Barefoot Running

One of my biggest pet peeves is the phrase “proper running form.” I can’t stand it. Why? Because it implies that there’s only one correct way to run, and nothing could be further from the truth. Even worse, it implies that good running form is defined by how the stride looks, which further implies that the most effective way to improve the running stride is to consciously endeavor to make it look a certain way. Again, nothing could be further from the truth.

Studies have shown repeatedly that when runners are asked to consciously alter their natural stride to make it look more “textbook,” they become less, no more, efficient. The well-known POSE Method is all about trying to make the stride look a certain way. A 2005 study led by George Dallam of Colorado State University-Pueblo found that 12 weeks of supervised training in the POSE Method left a group of eight experienced triathletes with less efficient strides.

The issue is that good running form is determined not by how the stride looks but by how hard a runner’s brain has to work to generate and sustain a given running velocity. This might sound weird, but it’s actually how skill in any motor activity, from archery to drumming, is defined. The more skilled you are in a given activity, the quieter your brain is when you do it. Conscious efforts to make the stride look a certain way are counterproductive because they unnecessarily increase the amount of brain activity required to run.

Okay, so where does this leave us? If the monkey-see-monkey-do approach to running more efficiently doesn’t work, what does?

Practice is the number-one factor. How do you get better at juggling? You juggle. It’s the same with running. Throughout every run you do, your brain is in constant communication with proprioceptive nerves in every part of your body, looking for ways to trim waste from the motor program it uses for running. This process is unconscious, automatic, and highly effective. In a 2012 study, Sharon Dixon of the University of Exeter in England measured changes in a number of stride features as well as changes in running economy in a group of 10 beginner female runners. These women trained for 10 weeks without any technique instruction. They just ran. During that period their running economy improved by 8.4 percent.

There is evidence that, although this process does slow down, it never stops. Indeed, ongoing, practice-based improvements in stride efficiency are probably the main driver of performance gains in runners who have already maxed out their aerobic capacity and other major fitness components. A 2011 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire compared various fitness measurements and also running economy in runners representing three different age ranges: 18 to 39, 40 to 59, and over 60. Unsurprisingly, they found that VO2max, maximal heart rate, maximal speed, strength, and power all declined with age. But guess what? Running economy did not. And because factors such as muscle strength contribute to running economy, these findings suggest that, on a neural level, the oldest runners were actually more efficient than the younger ones.

In short, efficient running comes from experience, and experience takes time. There are certain ways to accelerate the process of becoming a more efficient runner, however. One such method is uphill interval training. A 2013 study led by Kyle Barnes of the Sports Performance Research Institute New Zealand found that six weeks of high-intensity uphill interval training improved running economy by an average of 2.4 percent in a group of well-trained runners. It has been speculated that uphill interval training serves as a kind of movement-specific strength training that enhances the springiness of the legs.

Springiness? Yes, the human body operates as a spring during running, and just as a pogo stick with a stiff spring will bounce higher than a pogo stick with a loose spring, a runner with greater leg stiffness is able to capture more of the “free energy” that rebounds from the ground into the foot after impact and use it to propel forward motion. Certain forms of strength training (particularly high-load weightlifting involving the legs) have been shown to improve running economy specifically by increasing leg stiffness on impact. Plyometrics training (i.e., jumping exercises) are also effective in this regard. A 1999 study by Leena Paavolainen and colleagues that reported significant improvements in 5K race times and in running economy after nine weeks of plyometric training also found a significant reduction in ground contact time, lending support to the spring theory. 

Core strength training has been shown to enhance running economy in a slightly different way. Efficient running depends partly on efficient transfer of forces between the upper body and lower body. (This is one reason it’s essential to move your arms in opposition to the legs when you run). Core strength training aids this transfer and may also mitigate the negative effect of trunk muscle fatigue on running economy. A 2019 study appearing in the journal PLoS One reported that eight weeks of core strength training reduced oxygen consumption at a moderate running velocity by 4.6 percent in a group of college athletes.

Related to plyometrics are form drills—high knees, butt kicks, and so forth—which isolate and intensify certain elements of the stride. There is no scientific proof that doing form drills regularly has any beneficial impact, but the fact that they are almost universally practiced by elite runners says something. What you will discover if you do practice form drills regularly is that you aren’t very good at them initially but you get better over time. This improvement almost has to translate back to your running. And even if you can’t measure the effect, you can certainly feel it. Runners who make the effort to master form drills often report feeling more athletic.

Another proven way to improve running economy is barefoot running. When you run without shoes, you run differently. And if you do enough barefoot running, some of those differences transfer back to shod running. A small 2013 study conducted at the University of New Hampshire found that a 10-week barefoot run training program improved running economy by 4 percent.

Barefoot running has drawbacks, however. It’s impractical and even dangerous in many environments and requires a long period of adaptation that can be highly disruptive to the flow of training. An alternative to barefoot running that may offer the same benefits without the disadvantages is a clever little product called ShoeCue. ShoeCue is a unique, textured insole that fits inside any running shoe and works by enhancing proprioceptive feedback from your feet to your brain during running. Essentially, ShoeCue tells your brain when you’re landing too hard, allowing you to adjust your stride automatically as you go. 

One final method of accelerating the process of becoming a more skillful runner is cadence manipulation. Each runner has a natural stride rate that tends to gradually increase with fitness and experience. As a general rule, it’s best not to interfere with this process, particularly if the interference involves forcing yourself to consciously think about your step rate. But there is a way to get a little practice at a slightly higher step rate that may soon be natural for you without turning your attentional focus inward, and that’s by running with a metronome set at 110 percent of your natural stride rate and matching your steps to the beat.

It’s best to do these “cadence runs” on a treadmill, as there is a natural tendency to speed up when trying to achieve a higher stride rate. Step one is to download a metronome app onto your smartphone. Next, hop onto a treadmill, start running at your normal easy pace, and adjust the tempo of the metronome to match your step rate. Now increase the metronome tempo by 10 percent, adjust your step rate to match it, and complete the run at this higher cadence. Do this one a week or so.

As you see, there are ways to become a more skillful runner, they just don’t include trying to look like Genzebe Dibaba when you run.

American diet culture has been macronutrient-obsessed for decades, and I’ve been exasperated by this obsession since I first started paying attention to it in the late 1990s. During this period, efforts to identify the “best” diet and the “right” way to eat have been narrowly focused on carbohydrate, fat, and protein. Which of these calorie sources are “good”? Which are “bad”? What is the optimal balance of macronutrients for health and fitness?

The reason these never-ending debates exasperate me is that it has been obvious to me from the beginning that, despite the disparate conclusions the various diet schools have came to, they all rest on the same false premise, which is that healthy eating is defined by macronutrients. Well it’s not. A healthy diet can be high- or low-carb, high- or low-fat, and high- or low-protein. To define healthy eating on the basis of the diet’s macronutrient composition is to bark up the wrong tree.

So, if macronutrients don’t matter, then what does? Quality. In the general public, the concept of quality as it relates to food is typically associated with grades of fineness, as in, “This is a high-quality cut of beef.” But nutrition scientists define quality differently. Simply put, a high-quality food type is one that is broadly associated with positive health outcomes and a high-quality diet is a diet that combines high-quality food types in a way that minimizes the risk for all diseases and conditions that have a dietary connection and maximizes longevity and other indices of good health.

What epidemiological diet research has consistently shown is that all of the food types that are commonly consumed by humans all over the world are good for us, but only when they are consumed in natural, unprocessed forms. Vegetables are good, fruit is good, nuts and seeds and plant oils are good, whole grains are good, dairy is good, and unprocessed meats and seafood are good. Processed versions of all of these foods, such as fried potatoes, are bad.

I must confess that I do enjoy it when a major scientific study comes along to validate my position and shatter the ideologies of folks like anti-carb zealot Gary Taubes who think it’s all about macronutrients. And it’s even more enjoyable when the study that does so was initiated by Gary Taubes himself!

The specific study I’m referring to is the latest in a series called the DIETFITS Randomized Clinical Trial. What’s distinctive about the study is that, although it was funded by Taubes’s Nutrition Science Initiative, which is on a mission to prove that high-fat, low-carb (HFLC) diets are healthier than other diets, it was very well designed and executed and in no way put its thumb on the scale (so to speak) to favor HFLC.

A large subject pool consisting of 609 overweight adults was separated into two groups and placed on one of two diets for 12 months: high-fat low-carb or low-fat high-carb. Importantly, though, both diets were high quality, meaning that whether they restricted fat or carbs, all of the subjects ate mostly unprocessed foods. Also, calories were not restricted, and therefore any differences in outcomes between the two diets would be directly attributable to their macronutrient composition.

The purpose of the study was to compare the effects of the two diets on insulin levels and body weight. Taubes’s pet theory is that carbohydrate causes obesity by flooding the body with insulin, which promotes fat storage. This theory would predict that the HFLC group would exhibit reduced insulin secretion and greater weight loss, with a strong correlation between these two outcomes.

That’s not how it worked out. At the end of the 12-month intervention, weight loss was significant and about equal in the two groups, with members of the low-carb group shedding just over 13 pounds, on average, and members of the low-group group dropping a little less than 12 pounds. While individual weight loss differed drastically within both groups, there was no relationship between changes in insulin secretion and weight loss in either group. In short, everything that supporters of the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis of obesity would have expected to happen (other than weight loss within the low-carb group) didn’t happen.

There are two possible explanations for these results. One possibility is that both diets produced equal amounts of weight loss for completely different reasons—that, in other words, reduced fat intake caused weight loss via one mechanism and reduced carbohydrate intake caused weight loss via another. The other possibility is that factors common to both diets caused weight loss across groups. While the first possibility can’t be ruled out, the second possibility is much more plausible. Energy intake decreased markedly and equally in both groups despite the absence of explicit calorie restrictions, suggesting that by replacing processed (low-quality) foods with unprocessed (high-quality) foods, low-carb and low-fat dieters alike were able to fill up on fewer calories.

Predictably, the unreachable tinfoil hat-wearing anti-carb crusaders out there are now racing around with their hair on fire, crying out to anyone who will listen that this study was not a fair test of the carbohydrate-insulin hypothesis because carb intake was too high among subjects in the HFLC group. It’s true that, while these subjects did start at a very low carbohydrate intake level (just 20 grams a day), their carb consumption increased over the course of the study, ending at just over half of baseline daily carb intake for all subjects. My response to this objection is twofold:

  1. It smacks of desperation and faith-based belief. Statistically, there is enough in the results of this study to demonstrate that carbs per se are not THE cause of weight gain.
  2. The reason the subjects on the HFLC diet started eating more carbs was that they found 20 grams per day unsustainable. Even if we granted that HFLC is singularly effective for weight loss in theory (which it isn’t), how effective is it really if it cannot be practiced by real people in the real world? I’m reminded of the way that, several years ago, barefoot running fanatics defended the theory that running barefoot prevents injuries against a tidal wave of injuries caused by barefoot running. Do you remember what they used to say? “Barefoot running works if you do it right. It’s just that nobody does it right.”

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