Q&A with Ken Bob Saxton, barefoot-running pioneer
Scott Petry called you the godfather of barefoot running. Do you consider yourself the godfather?
“The Godfather of Barefoot Running” is how Vic da Brick, a Los Angeles sportscaster introduced me at the 2005 Los Angeles Marathon Expo, where I was invited by Nike to talk about my history as a barefoot runner, and the benefits of running barefoot. This, of course, was part of their promotion for the Nike Free shoes. In a real sense, I did have a lot to do with the increasing popularity of running barefoot, via writings on my Web site, and running dozens of marathons, and hundreds of shorter races, all barefoot.
How do you deal with people coming to you asking for advice? Does it get tiresome?
I love answering questions. After 9 years maintaining my Running Barefoot Web site, and just a little longer racing barefoot, it still hasn’t gotten old. Now, as Running Barefoot is becoming more popular, and, with over 1000 members on our discussion group (RunningBarefoot.us), I am excited to find that there are many other people answering the questions for me. It keeps our minds sharp. Even when I run a races, there are usually other people there who have read about me, or running barefoot, and they seem eager to jump in and help me answer the numerous questions. Even the one request, previously reserved just for me, “Can I see the soles of your feet” can be answered by many of the other barefoot runners at an event.
And, “yes” you can see the soles of my feet:
Are you trying to convert people, or are you just doing your own thing?
I’ve always done some of my running barefoot. When I ran my first official race barefoot in 1997, a small local 10-mile trail race, I didn’t really expect anything. It was simply the most comfortable way for me to run. But, it was the questions people were asking me at that race, and other races, that compelled me to start the Web site. Personally, I found it strange that so many people have never tried running barefoot, and some even act as if running barefoot were the most unnatural thing in the universe!
I’m not really trying to convert people to running barefoot. I’m just hoping they will enjoy reading about my experience, and perhaps a few will question and think about all the garbage we’ve been convinced that we need to buy in order to live “simply” and “happily”.
You say running isn’t for everybody, but do you think any runner could run barefoot?
I can’t say that running barefoot is for everyone who runs, because I know some runners who have no feet to bare. I will say that more people could do it, than believe they could. On the other hand, they will never be able to do it, if they do not believe they can!
Would you like to see everyone run barefoot?
Until after I publish a book, and make a movie, about my experiences, I would certainly NOT want everyone to run barefoot. Because then … well … they won’t have any reason to read my book or watch the movie.
Barefoot runners tend to be viewed as somewhat eccentric. Do you consider yourself on the fringe?
Like the general population, there are a diversity of barefoot runners. Some, like myself, are quite eccentric. But eccentric, just means you aren’t orbiting the same focal point as everyone else. So that’s certainly not a bad thing. In any case, 100 years ago, someone who drove an automobile would have been on the “fringe.” Seventy years ago, someone with a telephone was on the “fringe.” Forty years ago, someone growing organic produce, would have been on the “fringe.” The “fringe” is really just an idea that hasn’t, yet, been adapted by the general population.
Can you describe how a barefoot runner’s stride differs from a shod runner’s stride?
The big difference, between shod runner’s stride and barefoot runner’s stride, is awareness. There are some shod runners with excellent running technique. Most either learned to walk and/or run while barefoot, or with minimal racing flats, or spent a great deal of their training focusing on technique.
Let me talk a bit about JOGGING. I HATE JOGGING! Seriously, “jogging”, the word itself is a synonym for “jarring” or “jolting” or “pounding.” I became interested in running back in the 1970s, so I remember experts warning people that JOGGING would tear their organs apart and all that. The thing is, that the term JOGGING, was first applied to running, about the same time that running shoes started becoming the high-tech cushiony, monstrosities that are so popular today. Without this kind of comfort, no one, with any SENSE would JOG! But these shoes actually block our SENSE of touch.
JOGGING has nothing to do with how fast you are running. It has to do with a lazy stride. With letting your foot slam haphazardly into the ground. It’s a result of running with little awareness. As me and my fellow runners age, I’ve noticed that the jogger’s shoes are no longer as comfortable as they once were. The shoes which masked the pain of bad running technique (jogging), never did protect runners from impact, only from the feeling of impact. So, now the long term damage of impact, to the knees, back, ankles, etc., are creeping up on these aging joggers. And most, now depend on some sort of pain killers to get them through each long “JOG”.
So, here’s my point. The human body is designed to run, naturally, barefoot. It is also designed to run on a wide variety of surfaces in nature. And, though many will say we weren’t designed to run barefoot on modern surfaces, there really isn’t anything unusual about these hard surfaces in nature. I’ve run on solid granite mountain trails barefoot. Granite is way harder than asphalt, and probably at least as hard as most concrete sidewalks. The important difference is, of course, the shoes, which take away our awareness, and encourage us to depend on shoes for cushioning, and neglect our own natural mechanisms for running with less impact. And, besides the ability to bend our knees, ankles, and hips, one of the most important components of our natural cushioning is FEEDBACK, which tells us to bend our knees, ankles and hips.
Our bare soles, as they touch the ground, will tell our nervous system everything it needs to know to adapt to the surface we are running on, with every single step! It’s kind of like the new computerized shoes, which adjust their own cushioning. The difference is, that they only have about an inch of responsive cushioning, while, pretty much the entire length of the body is our cushioning mechanism.
OK, so how to run gently, gracefully, naturally, on any surface?
1. Cadence. Don’t be lazy. Get your feet moving. Practice lifting your feet 180 times a minute, or a little faster, while running in place, to start with. The longer time you are in the air with each stride, the longer you will be falling back towards the earth. If your steps are quick, and short (in time, not necessarily distance), you will spend less time accelerating toward the earth, and will reduce impact.
2. Lift your feet. Do be lazy. Don’t push off. Don’t focus on landing. Focus on lifting your feet, BEFORE landing. Don’t worry, gravity will insure that you land, but, by starting to lift your foot BEFORE you land, you will be decelerating it’s fall toward the earth. It’s like when you drive your car. Most of us don’t wait until after hitting the car in front of us, to slow down! Likewise, we don’t want to wait for the ground to decelerate our foot fall.
3. Relax. Let your body bend. The largest natural springs we have are our ankles, knees, and hips. But, they have almost no shock absorbing capability as a compression joint. Their real advantage is in the ability to bend. Too many people run with these joint “locked” or rigid, because they are convinced that their shoe will protect them.
4. Posture. Every part of your body should be resting on top of the part of your body beneath it. In order to do this, you must be balanced. Grab the top of a broomstick and hold it upside down. If the broomstick is not balanced above your hand, it takes more work to hold it in position. So, make sure that your head is balanced on top of your body, and your body is vertical and balanced on top of your hips, and the big mistake most people make is sticking their butt out the back, so make sure your hips are tucked in underneath your torso.
5. Lean. Now it’s time to start moving forward. Remember that broomstick? If you let it lean just a little, then by moving your hand in the direction of the lean, you can restore balance. When running, we want to do the same thing. Let your hips lead the way, and your feet will follow to restore balance. Lean is your accelerator. Increase lean, you will run faster. Decrease lean and you will slow down.
6. Be Aware. Listen to your feet. If they hurt, chances are it’s time to stop, or at least slow down. If we go beyond what our bare feet are ready for, chances are we will be overusing other parts of our body too.
A few other notes: Don’t TRY to take long strides by reaching out in front of your body. Running fast does not come from lengthening your stride. Long strides comes from the body moving forward fast. Again, too many people stretching a stiff leg lazily out in front, waiting for gravity to do it’s worse, end up with a slow, plodding, JOGGING, injurious stride.
It’s much easier to simply fall forward. If you land with your foot out in front of your body, you are hitting the brakes. Your foot just got in the way of moving your body forward.
Well that’s essentially it, a bit more details in the beginning section of my Web site
and of course the articles on “How to Run” in the Beginning section
The barefoot movement has a conspiracy-theory feel to it. How do you feel about that?
Ahh … the old “conspiracy” theories. Well, basically, It’s just marketing. That which makes a hefty profit, WILL be marketed. But, it’s a bit distressing how many people buy into the idea that we need to spend so much money on something we are naturally designed for! I encounter many people who simply can not conceive of the possibility of a world without shoes. “How can he do that?”, “It’s inconceivable!” “You can’t run without shoes!” are common thoughts I have heard from people as I run , barefoot, past them.
And finally … the fact that companies like Nike are making minimalist shoes seems to fly in the face of their marketing for the past decade. They tout technology — air this, gel that — and seem to suggest you need these things to run better. Then they come out and market a minimalist shoe and tout the benefits of getting back to a more natural state. Does that seem hypocritical to you? And is that the start of a trend?
Is there really a distinction between hypocrisy and marketing?
Well, you may have heard the old saying, “the shoemakers children go barefoot.” The shoemakers have always known the benefits of going barefoot. They just needed to find a way to market those benefits as part of their shoe, so they can make profit. But they’re still pushing the high-tech gear too.
Is it hypocrisy?
Perhaps. I think it’s just the nature of marketing. In a grocery story you can buy both cigarettes and nicotine patches, and high-fat foods as well as diet foods. Marketing isn’t about selling what is best for everyone. It is about selling something to everybody. You sell a lot of different products, because, everybody is a bit different. Perhaps we are all eccentric, after all.
If I can help a few “soles” realize that, not only do we have a choice between Nike and Adidas, we also have a choice to run without any shoes, then I have made my contribution to society.