Friday, November 29, 2013

Minimalist running is good for the soul. And the sole.


For the first 50 years of my running life, I confess, I probably viewed my feet as kind of a shock-absorbing stump on the bottom of my legs. Big enough to keep me from falling into holes and ditches, perhaps. And a solid appendage to strap my Nikes onto. But that was about it.

However, as I have mentioned here in many occasions, I have found the practice of running barefoot or in my Vibram FiveFingers has a ton of benefits. I think it helps prevent injuries, improve my stamina and speed and generally make running so much more enjoyable. And natural.

I have found another important benefit, however, in the way my feet have responded to the new challenge of barefoot or minimalist running. Some specific examples:
  • I see muscles I never knew I had. When I curl my toes, I see tiny little muscles on the top of each toe, stretching back into my foot. How cool is that?
  • My toes appear to curl differently, almost grasping, as if curling to get a better hold on a surface (or a tree limb, for those inclined to view things Darwinistically).
  • My ability to balance on one leg is much better. In the last year or so, I’ve surprised myself, not only by putting on a pair of pants standing up. But also by putting on slippers, socks or even shoes standing up. Without leaning against anything. How many 64 year olds can say that?
  • My feet look healthier and thinner. Like they did when I was a teenager. How many people over 40 have something nasty going on with their feet? And hope that if they cover it with their shoes, it won’t catch up with them?
  • Finally, I have fewer foot injuries. Other than the occasional bruise that comes from stepping on the stray acorn or walnut in the park where I run, my feet feel better than they ever have in my half-century running career. Probably goes for my legs as well.

So, thank you Chris McDougall, for showing us all it was possible (and, in fact, a good idea). Thank you, Vibram, for supplying the shoes that make it all possible (especially in the winter). And thank you to the Natural Running Center (http://naturalrunningcenter.com/), a great resource for those just getting started.

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Tuesday, September 03, 2013

Getting my priorities straight

It is a run like today's that makes running so addictive.

The sky was blue, humidity in the MidAtlantic region was livable for a change, and I felt power in every stride. It just  doesn't get any better than that.

But rnning great today wasn't an accident. I have eaten carefully for the last several days. And I did weight training (hard) over the weekend, so much that I was washed out yesterday.

And that's the secret, isn't it? We learn that weight training and intervals and careful diet and a light day of training beforehand can set the stage for a great run. And we're so addicted we do all kinds of things to get there.

I confess that I hate lifting weights. I love to eat. I hate swimming laps. And I'm not really crazy about intervals.

So how in the world did I get to a point where I have a week of all day garbage so that I get to have one great run? How did the hamburger crowd out the USDA choice?

At my age, I recognize that I'm never going to be good at weight lifting. Perhaps, I can aspire to be an adequate competitive swimmer.

But I'm a born runner. Running makes me more fit, more confident. It allows me to work with people half my age. It helps me relax and unwind.

Running helps me think better, organize my life. I'm a writer, and I know half of my best ideas -- OK, probably most of my best ideas -- came while I was running. And most of the personal problems I have get worked out in my running shoes.

Finally, running makes me a better person. I am more patient, more understanding, because I run. Lord knows, I'm more spiritual.

It makes me feel good. It makes me happy. And it doesn't really get any better than that.

So, yeah, I'll show up at the gym every now and then, because it always pays off. And, yeah, I'll work in a few intervals, just for the heck of it. I'll try to watch what I eat (a little).

But the main thing is running. Running for the sheer joy it brings.

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Thursday, July 04, 2013

Study Shows Exercise Reduces Response to Stress

A study conducted by a research team at Princeton University shows that exercise helps reduce the anxiety we feel when exposed to stress.

The research showed that the brains of mice that had been allowed to exercise regularly exhibited a spike in the activity of neurons that shut off excitement in the ventral hippocampus, a brain region shown to regulate anxiety.

In addition, the study resolved one possible inconsistency with recent research demonstrating that exercise also promotes growth in new brain cells. 

It might seem that adding these newly minted brain cells, which generally are more excitable than mature cells, might actually increase anxiety. However, the group found that exercise also strengthens the mechanisms that prevent the newer brain cells from firing.

As a result, those of us who exercise are less likely to feel anxiety in reaction to stress. And the researchers even postulated an explanation for the anxiety couch potatoes feel: it's an evolutionary avoidance behavior in response to potentially dangerous situations, since they're less able to respond with a "fight or flight" reaction.

Hopefully, those of us who exercise regularly, put this "grace under pressure" response to good use.   

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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Lesson: Moderation in all things

Over the past year, I have tried a new approach to running. Depending on how you look at things, that new approach has either been wildly successful ... or not.

First, the approach: about a year ago I read some research indicating that marathon running may not  be that great for your body, long term.

The specifics: the value of running more than 40 minutes a day is not that clear. And, conversely, the value of interval training is relatively apparent.

So, for the past year, I've been running 30-40 minutes a day, largely intervals of 200 to 1,200 yards with 30 to 60 seconds of jogging between intervals.

During that time, my speed has increased, my 5K times have come down significantly and my weight has been relatively stable. In addition, my weight training efforts have been fairly successful, and I've continued to gain strength.

Perhaps most gratifying of all is that people have haven't seen me for awhile say I look "fit," not something a lot of people say to someone who is 64.

So, I guess physically, this regimen has been a success.

I'm pretty sure the same cannot be said for the impact of this routine, spiritually. It's true that I go into work each day with a high level of energy, mental and physical.

But that spiritual connection that drove me to create this blog simply hasn't been there. That's simply not going to cut it.

There's something that's incredibly hard to describe that happens when I run. I feel in tune with the world, with the universe. I feel lighter than air. And the crisis du jour seems to evaporate.

I suspect many other runners feel the same way. No, they don't talk about it. They don't have to. You can see it in them. In the way they move, the way they interact with others. The way they live their lives.

I have missed that for the last year. And while I don't want to lose some of the hard-earned gains in speed and strength, I am now experimenting with ways to return to the spiritual path.

My first goal will be to run in the mornings for about 40 minutes, almost every day. Once or twice a week, I will go to the gym.

And once or twice a week, I will run some intervals, just to stay sharp. Maybe in the evening. Maybe as part of a morning run. We'll see.

Because I'm seeing that I will miss the spiritual value of running by running too fast. And by running too long. As in all things, moderation is key.

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Wednesday, June 05, 2013

Questions About the Benefits of Barefoot Running

A story published today in The New York Times' Well section cites several recent studies that cast doubt upon claims (admittedly made here) about the benefits of barefoot running.

The first cites a study reported last month in the Journal of Applied Physiology, in which researchers found no difference in running economy between heel and forefoot strikers. I find myself taking issue with the findings in several regards.
  • First, the study was done on a treadmill, which, in my mind, is not the same as running on a flat surface. The moving belt does some of the work for you, altering the mechanics of the run. That flat-out invalidates the findings for me.  
  • Second, the main benefit of the forefoot strike is the impact reduction on the foot and the rest of the body. Not mentioned here.
  • Third, they equipped all the runners with the same type of neutral running flats. And that's exactly the point: heel strikers will hurt themselves if they run on a normal, flat surface without their padded heels. But, of course, in this study, they're not running on a regular surface. They're protected by the cushioning of the treadmill.
  • Fourth, they didn't test barefoot runners. 
So, no, I see a lot of flaws in this study. The NYT article also cites several similar studies on running economy reported at the annual meeting of the American College of Sports medicine. Not many details there or on the organization's web site. So I don't know if they used treadmills or not. 
The Times article also mentioned that a survey of runners who had tried minimalist shoes and noted that many had suffered injuries and switched back to their previous shoes. I'm sure that this is the case -- I would estimate it took me a year to make the conversion. And I would admit that I have always been favorably inclined toward lighter, minimalist shoes. Before I discovered barefoot running, I ran a marathon in a pair of Nike Free shoes. So I was motivated ... and, perhaps, biomechanically inclined.
I must point out that the writer of the article (Gretchen Reynolds), says that these experiences are by no means a condemnation of minimalism -- simply a cautionary tale to balance the optimism of its proponents. Like me. :)

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Tuesday, October 09, 2012

Back by Popular Demand?

I have been absent for awhile, though I have not in any way curtailed my running. In fact, I've probably been running as much as ever.

Admittedly, I stopped making posts because I was seeing little interest, if any. But, within the past few weeks, there has been a flurry of visits and posts, indicating substantial interest in the subjects I'm covering here.

So, I'm more than happy to resume my general coverage of the benefits of running, based on my research and nearly five decades of running experience. I still do all the reading and am constantly checking out new sources of information, simply for my own benefit. I'm more than happy to share.

But please let me know you're out there, and when I post something that really helps. And, conversely, when I don't.

It's great to hear from fellow runners ... and know that I can contribute in some small way, any way, to  keeping their interest and enthusiasm up.

It must be in the  air. I was running in the park near my home today and a guy asked me about my Vibram Five Fingers. We ended up talking for about 15 minutes.

Helping other people find the joy I've found in running? For me, that's as good as it gets.

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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Can we make pain our friend?

The so-called King of One-Liners, Henny Youngman, had a famous riff on the medical profession that included my all-time favorite line on pain management:

“I went to the doctor myself and I said, ‘Doc, it hurts when I do that.’” Youngman raised an arm. “The Doc said, ‘Don’t do that.’”

For me, that simple truth lies at the heart of the benefits of running barefoot: throughout millions of years of evolution, the human anatomy has perfected an elegant system of feedback that tells us we are doing something wrong. We know that system quite simply, as pain.

When we eat the wrong foods, we get an upset stomach (TV commercials notwithstanding). When we are running too fast, we get side-stitches in the short term, oxygen debt in the medium term and fatigue in the long term.

And when we runners pronate, supinate, over-stride or heel-strike, we have pain in our feet, legs and skeletal system.

Over the past 30 years, the footwear industry has rushed in with a solution. If you just wear the right shoes, with the right kind and amount of support, or so they would have us believe, the pain will go away.

If that were true, there would be fewer running injuries, fewer knee surgeries, less need for orthotics, and, in general, less pain. That, of course, is not the case.

When we run barefoot or with minimalist footwear, we learn very quickly about over-striding and heel striking. Usually in about the first 20 steps. We automatically adjust and find a rhythm, stride and cadence that works.

I’ll never forget the first time I experienced that particular phenomenon. In February of 2009, I ran my first marathon, even though I had been a runner for about 45 years at that point.

Immediately after that race, which I ran in a pair of Nike Frees, I began to experience tremendous pain in the outside-middle area of my left foot, right in front of the heel bone.

That pain continued for months. Then about May of that year, I happened to pick up Christopher McDougall’s book, Born to Run, and read with great fascination the information he presents about running barefoot.

Figuring I had nothing to lose, I tried it and was amazed at the results. The pain went away almost instantaneously and only returned when I wore shoes. I ordered a pair of Vibram Five Fingers and have been alternating between barefooting and Five-Fingering ever since, with the exception of that first winter, when I chickened out and returned to the shoes.

It has been a transformative experience. And the most compelling benefit, in addition to the sheer pleasure and joy of running, has been the self-correcting aspect of the running experience. I think it may have been ChiRunning founder Danny Dreyer who called it “form school,” or even “reform school.”

I’ve learned, for instance, that I tend to supinate. Not sure why, but I do. So, unlike most other people, I have to adjust my foot placement inward. I make sure I’m not curling my toes under — something I do all too easily — but push off my middle toes on each stride.

I’ve even found that consciously changing my foot placement can alleviate pain not just in my foot, but in my knees or even my quads or hips. And what’s really weird is that I’ve even found that proper foot placement in my right foot alleviates pain in my left hamstring. Go figure.

The point is that the experience has been like going to med school. Or, even more specifically, a med school devoted to me. I still go to the doctor, of course.

But I’ve kinda learned that, while a doctor can often mask or even repair the damage, the person who can best correct the problem and prevent more severe injury is staring me in the face in the mirror every morning. I’ve learned that pain is our friend. And I’ve applied that idea generally, not just about running.

When my body is fighting me about a food, I listen. And when I am feeling tired and dragged out, I look at my schedule. Will it work for everything? Don’t know. But it’s worked a lot for a ton of things, including diet and weight control.

All that from running barefoot, the way nature intended. Physician, heal thyself, indeed.

This post also appears on the Natural Running Center site.

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