Watch your Step!

Is your foot landing where you think it is?

Several months ago I made an interesting discovery. I was running a pretty rough trail in Nerang Forest Park. Big loose rocks littered the fire-road, and beneath them were ruts and ridges. I was picking a path two strides ahead – building a semi-smooth map across the landscape – my mind barely able to keep up with my feet.  Anticipating the gaps in the terrain is like Galaga for your feet!

Galaga
Trail running – it’s like Galaga for your feet!

I was a bit rusty at this trail running lark – I hadn’t been running off-road much lately. But I knew from my years as a kid running around the hills up behind our house, that it should feel smooth and fluid. Instead, it felt lumpy and unstable. I was rolling my foot on rocks I hadn’t seen; the feedback from the ground through my shoe described a different terrain to the one I was navigating. It was as if I was running on a different trail to the one I was looking at. Rather than building confidence as the run went on, I was losing confidence – I was slowing down and becoming more cautious.

How had I become so bad at this? A fortnight earlier I’d taken a massive tumble, tripping on a hidden rock going down the Warrie trail. A week before that I’d caught my foot several times running Polly’s Kitchen, but luckily managed to stay upright (a fall down Polly’s is likely a bone-breaker!).

Initially I’d blamed my trail running shoes. My Inov-8 285’s have big protruding lugs, and taper to a slight point (think “ballet”) at the toes. They are a joy to run in – light and flexible,  giving great rock protection underfoot while still allowing me to feel the ground. But every now and then those lugs were catching rocks and sending me plummeting earthwards.

Inov-8 Roclite 285s

But the big lugs and pointy toes couldn’t explain why the smooth patch of ground I was aiming my foot into, felt like a lumpy riverbed when my foot landed. What the hell was going on down there?

And this was the revelation: I decided to look down.

Let’s be clear, looking down while running over uneven ground is not a very smart thing to do. Continue for any period of time and you’ll be inspecting the ground from a lot closer than you intended. But I didn’t need to look for long – I immediately saw the problem: I had no feet. My feet must’ve fallen off several kms earlier and I was now running on raw, bloodied stumps – the protruding bones and mangled flesh struggling to gain any traction on the rocky ground… Ahh the joy of a long run and a wandering imagination!

BACK IT UP!

The problem was far less gruesome: My feet weren’t landing where I was aiming them. They were falling short – several inches short.

To test this, I began picking out rocks ahead, trying to land with my toes just touching them. Every single time my foot would land short of the mark. And the longer the stride, the further short they’d land. My proprioception was screwed!

Proprioception. It’s a fancy word for an ability we all take for granted: knowing where your body parts are without looking at them. Juggling is great proprioception training for your hands. Trail running is great proprioception training for your feet.

Trail running proprioception
Full-flight trail proprioception – Building the map in Numinbah Valley (tongue out helps?)

How had my proprioception gotten so out of whack? Had my hamstrings shortened with age and too much sitting? Was it because I’ve been consciously trying to increase my cadence and therefore shortened my natural stride? Or was it simply a lack of practice?

Just by becoming aware of the problem, it started to rectify itself. Within a kilometre I was able to land my foot pretty close to where I was aiming it. My landing targets were still a bit out when taking a longer stride, or springing over something, but already I could feel the smoothness returning. I could feel the rocks under my feet where I was expecting to feel them! My confidence returned and my speed increased.

Now I make a point of practising foot placement whenever I hit the trails. Aside from less face-plants, I’ve noticed a couple of other benefits. Sometimes my stride will shorten during a run; practising foot placement helps lengthen it back out.  But the biggest win is that concentrating on foot placement (particularly up climbs) distracts me from the pain and effort, and I go faster without realising it! 

So the next time you head out onto a trail, Watch Your Step! You mightn’t be running where you think you are!

Watch your step

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