Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Dr. Mick Wilkinson Part IV: barefoot running clinic - it's all in the fall

In part I of this series with Dr. Mick Wilkinson on barefoot running, we looked at the biomechanics in barefoot running with Dr. Mick Wilkinson, barefoot running research and veteran barefoot walker/runner. In part II, we looked at the roll of the sole being bared in supporting barefoot economy. In part III, we looked at minimalist vs barefoot running, footwear in sport, and perhaps especially, considering the social aspects of transitioning to barefooting.
image from runningnut
Clinic Time. In this final instalment of barefoot running with Dr. Wilkinson,  we check out first a wee bit about Dr. Wilkinson's research and athletic background, and second consider technique tweaking for those who have given barefooting a go and want to tune up our  practice.  The article wraps up with some of my own reflections about why doing some even intermittent barefooting may have huge rewards from destressing to performance.

TO give folks a little more context about you, 
tell us a  bit about how you came to Northumbria:

Dr. Mick Wilkinson,
barefoot running veteran
I moved here (to Newcastle) from Hull University in 2005 having previously worked at York St John's College and at Staffordshire University - all in the sport science departments

When did you get your phd?

I completed my PhD in 2009 after 7 years of long part-time study. I graduated from Sheffield Hallam University. The PhD was in physiological testing and performance determinants in squash.

Did you always know you were going into academia and sports research?

I always had questions and was always interested in the whys and hows. I took to academia because I thought I could get answers to my questions. Studying sport made sense as I was always sporty and was really interested in understanding the limiting factors in my own performance and how I could overcome them. My interest in academia as a career came about while studying for my UG degree and was fuelled during my MSc.

Why are you passionate about running? What appeals to you?

It is simply the enjoyment of travelling under the power of my own engine, of being outdoors and of trying to master the first true human art - combining breath, mind and muscle into fluent self propulsion (Chris MacDougal's words from Born to Run, I wish I could have thought of it myself as it sums up running for me beautifully)

You said that squash you did in response to injuries around running. Why
squash? hitting something?

Squash was my actual competitive sport not running, I ran for fun and as training for squash. When I couldn't run, I could still play squash but I still always wanted to run as I enjoyed it so much. I haven't played competitive (or even non-competitive) squash now for nearly two years as it does take a heavy toll on my body. Now I mainly run and commute 140 miles a week on my bike to work. I seem to get so much more from running that I did from squash, its free and I can do it whenever I like for as long as I like without discomfort or injury, so why go back to squash?

Thank you. Now to the meet of today's final post: the barefoot running clinic. These questions followed after going for a first barefoot run and walk experience. Let me say that experience was really interesting in a number of ways:
  • first, running in vff's for 2 years is not much seeming prep for running barefoot
  • second it really is an intimate experience with the foot exploring surfaces that are varrying so quickly. Indeed my feet definitely at this stage feel more sensitive than my hands. Maybe my hands would feel that sensitive if i was walking on them. Anyway.
  • Running stride does change again - even less lean - to lessen impact on the feet.
  • it's nicer right now to run than to walk
  • my foot strike is less ball of foot dominant than in vff's
  • i did get what is the intimation of a blister in the middle top metatarsals (under  the second and third toe) and that's the only bit that's a little tender today.
  • I can see how paying attention to one's feet one could run forever because so tuned to foot placement - perhaps this will change.
But when i got home, i had some questions from Mick because i did not experience nirvana in bare feet. Pavement was surprisingly hot; grass surprisingly filled with pricklies (though cooler) and that fresh tar with big rather than small bits was no fun at all.

So my main question to Mick has been:

- how long does it take to adapt  to where road running does not cause a teeth gritting

Mick Replies:

4mm Too many between You and the Planet
So you have gone all the way, well done. Sounds like your first time was not the epiphany experience I enjoyed, but it has at least illustrated for you the enormous difference even 4 mm of rubber can make to your sense of contact with the ground and highlighted the reason why I hate to have anything between my sole and the surface I'm moving over.

Technique. It's about Technique.
Your first question is impossible for me to answer. I would imagine that improving your technique and just getting used to the additional feedback from your soles (which are probably hypersensitive from years of trying to feel the ground through the soles of your shoes!) is a very individual thing. I guess that the hypersensitivity will become normal sensitivity relatively quickly as the nervous system is incredibly plastic, this will improve the comfort of your ride automatically.

Finding the Natural Spring
My advice is to first learn how to find your natural spring.

Stand in easy balance (head balancing on the neck, torso balancing on the hips etc.) then free up your ankles and knees and let them bend (keeping the torso vertically balanced) until you feel your heels wanting to leave the ground. This will probably feel like an enormous amount of knee bend, but this is what will provide the cushioning.

When you have found your inner spring, simply practice lifting one foot a little underneath you but at the same time allowing the supporting ankle to release (let the ankle bend forward, or dosiflex, like falling forward, as per runner on right in image below -mc)

Alternate the lifting of the feet like this in place.

You should be aiming to do this without any upward movement of the torso or pushing downward with the feet. Doing it in front of a mirror initially provides good feedback.

Note the legs underneath , not in front of, the torso. Note also the ankle dorsiflexing
to allow the fall forward in the runner on the left
It is far less costly and more comfortable to simply lift the feet off the ground than to lift the torso off the ground by pushing down with the feet. I would suggest practising simply running in place until this is comfortable and it can be done without any downward pushing - here, a hard surface is a better one to practice on than a soft one.

Threat Reflex - dans le tete
Another contributing factor to discomfort is anticipatory tensing of the feet. There will almost certainly be a bit of fear about how the landing will feel and the usual response is to tense up to 'prepare' for it.

This is counterproductive as the feet and legs need to be free and loose to mould and respond to the ground. It is easier said than done to not tense up, but believe me that leaving the feet and legs alone is the biggest lesson you can learn - it is only then that the reflexes can operate without interference resulting in the gentle, light and comfortable ride that I experience.

Walking and Running and over striding
Re: walking vs running, yes, most people over stride when walking and land on the heel. It is often easier to shorten and quicken the stride to land on the mid foot when running.

You are basically learning to walk and run again but this time with benefit of a lot more information to help you. It will take time and patience. It is certainly not realistic to expect to be able to do what you have been doing in the VFFs any time soon.

One thing that surprised me, as i went for a walk barefoot with my tunes and some in-ear monitors is that i felt/heard my feet more than i anticipated - felt like i could hear my feet kinda clonking. Is that normal?

As for the pounding, you have to go up first to come down with a clunk so you must still be pushing down into the ground. I like to think of my feet and legs as passive. I simply have the intention to move forwards and I release my ankles to allow that to happen. It is simply a matter of allowing the legs to spring forward from behind  and for the foot to touch down underneath me in time to stop me falling on my face. 

Adaptation Time

heel vs toe
the thinner the sole goes
If I had to estimate a time frame for you to become comfortable running totally barefoot on rough stuff / pavements it would be months rather than weeks but if you approach this as an adventure and an experiment in learning how to move and with a sense of fun, the learning experience is a reward in itself. Going barefoot generally even when not running will also help and will accustom your feet to feeling and enjoying more and varied surfaces. You will never stop learning how to improve your technique, four years on and I'm still getting better and moving by learning to do less and less that is not necessary and which interferes with free and easy movement.

Enjoy the ride

THANK YOU MICK for taking the time

But i Like my Shoes (that Pass the Twist Test)
Reflections on why to Barefoot

My hope is that, even if folks don't go the whole unshod way, for all running forever, you'll find in this series at least a few reasons to give going truly unshod:
checking out changes
  • in stride
  • in running economy
  • in force
  • in walking gait
  • in texture
  • in temperature
While going unshod certainly focuses the mind on lifting the knee and letting the ankle bend to get a more elliptical movement with the gait cycle (as Ken Bob describes it), one can practice this movement with minimal footwear - it's just easier without anything intervening between us and the earth.

And there's something else: feeling textures with our feet.

Exploring the carpeting and hallway surfaces at work unshod brings a certain kind of sensual pleasure that is unexpected. Walking around outside even for brief periods is certainly making me more of a pavement-type connoisseur. Temperature is also amazing, to feel what cool or heat is like - it sounds so obvious, but it's really quite remarkable to bring attention to what the feet are feeling, not just how they're moving.

My feet are definitely still in the hyper-sensitive space of being dialed up to pick up on sensations that have been otherwise muffled, but i'm still more curious to explore the world with what feels like a new sensation than to cover this up again.

It almost seems daring - like a mutant thing: i am now going to take my shoes off and expose my NAKED FEET to feed my brain with new and powerful information that will let me walk and run FOREVER. Ok, perhaps a bit of an exaggeration, but really, the unshod foot is a whole sensorium that seems to give so much info back it's pretty surprising.

More De Stressing
I used to think kicking off my shoes meant swapping trad shoes for shoes that pass the twist test, and that getting more movement helps decrease stress because the body has a clearer sense of where it is in space, letting those joints and muscles move.

This is still True. BUT
my guess is that letting the foot feel the world beneath our feet, giving that glaborus epithelium the sensation, the touch, it craves, may also well chill the stress events. I'm extrapolating about this touch craving based on how crazy we can get in a sensory deprivation tank - that that's not how we're designed to be; we're designed, it seems, to be in contact with the world. And when we are, we have more ways of telling our beings that things are fine: we have way more options to respond more quickly effectively and efficiently.

Heh Mikey, he likes it.
So, again, even if barefooting for full on runs feels like one too many for you, here's to finding a few opportunities, with increasing regularity, to feel the outside world through your feet.

Please let me know what you discover - post a comment here.

 Thanks for reading,

And if you've enjoyed this series with Mick, i hope you will sponsor him on his barefoot Great North Run.

Related Links


dr. m.c. said...

a reader from the netherlands sent me an email from this post that i'd like to share:

"Inspiring. I've been walking and running in sprints and kso's for 4 years now, trying to wear them everywhere I go. But not today. I did it, overcame my last doughts and went barefoot for the day. Guess what? The small pain in my left knee and somewhat greater pain in my corresponding hip are gone.
Talking about allignment. Funny thing: nobody asked questions, people only stared. When I wear my kso's I have to repeat the same story every 20 minutes. Feet are a taboo. :-). Thanks, keep up the good work."

You too.

All the best!

bobby-barefoot said...

I would have to agree with your contributors that there are immense benefits to being barefoot and strategies making the transition to barefoot running. However there a couple of points that I think need to be drilled down into a little more.

1) I think we were born barefoot and thus our gait, if left uninfluenced by the environment, namely shoes, we would be exhibiting characteristics of an ideal gait. So, 30-40+, plus years of wearing shoes has wrecked our gait, if we consciously run barefoot and then achieve a more ideal gait, things will be better. However to suggest that this “new barefoot” (really – “old and natural”) gait will transfer into our gait while we are shod is largely dependent on the shoes of choice, when we are shod. I would suggest that only wise footwear choices are going to allow those ideals of the barefoot gait to be transferred into a shod gait, and still they may be influenced by the shoes effect on biomechanics and the sensorimotor system. I would think that only the introduction of totally unrestricted minimal type footwear would come close to allowing you to achieve this.
2) Making the transition – yes this is the secret. I remember when the podiatrist would say – “…now you should wear these orthotics’ for a few hours and then ease into them”. Unfortunately the safe transition to barefoot also necessitates some aspect of patience. Especially if we are only going to spend a few hours, a few times a week being barefoot. What few people talk about, is the poor footwear choices that many people make in their casual shoes. The shoes many of us wear 70% of the time. These shoes also need to nurture and promote an ideal gait and an ideal foot/shoe interface. I have come across biofeedback insoles (Barefoot Science to name one) that have been shown to be successful in making most in-shoe environments a lot healthier and lot more conducive to promoting muscle strength and being barefoot. The combined use of a conscious barefoot directed exercise program + a subconscious biofeedback induced exercise program can make the transition quicker, safer and more effective.
Anyhow I hope the CFO’s and shareholders in the shoe industry (the one’s who are really leading the industry) don’t simply ride this wave for a few years and then go back to brain washing everyone into bracing and supporting their feet.

dr. m.c. said...

Thanks for your note bobby barefoot.

As for the "poor foorwear choices" most of us make, fore sure. I hope if you looked through the links at the end of the articles with Mick you saw reference to
freeing your feet, fitting vibram vff's
etc. so b2d has been contributing for a few years to raising awareness of better footwear choices.

I'm not aware of the barefoot insoles you're talking about but looking at their vid it seems more stuff between a person and the ground. So one is actually putting an insole into a shoe to counter the effects of the shoe, rather than just changing footwear. I'm skeptical of having something squishy under the arch as actually activating rather than supporting the arch and not strengthening it at all. We aren't designed to have our foot in our gait have stuff pushing into the arch like this.

But again, dunno, just seems like one more crutch.

I've found that even a few bouts of barefooting focusing on a soft gait walking is giving me the model to take into my shod (with vff's usually) walking. It's a conscious skill based practice that i'm certainly enjoying.



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