Barefoot Running and Proprioceptive Prowess

Join the growing number who are trying this and kick your shoes off for the first time. The chances are you will be filled with some trepidations.  Your foot feels so vulnerable.

Let’s say that  you overcome these fears enough to chance taking that first step. For sure you take  a lot more care in how you pick up your foot and how you put it down! But there are further challenges.  The body sense (sometimes called the proprioceptive sense) has somehow gone to sleep: it is just not used to working at the high-level demand that involves a constant monitoring and adaptation of the foot to the ground.  This core-sense has become dumbed-down and numbed-down.  At some level your brain knows this.  This adds to the feeling of vulnerability and danger.  As if all this wasn’t enough already to ensure that you scurry back into the protection of your shoes there is now the fact that your gait has adapted and compensated to the restriction of protective shoes and as one step leads to another there is a whole raft of concerns about just how your foot is striking the ground.  The usual and habitual patterns are going to have to be overhauled.  It soon becomes clear that you are taking on a lot more than you might have bargained for!  However, a growing number of people these days are prepared to take on these radical challenges and a lot more individuals are overcoming the difficulties and are creating a culture of barefoot running and training. I am part of this culture. For 30 years I have been running and teaching the principles that can ensure that these explorations are enjoyable, safe and injury free.

Up until recently the whole raison d’être of the shoe industry  was solidly built around the foundation of protecting a foot that is considered to be inherently vulnerable, inadequate to the point of sometimes even being referred to as ‘insufficiently evolved’.  These assumptions are now being robustly challenged as many individuals have a go at barefootin’ or start to explore minimalist shoes. They will confront multiple levels of disconnection as they open up to this exploration.  It’s not just the sole of the shoe  that separates the foot from the ground: the head has in many ways become disconnected from the body and a vital sense modality: the body sense has been dumbed down in the process.  Just as the the head becomes disconnected from the feet we have become more and more cut off from from our origins as natural runners.  There are in fact a whole series of ‘layers of the onion’ to continually peel back.  As one layer of disconnection is eased away it reveals the next layer and then the next.   It is a process that eventually reveals a natural stride.  On the Natural Running Courses for over 25 years we have explored a natural stride by focussing on the following key areas where some support and guidance is necessary:

1. How to become more mindful (careful!) in the way the foot connects to the support of the ground.

2. How to enliven and reconnect with the key proprioceptive body-sense in order to widen the skill base of the walking and running action.

3. How to change the deeply ingrained habits of a lifetime with regards to how you use yourself as you walk and run.



That very feeling of vulnerability that overwhelms  the first time barefooter, turns out to be its very strength! We have become so accustomed to to running mechanically that we still want to run repetitively  like a machine. By providing the cushioning and protection the shoe promotes a mechanical action that is not responsive to the changing underfoot terrain. Clearly this will make the foot less self-reliant and more ‘needy’ and, as we shall later see., it may well form a key part of the process that degrades the functioning of the foot and leaves the foot so injury prone for a beginning barefooter.

A key defining feature of Mechanical Running is that it is goal-driven. Mindful Running is qualitatively different: it is process driven. When the foot and the whole Head-to-toe structure start to adapt to the ever changing demands of the terrain we enter into the Present  Moment and into the thinking-in-action that is the essence of  Mindfulness and Process thinking. Mindfulness is not a state of mind but a way into responsive action. To make the most of the experience of barefoot running it is vital right at the outset, to ease the goal from out of the driving seat in order to allow the process to drive the ongoing action. The Alexander Technique is an established and proven method or way of achieving this. This does not mean that we cease to have aims and goals. It does mean that these goals and aims steer the action as opposed to driving the action. Think of the swimmer swimming toward the distant island: If he or she is in process then  the occasional glance toward the distant island is sufficient to make the necessary slight adjustments to the direction in swimming toward the island, while staying very much in the process of moving responsively and efficiently through the water. In a mechanical mindset the action of getting to the goal are seen as a necessary nuisance. Then the swimmer can’t take their eyes off the distant island and thrashes away at the water inefficiently desperately trying to get there as quickly as possible.

Just kicking off your shoes and socks will invite and at times, demand Mindfulness and Process thinking. It is a huge help and support if this major shift into Process Thinking is given the appropriate attention as a first-thing concern. It can then shape the way you use the mechanisms of the body ( bio-mechanics) and the complex process of changing habits in the way you use yourself. Mindfulness has a powerful psycho-spiritual dimension in which moving effortlessly over beautiful terrain becomes a symbol of belonging and inter-connectedness.


PROPRIOCEPTIVE PROWESS: “Get smart before you get strong.”

What happens with that first step is that you take more care  and you discover that the sole of your foot is very sensitive.  In fact there are almost as many nerve endings in the sole of the foot as there are in the most sensitive areas of the body like the lips.  They are so richly endowed for a purpose: to create that vital link that connects the foot to the ground. Engaging the barefoot with the ground for the first time will immediately enrich the flow of proprioceptive information to the brain.  Eventually this flows into a key areas of the brain like the cerebellum which houses the body’s gyroscope and compass.  So, in itself this proprioceptive enrichment will eventually improve balance and co-ordination.  However, if this enrichment is partnered by a process that consciously refines and develops the skill of working with the proprioceptive sense then it in fact becomes very like opening an inner eye.  There is real wisdom and insight to developing this and it links beautifully into the special efforts of Mindfulness that we have considered above.  I refer to this aspect of Process Thinking as developing Proprioceptive Prowess- the powerful skill of working with the kinesthetic sense.

That brain and body form a unified team.. Your mind works to direct how you use your self. .  We acknowledge the right order of this in the way we talk about to ‘neuro-muscular patterning’.   Locked as we are into a mechanical mindset, we are happy to give attention to the ‘meat-machinery’ and we warm up muscles and exert energy to make them stronger.  Only rarely do we consider warming-up the nervous system!  And yet the ‘neuro-‘ side of things comes first,  ahead of the

‘-muscular’. Amongst other things the body sense mediates the connections between brain and muscle action and it modulates the various ‘settings’ as to how much exertion a muscle can undertake before the action begins.

Developing the ‘neuro’ side of things by refining proprioceptive prowess turns out to be a very smart move indeed.  In fact it needs to be addressed as a first thing concern reflecting the priority in the order in the way we hyphenate the term: ‘neuro-muscular’ patterning and not ‘musculo-neural’ patterning. Clearly the brain leads the way and when it does we can follow a key Natural Running Course maxim: ‘Get smart before you exert yourself’ or ‘Wise-up before you strengthen up’.  We rarely do this as we force and push, try and strain, striving to achieve our goals. Opening up the inner eye of the proprioceptive is a first concern that engages the process of easing the mechanical goal-driven action out of the driving seat in order to let the Process drive the action and to enable the goal to steer the ongoing action. This is Mindfulness in action.

There is a major challenge here because the process that begins to develop proprioceptive prowess opens up only when you hold back from initially exerting your energies. What is so smart about this effort to hold back the action is that it enables the inner eyeto open to  achieves two important and related things:

1. It opens and prepares the way in order to ensure that your impending action does not involve the body generating unnecessary tension – so that it does not work against itself.

2. It goes on to guide and ensure that the resulting action to follow the Laws of Least Effort.  The proprioceptive sense evolved to achieve this energy conserving economy of effort.  It is a sense modality  that is perfected and complete.  All that needs to happen is that it first opens up.

Our entire culture has become very mechanical and our action is mostly mechanical in nature.  What this means is that right at the outset of the action we are intent on striving, pushing, forcing, asserting.  This always involves putting out muscular effort and energy as a first thing.  This ensures that the inner eye remains closed tight shut.  Only when it opens can the skill of developing economy in mindful action begin to be developed. There is enormous power to be unlocked in developing proprioceptive process and it all happens BEFORE muscles are engaged.

One key change that takes place as you develop proprioceptive process is a sense of lightness. As proprioceptive prowess develops a sense of lightness becomes like the bubble in a spirit level: You use it constantly to monitor and check that things remain aligned and in a state of integrity. This makes a huge difference for example to the way that the foot leaves the ground and the way it reconnects with it.  The footfall becomes light, responsive and agile and that ancient prowess of stealth the silent footfall in a natural stride, reveals itself.  Yet another connection is made to our origins.

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