls’ championship seasons for pre-workout workouts; piano virtuoso Vladimir Horowitz lamented that, “If I don’t practice for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, my wife knows it. If I don’t practice for three days, the world knows it.”  They weren’t born with their dexterity — they earned it. Likewise, maybe we’ll never run as fast as Geb, but as Salazar is teaching Webb and Ritz, there’s no reason we can’t run as well as Geb.

**Update: Check out this Runner’s World report on the same story. Notice what’s conspicuously absent? You’ve got junk food …core strength …splayed feet… Hang on, what happened to the “tire with a nail in it”? Where are Salazar’s remarks about the “braking motion” caused by heel-striking? It’s really odd that RW missed the single most important comment Salazar made — unless it’s because it tarnishes cushioned running shoes. Salazar isn’t a fan of burgers, but he didn’t finger Double Whoppers as the major factor in deflating Webb’s tires; he blamed the heel strike.

Barefoot Secrets from Grunts and Seals

by Christopher on July 29, 2010

The key to light, easy running is rhythm, and that’s a secret that combat forces have known for thousands of years. Roman centurions used to cover 50 miles in a single night, running with one hand holding their weapons and the other on the shoulder of the soldier ahead of them. That kind of close-quarters striding demands a quick, left-right-left-right rhythm: you’d either kick the guy ahead of you or get kicked by the guy behind if you didn’t get your feet up fast. No way, in other words, could you land on your heel; you’d never have time to roll through to your forefoot for the next stride without getting a sandal up your butt.

So what was the long lost running rhythm of the ancient Romans? Most likely, the same one the U.S. military calls double-time running cadence: 180 strides per minute. Not coincidentally, that’s the same stride rate preferred by elite marathoners. Check out Haile Gebrselassie and Paul Tergat duking it out at 10,000 meters, and Emil Zatopek fighting and lunging his way to the tape in 1952. Despite the differences in speeds, distances and generations, people who need their legs to be fast and resilient are also fans of a pop-pop-pop forefoot stride.

Better Running With the Barefoot Pro

by Christopher on July 28, 2010

I’ve been lucky enough to learn from a lot of excellent barefoot runners and natural-running coaches. Dr. Mark Cuccuzella in West Virginia and Ryan Miller in Boston are top-notch; they teach Danny Dreyer’s ChiRunning and are masters of making the technique easy to learn and remember. Ken Mierke, the Annapolis-based coach who developed Evolution Running and first got it through my head that form is everything, is also a superb instructor.

But every time I run into Lee Saxby, I learn something that makes my head snap up. Lee began his career as a physical therapist with a waiting room full of limping runners. He knew how to get them back on the roads, but the best he could offer was temporary fixes: he could ease their pain but not prevent their injuries. Then he got wind of some Soviet emigre named Dr. Nicholas Romanov who claimed to have a revolutionary technique called “The POSE Method” which would end running injuries forever. Saxby knew it had to be a scam, but with nothing better to offer his patients, he decided to check it out. He was right to be concerned; what he learned threatened to ruin his career. What, no more deep tissue massages, or hamstring stretches, or cross-training? No more orthotics, or shoe referrals, or months of after-care? Where’s the profit in making people unbreakable?

But rather than resist, Saxby signed on; he blended his teaching skills as a physical rehab specialist with Romanov’s breakthroughs in movement research and became Europe’s top POSE teacher. I’ve visited him twice over the past few years while I’ve been in London, and both times he crisply and unerringly zeroed in on little hitches in my stride. The effect was always startling: I instantly felt lighter, stronger and quicker, and the upgrade became an easy and permanent part of my runs.

What I like best about Lee is that he doesn’t lecture, or require more than an hour of your time, or even demonstrate very much. He’s figured out how to break the key movements down into a sequence of snappy drills. Do them, and you’ll be electrified by how great it feels to run naturally, and how easy it is to learn. Like this guy…

Learn to Run Barefoot with Lee Saxby and Terra Plana from GTB Goodtruebeautiful GmbH on Vimeo.

But to be clear: I don’t mean this as any kind of endorsement of a shoe. I’m a fan of form, not footwear. If I need some protection on rough terrain, I like all kinds of minimalist styles: Vibram FiveFingers, the Mizuno Wave Universe, Barefoot Ted’s “Air Luna” huaraches, Terra Plana’s “Evo.” That said, I’m awed by the convictions of Galahad Clark, head of Terra Plana and heir to a shoemaking dynasty. For a long time, Terra Plana’s bread-and-butter was women’s fashion shoes, but once Galahad became convinced of the harm done by overly-engineered shoes and the benefits of natural movement, he decided he couldn’t live with himself if he sold products he knew were dangerous. So rather amazingly, he decided to tear up his product line and sell nothing but barefoot-style shoes.

And how did he signal the switch?

By running the 2009 New York City Marathon in his bare feet.

ULTRA RUNNER from Cedar Wright on Vimeo.

Or in the exact words of a study co-authored by Gordon Valiant, Nike’s head of biomechanical research:

“Our current approach of prescribing in-shoe pronation control systems on the basis of foot type is overly simplistic and potentially injurious.

This is mindboggling and explosive stuff, and no one explains it better than Peter Larson. Essentially, the top scientist at the world’s top sports shoe company is attached to a study that suggests the whole running shoe business is built on nonsense. The second you walk into a running-shoe store, the study concludes, you’re looking at trouble. There you are, faced with the Bewildering Wall of Footwear, trying to decide on one of dozens and dozens of nearly identical-looking shoes. Naturally, you have to rely on the “expert” assistance of a “professionally-trained” salesperson (trained by whom, you might ask? By shoe company reps and shoestore owners). They’ll check out your bare feet, maybe have you trot in your old shoes on a treadmill. You’ll then be steered toward a new shoe that’s supposed to compensate for the height of your arch and the roll of your heel. “Make sure to replace them after 500 miles,” you’ll be warned, which means you have to start the process all over again in 6 months because the $100 shoe you’ve just bought will mysteriously — and inevitably — be discontinued.

And now, after millions of running injuries, billions in shoe company profits, and decades of being warned that we’ll get hurt if we don’t buy pronation-controlling footwear, what  are we now told?

Current conventions for assigning stability categories for women’s running shoes do not appear appropriate based on the risk of experiencing pain when training for a half marathon.

And:

It is noteworthy that every runner who trained in the motion control shoe with a highly pronated foot posture reported an injury.

Most remarkably, the lead researcher seems to channel Barefoot Ken Bob when he adds this advice:

Listen to your body, not to what the salespeople might tell you.

If Valiant’s name sounds familiar, by the way, it’s probably because he’s one of the fathers of Nike’s most misbegotten experiment, the Shox series. Priced at a whopping $150 back in 2000, the Shox have foam springs which are supposed to provide “propulsion as well as cushioning,” theoretically allowing runners to sproing along. The Shox made the cover of Popular Science, but one subtly ominous undertone was included in the article:

“There are no current plans to use the shoe in professional competition” the reporter noted, “so it will be difficult to quantify whether it will actually help athletes run faster…”

Now that’s odd. At the time, Shox were the absolute top of the line. They were the most expensive shoe on the market, boasting 16 years of technological research and development. They were supposed to provide the two things every runner needs most: propulsion and cushioning. What an awesome advantage for an elite marathoner, right?

Except none of them would wear the things.

Even GI Joe is afraid of running shoes

by Christopher on July 21, 2010

U.S. military researchers finally stepped in to settle the dust and resolve the running shoe debate. Their question: do running shoes cause the injuries they’re supposed to prevent?

Their answer: Hoo-wah! Or as they actually put it:

Researchers found almost no correlation at all between wearing the proper running shoes and avoiding injury. Injury rates were high among all the runners, but they were highest among the soldiers who had received shoes designed specifically for their foot types. If anything, wearing the “right” shoes for their particular foot shape had increased trainees’ chances of being hurt.

The most startling thing about this study is how much it resembles the same experience we’ve all had whenever we’ve walked into a running-shoe store. Thousands of military recruits had their arches and running styles assessed, then were given either a motion-control, stability, or neutral-cushioned shoe. Sound familiar? The result was a catastrophe: the s0-called science of shoe selection made things worse, not better. I don’t see how any running-shoe store can keep performing that video gait analysis voodoo after this, or how any magazine that aspires to journalism and not just ad revenue can continue putting out those shoe reviews. Even the Pentagon now knows that cushioned running shoes aren’t just useless — they’re dangerous.

And the worst offender?

Across the board, motion-control shoes were the most injurious for the runners. Many overpronators, who, in theory, should have benefited from motion-control shoes, complained of pain and missed training days after wearing them, as did a number of the runners with normal feet and every single underpronating runner assigned to the motion-control shoes.

No wonder the shoe industry is quietly conducting a silent recall of motion-control shoes. Now, try to correlate what the U.S. military discovered with the advice you’re constantly hearing from running magazines and podiatrists:

Go to a specialty running store where trained professionals will evaluate your feet, watch you run, recommend the right shoes, and then let you go out for a test drive. You’ll leave with a comfortable pair of shoes that will have you running pain-and injury-free. (Runner’s World, May 2010)

For a biology professor’s take on related news (U.S. Olympic marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein’s switch from heel striking to a softer, more barefoot-like stride) check out the always smart Runblogger. Both stories lead to the same conclusion: Changing footwear changes nothing, but fixing form can fix everything.

Ritzenhein isn’t just a world-class runner and a Nike-sponsored elite; he’s being personally coached by marathon great Alberto Salazar and monitored by Nike biomechanist Gordon Valiant. He’s got the finest running minds, resources and technology at his disposal, and the personal experience of thousands of miles to draw on. It’s safe to assume that Ritzenhein thinks about running every day and reads everything about the sport he can lay his hands on. So when a runner of that caliber realizes that shoes can’t solve his problems but maybe a barefoot-style footstrike can, it’s time for the rest of us to pay attention.

I got home, took the KSO’s off, and had some blisters, but my PF pain was gone. I was amazed and bewildered.

Sean Fillner, former plantar fasciitis sufferer.

Next time you come across one of those befuddled news stories which ponder whether minimalist running is a fad, consider the case of Sean Fillner. Like many runners, he turned to natural foot motion after suffering endless injuries in running shoes. Incidentally, I’ve never met a runner who turned to shoes because of problems with natural foot motion. Fillner may also be the most dogged VFF customer on earth, although he might have spared himself a lot of time and international shipping if he’d tried bare feet first. (courtesy of Peter Larson, the Runblogger)