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What Do You Mean “Listen To Your Body?”

Posted by on Aug 30, 2012 | 22 Comments

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?

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22 Comments

  1. Angie Bee
    September 1, 2012

    What do you think of the body “lying” as a result of years of programmed responses from running in cushioned restrictive shoes.
    For example, if you run and then watch a video of yourself running. It looks completely different than the minds eye sees it. How does LTYB then hold up for a newby?

    • Jason
      September 1, 2012

      Angie, I think that may be the single biggest reason why LTYB alone doesn’t work for most people. I believe it’s a skill we all possess as kids, but experiences (such as shoes or observing crappy form in others) interfere and override our abilities. Most of us can bet it back with practice, at least to some degree. Some won’t though. That’s where the value of the multiple methods to teach running form come into play… to help those that can’t LTTB.

      • Angie bee
        September 1, 2012

        I think listen to your body is great for everyone to an extent. It’s like evaluating your own body for any reason. Only “you” are in it but an outside perspective is certainly useful and often what is needed to break the mold.

        I haven’t come across any newby zealot coaches in a while but I also haven’t been to forums lately.

        Posture, rhythm, and relax are what is focused on in the Lee Saxby style. We also talked extensively about metedologies overlapping a great deal. It’s the details and refinements that differentiate.

  2. Jacky Ledeboer
    August 31, 2012

    Nice on Jason! I like the way you explain LTYB as it has much in common with PERCEPTION which is a fantastic tool to work with. It is indeed (as you say), not easy for all of us out here, to connect to (tune in on) our senses well. Especially in these modern days where people spend most of their time in and with their head. But IMO …. it can be learned and (without exception) I believe people are capable of developing and improving this unique quality.
    Don’t you think that moving from one method to another can be confusing? I know there are some common elements in the methods you mention, but there are also differences. Like; Chi thinks a forefoot landing is dangerous and should be avoided, pose methods thinks a midfoot landing is less efficient and springy than a forefoot landing. Some methods want the torso vertical with all speeds, other methods allow a slight lean of the torso and at last there’s cadence. Some methods say stick to 180spm and rotate pelvis or extend hip more for faster running, while in other methods cadence goes along with more speed. Don’t you think that moving from one method to another can be confusing for this reason? Personally I would stick to one method, because I want the backgrounds and motives for our actions clear and understandable, but doing this does NOT exclude different approaches of teaching. See? If I (being a pose coach) would fail to improve my clients running form, I wouldn’t have a problem in advising him/her to try another method that might this athlete fit better. BTW, I changed my running style via pose method, but it were words of perception of a pose coach (sounds strange I know) and NOT the drills, that helped me cue in on the right actions to transition from heel to forefoot strike. Hope you don’t mind me not dismissing myself as a pose coach, despite your pretty firm statement regarding coaches teaching one method; “In my opinion, coaches that teach one method and try to force their students into their “system” have no business working as a coach”. Give it a thought (-;.
    Keep up the good and happy running anyhow! With great respect.
    Jacky Ledeboer (Thjeko on Youtube)

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      As a teacher, it would make no sense for a teacher that does nothing but lecture to teach a student that is a strong kinesthetic learner. The teacher could try to force the student to learn using their methods, but it’s not going to work out well. It makes much more sense for the teacher to develop their own teaching skills to be able to meet the needs of the kinesthetic learner.

      Coaching isn’t any different. I’m not going to force a client to fit in my canned method.

      I DO like that you’d refer a client to a different coach. That shows a level of maturity that is uncommon. Many coaches would simply blame the failure on the client.

      Regarding mixing methods, I think it’s almost necessary. The goal is the same (teach the runner to run with better form), just the methods vary. Being able to pick and choose the elements of multiple styles to match the client’s needs allows a level of individualization that’s not possible when sticking with one method.

      Ken S., who commented below, is a good example of this. He’s primarily a Pose coach, but seems to pull in lessons from any useful source.

      • Jacky Ledeboer
        August 31, 2012

        Thanks for your reply. It’s an interesting topic. Hope you on’t mind me elaborate it bit further ….
        Not sure if we differ opinions very much, as I DO agree with your statement about the “sense for the teacher to develop their own teaching skills to be able to meet the needs of the kinesthetic learner”. Perhaps we have different opinions on the definition (or interpretation of the definition) of what a “METHOD” actually is. The definition could be; “A means or manner of procedure, especially a regular and systematic way to accomplish SOMETHING.”
        That SOMETHING is (IMO) that what you want to achieve. It will be different for different running methods (BK, evolution, Pose, Chi, etc.), although there are many similarity’s as well ánd we all want our runners to run happy and injury free of course (-;. Methods make use of all kind of tools as you already stated; drills, visual of good examples, elastic cords, a metronome, hands-on coaching, etc.. All there to help the student achieve that (depending the method) more or less exact definition of SOMETHING. The learning process will make use of several tools and which one prevails will depend on the students learning capabilities. In Pose method the majority of tools are meant to improve the athletes perception of running (in fact a lot of LTYB, being aware of …).
        Personally I will not have a problem to adapt my way of teaching by varying the tools to the needs of my student. If some Chi-trick will help my student to accomplish the Pose defined SOMETHING more easy I will not hesitate to use it. I studied, for example Chi and BK (in theory and practice) so my scope is wider than pose only. I DO have a hard time however, to teach skills that interfere with my philosophy of running (the SOMETHING). Like for example …. (a bit extreme I know) to move over to a heel strike pattern cause it’ll meet the needs of my student. Or teach sprinting with a fixed cadence of 180spm cause my student is unable to (or I’m unable to teach my student to) allow the cadence to go up with more speed.
        IF my method fails (we’re unable to accomplish the SOMEThING), I will tell (and refer) my student to try elsewhere and I rather leave such to a coach who is in favor of (ánd familiar with) the philosophy and skills necessary for the specific needs of the student. I don’t think this has to do with bad teaching skills or unwillingness to help my student to get the best out of it. For me it means doing what I’m good at and leaving the job to other professionals if the need of the student demand such.
        BTW, this is just my personal opinion of course, I’m not speaking out for my colleague pose coaches ;-). Cheers!

  3. Spongebob
    August 30, 2012

    Until recently, I never really grasped the concept of ‘LTYB.’ I always seemed to skim through that phrase because I saw it so often. This is the first time I had the patience to actually read about this thoroughly. Thanks.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      No problem!

  4. Bare Lee
    August 30, 2012

    Whenever I am given a choice between two views that seem compatible, I run it through the Hegelian dialectic. In this case I get:

    1.) try to listen to your body (proprioception)
    2.) try to understand what your body is saying (analysis)
    3.) try to understand what your body should be saying (more analysis)
    4.) try to understand if what your body is saying is what it should be saying (more proprioception)

    repeat until the thesis (proprioception) and antithesis (analysis) have resulted in synthesis (running bliss).

  5. Mark
    August 30, 2012

    LTYB is key, after you understand the mechanics. Once you understand what you are supposed to be doing, then the diagnostics can begin, and in my experience, this is a long informative process — repeated often until it sinks into my brain what the body is telling me. But this is part of the fun…

  6. Ken S.
    August 30, 2012

    You seem to be saying LTYB is basically at the other end of the learning spectrum from Pose. I respectfully disagree (big surprise right?). LTYB is a big part of the Pose teaching method. I use it myself to teach Pose Running. In fact, I use it much more than any other method. In Pose we call it developing perception, and developing perception is basically learning how to listen to your body.

    However, I would agree that many (maybe most) Pose coaches do emphasize (even overemphasize) a more intellectual teaching and learning style. But, I would argue that the tools are there to address most teaching and learning styles.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      Ken, LTYB, in the pure form, would be at the opposite end of the spectrum from something like Pose. However, I agree with you. Having awareness of your body is a great supplement to be used with any system.

      And have I ever told you how much I appreciate your application of Pose? In my opinion, you make it much more approachable than many of the other Pose coaches I’ve encountered.

  7. The Pooch
    August 30, 2012

    My body almost never tells me anything that I want to hear.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      Ha!

  8. Shane
    August 30, 2012

    I’m a fan of it myself, but usually as a gauge of how hard I’m pushing myself. I’m pretty in tune with my “cardio stress” level these days – if I’m getting a stitch or feel like I can’t quite catch my breath, I dial it back a bit. If I’m feeling good and liking what is going on, then I push my pace a bit.

    On form, I am running completely barefoot a bit more often these days, trying to fine tune it, but I think I’m in need of a more experience barefoot dork than me to go for a run and see if they have any suggestions. I need to go find one now.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      Having access to other barefoot dorks helps… I know it revolutionized my own running. :-)

  9. Dougr
    August 30, 2012

    I have been barefoot running about 4 months now, I was starting to run seriously about 4 months prior to that. It is going very well now and I have done this only by listening to my body, I only run without shoes, I have tried to use thin sandals but when I did this I ran into problems. It has been summer and hen it is over 90f it becomes harder to run on the pavement and also the ground, that is why i was trying the sandals. I also only run mostly off road, when I run on road I run into problems, after saying all this, this is why I run with no shoes, my feet tell me when I am ready to stop and rest. They also tell me when I am ready to run again. Just listen, not to brag but I can run more than 25 miles per week, and have no pains at all. Another thing I like about barefoot running is that it is very hard to do and takes a lot of time and patience, it is probably one of the hardest things I have done besides learning to trade futures and that is also a tough thing to do.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      Interestingly, the difficulty experienced by new barefoot runners varies quite a bit. Some find it easy; others find it difficult. Good job sticking with it… sounds like you’re on the right track!

  10. Jimmy N
    August 30, 2012

    I’ve always heard LTYB stated in the context of injuries and not overdoing things, but not as much in terms of form. Most people who take up barefoot/minimalist running have been running shod for a long time, so they naturally run a certain (incorrect) way. If we just listened to our bodies, we would continue doing so and wind up hurting ourselves.

    So I guess I’m in the camp that needs a fair amount of instruction and things to be physically aware of when I run. On one of my first runs since making the transition to minimalism I decided to wear a wireless headset and make a phone call while I ran. I would up pulling a muscle in my calf because I wasn’t paying attention to my form.

    • Jason
      August 31, 2012

      Sometimes distractions can be a bad thing. :-)

      • Jimmy N
        August 31, 2012

        If I ever see someone running down the street while scarfing down a slice of pizza, I’ll know he got the idea from you 8-)

  11. the runner
    August 30, 2012

    Agreed! LTYB is the one of the most powerful tools we have.