I’m glad old dogs can learn new tricks. For one thing, I think I qualify. (I’ll turn 63 next month.) For another, in spite of my usual thick-headedness, new learnings still happen from time to time. That means I’m still alive and functional.
My latest learnings came from the runs I did yesterday and today. The teachings came from Ken Bob Saxton’s book “Barefoot Running Step by Step.” I got the book in the mail on Wednesday, and have been dipping into it on a more-or-less ongoing basis since. I’ve skimmed the whole book once, and am now halfway through reading it more carefully. I have a feeling that, when I finish, I’ll start all over again. (And will then write a review post for this blog.)
The teachings I got from Ken Bob are three in number: “bend your knees,” “lift your feet before you land,” and “curve up the toes.” The application of those teachings happened on yesterday’s run (6K on pavement and a sand/gravel track) and today’s run (18K on pavement and sidewalks). I’m a long way from internalizing and perfecting those teachings, but I’ve begun. And that’s a very good thing.
I decided yesterday that it time to face up to my aversion to gravel. Saxton says he starts all his beginner classes on rough gravel before moving to pavement, and that barefoot running is easy to if you get the technique right. So off I went to a nearby high-school, where there’s a decent 400 meter track. Its surface is packed sand with a light gravel coating. All those sharp little stones looked pretty threatening. But I called to mind Ken Bob’s advice, started slowly, and worked very intentionally to bend my knees in an almost exaggerated fashion. The idea behind this is to enable the natural “springworthiness” ability of the big thigh muscles, and so reduce impact to an absolute minimum. Needless to say, it worked a charm. I felt a bit silly, because the resulting squat looks anything but natural on a runner. But it worked, and that was good enough for me.
Next, I worked at lifting my feet early, before they touched the ground. Ken Bob’s theory on this (which he’s developed from two decades of barefoot running and racing) is that lifting the foot before it touches the ground not only makes us land with less impact, but also with no friction, skidding, or sliding. Doing this on the track made running on those prickly little stones pure pleasure – I couldn’t feel them as long as I lifted soon and quickly. I’m a real wimp, and don’t do pain willingly or well, so this made me a very happy guy.
So far, so good. I did 800 meters on the track, ran home on the sidewalk, washed my feet in the sink, and marvelled at the fact that I’d actually run barefoot on gravel. Old dog, new trick!
I’d planned a longer run for today. Before I went out, I told my wife that I’d try to do 12k, 15K, or 18K, depending on how my feet felt. That’s because I’ve been nursing some bruising on the ball of my right foot. Because of an old (i.e., pre-barefoot running) injury, the skin there is very thin and quite inelastic. It gets bruised quite easily, and the only puncture wounds I’ve ever had happened there. So this morning, I decided to use this as the context for applying Ken Bob’s lessons. I did “bend your knees.” I did “lift before you land.” And I added “curve up your toes.” The latter is, according to Ken Bob, all about protecting the toes from blisters and repetitive impact stress. Less abrasion, less pain, he says, because it stretches out the skin between the toes and ball of the foot and stops them from sliding apart. So I curved them as advised, and ended up running the full 18K.
I’m still not entirely there. Applying these three teachings made for a much more comfortable, much smoother, and much less stressful run. But the ball of my right foot still ended up feeling quite tender afterwards. That’s OK. I’ve only just begun to apply Ken Bob’s lessons, and I am, after all, an old dog. Learning comes slowly for me sometimes. But I do get there eventually.
A big tip of the barefoot hat to Ken Bob Saxton!