Runnin' Nekkid

A simple reframe affects how we think about running, and that determines how we actually run. But, how do we run?
06/04/2012 12:00 pm ET Updated Aug 04, 2012

"You made this happen," said my friend Roy Wallack as we met outside the Santa Monica, Calif. public library's auditorium. Roy's a Los Angeles Times fitness columnist, and the author of numerous books, including the popular "Bike for Life." I'm there to buy his latest book and hear his presentation on "Barefoot Running, Step by Step." He continues, "You introduced me to Pose Method for that technique article in Runner's World some years back, which led to barefoot running, and then to Ken Bob who lived just 10 miles from me." Co-author Ken Bob added, from behind his graying, Dusty Hill beard, "Yeah, it's all your fault."

After 20 years of runnin' nekkid, barefoot Ken Bob Saxton is a well-known barefoot running personality. His 3:19 marathon isn't particularly remarkable until you consider he ran it, and some 76 other marathons, and several hundred shorter races, without shoes. "Born to Run" author Christopher McDougall says when it comes to barefoot running, "Ken Bob is the master." Their presentation is all about how we can trust our feet to carry us forward in comfort, with greater speed and with less chance of injury.

Incredible as that may seem at first, it's actually more incredible to think that somehow we're incapable of doing exactly what Ken Bob does -- comfortably running barefooted over any terrain, faster than before, and without suffering injury. After all, shoes are a relatively recent artifice, and barefoot populations exist today without the injury rate of the shod. But shoes are a symbol of sophistication, a cornerstone of civilization. We're born into them and can barely imagine a world without them. And billion-dollar industries would prefer the boat not be rocked.

Infants, though, tend to reject having their feet crammed into the confines of baby booties, and adults sigh in relief when they remove their feet from those restrictive enclosures they've chosen, however sporting or stylish. "Notice," Ken Bob points out, "how everyone is smiling after their unshod lope around the library grounds." He and Roy also emphasize that since we have been habituated to shoes, and that the bones, muscles, and nerves have spent a lifetime adjusting to this artificial environment it's essential to reacclimatize gradually to our natural function.

Function, of course, includes developing the resilience of the soles of the feet. But, it also involves retraining the less obvious roles of the sensory receptors, the inherent elasticity of the foot arches, the entire chain of the legs' musculo-skeletal springs, and perhaps most important, allowing yourself adequate time to adapt. While the media has conditioned us to expect instant physical transformations, patience must accompany change. Wallack and Saxton describe the barefoot running exuberance syndrome, erroneously called a barefoot running injury epidemic (by those invested in the medical/shoe industry complex), as simply doing too much too soon. As I've said before, "patience is a practice."

As well, I was amazed that Roy and Ken Bob addressed language in their barefoot talk because it's a little-appreciated fact that it is directly through language we represent our world to ourselves (and others). They recommend replacing the language of impact with the language of support. Instead of "pounding out the miles," and thinking in terms of foot "strikes," recognize that "landing lightly" changes the quality of the experience, and leaves more room for the comfort, health and well being of any runner. A simple reframe affects how we think about running, and that determines how we actually run. But, how do we run?

Roy asked me during his presentation about Pose Method vs. barefoot running. I said all running was the same,and briefly detailed angles of fall because he had said he noticed that he and Ken Bob ran with a more vertical carriage than what's taught in Pose. No doubt, what they see on their video appears more upright, but what happens between the time the support foot touches the ground and the time that foot leaves the ground is the same from one style of running or from one runner to the next -- bar none. We're essentially inverted pendulums swinging through roughly 23 degrees of motion, based on speed. (Read about this in some depth in the Runnin' Nekkid section of "FITNESS, Straight-Up.") From my Pose Method perspective the postural alignment should go with the fall, whereas from what Roy describes the upper body comes out of postural alignment as the fall progresses. Roy says the upright position would reduce muscular activity in the erector muscles of the back. I think it adds unnecessary complexity and could lead to over-striding, a slower pace, and greater instability. They're both coming to one of my upcoming book signings so they can return the volley.

In any event, you can rest assured that "Barefoot Running, Step by Step" is not only a useful how-to guide but a well-written and entertaining testament to an ordinary man's great personal successes. Along the way, Ken Bob, on his own, with the sole agenda of running comfortably and injury-free, has re-pioneered our forgotten birthright as natural athletes. Through his example and mentoring he's encouraged a large number of others -- many who couldn't run at all in shoes -- to express their most primal selves in a recreational or competitive manner. Check out his website The Running Barefoot for his next book signing and get your own copy autographed by Roy and stomped with Ken Bob's foot print.

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