October 17, 2011

A Call To Barefoot / Minimalist Trail Runners

This is a humble request for feedback from experienced minimalist trail runners, some of which I have personally called out to, like Barefoot Ted, Daniel Dubois, Jason Robillard, Michael Sandler and Patrick Sweeney. But at this point, I’m really interested by opinions from everyone with experience. I am looking forward to reading your comments and advice.

I won’t tell you the whole story of how I got into barefoot / minimalist running, I’ve done that before. But for the sake of comprehension, I need to mention that I started barefooting to break an unending circle of injury, notably of IT Band problems. I’ve been (road) running barefoot for over two years now, with great satisfaction and success.

I rediscovered trail running this summer, while preparing for my first ultra marathon. I had somehow forgotten how incredibly better trail running is, with its added challenge and beauty, the need for constant attention and the reward of being one with nature in a very special, physical way. Awesome.


After my ultra, and even more so when I learned I would be running the Copper Canyon in 2012, I realized that my trail abilities needed to seriously improve. So I started adding at least one trail run per week, while adding to my mileage gradually. I chose trails that offer various levels of challenge, but that can all be regrouped under the category “technical”, which means they are of the “single trail” type. Not smooth, gravelled park pathways. I’m talking roots, sharp rocks, vertical drops up to 5-6 feet, rolling pebbles, riverbeds, mud pits. Below are a couple images of trails I run (Click to enlarge).

















I started hitting the trails in the same minimal shoes I ran my ultra with, the Merrell Trail Gloves. However, I quickly found they were very limited in capability, notably in terms of protection. I’d get bruises under my feet, experience severe adherence issues on slippery downhills or wet tree roots, and have a really hard time with surfaces made of sharp, protruding rocks. All these issues would get much, much worse as I would add speed to the equation.

I also had a very hard time going downhill on steep declines. This is clearly inexperience on my part, but I also think there’s more to it. After realizing I couldn’t really forefoot strike while going downhill unless I break my cadence with every step, I was advised to aim for a mid-foot landing that would allow me to use gravity to my advantage and that would stop me from hitting the ground so hard (and breaking my forward momentum) compared with my usual “barefoot” form.

So I did, and for a while, I got convinced I’d found the proper solution. I replaced my Trail Gloves with somewhat minimal La Sportiva Cross Lite and changed my downhill running technique. I gained awesome traction, a lot of confidence and I got much faster (in a mid-pack runner way, not the Patrick Sweeney way ;). All was good under the sun!

Except, Last week I did 2 hard trail runs, doubled with road trainings on the same day (the “back-to-back” technique for ultra training). My first one was 22.5km (14 miles) trail + 9km (5.5 miles) road, both at moderate pace. I took a 2-day break, then went for a 9km (5.5 miles) hard trail run (fast+technical), then went home and out for a 16km (10-mile) road run. I had to stop my road run because my knee started hurting in a way that was all too familiar – and, must I add, that I thought was gone for good. It was a slight IT Band pain. Like back in my shod days.

I gave myself 4 full days of break, then last Saturday went to a 23km (14.5-mile) vertical trail race up and down a ski resort. The knee pain came back around the summit (around the 11 mile point), and with a vengeance. When I started the last 3-mile straight downhill to the finish, the pain was really bad, I was limping and pretty much unable to run decently. Under other circumstances, I would’ve quit altogether. Anywho, I finished the race, but now my knee’s bad. And it’s IT Band.


This makes me think it’s a warning of overuse AND a sign of bad running form (probably a bit of both), coming from my intensified trail training / volume and the changes in my technique. I feel a little depressed, and back to square one. So while I ice and whine, there are many questions I want to ask you :

  • Did any of you experience similar issues?

  • Do you think this is maybe an “adjustment” my body’s doing and that it just needs time?

  • Are there barefooters / minimalist trail runners out there running shod part-time? What shoes do you use?

  • What do you specifically recommend I do, when I get back on the trails, considering the above context?

  • Am I the only one to think “performance” trail running on technical, single trail courses is impossible barefoot and extremely tricky / risky in minimalist footwear? (Also note : I’m from Canada, with seriously cold falls and winters)

  • For a barefooter / minimalist runner who gets injured the minute they wear shoes, what is the proper downhill running technique?

  • I am used to training volumes of 40km (25 miles) to 85km (53 miles) per week, on road. What should be my volume on trails?

  • Considering my ultimate goal is the Copper Canyon Ultra next March, do you have any other advice for me?

I hope I provided enough details for all this to make some sense. I also wish this can bring an interesting debate and stir ideas around a little. I find that there’s an overwhelming number of barefoot/minimal/whatever shoes that have gone out recently and pretend to be trail runners while they are far from it.


I will come back often and respond to your feedback. Thanks a lot for your time and help!





9 comments:

  1. Hey Flint, Jason here. To answer the questions:

    Q: Did any of you experience similar issues?
    A: This one is tough as I've never had ITB issues. My PT friend Scott Hadley would probably suggest it's due to tight muscles, not bad form. I would probably agree.

    Q: Do you think this is maybe an “adjustment” my body’s doing and that it just needs time?
    A: Maybe, but ITB issues usually aren't an issue when transitioning.

    Q: Are there barefooters / minimalist trail runners out there running shod part-time? What shoes do you use?
    A: I run about 70% shod, 30% barefoot... mostly for fun.

    Q: What do you specifically recommend I do, when I get back on the trails, considering the above context?
    A: This is difficult to discuss without actually seeing your form. Any advice would amount to pretty wild guessing. :-)

    Q: Am I the only one to think “performance” trail running on technical, single trail courses is impossible barefoot and extremely tricky / risky in minimalist footwear? (Also note : I’m from Canada, with seriously cold falls and winters)
    A: Not at all. I'm going to post something about this very topic... probably tomorrow.

    Q: For a barefooter / minimalist runner who gets injured the minute they wear shoes, what is the proper downhill running technique?
    A: I have had a lot of success with shortening stride, increasing cadence, and moving shoulders back about 4cm. The subtle shifting of weight makes all the difference on the knees.

    Q: I am used to training volumes of 40km (25 miles) to 85km (53 miles) per week, on road. What should be my volume on trails?
    A: Most people find trails more difficult, at least in the beginning. I'd suggest doing what feels comfortable and not follow a strict schedule.

    Q: Considering my ultimate goal is the Copper Canyon Ultra next March, do you have any other advice for me?
    A: Keep running barefoot to build trail running skills and perfect form. Read all the race reports you can from those that have run ultras in minimalist shoes. Aside from Sweeney, Dan, Ted, and I, check out Leif Rustvold and Todd Ragsdale.

    Good luck, man!

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  2. Hi Jason!

    It's been 4 days now and the pain is already pretty much gone. I haven't tried running, though, and won't for probably a week. I'll be seeing a kinesio this Friday for the ass-beating they call massage ;) Hopefully that'll do it.

    I will check out Leif Rustvold and Todd Ragsdale. And keep following you :)

    Thanks a lot for your time, man. I really appreciate it!

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  3. Hey Flint-

    Just saw this post. Sorry if the response is too late to be helpful.

    I have had your ITB issues as well and boy does it suck. It's very worrisome that you've got 'em now and you're planning an ultra in March. Traditionally, IT is not something you can train thru. To hazard a guess, I wonder if your IT is due to a spike in your training on the trails. Overall mileage is often the culprit.

    When I got over my IT issues, I did several things. These included minimalist shoes, Udo's Oil, glucosamine, and an incredibly strict regimen in regards to mileage increases. I was only adding a mile or two per month for around 6 months. There was always that urge to bust it out, but my orthopedist had made the plan quite clear, so I held back.

    As far as the minimalist shoes on trails, I live in VT, so my terrain mirrors yours quite well. I know the bruised feeling, but it gets better over time. You can do it. And I would actually argue that minimalist shoes reduce the risk of injury in many ways. For instance, you're much less likely to turn an ankle in them. That being said, I do not run in mine all the time. But over time, you learn how to manage those rocks, leaves, etc. The argument that you can't run performance in minimalist on technical trails is absolutely not true. Otherwise, how would you explain guys like Anthony Krupicka? Like anything else, it just takes practice.

    All that aside - ultimately, it's not the arrow ... it's the indian. Minimalist shoes force you to adopt the form that your body naturally would adopt. You can still do this in regular shoes, it's just a little harder, as that thick foam has a tendency to change your stride. If you're landing forefoot/midfoot, you get the advantage of the spring of tendons in your ankles/knees/hips. This advantage is the same in minimalist and regular shoes, as long as you land forefoot/midfoot. But there is pretty good evidence that some people are heel strikers naturally. That might be you. C'est la vie. Remember - it's not the shoe. It's you. You can have good form in any shoe.

    As far as volume on trails, you could run 100% trails and do well. Numerous successful ultramarathoners do just that. Although living where you do, that might not be an option. I do probably 95% of my running on trails. At least some road is probably a good idea for speed work, etc. But you need to keep in mind that 1 km road is not equivalent to 1 km trail. A good way to judge the volume on trails is by time, not distance. If your training schedule calls for 50k in a week, figure out how many hours that is on the road. If it's 6 hours, then do 6 hours worth of trail running, and don't worry about the distance. It'll be less than your road, but you should expect that. Build from there.

    Downhill running technique - this is in large part a matter of practice. First, pay close attention to what constitutes a stable surface for your feet and what does not. You cannot just put your foot anywhere, and sometimes things that seem like bad footholds are much better than you would've expected. Eventually, you will learn where you can put your feet as you fly down those hills. A quick cadence is a good idea. Try to limit braking. When you brake, you create numerous problems. Most importantly, braking introduces more friction and dramatically increases the likelihood of a slip. If you liken it to your vehicle, 90% of vehicles that slide are during braking. No braking = less friction = fewer slips. To modulate speed, use the trail. If you zig-zag down the trail, it reduces the decline, such that you can run without trying to slow down as much. Use your speed to carry you up embankments, etc., and let gravity slow you down. Reducing the braking also reduces the thrashing your quads take. Obviously, this takes practice. Don't brain yourself going too fast too early.

    Good luck to you man!

    Josh

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  4. Wow, Josh,

    That's a lot of trail wisdom. Thanks!

    Your advice comes a little late, it's true, but it brings all the more credit to what you said, because I've worked on pretty much everything you mentioned, with very good results so far.

    In essence, I've quit running for about a month to give my body time to heal. During that period, I weight trained to make my legs stronger, which proved useful in the end.

    I also stopped trying to "brain" my running (I love your expression) and let my body adapt to the trails. It is 100% true that somehow, the more running you do on technical trail, the simply better you get at it. If someone's reading this out of curiosity, I guess that's the big lesson to learn from all this : start trail running gradually and you will adapt to the terrain and technique over time.

    As a result of my experience, I now run most of the time on trails (as much as I possibly can) and I have reduced my volume to around 50K per week so far, but it's on the increase. it has to be, after all I want to run ultras :)

    I kept on weight training because I find it makes me a much stronger runner, faster and more stable.

    My Holidays will be a ramping up of my trail mileage, but will also include periods of rest to give myself time to remain explosive and energetic on my runs.

    Then it's a couple more weeks, and then... it's the Copper Canyons :)

    Thanks again for all that advice, man. It's extremely appreciated!

    Run free,

    Flint

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  5. When I read BTR a few months ago, one thing that probably most people would skip over, but which caught my attention right away, is that when the Tarahumara first went to Leadville they wanted to bring their medicine man with them, but couldn't. And their star runner developed knee problems. I've never had this type of ailment (most of my problems have been from the knee down), but I would suggest trying first, the standard yoga warmup, called the up against the wall V stretches. I won't describe that here, but it's not complicated. Second, look into your head, not entirely at your knees. You may not be able to without some help. I don't know anything specifically about the Tarahumara, but I do know a little about Indians in North America. They always consulted their medicine men before any important undertaking. And when I mention medicine men, I definitely mean the real deal, not our modern equivalent.

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  6. The more I read about you, the more I like :)

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  7. I think you're down in Mexico right now, so probably won't see this for a while, but maybe a bit more on the practical side, I've started using a vibrational therapy machine to add strength to the knees & ankles. But you have to be very careful how you use these things. Do not allow them to impact you on the heels. Stand on them with the weight on the forefoot only and with the knees relaxed a bit. I fold a towel up on the machine so that my forefeet are on the towel and my heels are off the back of it. I set the speed up all the way & do that 2-3 times a day. It gives you a lot of strength in the knees, which is helpful going downhill.

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  8. Leon,

    After running in the canyons, all signs of that injury/situation actually vanished. It seems like my ailment came from a weaker right-side glute and a fear of downhill running strong enough to have me "put on the brakes" too much, which is taxing for the knees. I lost that fear, running with The Horse, and I compensated my weaker side with strength exercises.

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