Sunday, September 12, 2010

The 'Falling Forward' Technique

Today I ran four hours on the Falling Waters Trail starting in Jackson and going out to Concord and back. A little over ten miles one way, so about twenty-one miles. I didn't mean to go quite so far, since I've signed up for a 50K in two weeks, I thought I'd just go out for three hours. But, the weather was great, a cool day with the sun out, the trees just starting to turn, running by lakes and through forest. At my pre-determined time turn around time, I just thought, 'Aw, what's another half-hour out to Concord?' I was feeling good, in part maybe from having a decent night's sleep, and a breakfast of chia seeds with peach slices and some almonds.

I think though, that I was feeling good because of how fast I was going. Even though I've been running barefoot for over a year now, I'm still experimenting, and my main experiment this summer has been the 'falling forward' technique that Barefoot Ken Bob explained at his seminar in Okemos (see previous post). Jason Robillard also talks about this in his Barefoot Runners Handbook (see another previous post for a review, though he now has a new expanded edition).

I'll back up by giving a brief explanation of the barefoot running stride, at least as I understand it. I am by no means the originator of the idea. Ken Bob and Jason talk about this, and it can be considered common knowledge in the barefoot running scene. Instead of 'pushing off' with the feet, like shod runners do, I've been working on the technique of 'lifting' my foot. It may seem like a matter of semantics, but the effect really does make a difference, and makes for a much softer landing (I can't even call it a foot 'strike' like shod runners use, since my feet land fairly softly). The pace should be fairly quick, and I start off, as recommended by Ken Bob, by just standing in place and lift my feet to a 180/190 pace (about the beat of a fast paced pop song). By concentrating on lifting each foot, the other foot just naturally comes down softly.

Another key point: Keeping my knees bent. After seeing Ken Bob and how low he goes, I try and do something similar. This doesn't initially feel 'natural' but feels more and more so, the more I do it.

After that, the idea is to keep that pace, and just lean your body forward. The feet naturally just move in a forward motion to keep the body upright. They actually make almost a little circle: Once the foot lands, the body is moving, so when the foot is raised, it automatically pulls forward a little as it comes up. With enough lean, and maintaining a good fast lifting pace, the body scoots fairly quickly forward. Seeing Barefoot Ken Bob demonstrate this was amazing. His upper body and torso don't appear to be doing any work at all.

Nevertheless, I've found that, left to myself, when I zone out on a run, I tend to run fairly slowly. When I do do the 'falling forward lean' I've felt that my feet were 'hitting' harder, and that this was hurting my feet. But, as I've been experimenting, I've come to think that it's been more of a question of technique. When I really relax my whole body (easier said than done!) I seem to run fairly quickly. I think the relaxing part is key. If I'm running stiff, with my body tensed, I think THAT actually causes me to 'strike' with my feet rather than lift. As I've been experimenting, I've been able to fall into my groove, when my body feels relaxed, my feet are moving fairly quickly, to the point where I can feel my heart rate go up, which makes me think that leaning forward increases my pace.

Giving a lean still feels a bit unnatural, and I've found that for trail running I run a little slower, in upright position, because I just don't like running that fast over trails with lots of pokey things. But on pavement and cement, when everything is clear, I can go pretty quick. But I do have to concentrate on leaning forward, and it's surprising how much just leaning forward an inch (or so it feels) can change my pace.

As my mind wanders and I go into my zone, my natural inclination is to lean back, torso straight, and this does feel good, and gives me a slow mellow run. So, the longer the run, the harder it is to stay concentrating on leaning forward. But I think I'm getting better. My evidence: Last time I ran out to Concord and back, it took me 4.5 hours. This time, while really working on the falling-forward technique, I did it in four hours on the dot. There are other factors, surely, but I really feel I upped my speed considerably, without feeling that much more exhausted. Since the feet are, ideally, lifting up at the same rate, torso straight or leaning forward, I should be technically expending the same amount of energy. But like I said, if my heart rate goes up when 'falling forward,' that sounds like I am actually running at a faster pace.

It's seems odd that I have such a hard time relaxing while running, and having to concentrate on relaxing seems almost like a type of oxymoron, but my hope is that, as I continue to practice, my relaxed, leaning forward zone, will come easier.

Just another reminder that, at least running barefoot, every run is still an experiment, still a new experience. That's why I like it!

Coming soon: My Woodstock 50K experience!