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Barefoot Running – Getting professional help

There is an increasing trend towards teaching running as a skill for non-elite athletes. This is especially popular in the sub-set of barefoot running, but what is it like to actually go to a coaching session.

Like every sport, running is a skill and as such there is a technique to running well. Despite this many runners don’t feel the need or compulsion to learn these skills. Running after all is instinctual – every child knows how to run, usually minutes after perfecting the skill of walking. Why would we need to learn to run?

Like all skills, we pick up bad habits. In the beginning, children run with fantastic form, but just like everything we do, when we become more experienced we take short cuts. We think less about the actual processes involved in the skill we are doing and as a result errors and faults appear. You just have to look at the vehicle accident rate to see that experience doesn’t necessarily mean you are able to perform a task competently.

Barefoot runners spend a lot of time learning the skill of running. We have to. If we ran with poor form then we would spend a lot of time driving — probably badly — to the nearest orthopaedic surgeon. We read books on running form. We visit forums and watch Youtube videos. We analyze, we discuss and we learn.

There is also a growing trend to seek advice from running coaches.

I was quite excited when I was invited to a group coaching session with Curb Ivanic from Core Running.  Curb has run a number of ultramarathons and has placed highly in the races he has run. He also has a number of qualifications and certifications just to add that air of respectability.

On a very wet and surprisingly cold evening I drove to Maple Ridge, B.C., and lined-up with the running group. I was quite intimidated by the “Boston Marathon” shirts all lined up. I was very much out of my league – I am a mid-pack runner who prefers distances no further than 20K. I also run without shoes.

Luckily I know Curb is a barefoot advocate. He believes that running barefoot is a good tool for teaching good running form.  I knew I wasn’t going to be on completely alien territory. Due to the cold, wet weather, running barefoot was not going to feature prominently in the coaching session.

In a lot of the literature, the main thread in teaching running form has been on teaching the A, B, C’s in some form. It’s about getting the runner to consciously think about altering their form. It’s a lot to take in and I can see why it’s hard for an experienced runner to learn these skills whilst still maintaining speed, distance and performance.

Curb still highlights the importance of being mindful to the rules of good running form, but he also tries to help the process by actively disrupting your current running style through a series of drills and then letting your body readjust automatically to a more natural running form.

It’s an intriguing concept and one I hadn’t considered before.

The drills are, to be fair, unnatural in their feel, hilarious to do and even funnier to watch. Running like John Wayne or landing as you cross your mid-line in a ‘Monty Python style’ run, without the addition of alcohol, is very entertaining.

By using drills to alter our cadence and confusing our normal form, it is hoped that our natural form – the form we have as children – will kick in.

The drills also loosen up the tight muscles and joints that have ceased as your body has accustomed itself to a certain way to run. This lack of dynamic movement is a significant cause of repetitive injury in runners. By highlighting where your body is having difficulty, runners should be able to work on increasing mobility and strengthening weak muscles.

They were teaching us barefoot running form and Curb was gracious enough not to pick up on some of my failings. I did find some of the drills very unnatural. Bounding seemed very alien, as my aim as I run is to glide over the surface, not push against it. However, this is probably a reason why I am a mid-packer and not winning age group awards.

It’s comforting to see that barefoot running is being used as a valid technique when teaching running form. To me it seems logical, but theory and practice very often do not go hand-in-hand.

Coaching of barefoot running and running generally is becoming increasingly popular and as we discuss the benefits of coaching in the mainstream running community, I can see a band of future runners not just running barefoot, but running faster and with less injury.