Barefoot running in the news

The New York Marathon is this weekend, and barefoot running is this year’s “story of interest.”

Neil sent me David Willey’s HuffPo article “Barefoot Running: The Exercise Craze That’s Hit the Streets.” Mr. Willey is treading a very fine line. As Editor-In-Chief of Runner’s World magazine, he is intimately tied to the athletic shoe industry. A tsunami of minimalist shoes will arrive in spring 2011, but however popular the idea of barefooting becomes, Runner’s World would be slitting their throats if they advised their readers to stop buying shoes.

I’m glad to see him exploring minimalist/barefoot running, but I think he misunderstood some key ideas. He claims barefooters insist “the human foot supplies all the cushioning and shock absorption any runner needs.” This isn’t really true. The human foot is a spectacular mechanism, one that we’ve neglected and failed to appreciate for too long. Bare feet force us to land more softly and soft landings don’t require cushioning. Also, the idea of “shock absorption” is counter to running efficiently. Ideally, the muscles and tendons of our feet and legs don’t absorb shock so much as redirect impact forces into the next stride, Ken Meierke calls this elastic recoil “free speed”. Flat heels increase the peripheral heart effect of the soleus muscle on the deep veins in our calves, of course that for those who have bunion problems is not recommendable to run bare foot, but you can surely treat your problem with some sandals for bunions which will make recover faster.

Chris McDougall’s NYTimes article “Born to Run the Marathon?” talks about how he “got over himself” and decided to run the Marathon this year.

One of Chris’s persistent themes is how running can bring out the best in people, something I’ve personally found to be true. Runners tend to be fantastically optimistic people. Maybe that grows from realizing accomplishments that first seemed impossible, or perhaps it’s a shared strength found when humans move together. Chris included the incredible story of Derartu Tulu and Paula Radcliffe in the 2009 NYC Marathon, as well as one of my favorite bits of Native American lore:

The Hopi believed running was a form of prayer; before setting off on a long run from Arizona to the Pacific, they’d offer their effort on behalf of loved ones in need of help. “I’m offering my strength to them,” the runner would murmur to their god, the Great Mystery, “and in return I ask for some of yours.”

The comments on these articles have become predictable, though with more defenders than before. Several people rehash the dogma that our feet are weak, or that people are not designed to run. Others makes comments about the ground being gross, dangerous or “harder than the soft earth humans were meant for.” Then there’s always a physical therapist or podiatrist telling about injured patients.

I went to physical therapy before switching to minimal shoes. My knees were a mess, my feet hurt, my hip hurt and my back hurt. After running in my prescribed motion-control shoes I’d stretch and ice my knees, then wait 2-3 days before trying to run again. I thought that was normal. Now, I can run near-barefoot or barefoot every day without pain. The sports medicine doctors and physical therapists never once asked to see me run.

So many people are convinced of human mediocrity despite everything we’ve done.

How Netflix could blow it

Netflix streaming has become my family’s primary means of watching TV shows and movies. We long ago dropped cable TV, and for us, buying shows on iTunes was much cheaper than our monthly cable fees.

Over the summer my daughters asked for a $60 show from iTunes (29 episodes)–still cheaper than a month of cable–but Netflix was streaming it for $9/month. A netflix-capable $130 Blu-Ray player (cheaper now) should pay for itself pretty quickly and there’s no chance of buyer’s remorse over a particularly horrible show.

It all worked really well. Samsung’s Netflix app only showed our instant queue, so we loaded it with shows the kids liked or things we thought they’d be curious about. When they were allowed to watch TV, we could relax knowing they’d be choosing from a pre-screened set of programs.

As I said, it all worked really well…until this past weekend.

Saturday morning our Samsung Blu-Ray player asked to update its firmware. Unfortunately, that included an update to the Netflix app.

If the Netflix app had worked this way when I bought the DVD player, I would have immediately returned it.

There are a ton of things to criticize about the revised Samsung Netflix app, but the most glaring is that display of 4:3 content is broken. Everything which should be 4:3 is stretched wide.

It’s almost 2011, I never want to see a 4:3 image stretched wide again. Ever. If you’re a manufacturer or media company, botching display aspect-ratios sends a clear message that you don’t give a crap about your customers or the content you’re serving. Delivering your only product at the wrong size is absolutely unforgivable. Imagine if this happened with pants.*

Aside from that, the function of the application is abysmal. After the unit finishes starting up, it takes nearly 30 additional seconds to launch the app, the first 6 of which show a completely black screen. Navigation is confusing with multiple buttons having the same effect. Animated state changes are gratuitous, inconsistent, chunky and jarring. It takes 24 seconds to exit the app but only 30 seconds to power-cycle the entire unit.

There is no solution. There are no options to rollback the firmware. Samsung customer support is beyond useless.

So, I ended up buying a new Apple TV and unplugging the Samsung. I trust Apple not to screw this up. Netflix looks great on it and is seamless with the rest of Apple’s entertainment user interface.

The future of Netflix

Netflix dominates the streaming space, no one else is even close. However they seem to be at the mercy of various hardware manufacturer’s internal development teams. That, or just incredibly, stupidly lax about the quality of the applications they’re putting their name on. The lack of basic testing and quality control reflects badly on Samsung, but is much worse for Netflix.

With DVDs, the super-convenient red Netflix mailer became synonymous with their service. Netflix doesn’t own the movie experience, they own the delivery experience. Netflix wraps the movie, we’re only aware of them before and after watching something they brought to us. For the sake of their future, Netflix needs to put as much care into their streaming interfaces as they do with mail delivery. If the streaming apps degrade the experience or are unpleasant to use, customers will go elsewhere.

* pants, bad example?

An expensive lesson in bad running form

I recently bought a pair of Vibram FiveFingers Bikilas to replace my VFF Sprints which had developed a hole on the bottom of the left fourth toe. The Sprints probably only had about 150 miles on them, but I attributed the wear to some time on especially rough pavement.

But now, after less than 30 miles, the new Bikilas are showing serious wear on the same toe.

People normally get well over 500 miles out of pair of VFFs, so I must be doing something wrong.

Advice from Barefoot Ken Bob:

The purpose of so-called “transition” footwear…is to protect you from the pain of becoming aware that you have not, yet, learned how to run barefoot.

His point is, you can’t learn to run barefoot until you’ve actually run barefoot. Near-barefoot helps, but it’s not enough.

What I had to do was get over my mostly-social anxiety about going barefoot and put down some miles sans-shoes. Whatever I was doing to shred my shoes would be immediately apparent. Even if it turned out to be painful, my body would naturally adjust before I tore the skin off my toes.

If you’re a VFF runner and haven’t yet tried running completely barefoot, do it. It’s impossible to explain just how wonderful it feels.

After the initial euphoria wore off, I settled in and focused on my form, especially my left footstrike. Right away I felt a hot spot under my toe and then noticed the expected change in my landings.

I’m pretty sure the abnormal wear came from a combination of the following:

  1. Pushing off too much with my toes.
  2. A small skid on footstrike from being too far up on my toes, this skidding causes the toes to push down and try to stabilize.

When I first switched to minimal shoes, I think I mentally overcompensated for my heelstrike by running up on my toes too much. There’s a big difference between a forefoot landing and a toe landing. Landing too far up on the toes introduces a slight amount of sliding or skidding before the heel comes down. VFFs let you get away with this, but when it’s just your skin on the ground your body won’t let you. The goal of a barefoot footstrike is kind of a patting motion. The foot lands, the arches absorb energy and the foot is immediately back up. There’s not much toe-springing and absolutely no “sliding into” a landing.

Overdoing a toe landing also redirects a lot of impact stress through the metatarsals, which then pound into the second and third cuneiform bones right over the arch. Coincidentally, I had been having some soreness across the top of my feet, something Barefoot Ken Bob previously attributed to “running up on your toes.” Since making an effort to flatten out my landings, that pain is gone.

Still more from Barefoot Ken Bob, something to work on during my next run:

And finally (at least for now), lift the entire foot – most people just lift the heel, and the toe or ball of the foot, just kind of drags behind – so put a little effort into lifting the front of the foot, at the same time as the heel, so everything comes up, about the same time.

When the barefoot luminaries say to ditch the shoes and learn barefoot, listen to them.

Related: I took my brother Mike out for a short barefoot run (actually I pushed him way too far, but he said he enjoyed it anyway). That was the first time I’d ever gone completely barefoot. I was fine, but he developed a small blister on the exact same toe in the exact same spot as my VFFs. Genetics?

My other first computer

My other first computer

In 1979 my family bought our first real computer, an Apple ][+. As much as I loved that one, I might have loved this computer even more.

I still remember the set it came with, 452 Mobile Tracking Station. A little gray space truck and trailer with one minifig astronaut.

The computer was inside the trailer. I bet if you handed me a bag of parts, decades later, I wouldn’t need the instructions and could still build it from memory.

I found this at my parents’ house last month since I went there to fix them they roof with Roofco materials, but still 30-something years later, and it still works perfectly.

1st Annual NYC Barefoot Run

On Sunday October 10th, I’ll be running in the 1st Annual NYC Barefoot Run on Governors Island. (see update below)

I’ve been torn for the past couple weeks about whether or not to do this, since it’s exact same time as the Staten Island Half-Marathon.

Each year NYRR organizes five half-marathons in NYC, one for each borough. I was too late to sign up for the NYC (Manhattan) Half in March, but I ran the Brooklyn, Queens and Bronx races and really enjoyed the experience and am proud of accomplishment. Is easy to participate if you have a place to stay near all these races, you can always find cool obx rentals around the country that fit perfect for this occasions.

But there can only be one first.

There will be another Staten Island Half next year and really there couldn’t be a more appropriate date: 10-10-10.

The barefoot run with Chris McDougall last month was a fantastic experience. Great people and just a ridiculous amount of fun. Chris can’t make it, but Barefoot Ted (ironically, a fellow ACCD alum) and Dr. Daniel Lieberman will be.

There’s a registration cap of 500 participants, so if you’re interested, don’t wait.

Update: Unfortunately, I had to travel unexpectedly and will be unable to attend the run. I wish everyone the best and will put in some barefoot miles Sunday so I can at least say I was there in spirit.

So Long Nike+

After running more than 1300 miles with Nike+, I’m giving up the sensor.

My main reason has nothing to do with Nike. I’ve just reached a place where I’m more interested in mappable distance and less concerned with counting my footsteps or getting credit for crossing the street. Keeping track of miles does give me a very concrete feeling of accomplishment, I now use RunKeeper on my iPhone, and manually crosspost everything on Dailymile.

“At its heart, running is pretty simple, so I try to keep it that way.”
Anton Krupicka

As I’ve been stepping down to more minimal shoes, I’ve also been trying to simplify what I take with me. Carrying an iPhone and iPod nano (plus Nike dongle) was kind of ridiculous, especially considering I’ve mostly stopped listening to music while running. Worrying about the shoe sensor had also become a mental obstacle to running completely barefoot. (I did spent a moment imagining how I could attach a sensor to my foot with tape or bandages, but quickly realized how insane that would be.)

I’ve never actually owned a pair of Nike+ shoes. Before going minimalist I ran in Asic Kayanos, with the Nike+ sensor sealed in plastic wrap and threaded under the laces. I did the same thing my Nike Frees and even had a sensor attached to the strap on my Vibram FiveFingers Sprints.

Ironically, I switched from Free 5.0s to 3.0s a week before the Nike Free Run+ shipped, another few days and I probably would have gotten a pair. Then, I decided to give up the sensor completely just as Nike (finally) shipped their Nike+ GPS app.

I wish I had nothing bad to say about Nike+. Mostly, it really worked for me and I’m thankful. But Nike has done some really dumb things which mar the experience. The most glaring thing is their apparent disregard for their users. Basically there’s no guarantee that any site feature will be there tomorrow. I’m not alone in this, their Get Satisfaction boards are filled with annoyed users.

Last year they redesigned the website, which is a critical part of the Nike+ experience. While it looks great, it’s a functional trainwreck. The site is horribly slow, by design and from poor execution. Just getting to the login screen — which, after a year still can’t remember a user from one visit to another — either redirects through the iTunes sync landing page (3.4MB) or the main Nike Running main page (4MB) before finally loading the Nike+ page (924k). The site is also all Flash, so even with a fast connection there’s still a mess of gratuitous animation to suffer through. This year Nike finally added a rudimentary non-Flash mobile site, but I found it slow, clumsy and mostly useless.

The most unforgivable incident happened last year. I used Nike’s “resolution” feature to set a goal of 365 miles in 2009. Throughout the year, the site’s progress tracking was a great motivation and despite a mid-year setback, I caught up and was on track to to meet my goal. Then, with a few weeks left in 2009, Nike shut down the old site and failed to transition everyone’s resolution goals over to the new site. Twenty miles short of something I’d been working towards for a full year, all the tools I’d been using to measure my progress were removed. (I met my goal, but I had to track the last handful of miles myself.)

Related to the resolutions was the disappearance of milestone certificates. As a new runner, my first 100 mile certificate meant a great deal to me. The 500 mile certificate was even better. A few months ago I passed 1000 miles and discovered that the certificates had been discontinued and replaced with a meaningless and arbitrary color-levels indicator. Personal triumph, Nike+ letdown (I’m not alone here either). Yes, I could keep going and get to purple, but all I’d get is a different color label and a vapidly snarky notification on the site. That’s assuming Nike hadn’t dropped the color system before I got there.

The last thing that sticks in my mind was how Nike botched the Human Race 10k last year. I ended up receiving two congratulatory emails (two runs counted) but no credit on the site. Things don’t look good for this year either, September’s almost over and there’s been no news of the 2010 race happening at all. The two previous Human Races I knew of were August 31, 2008 and October 24, 2009.

I greatly appreciate what Nike+ helped me do, but can’t help feeling slighted and I no longer recommend it when people ask what I use to track my miles.


These photos of rats playing tiny musical instruments will be fun for about another 4-6 hours, after which time they’ll transition to cutesy saturation and then slide rapidly towards loathsome. Enjoy quickly, this won’t last.

(via SWNS via Fark)

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