Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Shoes, Injury, Misinformation, and a Soap Box

Time to get a little preachy.

On Tuesday mornings I go to a business networking meeting before I go to my office.  I've been a part of that group for a few years now.  The other day I was wearing my Trail Gloves to work for a change of pace.  I've been preaching foot strengthening and barefooting for a few months now, and a few people have actually been genuinely interested.  Not necessarily about running barefoot, but at least in strengthening their feet up to help with things like plantar fasciitis and the like.

Before the meeting a few of us were talking and someone asked, "how long until we hear that those are bad for your feet?"  They had seen brands like Earth Shoes come and go (and incidentally come back again after a hiatus of 20 years).  Another example is the current mess rocker shoe by Sketchers and a few others.  Those rocker soles came out in the 1990's from a company called MBT (Masai Barefoot Technology).  Sketchers say they will supposedly tone your flabby butt so it looks a little more like a Victoria's Secret model all without you having to do anything but hoof it to the kitchen for another bag of Cheetos.  Probably not happening.  MBT says that their shoes mimic the natural motion of walking over soft uneven ground, based on their observations of the Maasai people in Africa.  They supposedly cause better posture and function.  MBT says on their website, "When the body is unstable, the body is stronger".  That is nonsense.  Ask a person with a torn, unstable rotator cuff how strong their shoulder is.  Strangely enough a University of Wisconsin study even found no significant difference in muscle activity when comparing the "toning" shoes vs. a regular athletic shoe.

So how long until minimalist shoes are bad for you?  Depends on who you ask!  Some physicians, podiatrists, etc. are already screaming dire warnings about taking the $400 arch supports out of your motion control shoes.  They are quite sure your feet will literally fall into pieces and you will have to balance on the bloody stumps that used to be your ankles.  That position is interesting because you won't find a medical doctor, chiropractor, podiatrist, or shaman that will recommend putting your toddler in a hard-soled supportive shoe.  Why?  Because it interferes with normal foot development and function.  The question is, at what point do our feet become so frail that we need to constantly encase them in a shoe that prevents movement?

I like to take a different route with my patients.  I give them strengthening and self-massage activities to do at home to strengthen the muscles in their feet and promote good circulation and a self-supporting arch.  I do those same things at home.  I firmly believe that strengthening the foot to support itself is a better way to go.  Orthotics aren't bad, and shoes aren't bad.  They are tools, but we have started to look at them as armor for our frail feet, and our feet have become frail because of it.  At this point I must admit I used to promote orthotics and supportive shoes to everyone.  Why did I do this?  It is what you are taught in school.  You don't question your instructors.  You nod, smile, and move on to the next topic.  Critical thinking is removed.  Barefoot should be a no-brainer for chiropractors.  We constantly promote natural healing and movement.  How can we in good conscience then say that your feet need constant outside support for the rest of your life?  There are instances where orthotics are appropriate, but they should be used as a temporary device while the foot is remodeled and strengthened to function naturally. 

To ensure full disclosure, there are some people who shouldn't be walking around barefoot.  If a diabetic (or anyone) no longer has sensation in their feet, barefoot probably isn't appropriate.  If you can't feel damage happening, you need some protection.  That's common sense.  I don't think that rules out some barefoot activity in a safe environment, or minimalist shoes for periods of time either.  That answer must come on a case by case basis.

My answer to the question of how long until a minimalist shoe is bad for you is simple.  Never!  They are a tool and should be used appropriately by someone who is instructed in their use and will use them appropriately.  In a perfect world, that could be nearly anyone!  Who does the instruction?  Well, you can find someone who is using them already and get a little instruction from them.  If your shoe salesman can't answer your questions, find a different shoe salesman!  In reality, the best teacher is your own feet.  If it hurts, you are doing it wrong.  Start slowly and build up activity as you are able!

Run on, runners!

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Visualization of Barefoot Running Form

So, last post I gave some tips on getting started with barefoot running.  I hope that you have tried a little barefoot walking outside and downloaded Jason Robillard's book (or at least read his ABC's post).  This time I want to dive in to the mechanics of the gait a little bit and give you the visualization clues I used to help me.

Foot Landing (Foot Strike)
The foot strike should be gentle, as light as possible.  Watch a cat walk or run, or study a ninja that lives in your neighborhood.  They hit the ground quietly, and sneak up on you.  In barefoot running, the natural way we run, we land on the ball of our foot first then the heel and toes come down as the calf stretches.  Sometimes it looks like your foot is landing completely flat.

I use this visual for the foot landing:  Picture how your feet and ankles move as you go up a flight of stairs.  You typically touch first at the ball of your foot, but as you load the leg, your heel comes down as the calf stretches.  There is a reflex that happens as your calf stretches to help turn on the quad and glute muscles to keep the knee and hip from collapsing.  When running, this same process happens but it happens a lot faster and is a little less exaggerated.

A few other visuals that might help:
  • Pretend that you are running on hot coals, it will help decrease the force of your landing.  Same thing goes for liquid-hot magma.
  • Concentrate on the foot that is moving up, and the force on the landing foot will decrease (not my favorite way, but its an option).
  • Pretend that your running surface is loaded with springs and they push your foot up as soon as you set it down.
Knee Bend
To have the right knee bend, you should bend your knee.  How's that for you?  Not enough?  Fine.

The knee should never be completely straight in barefoot running.  As you land with your foot right below the hip, the knee is already bent to reduce force and it stays bent through the foot lift.  The knee bend is a major element of the shock absorbing system. 

What helped me:
  • Pretend that as you are running your butt is getting lower to the ground like you are going to sit on an imaginary chair.
  • Increasing your foot strike cadence will help with this too.  It decreases the amount of available time to straighten your leg out.  You can't straighten the knee if doing so will make you fall over.
Foot Lift
This is a simple idea, but is difficult in practice.  If you use your foot to push off and try to propel yourself forward you will get blisters and have a bad time.  This one took me a while to understand.  You have to lift your foot nearly as soon as it touches down on the ground.  Notice I didn't say you have to rock forward onto your toes and push off of the ground.  You have to literally pick your foot up off the ground in a fluid motion before you try to use those toes to push off.  Don't worry about what is moving you forward.  We will get to that.

My visual:
  • I don't have one.  Just pick your foot up.
  • The "running on liquid hot magma" visual may help you.  You don't want to keep your foot on liquid hot magma for very long.  
  • Think about (or find a video on You Tube) of someone walking on hot coals.  If you step lightly and pick your foot up quickly you don't get burned.  If you dig in and try to propel yourself forward quickly, you get burned.  If you try to push off with your foot when running, you get blisters.  Same concept.
The Forward Lean
This is how you move forward when you can't push off.  Jason Robillard teaches a drill where your stand slightly away from a wall, keep your body straight, and lean forward at the ankles until your head touches the wall.  That teaches you a little about the forward lean.  This is another concept that I had a little trouble with until I realized that if everything else is correct, this one happens on its own.

What to do:
  • Make sure you have a high cadence, your feet are landing below your hips, and you are stepping softly, and the forward lean will take care of itself.  If it doesn't, you will quickly realize you aren't moving forward.  You will either fix the problem or run in place.  Either way, have fun!

Have you tried barefoot running or do you have tips of your own?  Leave a comment below or put them on Facebook!

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Barefoot Running Form - From "A" to "C"

I've wanted to do a semi-educational post for a while rather than just relaying my modest accomplishments, so here it is!  Hold on interwebs, we are rocketing to Planet Knowledge!

As is the case with all good knowledge, most of what I'll relay to you is stolen from others.  Mostly from Jason Robillard.  I hope he wont mind.  He seems pretty laid back, so we should be just fine.  You know what they say about the quiet ones though...

A couple weeks ago I got to meet Jason when he was in Rochester to present a barefoot running clinic.  I even got some proof:
Jason and I at Tradehome Shoes.

Jason presented the new, simplified barefoot instruction program he and the folks at Merrell developed.  They call it BareForm Running and teach it via "The ABC's".  You can (and should) read the post on his blog about it  here, but I'll summarize quickly:

A= Align Posture.  Stand tall with a slight forward lean at the ankles, knees slightly bent.
B= Balanced Foot Strike.  Feet land under the hips, almost flat.
C= Cadence.  180 steps per minute.  A fast cadence helps ensure the balanced foot strike.

That is honestly enough to get you started.  You can check out his book to get some more details on form and such but the ABC's will get you going.  He is still giving his book away, or you can find it on Amazon if you want the hard copy.  I have the hard copy.  I like circling and highlighting things.

So, here are some tips and things I've learned the easy way (from others) and mastered the hard way (practice).
  •  It is true that barefoot running leads to a forefoot or midfoot landing, rather than landing on the heel.  That does not mean that the heel doesn't touch the ground.  In fact, the heel and toes touch the ground a split second after the ball of your foot does.  Your foot lands almost flat.  This was a concept that I struggled with in the beginning and it caused me some problems, namely Achilles Tendonitis.  I was staying on the ball of my foot the whole time rather than letting my heel come down.  Which leads me to my next point...
  • If you are thinking about trying barefoot running, go barefoot.  Don't try to change your form while wearing the same running shoes you have been wearing, which is exactly where I went wrong.  I developed my Achilles problems after doing a 5K wearing my New Balance shoes, but running "on my toes" the whole time.  At the time, that was how I understood barefoot form.  Had I taken my shoes off, and continued to run "on my toes", I would have soon gotten blisters or some severe foot pain and had to stop running.  My feet would have told me pretty quickly that I was doing something wrong.  I had shoes on though, so I missed the message.  You should save the minimalist shoes for non-barefoot friendly terrain too.  Go barefoot and learn faster.  Once you have good form, those minimalist shoes like the Merrell Trail Glove or Vibram Five Fingers are great for hostile environments.
  • Do a lot of barefoot walking outside.  No amount of walking around the house barefoot can prepare you for the sidewalk down the street that is littered with acorn or walnut shells.  Squirrels by nature are evil creatures and they hate people, especially barefoot people.  Their primary means of attack is covering sidewalks with sharp pieces of debris.  Walking barefoot outside will help desensitize your feet to the small debris that will likely be in your way.  It may also give you a clue on routes to avoid when you are out running barefoot.  Your feet become accustomed to little rocks and debris, but not if you stay on carpet.
  • Speaking of soft surfaces, don't try to start on grass.  Find some pavement or a smooth gravel or dirt trail.  Grass is a reward for good form.  Running on a hard surface will give you more feedback and allow your form to improve faster.  I have found that when I'm running on grass I tend to start heel-striking right away.  When I got lost on a run a few weeks ago, I veered on to the grass for a bit when my feet started to get sore and I immediately started to land on my heels.  
  • Start small and work up from there.  If you are already a runner, don't go out and just do your normal mileage barefoot.  That will likely hurt.  There are a few superheros out there that can transition really quickly with no ill-effects, but most of us need to build distance and speed with a healthy dose of time.
There's a few tips to get you started.  The only way to learn is to go out and practice.  Kick those shoes off and take a walk around the block.  Bring your dog with you.  He will appreciate the walk, and you just might start to remember that being barefoot is fun!  My next post will give some visualization tips on proper running form.  I need some things explained to me a few times in a few ways before I really understand so my hope is to get you thinking about form in different ways to find the best way for you.

Questions, thoughts, or just want to tell me to buzz off?  Leave a comment below or search Barefoot Chiropractor on Facebook.  Look for the picture of my feet!