Running in natural, barefoot style is a technique. One that we start out with, but lose because of the shoes we wear. I’ll reiterate what I have said in several posts – it is not about the shoes, it is about the form. I’ve never felt so comfortable running as I do with this style. I’m not fast, yet, but I am getting smooth and easy. That alone is well worth the ticket of admission. It’s a ticket that has cost me 10 months of progress at a steady, but slow rate. Kind of cool to see the light at the end of the tunnel knowing that it just means I’ll have more lights to chase.
As part of my transition, I have started to run a lot more trails for training. In the New England area in which I live there are some nice, if not long, trails, so I can get to some offroad work within 2-6 miles. All of them are hilly with a lot of technical climbing and decents. Everything from fallen trees, loose rocks, boulders, streams, roots, and jagged stones line the trails making for an interesting run.
The shot is a little shakey, but I was running when I took it.
Here’s what I have learned about running trails in minimal fashion. It is different and doesn’t feel “normal” if you’ve been running in modern shoes. Like so many other aspects of natural running, I’ve experimented to see where things work best. As a writer, I am a natural observer and I’ve turned that eye toward the technique of running. I listen to the feedback of my body and go with the motion that feels most natural and smooth.
Running on a trail in natural fashion is slightly different than running on the road. It requires simple adjustments to the road style, but those small changes are important.
1) It’s in the hips. There is a natural swing in your hips when you run naturally. Barefoot Ted-Bob says it’s like a model walking down the runway, just not that exaggerated. Running on trails, especially on the downhill section, requires a slight increase in the hip motion. It may be that the motion helps smooth out the uneven terrain’s impact on the upper body. I’ll let physiologists figure it out, all I know is adding that slightly greater sway of my hips not only made it more comfortable, but gave me a greater sense of control over the ground, whether uphill, flat of downhill.
2) A small step for man. I was running along a pretty rocky trail feeling like I was being worked over by the rocks and other obstacles. Then I remembered something Caballo Blanco said about running trails. He told Chris McDougall that if you see a rock and think it will take you two steps to cover it, then take three.
It’s not always rocks or trees you have to run over.
I started to follow that advice. Instead of stretching out and trying to step past the obstacle, I shortened my stride and took a couple of quick steps over it.
It changed the whole experience. It added more control back into my running. Sure, the first time felt a bit odd, but that is because I had become conditioned to hurdling obstacles, not running them. Whether it was a stream or a log or a deer skeleton, I quickstepped it and was able to keep my form consistent and smooth. It’s all about smooth.
The short step approach is now engrained in my road running too. When I hit a rough patch or pothole in the road, I quick step it and keep gliding on by. What a simple concept to keep you in form in all conditions.
3) Going down. The technique for decending is similar except you shorten the stride as well as increasing your cadence. Here’s the theory that seems to make sense. Stand on a flat surface and mentally trace a circle on the ground that is centered on the midpoint of your body (like the point between your ankles) where the diameter is the width of your shoulders, you have outlined the effective sweet spot for you center of gravity. If your center stays inside that circle, you are stable. Move it outside and you can be more easily toppled. That is what wrestling taught me in high school.
Going downhill makes that circle an oval that is still as wide as your shoulders, but more narrow front to back. To stay within that sweet spot you have to shorten your stride. To keep up with gravity, you have to increase your cadence. You now have to match this to technique #2 and you can start to float downhills.
I used to take long, crashing strides downhill and with each one I tore up the ground. pummelled my body and offered the gods of running my ankles as an injury. Using the short step technique I do not feel any threat to my ankles and my motion is continuous and still smooth. It’s all about smooth.
4) Uphill. The motion uphill is still the same as on the road, with the added quick step around obstacles. Climbing has been the biggest revelation for me in minimal form. I don’t jump up hill like I did in raised heel shoes, I scissor uphill. It is the one time that I don’t lift my knees as high as I do on other inclines. By keeping the knees kind of at the same angle, I do a slight kick out of my feet and meet the incline. I don’t jump up and land on the incline. By doing this I stay within the center of gravity oval, which now I am running in the front side of. It also makes the quick step over trail junk much easier to transition in and out of. And guess what? It keeps it smooth.
5) Look where you’re going. When you run, you should be looking about 30 feet in front of you. That means you aren’t looking at all the things you want to avoid. Even around a turn, you should scope it out as you approach and then look up and around the corner to see where you are going to go.
Trust me on this. Your mind remembers the things you just saw as you approach them. It will go exactly where you have been looking.
THIS IS IMPORTANT
You will run wherever you are looking. If you see a rock you want to avoid then let your eyes map the path around it as you look up the road. Magically, because your brain is so much sharper than you give it credit for, you will avoid the rock and run exactly where you imagined you should. You look at the branch you want to avoid and you will step right on it.
I learned this in bike racing. You will follow the path your eyes lay out for you. It really is that simple. It takes just a little practice, because you have to learn to trust your own perception, but once you learn it (which take a minute or two) you will be amazed at how the route you choose is always optimal.
6) Thumbs up and Knees up. As I’ve preached all along, you need to continue to run with your thumbs resting atop a loosely closed fist. That assures you good upper body posture. Keep raising your knees, even when you quick step. It sets your feet up for the landing that is most natural for you.
There you have it. I’ve seen people running trails in all kinds of shoes and they can all benefit from this form. Try it. And let me know how it works for you.
Run Free. Run Smooth. Dig Deep.