Barefoot running: It’s about how you run more than what you run in

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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Another study on barefoot running is out. I find this one to be of particular interest because it’s asking a question I would like to see asked more often: is the benefit of barefoot running due to what you’re running in (nothing or next to nothing) or how you’re running (eliminating the heavy heel strike)? I have my opinion on this answer but I’d like to see science back it up.

This is a small study (only 12 runners) so it hardly closes the book on the question but it’s a step forward in beginning to explore the question.

As for the answer itself, it seems to conclude the same thing many people, myself included, believed. The benefits (and risks) of barefoot running have to do more with how we run (forefoot plant) when barefoot than what we’re running in.

Specifically, the runners, whether wearing shoes or not, gain shock absorption when switching to a forefoot plant. Going barefoot and keeping your heel plant, not surprisingly, increases injury risk. The risk of switching to a forefoot plant, also not surprisingly, is an increased load on your calf muscles. Specifically, the gastrocnemius, which is the outer muscle of the calf.

What’s the takeaway of this? Here’s what I’m taking out of it. If you’re going to consider minimal or "barefoot" shoes or barefoot running itself, remember, the shoes are a tool. It’s not the shoes that improve your running, it’s the form changes that the lack of cushioning in those shoes forces. At the same time, proceed with caution. Your calves will need to work harder than they are used to if you currently heel plant. As with anything, build up slowly.

In other words, the same thing some of us have been saying for years, going back even before Chris McDougall’s book was published.

Thoughts on GPS watches after 6 months with one

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

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It’s been just over 6 months now since I began using my Garmin Forerunner 410. My first run with the Garmin was September 8th. As any of you who know me well know, I’ve long had concerns about using GPS devices for training. I have to say that some of my concerns have been proven correct through my own experience, while others have been allayed. At the same time, I’ve found some benefits to using GPS.

First, to go over my primary concerns and what I’ve found through personal experience:

Runners trust the GPS too much. I know it’s not 100% accurate so I haven’t fallen into this trap but I’ve seen the inaccuracies that show how dangerous this trap can be. When running on roads, it’s usually quite accurate. There is some error in the early stages when the device is still locking on to the satellites and you can always find error even late in a run but it will get your distance pretty accurate most of the time. There are exceptions, though, so you’re playing with fire if you place too much trust in your GPS. On wooded trails, it’s another story. You will get very strange results. Don’t be surprised when your readings turn out very inaccurate. I’ve heard of similar problems when surrounded by tall buildings in urban areas but I have no personal experience in this regard.

As a sidenote, certified race courses as well as many that aren’t certified are measured with far more accurate methods than GPS. Please don’t tell race directors their courses aren’t accurate based only on the fact that your GPS said it was a little off. Chances are it’s the path you took through the course and/or inaccuracies in GPS measurement that are a little off.

Runners are too dependent on the GPS, forgetting how to run by feel and focusing too much on trying to hit the "right" number. This is a real problem. Maybe it’s partly because I’ve always been a numbers guy but this has personally been a constant battle. The numbers are too readily available. I can check my current mile pace at any time in real time and it’s generally reasonably accurate. I can get reasonably accurate mile splits. This creates constant problems for a numbers guy like me. Maybe it’s different for others, though that’s not what I hear when I listen to other runners talk about using their GPS watches, but I’m constantly working on paying less attention to the Garmin. I generally do a good job but I won’t deny falling into the trap at times.

Now, a couple primary benefits I’ve found:

Workouts are even easier. Want to do mile repeats? Not a problem. Set your watch to give you an alert by distance. Want to do timed repeats? Just like any good running watch, it can also handle that. Mile repeats with timed recoveries? No problem. Of course, we can accomplish the same type of workout by time. 5 or 6 minute repeats in place of mile repeats will, for someone running 5-6 minute pace, be the same workout. However, I don’t think I’m alone when I say there’s something nice about doing mile repeats. Also, when not running on a track, it’s nice to have time and distance so you know what paces you were hitting.

Tracking your training is a breeze. This can be a double-edged sword but, used properly, can be very helpful. Just upload your data to Garmin Connect and it’s all there. I’ve been able to easily notice where in my tempo runs I might surge or let up a bit, which has allowed me to focus on those parts. This helps me get more out of my tempo runs and carry over what I learned into my racing so I can run my races more efficiently, which should translate to faster times.

I know I’m leaving off a lot of both pros and cons of GPS watches. I’ll probably touch on some or even expand on the above topics in the future. In the meantime, do you think I left off something that is a significant benefit or detriment? Feel free to comment with pros and/or cons that I left off the list.

New study on the benefits of foam rolling

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Foam rolling has become very popular for runners. As soon as I got a roller last year to attempt to rehab some hip tightness, I was convinced. Combined with stretching, it took less than a week to relieve the persistent tightness I had been experiencing for quite some time. In the intervening time, it’s helped me quickly handle relapses in the hips, as well as work through calf tightness, hamstring tightness and various other minor problems before they became major or persistent problems.

One of the nice things about foam rolling is that it improves your flexibility without the drawback of reduced power production that static stretching can cause.

However, not much study has been done on foam rolling. The benefits have been anecdotal. Now, anecdotal evidence has its place and I’ve been a strong proponent of foam rolling, as a few of the people I coach can tell you, but it’s nice to see controlled studies show what we have seen anecdotally.

Now, we have the first study.

To sum up the study, participants were tested for knee joint range of motion and muscle strength before, as well as 2 minutes and 10 minutes after foam rolling. Strength was not reduced after foam rolling but range of motion increased by fairly significant amounts.

Now, this was a small study (11 participants) but the results do confirm what we’ve believed all along. Foam rolling is an effective way to increase flexibility without reducing muscle power production.

What should we take from this? Here’s what I’m taking from it. There are good reasons to not do static stretching before a run. We all have heard about the warnings of stretching a cold muscle. Along with that, there is evidence that we do lose power production at least for a period of time after static stretching. This could result in performance decreases if you static stretch before you run. So the question is, if you are tight and need to loosen up before a run, what do you do? Based on this, foam rolling seems like one alternative.

I’ve done pre-run foam rolling before early morning runs just because it feels good and I feel like it helps “wake up” my legs before a run. These results don’t surprise me at all, as I can feel a lot of that early morning tightness disappear after those sessions.

What do you think? Have you tried pre-run foam rolling?

Running through a snowstorm

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

Here in southeast Wisconsin, we dodged a bullet with this week’s storm. We got snow but not like Minnesota, Illinois and other parts of Wisconsin did or the mid-Atlantic region is expecting. That said, we’ve got our fair share this year. I, for one, appreciate the reprieve this time.

For those of you in the mid-Atlantic who may not be used to running in storms like this, what should you do? Well, the easy answer is to take it inside. Hit the treadmill, find an indoor facility, whatever works. That will surely work and, if available to you, may be the best option for the next day or two.

What if indoors isn’t an option? Well, first think about your safety. When I think safety, I usually say the same thing whether running or driving. I know how to take care of myself. I’m not worried about myself, I’m worried about some idiot out on the roads who is going to hit me. A couple of tons of steel vs. 100-some pounds of flesh and bone is not a fair fight. If you don’t have an outdoor option that you feel is safe from crazy drivers available, think about your safety first, even if that means taking a day or two off.

If you do have a safe place to run, next consider what you need to do for traction. Are you dealing with snow, ice or both? If you’re dealing with just snow, trail running shoes (cross country flats are an option if you’re a minimalist) with good off-road tread should handle the snow well. If you’re dealing with ice, consider something metal on the bottom of your shoe that will cut into the ice and give you some traction is very useful. The screw shoe is a very effective and cost-efficient option. You can also look up YakTrax or other similar slip-on traction tools. At least in Wisconsin, most sporting goods stores or department stores with sporting goods departments have these in stock during the winter months. A final option for the minimalists is to buy a pair of rubber soled cross country spikes. I’ve been using a pair of Saucony Kilkenny spikes the past two winters and they have worked amazingly well. They are also great for snow on top of ice because the spikes work on the ice and the tread is good for the snow.

If the snow is falling or blowing when you are heading out for a run, the next thing you need to think about is visibility. If you have lights for visibility while running in the dark, use them. If you don’t, dressing for visibility in a snowstorm is a little different. Dark or very bright colors that will contrast with whiteout conditions are best. Black, red, orange, colors like that.

Once you’ve figured out what to wear, all that’s left is figuring out where and how to run. If you have a speed workout planned, forget about it. Plan to be slower and, if necessary, plan to go a little shorter. Just get out and log the miles. As for direction, it’s best if you can start into the wind and return with it. Be careful on turns and avoid dangerous situations, especially anything involving cars. Remember, even if you are acting completely safely, you can’t be assured that the driver in the car going past you is doing the same. Have an escape plan and watch the cars as they pass to make sure you can get out of the way if you see them starting to slide.

Have fun out there! Running through a snow storm or in fresh snow after a storm can be a very fun experience if you take a few precautions and approach it with the right mindset.

Modern shoes don’t need to be broken in

This article was originally posted by Ryan at the original HillRunner.com Blogs.

I’ve been trying to think of the "perfect" topic for my first blog post. If I keep waiting for that, I’ll never post on here so let’s set the bar low.

When I first started running, I always heard that your running shoes wouldn’t feel great straight out of the box. You need to break them in before they would feel great. Then, I found the perfect shoe for me. It felt great right out of the box and never lost that great feeling, even after far more miles than you’re "supposed" to get on a pair of shoes. I’d even buy a new pair, take them straight out of the box and lace them up for a long run. Yes, the first time my shoes would go on my feet, I’d be heading out the door for 90+ minutes of running. Ahh, high school days. Back when you could get away with naivete. This is something I don’t do any more but I still know if I’ve found the right pair of shoes for me as soon as it comes out of the box.

Modern running shoes aren’t what older models used to be. They are made out of soft, flexible materials. They are pliable and well fitted right out of the box. They aren’t stiff and firm and the materials won’t "soften up" as shoes from a few decades ago would with time. If a pair of shoes doesn’t feel good on your feet right out of the box these days it’s probably because they aren’t made for your type of foot.

So what do you do about this? Well, find the best fitting pair of shoes. Go to a specialty store. They should take a look at the structure of your foot. They should determine whether your feet are straight or curved, whether you have high or low arches, whether your feet are narrow or wide. Then they should be able to find a few pairs of shoes that generally match the structure of your shoes and have you try them all on. One of these pairs of shoes will probably feel pretty natural on your feet and you just found your shoes.

What if you don’t find that "just right" fit? You could keep looking. Maybe you’ve exhausted your options, though. In that case, take the best you can find. Maybe they will "break in" and you’ll feel better down the line. Whatever the case, don’t believe that a shoe has to feel bad right out of the box. Chances are the shoes that feel the best right out of the box are the best shoes for you.