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Experimentation isn’t Just for College Anymore: How Playing With Yourself Can Make You A Better Barefoot Runner

Posted by on Nov 12, 2010 | 6 Comments

“Each of us is an experiment of one-observer and subject-making choices, living with them, recording the effects.” -George Sheehan

George Sheehan was a wise man.  Was he talking about barefoot running when he wrote that quote?  I like to think so.

Experimentation… it always makes me think of college.  After all, that’s where we are likely to learn about the scientific method and what not.

What?  Thought I was talking about something else?  ;-)

Anyway, earning to run barefoot will require you to try many different techniques and methods.  You must be open to experimentation.  You must be willing to adopt anything that works and discard anything that does not.  Whenever you encounter something new, try it a few times.  If it seems to lead to improvement, stick with it.  If it does not, revert back to what worked best.

This is the heart of learning great form.  One of the principles I discuss in my book revolves around the idea that we’re all individuals.  We have unique physiology.  We all have idiosyncrasies.  As such, we all have slightly different tweaks that make our ideal form different.  There is no one single right answer.

When going through this process, it is important to only change one variable at a time.   Do not try changing multiple things.  If you do, it will be impossible to determine which variables were successful or unsuccessful.  It may help to keep a journal of the changes you try.  This will help you objectively determine what does and does not work.  Make a game out of it.  Have fun with it.  Play with yourself. ;-)

New barefoot runners, once they develop the basics, are free to refine their technique.  Everything from how your foot touches the ground to how you hold your arms to the position of your head can be altered.  Try anything and everything.  Get advice from others, but be willing to abandon their advice if you give it a fair shake and it doesn’t work.

I spend a significant amount of time actively experimenting with every aspect of running.  I work on form, but I also work on other aspects of running.  I do the majority of this experimentation on long runs because they closely approximate the conditions I will experience in the races I run.  On any given long run, I may experiment with my form, what I eat before, during, and after running, clothing options, hydration options, equipment, anti-chafing measures, pacing, and a whole host of other variables.  For me, this experimentation helps make running an endlessly exciting adventure.

There are many standard practices involved in running.  Many runners blindly follow these practices without considering if they improve or degrade their performance.  As an example, I used to wear shoes, stretch religiously before and after every run, wear running shorts and moisture-wicking technical shirts, and carb-load by eating a ton of pasta.  How I run barefoot, never stretch, wear a cotton shirt and kilt, and avoid wheat-based products like the plague.  After testing all of these variables, I found what worked for me.  Remember, we’re all an experiment of one.

What unique things that work for you that are unorthodox?

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  1. Brandon Mulnix
    November 16, 2010

    “Play with yourself”- sorry Momma said I would go blind and I have 20/20 vision so I really listened to Momma.

    Its been a fun journey so far in barefoot running. I am learning to mix VFF with BF and enjoy it. At first I wanted to be a purist, but then I realized that I was helping my body either way. I enjoy running even more with BF running than I did when I thought I could run forever.
    Experiment for 2010- Sleep is very important. 3 hours is okay once in awhile, but every night leading up to a race. Big fail.

  2. Janice
    November 13, 2010

    I’ve learned some interesting things in my experimentation…well at least interesting to me & similar to you! I love running skirts (when not running I HATE dresses and skirts), I love being barefoot, sometimes doing dance steps to the tune on my iPod is pure heaven (even though I’m sure it looks weird) and I don’t like to stretch either.

  3. Colt
    November 13, 2010

    I also forgo stretching, although I do have a warm-up routine before each run: I bounce around on the balls of my feet for about ten seconds. I also throw in sprints when I feel the urge; for me, they’re a great way to loosen things up a bit.

    I also do a lot of yelling and pointing, but that’s mostly because of overly territorial dogs.

  4. Viper
    November 12, 2010

    Considering Sheehan was proponent of the idea that a wedge sole could correct pronation, I doubt he was talking about barefooting. But you are right that he was a wise man.

    That quote has informed all of my running since reading “Of Running & Being.” It’s probably why I gave barefooting a try despite never having any real issues with running shoes or injuries.

    I stopped stretching too. But I think most of what I’ve adopted has been learned from others.

  5. Ben S
    November 12, 2010

    I always thought of my stride as a wheel. I turned my legs over much like a cyclist. I’d extend my leg nearly straight and land mid-foot (heel if tired). The bulk of the power came from using the hamstring to drive the lower leg back. A quick slight extension and hard toe-off at the end of my stride gave just enough lift to go through the cycle again. I won numerous races in the 90’s with this style including a 16:02 5k.

    Time passed and I didn’t run much until last winter when I decided it was time to get back into shape wearing minimalist shoes. Though I had to make adjustments to land forefoot, my stride cycle did not change significantly. My feet were getting stronger and my knees no longer hurt when I ran. I was seeing the benefits of wearing minimalist shoes! However, I still struggled with a few things. When I tried to run faster on trails I was prone to bruising areas of the forefoot due to all the force I was applying to the toes for push off. When I ran on the road I occasionally bruised my heals when my form fell apart from getting tired. I was beginning to see limitations to my running form that had previously been masked over by traditional training shoes.

    I began to research running form and I read Jason’s book. I began experimenting more. Now I land gently and allow the foot to compress. In a quick nearly simultaneous motion the angle of the ankle is expanded with the calf and the angle behind the knee is expanded by initiating hip extension with the glutes. In flight the leg collapses and the foot is set down and the cycle begins again.

    The difference between this comeback attempt and those in the past is I’m having fun! I don’t need music to get me through a workout and I don’t stretch either.

  6. Russ Taylor
    November 12, 2010

    One thing I kind of found interesting in my own barefoot running education was that after about 3 months I was still having hot spots and difficulty on my runs. That was until I started doing Tabata Sprints barefoot. I don’t know if my body had an easier time figuring out the form or what, but for me running fast led to big and quick improvements in my form and economy.

    But I don’t advocate just taking off shoes and starting with sprints. After all, it was only after a long period where I wasn’t making any progress running slow and easy that I started sprinting bare.