What makes a good coach? Part 3

Coaching, Triathlon, Competition, Ironman

Coaching sports like running and triathlon: a league of its own.

Back in March (of 2014), my wife and I attended a triathlon expo at MIT. (It had nothing to do with MIT; it just happened to be held at their sports facilities. MIT has a very nice pool, by the way.)

We were there mostly to buy some equipment and supplies in preparation for the season. But we had a couple of nice surprises once we got there: first, we got to meet one of the original ironman finishers; second, we got to listen to Siri Lindley give a talk about coaching. (Well, she spent a lot of time talking about her career as an elite short-course triathlete, but the part about how she got there, and how she herself was coached, was informative.)

For those of you who don’t know her, Siri is coach to Mirinda Carfrae, the current Ironman World Champion (she’s been the champ three times so far) and championship course record holder among women.

So this post is really about coaching adults in the context of sports like running and triathlon, and, more specifically, the coaching of fairly serious athletes (or “intense” athletes, because if not elite athletes, you have to be intensely into training in order to pay for the services of a coach). Combined with the previous post on my personal experience, and the one about coaching in general, it is the background material I’ll need to conclude the series in Part 4.

Now, I have to admit that I’m no groupie of elite athletes or their coaches. I prefer to do, instead of watching or reading about them. We were not at the event in order to listen to Siri. We just thought: “We’re here, and we have a bit of time, so let’s sit down.”

It was time well spent, nevertheless, not just because it confirmed many of my own conclusions about what makes a good coach, and what makes a good athlete. I’ll list those attributes later, but for now, allow me to give a few key notes from her presentation.

Focusing

Siri only coaches a few athletes. I seem to recall she said 12, but it definitely was something between 10 and 15.

This makes sense at such an elite level as top Ironman competitors, since the pros and elites need specialized coaching, and are willing (or able) to pay for it.

The point, however, is not how much Siri gets paid by her athletes, but what she emphasized: She feels that only with so few athletes can she really provide good coaching.

It stands to reason that the more athletes one has to coach, the less time and attention can be given to each. That’s why joining a club is an excellent way to find a bit of support and coaching advice, but you get less personal attention that way.

For truly personal attention, you need to be one of few athletes being coached. Beware of coaches who work for a team or club and also coach more than a handful of athletes: You may be getting cookie-cutter advice and training programs that masquerades as individualized coaching.

Customization

Because she only coaches a few athletes, Siri is able to customize the training regimen of each so as to maximize the effect of the training. Or is it the other way around?

One thing is certain: She does provide very specific attention to each of her athletes; they each have their own season plan, and training session plans, and every plan in between.

This is key because, although the training principles are the same, and the general physiology is the same for all humans, no two persons react entirely the same to training on a daily basis. This is due in part to small differences in biology and in large part to previous training, current state of being, and psychology. That is normal.

Similarly, Siri does not treat all of her athletes the same, either during training or competition. To my surprise, she admitted acting almost like a cheerleader to some, while to others she is the quiet and wise adviser, and to others she can even be the forceful (not to say harsh) boss telling them to get their acts together.

This is squarely in the psychology realm: We are all different in terms of what we need to get, or keep us, in the correct frame of mind to perform. Elite athletes are no different (and perhaps even more sensitive and insecure at times, because of the added pressure of making a living out of sports).

The key point: no two individuals need exactly the same thing at the same time. So personal attention is mandatory for good coaching.

Knowledge

Siri was a top competitor in Olympic distance triathlon. She got there through some good coaching, but also through a lot of grit and determination.

However, there is no need to have been a top athlete to be a good coach. That’s a truth that’s often hard to believe by those who have never really been coached before. But it is true.

What is less obvious to most wannabe triathletes is that, unlike most top triathletes, even those who later make a living out of coaching, not all great athletes make good coaches. Only a few really pick up the fundamentals of coaching, and understand more than what works for them. Because what works for you is likely not what works for others. And a good coach knows enough to adapt to what each athlete needs.

What should a coach know?

In triathlon, it gets tricky, because of the three sports. A good triathlon coach must know enough about the bio-mechanics of swimming, cycling, and running. That’s in order to be able to work on form, not just intensity, in all the three sports while making sure to prevent injury (as much as humanly possible). Ideally, a good coach is able to bring about the necessary changes to technique and form to optimize performance.

But a good triathlon coach must also know about how those three sports are put together in triathlon, and how the body reacts to going from one to the other, and then on to the other.

That means having some first-hand experience in the sport is a good thing. Perhaps necessary. But being a top competitor is not. It can even be a detriment, as I think it is for fitness instructors and personal coaches, because of the “hey, it worked for me, so it will work for you as well” factor. (Or the “look at me, I was a champion, so I must know what I’m doing” factor. In either case, it is a fallacy.)

Also, understanding the physiology, psychology, and science behind training is mandatory. Too many coaches simply push their athletes to the breaking point, under the old philosophy of “no pain, no gain”. For some athletes, this leads to breakthroughs. For most, it leads to breakdowns. That old notion is now dismissed; there are much better ways to train.

The coach has to know when to push, and when to hold back an athlete. And with pros, elites, and would-be top competitors, the holding back part is often more critical. And difficult.

Planning

Finally, a good coach, much like Siri indicated, must be able to understand where his or her athletes are at, and where they aim to get, and plan a reasonable path from one to the other.

That’s precisely how Siri started working with Mirinda Carfrae, according to the talk she gave back in March. Although Siri had not done iron distance races herself, she was able to understand what physiological changes would be needed, and to chart a course to make them happen. And with an athlete like Mirinda Carfrae, who was hardly new to the sport, that was a pretty tall order.

Which of course begs the question:

What about athletes?

Being a good coach is only part of the equation. The athletes also have to do their share of the work. And with all the training and intensity, that part is of course the hardest.

But there is one aspect in which coaching for running and triathlon, and coaching in general, differ a great deal: Pros and elites (and triathlon freaks) are highly motivated, so they don’t need to be coaxed into doing the workouts. More often than not, they have to be calmed down, and forced to take rest. Not at all like the majority of folks trying to get into better shape in order to be healthy, who have to be convinced off the couch.

So a coach to such athletes does not need to cajole them into showing up at training, or find ways to keep them interested in the sport. But they should also not burn them out, or make them hate training.

On their side of things, athletes who want a running or triathlon coach and are serious about it must do one thing to deserve their coaches: Listen.

By this I mean to fully engage themselves into the process, and follow their coaches’ advice. Not argue, not go looking for second opinions, not say “I know what I need”.

Perhaps that holds true for any kind of athlete, and any kind of sport. But let’s leave that for the next, and final, post on what makes a good coach…

Picture from Pixabay.

What makes a good coach? Part 2

Coaching, Athletes, Sports, Training

Coach: More than a timekeeper.

Last time, I wrote about the best coach I ever had. (If you haven’t read that post, feel free to take a moment now to do it; if you don’t have time, I’m about to provide a short summary.)

If you recall, this person was able to progressively take me (and many others) from beginners to sufficiently skilled players, both as individuals and as a team, to win a regional championship. How?

  • He made showing up at practice a no-brainer (we were actually looking forward to practice, instead of dragging our feet to it);
  • he made learning and developing our skills and physical condition fun through challenges we could achieve with reasonable effort (and some friendly competition);
  • he provided advice and guidance during games, to make sure we could perform our best;
  • he chided when absolutely necessary, and congratulated when applicable.

To elaborate a bit more, in my estimation this coach had the following attributes:

  • He knew the sport inside-out, and was excellent at teaching technique as well as game tactics and strategy.
  • He was a great planner for both individual training sessions and the overall season.
  • He paid attention to individuals’ talents and guided each of us so we would progress as rapidly as possible.
  • He built relationships with his athletes on the basis of mutual respect for our roles and responsibilities.

No doubt he was well served by many years of experience as a coach, but that’s still a tall order.

Yet isn’t it what all coaches do? On the other hand, is it all that one should expect from a coach? It begs the question:

What’s a “coach,” really?

A coach can, and must, be many things. But people generally agree about the following roles that a coach can fulfill:

  1. Teacher / Instructor / Technical Expert
  2. Planner / Scheduler
  3. Motivator ( / Cheerleader / Disciplinarian)
  4. First Aider ( / Medical Advisor)
  5. Basic Nutrition Advisor

I put a few items in parentheses because they represent certain expectations of coaches which I feel are not reasonable, or smart. For instance, unless the coach is a medical professional, the advice provided really should be very limited, and always conclude by telling the athlete to seek the opinion of a healthcare professional of the relevant specialty (or a GP with an interest in physical activity, though any GP should be professional enough to refer instead of just saying “stop”).

As to being a disciplinarian, really, that should fall in another category such as legal and/or sport regulations. The coach is expected to teach the rules of behaviour and sportspersonship, not to enforce them. (However, the coach must abide by such decisions as rendered by referees and disciplinary bodies, and support such decisions. But I digress.)

Finally, let’s hold off on talking about cheerleading for the moment.

Do I believe a coach, a good coach being implied, has to do all of that?

My answer is: It depends.

What most adult “athletes” seem to need

Nowadays, you see a lot of coaches who are primarily fitness instructors, in a very limited sense of showing techniques and guiding through workouts, and motivators, bordering on cheerleaders. Especially in gyms, the kind that one joins in order to lose weight (oh, and get into better shape as well, but primarily to look better).

This is fine for the majority of people who dabble in spurious gym attendance and faddish, er, novel, exercise classes. It might even be exactly what some people need. But it might also explain a great deal about the tendency for people to sign-up for, and then drop, such classes and gyms.

You see, there is a big difference between being able to illustrate how to do something, and being able to teach someone how to do it right, possibly by modifying the movement and gradually bringing about the correct form. That’s teaching, not instructing.

And there is a big difference between cheering someone on while they are exercising, and making exercising so much fun (or at least enjoyable) that they’ll keep coming. That the difference between being a cheerleader, and being a good motivator.

More to the point, coaching should involve personal attention to the needs and progression of the individual. Being instructor to dozens of people at the same time, seeing up to hundreds of fitness enthusiasts each week, is not the same kind of coaching as taking a few individuals through the skills and fitness development they need to complete a triathlon, for instance.

A lot of those instructors and personal coaches come from a relatively recent discovery of the benefits of being more fit, and keep on going by becoming coaches themselves. Their personal experiences (“I went from so many pounds, to looking like this, so you can do it, too!“) speaks to hopefuls, and gets them hooked. Often enough, a group dynamics also forms that further motivates participants, which is what gyms and classes count on.

But that kind of motivation is not, ultimately, what will keep folks showing up at the gym, or get truly fit and healthy. What is needed for that is a real Purpose, not just rapidly fading enthusiasm.

And beware in particular of any coach who offers more than a generic level of nutrition advice. Especially if they start talking about supplements, or some strange cleansing diet. A coach ought to know enough to provide some guidance as to how to eat well, but unless he or she is a nutritionist, it should only go so far.

I am not (really) trying to put anyone down; I’m simply trying to point out that there is a wide range of people having claims on the title “coach,” and that not all of them are the same.

Does that mean only certified coaches should be able to call themselves coaches? (Let’s forget for a moment that there are numerous bogus certifications out there…) Certainly not: You can find excellent coaches that have not bothered to obtain certifications by recognized sports bodies. Especially in sports like running and triathlon.

What matters for adults, who have the life experience to make their own decisions, is that there be a good approach to coaching, one that suits their own needs.

There is, however, one exception to the “certification not required” statement:

What kids need

Childhood is a critical time in the learning of skills and fitness principles.

Unfortunately, too many kids are turned off from sports through old-fashioned (and simply wrong-headed) gym classes. Coaches can play a role there, if the kids are also taking extra-curricular activities like soccer, football, baseball, or hockey, but that’s an uphill battle if gym classes set the wrong tone.

Worse than gym class, however, is when kids are being yelled at by improvised coaches who focus more on performance than on development.

Pretty much every parent wants his or her kids to be healthy and to move, so participation in little leagues is pretty strong. Which means the teams need coaches, and lots of them. Hence the parents are asked to help out.

While it is commendable of parents to want their kids to move (they seem to be applying something they understand intuitively, yet don’t do themselves), putting them into the hands of just about anybody is not a good idea. Adults don’t see team sports the same way as kids do, and so emphasis is often put on competition instead of fun. (And I’m not even talking about parents with dreams of their kids becoming professionals.)

Coaching, Sports, Movement

Coaching kids: not the same as coaching adults.

That is something certified coaches are trained to deal with. That’s why I would much prefer there be fewer teams, with good coaches, than large leagues with yelling parents pretending to be coaching the teams.

Ok, I’ll admit, even some certified coaches are pushing the performance aspect too much, and much too soon. We are all human, it seems. But it is something that coaches are drilled about, and do know better, so a friendly reminder from time to time wouldn’t hurt.

Ultimately though, I feel it is primarily the job of parents to encourage their kids to move and learn to use their bodies. For that, nature has equipped us with a desire to play, to have fun. Organized sports and gym classes can be a part of that, but not at the cost of kids having fun.

The best thing one can do with kids is be a good example by moving as much as possible, and play with them (or let them play and organize their own games, that way they also learn to socialize). If you insist on organized team sports, make sure the coaches are certified and have the right approach to your kids’ age group and development level…

What a really good coach does

I’ve laid the foundation, put in place a few caveats, and even talked about kids. Together with the first post, you should start to get the picture of what a good coach’s actions and behaviour should be.

Next time, I’ll focus on what makes a good coach for adults interested in getting fit, and/or picking up a fun sport like triathlon.

Stay tuned.

Photos from Pixabay.

What makes a good coach? Part 1

Coaching, Team, Sports

Coaching, at its most influential.

I could go on for hours on the topic of coaching, and over time I will. At the very least, I hope it will be interesting. So I’ve planned a series of posts on the topic.

For starters, I’d like to share a bit of a story: Mine. (Yeah, I know, boooring. Bear with me, it has some insights you might find valuable.)

This is the story of how I got started as an “athlete”. Or, more to the point, how I became an athlete without really realizing it.

And it’s all because of a coach.

Beginnings

As a young child, I did like most of the kids in my neck of the Canadian woods: I played hockey. Although I was reasonably good, especially as a goalie, I only lasted 2 seasons.

Somehow, at 5-6 years of age, I had to endure the politics of sports managed by grown-ups. So, no, the story does not feature that coach.

In retrospect, hockey wasn’t my thing, even though I continued to play for fun, on ice and on snow-covered streets, throughout my childhood. But officially, I retired from hockey at 6, and spent the next few years mostly reading books.

Until the end of grade 9, I was considered pretty much hopeless as far as sports went. Last to be picked at dodge ball, unable to swim to save my life, not able to score hoops at mini-basketball, no running endurance, etc. You know the type.

New Beginnings

All of that changed at the end of grade 9, when I showed up at a volleyball camp.

Coaching, Training, Sports, Volleyball

Beginnings are key. But there can be many beginnings…

You see, volleyball season was over, but the coach was setting up this camp in order to get kids interested for the next season. Through games and challenges, he got us to build some basic skills as well as have quite a bit of fun.

One thing you need to understand already about this coach is that he cared about the long-term development of his teams, and the athletes thereof.

I recall that it was pretty difficult. But the challenges were achievable. And then you’d move on to the next level.

It was enough fun that when the next school semester started in September of my grade 10, I signed-up for volleyball. Me, almost the least athletic nerd around.

At volleyball practice, however, it was all about rising to the challenges put before us by the coach. And having fun. Very progressively, he developed us into volleyball players. He knew what he was doing; so much so, in fact, that we didn’t have to do any more than show up at practice and do what he told us to do.

In relatively short order, without really noticing it, I became one of the best players from a technical standpoint. I could not do much about my height, but I also compensated reasonable well by being fast and jumping higher than almost everyone else. And everyone around me was progressing, too. Some faster than others; yet everyone was gaining skills and fitness.

Learning

If you are paying attention, you now also know that this coach was tailoring the training to the skill levels of his athletes, and making sure they could progress according to their own abilities. We, the would-be athletes, did not have to do any extra training, or even think about it: all we had to do was show up and do as we were told.

Our coach did not need to motivate us to learn, or to show up for practice. We wanted to. Because he made it fun to be there, fun to learn.

We had reasonable success in the local league that year, even though our large pool of players was split into two evenly matched teams, so that the entire league could have a full complement of 5 teams.

When the next season came along, we moved on to the inter-city league. Now we were “big boys”, in grade 11, playing against guys that were older and much stronger (at first) than us.

But it did not last.

Through more playful challenges and gradual development of play tactics, for which by now we were getting ready, I moved from “the small guy on the team” to starting setter, challenging and, by mid-season, beating, the other setter who was a year older than me.

The team, that year, went on to finish second in the inter-city league, and win the regional civil championship to earn a spot for the provincial championship.

How did we do it?

Performing

Our coach adapted tactics to the team we had; the unique blend of athletes we were, and the situations we were in. He had the right encouragement at the right time. He pushed us when it was time (we started serious physical conditioning only that year, for instance), and told us to let go when it wasn’t time to push.

When he was upset, we paid attention. When he was pleased, he was able to make us all feel good.

He was a friend, and a bit of cheerleader at times, but not all that often. For the most part, he knew his stuff, and he was extremely well prepared to guide us through planned training sessions that had both physical and technical development goals.

No idle play, ever. No wasted time. Every drill had a purpose. Even the 4 on 4, 3 on 3, 2 on 2, and 1 on 1 games we played were challenges to build personal skills and team cohesion. And by then it was fun to challenge each-other that way.

Are you getting the picture I’m trying to paint?

Coaching, Team, Volleyball, Training

To reach high levels of performance, a coach is the way to go.

Coaching

As a side-story, by the beginning of grade 11 our coach had asked for help from us “athletes” to develop younger kids for future seasons. Some of us helped out, first by using or copying training sessions our coach would prepare, and later by applying the same principles and directing our sessions ourselves. That’s how I learned how to build a training session: by absorbing it, not by reading about it.

He encouraged us to learn as much as possible, but did not push. Not everybody got involved.

By the time I turned 16 and moved on to grade 12, my last year of high school, I was a certified coach and I had the responsibility of two local teams (about 20 kids, some barely two years younger than me). Oh, and I was the star setter of my admittedly small region.

Many of us from that team, built by that coach, went on to play varsity at the college and university levels. Some of the athletes I coached also did, but that’s more because they were later on coached by “my” coach as well…

We never found a better coach, no matter how far or “high” we went in our sporting careers.

Since that time coaching has been second-nature to me. You could say I learned well; I think I had an amazing example to follow.

And it’s been hard for other coaches to live up to that. But that’s an entirely other story.

One thing is certain: Learning to be a coach and coaching “the right way” has helped me through school (whether I tutored friends, or as a TA in grad school) as well as professionally (when it was time to train partners and resellers on new features, speak publicly, or simply give a presentation to colleagues). By witnessing, later on analyzing, and ultimately integrating how my coach was doing it, I was able to do the same in various settings.

The End (of the Beginning)

And that was the story. Next time, the lessons.

Pictures from Pixabay

Couples that exercise together…

Training, Exercising, Couples

…stay together.

We’ve all heard the rumours about marriages being destroyed by Ironman(TM) training. I’m sure there is some truth to them, considering the kind of commitment such pursuits demand, even though my personal experience cannot be blamed on that.

What I have witnessed first hand, however, is how difficult relationships can be when one partner exercises a lot and the other one doesn’t at all. That has certainly lead to divorce. Let’s face it, such differences in lifestyle and outlook on health are hard to reconcile, although not impossible.

What is less obvious is that even if two life partners do exercise regularly, even intensely, training together as a couple can still put a lot of strain on the relationship.

Yet there are few greater joys in life than being able to train as a couple. I am convinced it makes for a stronger relationship. So let me provide a few tips, based on my own experience and anecdotal evidence, on how to overcome the main pitfalls of exercising with your significant other.

Pitfall 1: One of the two is a lot faster than the other.

This is typically the case with running and cycling, and never applies to yoga (about which there is still a pitfall). Let’s face it, very few couples are evenly matched when it comes to speed.

But you can always do your long training sessions together, at the slower person’s speed. Yes, this is good for the faster person, too. Actually, the faster person might develop more endurance than previously enjoyed. Try it.

You can’t do tempo work as a speed-mismatched couple, but intervals are great opportunities. I’m a big fan of running slow together, then going fast for a while and coming back together during recovery. For additional kicks, go slow together, then fast for a time at the slower person’s fast speed, and then separately for a time at the faster person’s fast speed while the slower just jogs along. Then join again for recovery at a slow speed. Call it “interval ladders”; it’s very intense, especially if you do long intervals.

The pool is also a good place to train together, but careful of the slippery slope to yoga-like situations…

Pitfall 2: One of the two does a lot more exercise/training than the other.

This is where understanding is key. Understanding on the part of the person training less: a large amount of exercise often fulfills a need for personal achievement that has nothing to do with the couple. But also understanding on the part of the person training more: you still need to pull your weight around the house, buddy, even if you are tired. And you need to take your partner out on a date once in a while, even if it is beyond your bed time!

As I said, the key is understanding.

Pitfall 3: Both want to do an Ironman.

Exercise, Couples

Find things you can do together.

This one is more about sharing. Imagine you are both keeners, and intense on the training. You already have a great advantage in that you are sharing a commitment to a sport and philosophy of life. Perhaps you can both do the same event; I’ve seen folks get engaged at the finish lines of some races. Good for you!

But perhaps you need a different kind of sharing. For instance, while you can talk about the feelings of the preparation and racing, it is important that you let each other feel things differently as well, to each have a personal experience. Furthermore, the needs of each athlete, especially for such long events, are different, so one size does not fit all, and you each need some alone training.

So, by all means, do train together for long runs and long bike rides (see Pitfall 1), but also train on your own, because you need it. I strongly recommend the “alternate years” approach whereby each of you takes turn doing an Ironman. This also helps with Pitfall 2, and becomes mandatory with Pitfall 4.

Pitfall 4: Children

This is all about sharing. Sharing the load, sharing the responsibility, sharing the lack of sleep when the kids are young. But it is also about sharing your passion for exercise with the kids.

Nowadays, there are so many good strollers and buggies you can take the kids in while out on a run or bike ride. Careful with swimming though. But the point is: get equipped, and share!

However, you’ll likely need to tone it down; go for shorter outings, not go as fast, etc. And perhaps get a less competitive bike on which you can install the additional gear. But it is all worth it. And you could probably use a bit of a break from being an endurance nut.

The best advice here is: enjoy it! They grow up so fast. And then, use the “alternate year” approach and even the “alternate days” to give each other a break from chores by going out on your own for a more intense session. Or just a nap.

Pitfall 5: Bitching

It is bound to happen at some point: when the going gets tough, the toughs get going, but sometimes there is bitching involved as well.

This is where communication is key. The bitching part of the couple must remember to say that the bitching is not directed at the significant other, and the significant other must not respond too much; simply nod and otherwise show compassion. It helps to sprinkle some “I love you” in there as well. For instance, while running or cycling (not applicable to swimming, somehow):
“I really hate this f$&@ing rain. Are we there yet? And I love you!”

To which the other replies, carefully:
“I know how you feel, and I love you too.” (After a pause, smiling gently.) “It is all the fault of the meteorologists, but it could happen during the race we are training for. And I love you!”

In case you have not caught on yet, always use “and” before “I love you.” Trust me. And deflecting responsibility does not hurt, either.

This, by the way, is also valid advice for traffic jams and standing in a crowd for last-minute X-mas shopping. Always find a way to blame meteorologists; they are used to it.

Pitfall 6: Yoga

This is probably the most dangerous pitfall of them all. The way it typically goes is: one person is into yoga, the other is into endurance sports. And then you try to meet somewhere in the middle.

While yoga is good for you as an endurance nut, and yoga nuts could use more cardio in their lives, there is a big problem that is bound to lead to arguments: the outfits. In particular, people striking all sorts of interesting poses and sweating in skimpy outfits. One of the two is bound to stare a little too much, and/or make a comment, and then the next thing you know you are having an argument.

It is not worth it. Just stay away. Let the person doing yoga have yoga, and the endurance nut have endurance.

Pitfall 7: Snooze and Snuggle

This is the most tricky, in my experience. You are so comfortable in bed that getting up and training becomes difficult. So you snooze and snuggle together. And don’t train as much as you are supposed to.

Keep in mind that recovery is important when you train hard. But you still need to get up and train. Thus the conflict.

I have no solution for this one, so if you do, I’d like to hear from you…

 

Recovery, Exercise, Training, Couples

Down time is also needed.

Pictures from Pixabay.

The correct way to run

Running, Technique, Shoes

Shoes matter, but so does technique…

*** Modified post. I’ve been able to get a hold of the original paper about transitioning to Vibram FiveFingers. So read on, or read again, for some slight changes to the text. ***

There’s been noise lately about a settlement that Vibram, the maker of the famous (or infamous, according to some) FiveFingers “shoes”, has agreed to pay to their customers.

The issue is over false claims, or so the class action lawsuit alleged, that FiveFingers prevent injuries and make muscles and tendons stronger.

A quick search on the subject will surely reveal quite a bit, but I’ve sprinkled a few links in this post, to provide more details. First, the oldest reference to the lawsuit I could find, from July 2012.

Blog item from ABC

The most recent article, in a Canadian magazine, appears to provide the conclusion of the process. Note that Vibram has agreed to pay; I’m no lawyer (I’m a scientist), so I would be willing to bet that the issue revolves around what would constitute a solid enough proof of the statements made by Vibram. I’m pretty sure no scientist would be willing to proclaim the statements are proven beyond a doubt. That’s just the way science works…

Blog in Canadian Running

But what fascinates me about this is the tone of some of the articles. Some “reporters” and bloggers clearly showed their stripes and did not hesitate to bash Vibram, minimalist shoes, and the whole barefoot running movement. It felt like a deep, quasi-religious, fighting line has been drawn. I won’t bother you with those articles; the ones in reputable running magazines were far more neutral, and carefully written, as they should be.

Some, however, did something very clumsy, unlike the main magazines: They linked the lawsuit to a piece of research pertaining to indicate that wearing FiveFingers leads a high percentage of runners to foot bone injuries. You can read the news about the report there:

Report on study in Runner’s World

Note that the study, and the lawsuit, are in no way related. But it sure is convenient as a coincidence. Especially for the makers of conventional running shoes.

Before going any further, allow me to state a few key points, just to be clear:

  1. In my experience as runner and coach, it is possible to run correctly in almost any pair of shoes, be they “conventional running shoes” or “minimalist”.
  2. I do not believe there is a conspiracy by running shoe manufacturers to cause harm to runners by making shoes that they know will cause injury. Even though by some accounts 70% of runners using “conventional running shoes” will get hurt at some point.
  3. What I do believe is this: there is a natural tendency to want to protect your business and market share. That’s called having a vested interest in a certain situation. There is no need for any kind of conspiracy when the incentives are aligned. Companies will do what is in their best interest.
  4. There is a correct way of running, and it is easily demonstrated. No matter what anyone in the running shoe industry says about each of us being different. They only try to muddle the issues, and it is very sad.
  5. What has probably happened with the minimalist and barefoot movement is not an indication that the safety and benefits of those shoes have been overstated, but rather that the weakening of our bones, muscles, and tendons over the years of walking, and especially running, in shoes designed to “protect us”, has been grossly under-estimated.

Now, perhaps the lawsuit was brought about by someone “strongly encouraged” to do so by the big shoe manufacturers. And maybe the study referred to in Runner’s World was also similarly sponsored. (There are some issues about that research, so please see at the end of this post for my notes. But the main problem I’ve encountered is that the second-hand source all seem bent on using it to point nasty fingers towards Vibram and minimalist and barefoot running, whereas the research paper was pretty much simply stating that transitioning must be done slowly, and carefully.)

But, ultimately who cares? The lawsuit was settled, so let’s move on. Preferably, by continuing to run.

Full disclosure: I currently own 3 pairs of FiveFingers, and a fourth one I used to own recently “died” after a long and satisfying life. Like some of the commentators on the blog posts and articles I’ve read, if I get a refund from Vibram, I will use the money to get an extra pair of FiveFingers, and I’ll keep using them for running. I even got married in a pair of FiveFingers. I hesitate to call them shoes as to me they are more like gloves for feet. I also own Ecco’s Biom Project shoes, and Asics runners (2 pairs), which I still use at times, when running marathons and ultras, and when racing triathlons. So there.

Now allow me to finish with the main point, before I forget: The correct way to run.

It is my contention that there is such a correct way, as already stated, and that it can be done in any pair of shoes. How do I know?

Not from understanding physics (which I do) and its application to bio-mechanics, or coaching a lot of runners (which I have), or transitioning myself late in life from a heel striker to a forefoot runner (which I have, over a period of 2 years). The answer is actually much easier to understand.

Consider the animals that we are. Remove us from this modern society we’ve built, and in which, by and large, we are no longer fit in an evolutionary sense. Let’s travel to the Land Before Shoes. How did we run then? Not on our heels, that’s for sure!

Test it for yourself. Take your shoes off, and try to run, even if for just a few steps.

You’ll immediately, instinctively, switch to a forefoot striking gait, and that striking will be absorbed in large part by the arches and ankles of your feet, and the tendons and muscles of your legs. Because that’s what they have evolved to do! (Normally, I urge people to do this test on soft grass, but it is possible to heel strike on very soft ground, so be cautious, and do it on a hard but clean surface, for full effect.)

Watch young children run barefoot. You’ll immediately notice that when not taught otherwise, we all run with a forefoot striking gait.

That is the correct way to run.

It’s just that over years of under-use, over-protection, we have not developed the needed sturdiness to run that way as adults.

It takes time, much more than a few weeks, to compensate. And it can be painful. And you risk injury if you try to do too much, too soon. So it should probably only be attempted with the help of a good coach.

Yet the conclusion is inescapable: There is a correct way of running.

It just may not be the way everyone can run in this day and age. For having run too long in conventional shoes, or lacking the patience to rebuild their bodies…

Running, Shoes, Technique, Coaching

In case of doubt, wear shoes, and make a run for it!

Photos by Sacha Veillette.

Notes on the original research paper by Sarah T. Ridge et al.

For those interested, and because I am a scientist first and foremost…

In terms of methodology, the design of the research was sound, as far as it went. However, I have concerns over the following items, some of which may invalidate the conclusions:

  1. While selection of FiveFingers users was random (among each group of men and women, so that’s good), all runners were experienced runners. Which means they were all used to running in conventional shoes, and had not been injured (or said so) in recent past. So far, so good. Except for a bit of psychology of running: Although the runners were given instructions on how to transition, most runners who are used to running a certain distance per week have a tendency to think they know what they are doing. In a word: they feel they can do it, no matter what. The odds of the FiveFingers group actually having followed the transition plan are slim, in my estimation. And my estimation is supported by the reported fact that FiveFingers users peaked their training volume in week 4 of the study, way too early! Simply put: they probably tried to run more with the FiveFingers than they should have, got hurt, then scaled it back down, but it was too late.
  2. Regarding the MRI results, which I’m told were taken with a somewhat low quality machine, the convention of what constitutes remodeling of the bones and injury is arbitrary. And perhaps a bit conservative. Being slightly less conservative, by only one level on the scale used, might change the conclusion. Interesting fact also reported in the article: the results are comparable to having sedentary people start running and doing it for 7 days straight. No one should go from 0 to seven straight days of running, but you would expect major work to begin in the bodies of those who do, and yes, some injuries to result from the abrupt change. Duh!
  3. There were initially 43 participants recruited for the study. They were divided roughly equally between the FiveFingers, and the control. Which means there should have been 21 and 22 participants in each group. 19 completed the study in the FiveFingers group, so a drop of 2 or 3, whereas 17 completed in the control (a drop of 5 or 4, depending on the exact split between the groups). The numbers and specific reasons for the drops were not disclosed on a per-group basis, but we know 3 participants did not show up at the end for the MRI, 2 got injured for “unrelated reasons” during the training, 2 never returned calls (so probably did not even train, or perhaps trained and got hurt right away). Hiding what exactly happened to those participants is one way to bias results. What if there were 5 drops from the control group, and it was all because they got injured, and not at all for “unrelated reasons”? For instance, for reasons related to the conventional shoes, but not in the feet, like knees and hip problems? The picture would look very different, and actually quite comparable between the two groups.
  4. Leaving aside the possibility of manipulation of the results, which I’m pretty sure the authors were not trying to do, it is worth noting what their own conclusion really said: Far from an indictment of running in FiveFingers, they indicated that transition should be done very slowly, and more slowly than prescribed at the time by the folks at Vibram. (Those guidelines, we are told in the paper, had been changed between the start of the work and the publication of the paper, by the way.) I would go even further: taking a bunch of experienced runners, who in my experience are notoriously bad at following coaches’ advice, is a recipe for disaster. When you transition to minimalist shoes, you should take a lot of time, and ideally start as if you were starting to run from scratch. Very few experienced runners are willing to hold themselves back to that extent, and that is why we get hurt. Yes, I count myself in that lot, even though it took me a long time, my adaptation is not complete yet, and I had some major pains bordering on injury.
  5. The only way to get a definitive answer on this question would be to take two groups of newbie runners through a strictly controlled regimen of training. One group in each type of shoes. That would take time, but it would be better science. Of course, if you change the way you run, you will have major adaptation and risk of injury. But let’s see who, of the two groups, would actually get hurt less, and what their feet, legs, knees, and hips would look like at the end of the program. That would be interesting. Anyone has some funding available?