Old Dog, Still Learning

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!

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8 comments

  1. I’ve also read about the “curve your toes up” at Kenbobs site. The bending of the knees helps a lot, conqueroring the gravel.
    I don’t remember the link, but I think I recall someone talking about the curving of the toes and how that would impact the foot in a negative way. Something about lifting the toes and tireing of the muscles. But it was a shod runner if I remember correclty 😉 I also think it helps when you run on rough grounds.

    In Michael Sandlers book Barefoot Running he talks about almost the same technique as Kenbob, with the addition of lowering your arms and thus lowering your point of gravity. This helps a bit with keeping a steady and balanced step.

    1. I haven’t read Michael Sandler’s book yet. But “lower your arms” makes sense. I’ll have to try that. Thanks!

  2. Awesome write-up Alan. The “lifting the feet before they land” is a difficult thing to visualize. I even tried running around the house trying it and just ended up stomping around. I had read these “tips” from Ken Bob’s website when I first started minimalist running. Even after reading the site several times, it took a little experience to really understand what he was imparting. I found that I’d read a lesson, thought I understood it and tried to implement it. I’d later re-read the lesson and, from experience, realize I’d misunderstood what Ken Bob was saying, even though it seemed perfectly clear afterwards. After stomping around for a bit, I just ran as I normally do and I think I might actually be doing it correctly, it’s something I’ll have to pay attention to going forward. The bending of the knees and toe position are lessons that have stuck.

    Something I try to stress to people after relaying tips on minimalist running is another Ken Bob lesson, “RELAX”. I remember early on that this struck me as somewhat comical as it can be the hardest thing to apply. When running and thinking about all the tips on form, relaxing is the last thing that comes to mind. Something else I try to impart is never get to comfortable with your form – I’m constantly re-evaluating, learning, and adjusting.

    Parting thought, the number one thing I try to convince people of is that the best way to learn minimalist running is to start barefoot. Something I know I probably could not have been convinced of when I started, and I have yet to be successful in getting anyone to do it. Preconceptions are a difficult thing to overcome.

    1. I agree that “lift before you land” is an odd one. (I find Ken Bob’s Web site quite confusing at times. The book is much better at getting his ideas across, perhaps because he has a very good co-author.) The only way i can approach it is to think that I’m giving the ground the very briefest of pats, rather than stepping down on it. Jason Robillard talks about this as the feet “kissing” the ground. However you think of it, it takes practice.

      Yes, relaxing is key. On longer runs, I have to consciously work at relaxing. That sounds weird, I know, but it’s true.

      As for the “barefoot before minimalist shoe” thing, I agree completely. In fact, a pet peeve of mine is people who say they “run barefoot” or “run without shoes” when, in fact, they run in VFFs, Zems, etc. I think it’s unfortunate that running barefoot and running in minimalist shoes (which, of course, is not barefoot at all) get mixed up in people’s minds.

      1. I hear that all the time..
        I think it’s because it sounds cool when they say the run barefoot 😉

        Ken Bob was interviewed in norwegian television recently and he said he sometimes got the question what shoes he was wearing when he mentioned he ran barefoot ;D
        You can watch it here; http://bit.ly/jg0bO8

      2. I ran a marathon last year in my Vibrams. As I crossed the finish line, the announcer called out, “Look, he’s running barefoot!” So I assume that for the many spectators who heard and saw this, “barefoot” now means “wearing shoes.”

        I wish we could keep the distinction clear. After all, there’s no shame in running in minimalist shoes. There is, though, (or should be) shame in misrepresenting oneself.

      3. Recalling posts on birthdayshoes.com two years ago, which I think is around the time the minimalist running thing was starting it’s climb into the spotlight (from my perspective anyways as, at the time, finding good minimalist running resources was a little difficult), there really wasn’t an agreed upon term for minimalist running, and using “barefoot” to describe it was definitely in the running. Referring back to Ken Bob’s website, I believe he and his site’s contributors (rightly so) were dead set against it. I know I had used the term “barefoot” back then, but it was always awkward as I’d immediately have to qualify it by somehow indicating it was not exactly “barefoot” and used either natural or minimalist running. At some point, “minimalist” seems to have become the excepted term and I often describe it has how one runs in the absence of “traditional” running shoes, or, dare I say, barefoot like.

        While I’ve been successful in getting people to try “minimalist” running – all in VFFs – I have been completely ineffective in trying to get them to try it barefoot. It’s like I’ve got them hooked when I talk about the benefits of minimalist running, but as soon as I talk about “barefoot” I can see the mental breaks put on.

      4. I’ve simply stopped being an evangelist, i.e., I don’t try to convert anyone anymore. When people ask why I run barefoot (and they do, almost every day), I simply say “Because it feels good.” If they’re really interested, I tell them to Google “barefoot running” and go from there. But I’m not an advocate or a leader. I’m just a guy who likes running barefoot.

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