Go to any barefoot running forum and you’ll see people giving advice to “listen to your body.” It may be the most common phrase uttered by barefoot runners. Pretty much any barefoot runner that’s run at least a few hundred miles immediately understands the meaning. It’s a confusing phrase to the uninitiated, though.
What exactly DO we mean by “listen to your body?” And is this really good advice? Wouldn’t it be easier to teach running gait using words, pictures, or videos? Is “listen to your body” just crappy advice given by lazy teachers that don’t want to meddle in the science of running?
As it turns out, “listening to your body” (LTYB) is advice that can be easily explained using one of my favorite topics- psychology!
At the most basic level, LTYB means being aware of what’s happening in your body as you run. The shortest description would be “If it hurts, try something else.” To get more complex, it’s learning to interpret subtle sensory signals when running. To do this, you’ll shift your focus to the sensations of running barefoot. This includes:
- The feeling of your feet on the ground. Are your feet landing softly, or are they slapping the ground? Do you feel a “scuffing” feeling when they first contact the ground (overstriding)? How about when your weight moves over your foot (arms crossing the center line)? Is there scuffing right before your foot leaves the ground (pushing off too hard)?
- The feeling in your ankle, knee, and hip joints. Do you feel like your legs are acting like rubber bands; gently returning some of the energy of your gait? Do you feel a jarring force in your knees (not keeping knees bent throughout the gait cycle)? Does it feel like any of those joints are stretching too far (bending the knees too much)? Do you feel your hips swaying like you’re a model walking down the runway (too much lateral movement)?
- The feeling in your spine, skull, and teeth. Do you feel any sort of jarring force (locked knees, landing too hard)?
- The feeling of your junk (for dudes), boobs (for the ladies), or ponytails and other hair (both) bouncing up and down excessively (usually overstriding)?
Other senses can be activated, too.
- Listen to yourself. Are you making a lot of noise? If so, you’re landing too hard.
- See your reflection in storefronts or other mirrored surfaces. You can diagnose a ton of problems this way… especially posture.
- Vestibular sense (balance). Do you feel unbalanced (trying to artificially lean forward)?
- Proprioception (awareness of body position). Where is each foot landing in relation to your body, hips, and knee (too far forward results in overstriding, too far backward results in reduced efficiency).
After a run, how do you feel?
- If you have hot spots on your feet, the location is an excellent indicator of gait problems.
- How about soreness? A sore back or neck can indicate bad posture. Sore Achilles can be the result of “running on your toes.” A sore IT band can be caused by your arms crossing the center line. Shin splints can be an indicator of overstriding.
These are all elements of LTYB that you can be consciously aware of if you pay attention. LTYB also sometimes refers to your brain’s feedback loop. It works like this- when your sensory receptor cells receive a signal, it’s changed to a neural signal and transported to your brain (sensation). Your brain interprets the signal (perception), then sends a signal back to the muscles to initiate the next movement. During this process, the brain, theoretically, is always trying to conserve energy. This would lead a runner to eventually develop the most efficient gait possible based on the conditions.
If you didn’t think about running and did nothing to interfere with the feedback loop (by running barefoot), many people would develop good running form. Gait would improve via that unconscious feedback loop. Each muscle would contract and relax at precisely the right time; arms and legs would be moving in unison, body position would be ideal.
This is where a great deal of debate happens. Many people that teach running gait like to give specific instructions, such as lift the foot off the ground with your knees, pull your foot off the ground with your hamstrings, drive your knees forward, run at a cadence of exactly 180 steps per minute, “fall” forward and let your feet catch yourself… whatever.
The problem- these external cues ignore and override the feedback loop, which results in reduced efficiency. If every runner just submitted to the feedback loop and used the conscious cues listed above, we’d all regain the great running form we had as children (this is theoretically how children run).
Of course, anyone that’s actually tried to teach people to LTYB will know there’s a lot of variability in this skill. Some people master it easily (and learn to run well by simply taking off their shoes). Other people just can’t shut their mind off and run by feel.
I’ve had limited success with the latter group by having them run with a distraction to occupy their conscious mind. My favorite tactic is to give them something to eat that requires skill- like a big piece of pizza or Peking Duck. The distraction keeps their conscious mind from interfering with their gait.
Another tactic is to have people sprint. The faster a runner runs, in most cases, the better their form gets. Of course, it’s also more stressful on their body, which can lead to injury. I only use this tactic for athletes that are accustomed to activity- their bodies are adapted to the rigors of barefoot sprinting.
If LTYB does not work for an individual and the distraction technique doesn’t provide returns, that’s the point where I would start using some of the more cerebral methods to teach good form. I channel my teaching background for this. I diagnose their learning style (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.) then figure out which method would be most appropriate. I always start with the simple and progress to the more complex, which usually looks like this:
- Bareform (the stuff I developed with Merrell) or Good Form
- My own brand of simple cues to correct specific problems
- Methods similar to Evolution Running
- Hybrid between Pete Larson and Steve Magness’ methodology on teaching running gait
- Methods similar to ChiRunning
- Methods similar to those taught by Mark Cucuzzella and Jay Dicharry
- Methods similar to Pose Running
Each level utilizes progressively more intellectual methodology. If one particular method doesn’t work, I move on to the next. At any point, I may refer the runner to someone with a different skill set than my own.
The frustrating part for me (and for new barefoot runners) is the belief that all runners should be capable of LTYB. As such, people will post a question on a forum and be met with a “Just listen to your body” or “Just take off your shoes” comment without further explanation. This is a foreign concept in the athletic world. You wouldn’t hear a golf coach instruct a student to “listen to their body” as a means of swinging a driver. As barefoot advocates, we need to do a better job of explaining what we mean by LTYB.
It’s also frustrating to see newer barefoot runners giving advice about one particular methodology as if it were the only way to learn to run better. All of the methods I listed above (and the many I do not regularly use) work for some people some of the time. NONE work for all of the people all of the time… and be VERY cautious with anyone that claims otherwise. For some people, LTYB works great, and trying to teach them POSE would be a disaster. Likewise, some people immediately relate to POSE (it fits their learning style) and have zero ability to LTYB. Or LTTB as the case may be.
Even half-assed teachers have enough awareness to recognize that different students have different needs and respond to different methodology. In my opinion, coaches that teach one method and try to force their students into their “system” have no business working as a coach. That’s all I have to say on that matter. 😉
There you have it- an analysis of LTYB, how I personally implement it, and what I use for the people that have trouble with the idea.
What do you think/ Anyone have anything to add?