Running the Culham Trail yesterday with friends Peter B. and Phil M. (Photo by Nicole M.)
Sometimes learning new stuff can turn your life around. At least parts of it…
Sometime ago, I began looking at stuff from MovNat. It’s a way of looking at fitness based on natural movement. It is, as the MovNat website says, “a physical education and fitness system based on the full range of natural human movement abilities. These include the locomotive skills of walking, running, jumping, balancing, crawling, climbing, and swimming. In addition we practice the manipulative skills of lifting, carrying, throwing, and catching. How we move is how we train.”
As much as I like a good gym workout, I found that, once I began to incorporate MovNat workouts into my life – and very soon into my daily life – I felt much better about fitness exercising. (I’m basically a lazy person. I run a lot, but that’s because running is easy. And exercising – for me, anyway – isn’t.) Soon I found myself doing bear crawls around the living room, going up and down the stairs on all fours, and lifting heavy things just for fun. The logical next step was to make my own MovNat exercise area in my back yard.
I decided to call it my Caveman Playground.
In the photo, you can see the current version of my caveman playground. From left to right are: three rocks, placed about a meter apart, that I use for taking single-leg steps. Because the rocks are uneven, landing on them, and stepping off to the next one, requires and develops good balance. As I get more confident, I’ll progress to jumping from one rock to another with both feet. Later, as my skill levels improve, I’ll move the rocks further apart. In the middle of the photo are three rocks which I use for lifting, for squats, for waist carries, and for arm and shoulder exercises. One of these three (and all of the stepping-stone rocks) I found half-buried at the edges of my back yard; the other two I found by the side of the road about 500 meters from my house, and carried home. On the right of the photo is the trunk of a tree that I’d cut down earlier in the summer while clearing the back yard. I use the tree trunk for a MovNat exercise called “push press,” which involves holding the end of the trunk at chest height with both hands and pushing it above my head a number of times.
As well as what you see here my backyard workouts now include dead hangs from a branch of the apple tree at the back of the garden, bear crawls in the grass, and some tentative climbing of a big Russian olive tree. (“Tentative” because I never climbed trees as a kid, and I’m still very much averse to heights.) I do all of the moves barefoot.
Instead of going to a gym and doing repetitive movements with weights and machines, what I’m doing now is incorporating MovNat skills into my daily life.
As someone has said of my playground, “It’s a gym, it’s outdoors, and it’s for free!” All to the good, as far as I’m concerned.
Right now, all of this is quite enough for me. My Caveman Playground invites creativity and exploration, as I discover each time I get into it. That being said, I’d like to expand it to include a long log for balance walks, and an obstacle course of long branches and tree trunks leaning up against other trees. (I also have a fantasy of creating a babbling brook through which to walk while carrying one of the big boulders… But that’s probably a bit of a stretch.)
And perhaps, eventually, I’ll even add some caveman art to my playground.
Like most runners, I’m fascinated with the performance side of the sport. For me, though, that’s less about getting faster and setting new PBs than it is about learning how my body works and how to make it work better. Sure, that often translates into getting quicker, but, more importantly, it’s about running longer, stronger, and more easily. (It also informs the mental and psychological side of running, but that’s a topic for another post.) The result is that I always find myself engaged in an ongoing experiment to see what changes I can make in what I do and how I do it.
Currently, that means looking at how I can incorporate a ketogenic diet into my training. It’s a journey that’s already paid huge benefits, even though I’ve only been at it a short time. It’s a complex topic too, so there’s still much to learn, both about the nutritional science behind it and about how I can apply the learnings to my training.
A ketogenic diet, simply put, is a high-fat, adequate-protein, very low-carb diet. (You can find a lengthy article about it on Wikipedia.) A typical ketogenic meal includes a small amount of protein, a source of natural fats, and some green leafy vegetables. It’s a “good health” diet for anyone. For runners and other athletes, though, there’s a very big plus – reducing carbs and increasing fat and protein switches your body into fat burning mode. Burning fat rather than glucose results in more energy, greater endurance, and fewer (or no) bonks. As if that weren’t enough, keto means better overall health, effective weight loss and management, and building a muscular, healthy body. Hey, what’s not to like?
Eating ketogenic means keeping to a ratio of fat, protein, and carbs that looks like this:
It also, as a matter of course, means avoiding sugar. Sugar means insulin spikes, which initiate cravings for carbs. Insulin spikes also mean that fat isn’t used as fuel, but stored in the body. Include sugar in your diet, and you’re automatically putting on weight, however much exercise you get. Eliminate sugar from your diet, and you lose weight. It’s that simple.
Here’s what that looks like on a graph (taken from Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint):
For runners, it’s also a matter of how your body fuels. Sugar means glycogens, and using glycogen as fuel means you’re on a constant energy roller-coaster. You get an energy spike, it drops, you do some more glycogen (a gel or a sports drink), it spikes again, it drops again, and so on and so on. If you start your run fasting, as I now do, you go quickly into using fat as fuel. It’s a more even-burning fuel, it lasts longer, and it doesn’t spike. Translation: I can run farther and more easily when I run on fat than when I run on glycogen. As a refinement of all this, I no longer use any sweeteners at all – not sugar, not honey, not even stevia. The only sugars I consume come from fruits, such as an occasional orange, apple, or banana – and I eat far fewer of those than I used to.
None of this means, though, that I’m depriving myself. (Trust me, I don’t do that.) I’m eating better than I ever have before. We now buy all our meat, chicken, and eggs from a small butcher shop called Marbled Meats in Oakville, Ontario. Tom Stasiuk, the shop’s owner, offers fresh product that is 100% natural, free range, and locally sourced from Ontario family farms. We buy some of our vegetables and fruit from a local farmer’s market, and the rest from a supermarket. We eat whole-fat butter, yogurt, cheese, and milk (goat milk for me, as I don’t like the taste of cow’s milk.) We eat no processed food at all. Consequently, our meals – all of them – are tasty, nutritious, and freshly-cooked.
The ketogenic diet isn’t new. Far from it, in fact. Our ancestors ate a ketogenic diet, or one very like it. The fellows in the photo above certainly do, and our grandparents probably did too. Dr. Robert Atkins first wrote about a low-carb diet in 1958. More recently, Dr. Tim Noakes, the famed author of Lore of Running, has converted to a ketogenic diet, and has espoused its effectiveness. Mike Morton, Ultra Running magazine’s Ultra Runner of the year, a 24-Hour World Champion, winner of the 2012 Badwater 135 miler, and the winner of the Western States 100 miler in 1997, is a ketogenic runner.
And there’s growing evidence of the benefits of a ketogenic diet for overall health, ranging from prevention/slowing of Alheimer’s to effectiveness in dealing with cancer to weight loss/management. For more info on these topics, see the very informative Ketogenic Diet Resource site. For more about a ketogenic approach to general health, check out Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple or The Harcombe Diet. (The latter is ketogenic in all but name. It offers the added twist of advising that – for weight loss, anyway – not to mix fat meals and carb meals. Trust me, it’s good advice!) And for something keto that relates specifically to running, have a look at RunKeto, which chronicles the ketogenic training of four ultra runners. It’s all good, believe me. Very, very good indeed.
I’ll post more about my ketogenic training program, as I continue to train for my 2013 goal race, the Vulture Bait 50K Trail Race. For now, I’ll continue to run fasted, eat ketogenic, and build up my distances. Stay tuned!
I’ve been lax about posting here. Sorry about that.
Not that I haven’t been busy. I started training in mid-June for my fall goal race, the Vulture Bait 50K, and am currently heading for my very first trail race, the Iroquoia Trail Test 18K, on August 17. “Training” means running in a more-or-less disciplined way (set distances, target paces, etc.) five days a week, with two serious rest days each week. I’ve also started to do thrice-weekly weight sessions at the local YMCA.
I’m becoming a better, stronger runner in the process. At least I hope so.
Oh yeah, and I have a life outside of running, too. Honestly, I do!
It’s always fun to find a new video about barefoot running. This one comes from a source I hadn’t expected – the Guardian (UK) website’s life style section.
In it, barefoot running expert Ben Le Vesconte talks to Adharanand Finn, author of Running With the Kenyans, and runner Kate Carter at the VivoBarefoot Clinic in Farringdon, central London. After analysing their current running techniques, Ben teaches them the basics of barefoot running, giving them simple exercises to help change their rhythm, posture, and overall style.
It’s a very informative video. A good explanation of why barefoot running works, and, better still, an excellent guide to how to achieve good running form. Highly recommended!
Check it out by clicking here.
I often find a theme, motif, or meditation topic that will carry me through a particular period in my running program. A few years ago, it was Jiddu Krishnamurti’s statement that “Truth is a pathless land.” This past year, it was about sorting through my experience of being an Aspie. Looking at – and experiencing – my running through such lenses is a good way of gaining new insights and learnings, and almost always informs the rest of my life as well.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about the running I’ll do this summer, both “free” running and as training for the Vulture Bait 50K Ultra I’ll do in October. I’ve also been reading the Guidebook to Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, which has introduced me to the Taoist concept of the uncarved block.
The Chinese character p’u, often translated as “the uncarved block,” refers to a state of pure potential which is the mind’s primordial condition before the arising of experience. The Taoist concept of p’u points to perception without prejudice, i.e., beyond dualistic distinctions such as right/wrong, good/bad, black/white, beautiful/ugly. It’s said to be a state of mental unity which places the Taoist practitioner into alignment with the Tao.
Seen through this lens, our potential is what we might be, and reality is the shape we actually carve out for ourselves. The metaphor suggests that each of us is born with a personality like an uncarved block of wood. Ideally, we want to leave our shape untouched and unformed, so that we can experience life fully. But everything we experience and all that we’re taught carves away pieces of that original simplicity. Taoists try to regain the early sense of unlimited possibility by trying to “unlearn” things until everything becomes a new experience.
That’s what I want to do this summer.
With the Mississauga Half Marathon done, I can now go back to more free running, at least until it’s time to start training seriously for the Vulture Bait. Or perhaps – just perhaps – I can use the concept of the uncarved block to blend training and free-form running into a harmonious unity. That might, in fact, be a very appropriate way to train for a 50K ultra.
Summer’s a big deal for me. It’s when my weekly distance goes up, I get to wear as little as possible while running, and training needs recede and free-form running takes over. All that lends itself very nicely to incorporating the concept of the uncarved block into my runs.
During the coming months, I’ll run – both barefoot and my Soft Star Moc3s – on the roads, on some trails, and on an indoor track. That’ll be a nice mix, and will keep things from getting stale. Better still, it’ll provide me with a lot of different contexts from which to explore this uncarved block thing. It’ll help immensely that it’ll be my kind of weather – warm to hot, mostly sunny, and a little bit humid. That will relax my muscles and free up my head, so that I can run freely and in peace. I will happily get into total lizard mode.
I’m looking forward to this part of the journey!
Once again, I’ve run afoul of the law. Literally.
It happens three times or so each year. I’m out for a happy barefoot run, when, all of a sudden, a police car swoops to the side of the road beside me, lights flashing. A window is rolled down, and I hear the ominous words…
“Excuse me, sir.”
This morning (the first nice day we’ve had in a long time, I might add), I was enjoying a short, easy-paced barefoot run around my local ring road. About 2K from home, not one, but two, cop cars came to a rather sudden stop beside me. Flashing lights, cruisers angled against the curb so they were actually blocking traffic, and very quickly a cop standing on either side of me while I was questioned.
Yes, you’ve got the picture. A white-haired gent in running clothes (but no shoes!), and two young, well-muscled cops, complete with guns and flak jackets. Said older gent being questioned about why he’s running without shoes, where he lives, if he’s ever been injured. etc. Evidently, a “concerned citizen” had phoned in a report that he/she had seen “a man running without shoes,” and the cops had to come by to ensure the public’s safety.
One of the cops even called in an ID on his onboard laptop, I guess to make sure I wasn’t some sort of known criminal. While he did so, the other cop stood just off to my side, hand resting casually on his holstered gun. Maybe he was afraid I’d make a break for the nearest traffic light, or go berserk in the way that barefoot runners are known to. I’ll call the image to mind again – a 64 year-old, 144 lb. runner, barefoot, clad in tights, a long-sleeve running shirt, and a bandanna, in between two thirty-something, 180-or-so lb. cops in street armour, with weapons at the ready. Right, I’m so dangerous.
Other runners get waved at or chased by dogs – I get hassled by interfering busybodies and the state’s paramilitaries. This happens all too often – and I’m hugely, hugely pissed off by it. Just sayin’, that’s all.
Exactly 14 days from today, I’ll fly from my home near Toronto, Ontario to Sarasota, Florida. Two days after that, I’ll run the Sarasota Half Marathon. It’ll be palm trees, sunshine, and bare feet for me. And not too soon, either. It’s been a rough winter.
It’ll be a shorter visit this year than last, when I ran Sarasota for the first time. Just the common story of too many responsibilities and too little time, I’m afraid. I’ll fly down on Friday, enjoy the warmth, the company of friends, and (hopefully) the beach on Saturday, race on Sunday morning, then fly home again late Sunday afternoon. I won’t exactly spend more time flying to and from Sarasota than being there – but I expect it’s going to feel that way.
Seems a bit of a rush, you might be saying. Why all the bother, you ask. Well, I’m going to tell you.
There are the obvious reasons, of course. First of all, on March 17, when the race happens, it’ll be cold here and warm there. Second, I’ll get to run with my friends Chris G. and Marcus C. Third, it’s a nice event at my favourite race distance. On the other hand, I’ll have to endure the minor discomforts of flying, something I’m not keen on. I’m not particularly keen on hotels, either. And I’ll be away from home, which is never a preference.
So why do it at all?
You know, sometimes I wonder that myself. And wondering about it brought the realization that there’s one reason why I’ll make the effort. Let’s call it the “Long Journey” concept. If I wanted to be fancier, I’d throw out words like microcycle, mesocycle, and macrocycle – in other words, periodization. Good words all, because, deconstructed, they tell the tale, and tell it very well indeed.
The microcycle in the above graphic corresponds to my winter training. I started that on November 26, and will finish the day before the race, with a short, easy shakedown run. The mesocycle is made up of my spring races (Sarasota, Harry’s Spring Run Off 8K, and the Mississauga Half). The macrocycle is my whole 2013 training and race calendar. After the Mississauga Half (May 6), I’ll do some unstructured running until August 5, when I’ll begin training for my fall races (the Milton Half and the Scotiabank Toronto Marathon). The transitions between the parts of the long cycle are short periods when I rest a bit (sometimes only a day or so) and change gears. They’re sometimes smooth and sometimes tricky. Usually, I just have to let them happen.
So, you see, I’m going to Sarasota for the rhythm! To finish the short cycle, start the mid-cycle, and move into the long cycle. I’ll move through time and space and meaning. I’ll simply be continuing my barefoot journey. It’s all good.
Ah yes, and we mustn’t forget the palm trees. I’m partly going for the palm trees. Technically, they’re known as Arecaceae, a botanical family of perennial lianas and trees. They’re flowering plants, the only family in the monocot order Arecales. Roughly 202 genera with around 2600 species are currently known, most of them restricted to tropical, subtropical, and warm temperate climates. (Thank you, Wikipedia.) They’re one of my favourite things in the whole world. I think, when I get to Sarasota, I’m going to hug a palm tree.
It’s not about training programs, and it won’t light a fire under your finishing times. It’s a gentle book, written by someone who seems to be a true gentleman (and gentle man). The book’s subtitle says it best: “What 35 years of running has taught me about winning, losing, happiness, humility, and the human heart.”
It’s also a very strong book, one that will (I promise!) inspire you, uplift you, and almost certainly make you a better runner. This is the kind of book you keep at your bedside, or at the kitchen table, so you can dip into again and again. It’s full of simple – but deep – wisdom, gained from decades of running and racing.Burfoot famously won the Boston Marathon in 1968 (and still runs it every five years). In December of 1968, he won the prestigious Fukuoka Marathon in Japan in a personal best time of 2:14:28.8, which was only one second from the American marathon record at the time. As of 2008, he’d run the Manchester Road Race 46 times in a row, winning it outright nine times. (The Manchester Road Race is now 77 years old, by the way.) Burfoot was the editor-in-chief at Runner’s World for many years, and currently writes for the magazine and serves as its editor-at-large.
That’s a lot of runner cred for a guy who’s 67 years old this year. It’s what gives the stuff in the book its weight. The man knows what he’s talking about. And he says it very well indeed.
Let me give you an example. In a chapter titled “How to create a life of perpetual new beginnings,” he writes: “Starting lines are among the most important stations in life. We need to more than just avoid them. We need to actively seek them out. Otherwise, we grow stagnant… When you see the first hazy edges of a starting line begin to form in your life, don’t avoid it. Don’t look the other way. Try to bring the starting line into sharper focus. Consider its potential. Remember that if you don’t go to the starting line, you will never view the whole course with all its possibilities.”
The Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life is like that. It’s got chapter headings like “Connections,” “Traditions,” “Listening,” and “Simplicity,” and “Courage.” This essays aren’t faddish, empty media fodder, but serious reflections on what it means to be a runner, reflections that have been earned via a life of running, racing, and thinking about it all.
I often say to people that older is better. It’s even more true, I think, that older runners are better… well, better all ’round. Amby Burfoot is without a doubt one of the best examples of that belief. A Runner’s Guide to the Meaning of Life reflects that goodness.
As regular readers of this blog know, I train and race barefoot. When I race, I’m always surprised at how noisy the runners around me are. Not because they talk a lot (some of them do), or because they yell (some of them do that too), but because they thump. Yes, shod runners, you sound like a great thundering herd. It would be really annoying if it weren’t so comical – and sad.
Why do shod runners run noisily? Because the vast majority of them heel strike, that’s why. Barefoot runners don’t. It’s almost impossible to heel strike when you run barefoot, for the simple reason that it hurts too much. Barefoot runners have either a mid-foot or a fore-foot landing. It’s a stronger, more efficient, and more natural way to run. Sadly, running in shoes is almost certain to keep you from running naturally and quietly.
Before I go any further, I’d like to urge you to change the way you talk about running style. Instead of saying “foot strike,” say “foot landing.” In doing so, I follow barefoot legend Ken Bob Saxton’s dictum that one should never strike the ground, but always land gently on it. I also recognize that language has power beyond its mere sound. If you say “strike,” you will strike. If you say “land,” you’re well on your way to changing the way you run to something better.
Here’s an excellent graphic that shows some of the good and bad about “land” versus “strike,” and about “heel strike” versus “”mid-foot and fore-foot landing.” (When you read it, don’t forget to substitute “land” for strike.” You’ll be a better person for it.) The graphic comes to us courtesy of the good foks at Altra Zero Drop shoes. More about them later in the post.
The whole story about foot landing needs some science if it’s to be understood properly. Some of the best work available comes from Prof. Daniel Lieberman, who heads the Harvard Skeletal Biology Lab. I invite you to check out this video for some good images of barefoot running foot landing, as well as how Lieberman’s research shows that barefoot runners, who tend to land on their fore-foot, generate less impact shock than runners in sports shoes who land heel first.
There’s more good stuff – the hard science data kind of good stuff – here, on an excellent page from the Skeletal Biology Lab site. On it, you’ll find some great videos and comparison data on the difference between heel striking and forefoot striking. (Remember what I said about substituting “land” for “strike”!) Long story short, the page illustrates how and why a large collision is generated when heel striking and why such a small collision is generated when forefoot striking. The page is really “feature rich,” as they say in the software world, but it’s well worth spending some time on. If you do, your understanding of running will benefit immensely.
Back to the folks at Altra Zero Drop. I’ve mentioned them because they seem to be one of the few shoe manufacturers who base their product design and development on the kind of information Prof. Lieberman offers, rather than paring down a traditional shoe model in order to sell to the growing minimalist market. They’re not the only one, of course – Vibram Five Fingers, Luna Sandals, and Xero Shoes minimalist sandals do the same. But the Altra Adam looks like a running-specific, zero drop, midfoot landing shoe that’s been designed from the ground up, rather than by a marketing team. Might be worth a look, if you’re thinking of a shoe that will allow the good form that comes with a midfoot or forefoot landing.
Full disclosure: I have an affiliate relationship with Xero Shoes, which means I get a small commission from them if you buy one of their sandals via a link on this blog. I own a pair Xero Connects and a pair Xero Contacts, which I previously reviewed here and here. I also own two pairs of VFF KSOs, but I haven’t worn either of them for about four years. And I’m working at getting a pair of Altra Adams for review. Stay tuned!