Ankle Mobility And The Floppy Foot Cooldown

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter in the barefoot underground lately about ankle mobility. It may be one aspect of your running that you have not spent much time thinking about, but in truth, it’s something well worth paying attention to. This is especially true for barefooters.

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, when we trade in our sneakers for bare feet, it transfers some of the impact created during running to other parts of our legs, especially the ankles and knees. Having nice, deep bent knees can help absorb this impact, and make for a smooth ride. When we bend our knees, naturally our ankles bend as well, to take their share of the strain.

What can happen, however, especially on longer runs, is that we run the danger of keeping our feet in a dorsiflexed (toes up, making an acute angle of our feet and leg) position for a long time. Habitually running this way can cause your ankles to tighten up, which will reduce their mobility and ability to respond to impact. This in turn can lead to all sorts of problems down the track. (I’m not a doctor or physio, but I have been affected by this in the past, so I’m speaking from personal experience. If you are experiencing pain that worries you, contact your doctor).

With a little bit of management, this condition can be easily avoided and needn’t stop you from enjoying nice, long, barefoot runs. The fix is something I call the Floppy Foot Cooldown (yes, I did just make that name up).

Basically what it involves is, once you’re finished your run, slow down to a walk. Now, as you’re walking, point the toes on one foot downwards, and give your foott a flick. The motion is something like flipping over a toy car with the top of your foot.

While you’re doing this, consciously relax your ankles, and try to feel the stretch where your foot meets the front your ankle. Keep doing this every step for about 100-200m and by the time you’re done, your ankles should be feeling nice and loose.

And that’s it! If you’re already cooling down after your runs, this is a simple little thing to add to it. If you’re not doing a cooldown walk, I strongly encourage you to do so, as it will help with all manner of ailments.

So how about you? Got any neat tricks that you do to stay fit and flexible? Any cooldown hacks that you want to share? Let us know in the comments, or post to our Facebook wall, or send me a Tweet!

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Ninja Running

By Barefoot Dawsy

One of the coolest things about barefoot running that you won’t get when wearing conventional shoes is the ability to run silently. There’s something awesome about being able to run around making such a small amount of noise that even dogs get startled when you run past them. I call it Ninja Running, and it’s one of the best things you can practice to improve your form.

Ninja Running is the art of moving silently. It takes practice, but the more you do it, the better runner you will become. To do it, several key techniques need to be combined:

Bent Knees

When your feet come down with a *smack*, you’re effectively transferring stored energy into sound. Wasting energy is one thing we don’t want to do as runners, so reducing the amount of sound you make is tantamount to improving your running efficiency. The best way to do this is to absorb as much energy as you can and return it to your next stride.

Luckily, our body comes with several wonderful springs that allow us to do this naturally. The main spring is the Achilles Tendon, which is used to store and return upwards of 30% of the energy used in running right back to you. The trick is however, that you need to stretch it for it to store energy. To do this, you need to bend your knees as much as you can. The more you bend, the more the Achilles will stretch, and the more energy you will store.

The more energy you store in your legs, the less energy is transferred out of your body, and the less noise you make.

Light Steps

The next part of the puzzle is stepping lightly. This part takes the most practice and is the most difficult to generalise about it since everyone steps just a little bit differently. The best way I can describe it is to imagine that you’re running on hot coals.

If you were feeling searing heat each time you stepped, you would quickly lift your feet up to avoid getting burned. Your toes would be flared up and you would try to touch the ground as little as possible. This is the sensation you’re looking for. A quicker cadence is also going to help a lot.

Nose Breathing

Finally, the last bit we need to quieten down is our breathing. A lot of people run while breathing through their mouths. While this works, and gets breath in and out of the body, a better option is to use the nose.

When you breathe through your nose, the air temperature and humidity gets automatically adjusted to suit your lungs. You will take in air at a more measured rate, rather than gulping it down, which tends to result in quieter breathing.

Take note of these three features of silent running, as they are major parts of becoming a better barefoot runner as a whole. Most experienced barefooters will do all of these things naturally, but practicing them specifically will help you become a better, more efficient runner, more quickly.

Oh, and you can sneak up on people, which is a lot of fun!

A Barefoot Runner’s Guide To Gravel

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

It may seem counter-intuitive to new barefoot runners, but the best surface to run on isn’t grass. As you may have guessed by the title, the actual best surface is gravel! But why?

Running on grass is a pleasure. It’s soft and yielding, feels nice underfoot,  and doesn’t make your feet too dirty. In fact in most ways it’s like wearing a pair of running shoes.

Of course, for many of us, the reason that barefoot running is so appealing is that it’s exactly not like running in shoes. From there it follows that we should be seeking out terrain that’s as unlike a shoe as possible. Hence, gravel.

I’ll be honest, the first couple dozen times I tried to run on gravel, it was agonising and unpleasant. I think I ‘ran’ about 20m all up over all these sessions, and swore through most off it. Luckily, learning to run on gravel is as much about practice and patience as it is about having tough feet.

Types of Gravel

Just as the Inuit have several dozen words for snow, barefoot runners can learn to recognise a dazzling array of gravel. Once you get used to running on it, you’ll probably start to wonder how it can all be lumped into the same category.

When you first start out with gravel running, it’s best to find a spot that has what I like to call ‘smooth gravel’. Smooth gravel is basically made up of sand and stones with few edges. These can be rounded, water-eroded stones, or gravel that is well-trodden, such as can be found on walking paths and unsealed roads.

Smooth gravel is still harder to run on than pavement and will give you bucket loads of feedback, but it’s not so sharp that you’ll end up crying your way back home.

Once you’ve mastered smooth gravel, you’re ready to try ‘Mixed Bag’ gravel. This type is what you will likely encounter on forest trails and the like. Mixed Bag is tricky because you don’t know what you’re going to come up against. It could be sharp stones, twigs, thorns, you name it. The name of the game here is not foot-toughness, but visual acuity.

When running on Mixed Bag gravel, it’s really important to make sure you have ample light to see by and that you are fully present while running. This means leave the iPod at home, scan the path 4-10 feet in front of you, and do your best to avoid the sharpest bits you see.

In my experience, Mixed Bag is the most common type of gravel, takes the most effort to learn how to run on, and is the most rewarding. It gives you heaps of feedback, and you will be really exercising the full range of leg and feet muscles as you dodge and weave around obstacles.

Lastly we have ‘Never Again’ gravel. This type of gravel is the worst. It pops up from time-to-time in the unlikeliest places, from city streets, to park paths. You will know it the instant you set foot on it (even if you’re walking). It’s incredibly sharp, unforgiving and torturous. Even experienced barefooters wish they wore shoes for this stuff.

Unless you’re Ken Bob Saxton, I’d recommend avoiding this type of gravel for awhile. It’s way too hard to run on for beginners and will demotivate you from running at all. Luckily this is also the rarest form of gravel, and you may never even encounter it.

Tips For Running On Gravel

Regardless of what type of gravel you’re running on, there are some things you can do that will make it a more pleasurable and educational experience.

  1. Slow Down: Hitting gravel at full-tilt is a sure-fire way to experience a lot of pain, fast. When you come to a gravel section, slow down to a light jog. Once you’re on it, you can pick up speed as you adjust, but start off slow.
  2. Step Lightly: Use gravel as an opportunity to teach you how to run more lightly. Focus on your form and lifting your feet. Step down carefully and gently.
  3. Step More: The less time your feet spend on gravel, the less it will hurt. This works on a step-by-step basis, so the faster your feet go, more painless it will be. Increase your cadence by 25% if you can, and your soles will thank you.
  4. Scan Your Path: Half the battle with running on gravel is avoiding the worst of it. Scan the ground in front of you and step around the biggest and nastiest looking pieces.
  5. Know When To Quit: Somtimes it can all get a bit much. There’s no shame in discovering your limits, so don’t push yourself through agony just because you want to run on some gravel. If it’s becoming unbearable, then slow down, walk, or step off to the side and give yourself a break.
  6. Keep At It: Most importantly, keep trying. It’s tempting to seek out the most comfortable paths, but if you want to improve as a barefooter, then you really need to be constantly challenging yourself.

Have you tried running on gravel before? How did it go? Leave us a comment and share your experience!

Barefoot Basics #5: Landing

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

It’s become fairly common knowledge among barefoot tranistioners that a shift to fore or mid foot striking is required when moving from shod to unshod running. On the whole this is true, but I’ve always found the term ‘strike’ to be a bit misleading. I prefer the term ‘landing’.

When running barefoot, the key to success is minimising the impact forces involved. Once you take off your shoes, there’s literally nothing getting between you and the road. This is a wonderful, liberating experience, but needs to be done correctly. That inch or so of padding did have its uses, afterall, even if it did encourage sloppy form.

As you run in bare feet, try to imagine your soles coming in for a landing, similar to how an airplane would. The aim is to match the speed that your foot is moving as closely to the speed that the ground is flying past you. This way, when they eventually touch, the amount of friction experienced is reduced.

This technique can be somwhat difficult to learn in practice as it’s quite subtle and there isn’t really a ‘eureka!’ moment when you get it right. The best way to learn it is to pay attention when you’re doing it wrong. There are two key signs to look out for when you haven’t quite got it right.

The first indicator is blisters. If you’re getting any blistering or hot spots on your soles, then you are doing it wrong and need to make adjustments. Blisters are caused by friction, which means that your foot is skidding a bit when you land. To fix this, try slowing down a bit and visualise your landing as each of your feet touches down.

The other indicator that you can use is thumping. When you run, you will experience a little bit of a thump each time you step. This is perfectly natural and expected, but there are degrees of thumping. If you pay close attention, you will be able to feel the shock of each step run up your feet and legs. The more you can reduce this sensation, the lighter you’ll be running, and the less strain you will put on your body.

The landing is arguably one of the most difficult aspects of barefoot running form to perfect, but once you get it, you will find yourself running smoother and faster than you ever could before.

Did Humans Evolve To Run On Pavement?

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

One of the major barriers to the uptake of barefoot running is the perception that humans weren’t meant to run on flat, hard surfaces, such as paved streets. I’ve been asked this question countless times, and though I know it not to be true from personal experience, it’s often hard to convince people otherwise.

I spent a bit of time this weekend researching the subject, and discovered, that like all thing barefoot, there is precious little research on the matter. I did, however unearth a small study from 2000[1] that examined this question for shod heel-to-toe runners.

What it found was that there was no significant increase in the forces applied to the body due to the change in terrain. Interestingly, however, it also found that on harder surfaces, such as asphalt, that there is a reduction in loading rate.

Basically what this means is that as the surface becomes harder, the body adapts its form to compensate for it, allowing the knees to absorb the shock a little bit more gradually.

What I fiind fascinating about this is not only that the body can, and does, adapt to its surroundings, but that it also still manages to do this in shoes. The loading rate reduction is very reminiscent of Daniel Lieberban’s study[2] from 2010 that found a similar reflex in barefoot runners.

Of course these studies are very small and I would LOVE to see some proper, large-scale studies into some of the more common barefoot running questions, but at this point, all signs seem to be pointing towards us being evolved running machines that are well and truly able to adapt to all kinds of terrain (barefoot or otherwise).

References

1. Dixon SJ, Collop AC, Batt ME, (2000) Surface effects on ground reaction forces and lower extremity kinematics in running. Department of Exercise and Sport Science, University of Exeter, United Kingdom http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/11079523

2. Lieberman DE, Venkadesan M, Werbel WA, Daoud AI, D’Andrea S, Davis IS, Mang’eni RO, Pitsiladis Y. (2010) Foot strike patterns and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-5. http://barefootrunning.fas.harvard.edu/Nature2010_FootStrikePatternsandCollisionForces.pdf

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How to not break your toes in Vibrams

Written by Barefoot Dawsy

One of the main reasons people decide to try barefoot or minimalist running is the promise of reduced injuries. Unfortunately, a quick Google search will turn up a heap of anecdotes about people suffering tarsal and metatarsal fractures in minimalist shoes. To the rest of us this essentially means that if you run in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, you run the risk of breaking feet and/or toes.

I don’t know about you, but assuming these stories are real, to me this is very scary. Running barefoot or thin-soled shoes should be a pleasant experience, not one that would send you to the hospital. I’ve thought long and hard about it, and I have a theory on why it might be happening and what can be done to avoid it happening to you.

What I think Happened

When the barefoot/minimalist movement began to take off a couple years ago, there was a lot of discussion among runners regarding the negative aspects of heel-striking. The merits of the forefoot strike were equally lauded as the next big thing in running. Then along came the Vibram Five Finger range, with their distinctive toe pockets.

What I think may have happened is that the message of landing on the forefoot somehow got mixed in with the excitement about shoes with toes, and got translated into “run on your toes”. From that point, what began happening was that people would go out, buy a pair of ‘toe shoes’ and start running on their tippy-toes. The reslut is that new runners may be putting too much pressure on their toes,  or landing way too hard on their forefeet.

Running up on your toes is a recipe for disaster. They simply are not designed to bear the weight of your entire body while running. They are thin little bones surrounded by tiny muscles and it’s no surprise that before long they would start to hurt or even break. On top of this, it reduces the surface area used by your feet to dissipate the energy used when running. This increases pressure on a single area, which can lead to serious problems.

How to avoid toes injuries

So the simple answer to avoiding this is that if you are new to running barefoot/minimalist, don’t run on your toes. Try to land with your feet nearly parallel to the ground, with the ball of your foot touching down a fraction before your toes, then allowing your heel to lightly brush the ground.

By landing lightly with a foot that’s nearly flat to the ground, you’re increasing the surface area involved in the landing. This increased surface area will help your body dissipate the energy of the landing, which in turn will reduce the chances of any one part of your foot being overloaded to the point of injury.

If you’re running in Vibrams or other minimalist shoes, it’s really important to focus on your landing for the duration of the run, as even though they might have only a thin sole, you’re not getting the full sensory experience that you would in bare feet.

Regardless of what you wear or don’t wear on your feet, it’s also essential that you listen to what your body is telling you. If you find yourself beginning to develop pains when you run, take note of them and try adjusting your form. Bend your knees, relax your ankles and increase your cadence. If the pain persists, stop running, walk for a bit and see if it goes away. If the pain continues, take a day or two off. Lastly if it doesn’t improve, go see your doctor.

By being sensible and working on your running form, you will be able to run injury-free and take full advantage of the equipment that nature gave you. Don’t let the fear of getting hurt stop you from enjoying this incredible sport, but don’t be complacent either. There are no guarantees that you will never hurt yourself, but as with most things in life, a little care and patience goes a long way.

Barefoot Basics #4: Posture

Written By Barefoot Dawsy

Running barefoot can be very unforgiving to bad form, so it’s essential to aim to improve all aspects of it as you learn to run unshod. One of the most important parts of this has little to do with where your feet meet the ground, but everything to do with the rest of your body. What I’m referring to is posture.

When running it’s really important to have your head, shoulders, hips, and feet aligned. By keeping each of these parts positioned directly above the other, you can reduce the amount of energy spent just holding yourself up, and will also improve the quality of  your breathing.

A lot of runners tend to want to bend forward as they run. They bend at the hips and even slouch their shoulders, which not only looks a bit odd, but also restricts their breathing and engages a lot of extra muscle tissue unnecessarily.

One of the reasons for this behaviour, I think, is that runners are often instructed to ‘lean forward’ when running. This is good advice, but is often misinterpreted. What you should be doing is pushing your hips forward slightly. If you do this with correct posture, the effect will be that you are impelled to move forward by shifting your centre of gravity just a little off centre.

Leaning too far, or bending over, can overdo it and cause your form to fall apart.

So, on your next run, focus on running tall, keeping everything in line, and using your hips to ‘lean’ with,  and you’ll be on the road to improved running efficiency before you know it.