Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Summit of the Masters!

Team Maxercise gang!

I count all of you who read my blog and send your kind comments (many of you at the far reaches of the world) as part of my extended team.

Your intrepid coach, always searching and seeking, passed a marvelous weekend in the Danish wonderland known as Solvang CA, where I'd arranged to meet two of the most interesting characters in the fitness biz, Erwan LeCorre and Barefoot Ted. I've spoken before about Georges Hebert and the Methode Naturelle. Well, last Sunday I finally met the guy who continues to carry Hebert's torch. His name is Erwan and he's spent many years researching and refining the Hebert methodology. He read my blog recently and contacted me, sending along what I consider one of the most beautiful physical culture video clips I've ever seen. Erwan is re-establishing the Hebert method in an updated version which he calls MovNat
and you'll be hearing about it very soon. He has an upcoming 12-page pictorial in April Men's Health in what is sure to be a landmark piece. You heard about it here, first!

The original Methode Naturelle was created in 1905 while Hebert was a French navy officer and was used to train thousands of French Marines; it was then taught at an institute of physical education, called the College d'athletes, in Reims, France
prior to World War I. It is based on natural human movement capacities. Modern man, by the turn of the twentieth century, had already become disassociated with the physical body and 100 years later people think of working out as churning out miles on the StairMaster or treadmill or dumbbell movements in front of the mirror. Erwan, the direct inheritor of Hebert's method, intends to turn the fitness industry upside-down, returning to a more innocent time of moving the body as it was meant to be used. This includes:
  • walking
  • running
  • jumping
  • balancing
  • moving on all fours
  • climbing
  • lifting and carrying (all sorts of objects)
  • throwing and catching
  • defending (including striking, wrestling and grappling)
  • swimming
How many people do you know who include all of these elements into their workouts? Erwan does all of the above on a regular basis, combining them in sessions involving many variations of each natural movement capacity. My own methods are more similar than not.

He's a most affable young man and passionate about his philosophy of exercise (note to the ladies, he asked that I mention he is single.) He's tall and lean with a wiry, muscular physique and he moves with the ease and grace of a panther or...a natural human. He brought a memory stick of images and gave me a full historical presentation on my laptop of Hebert and Methode Naturelle.

After we'd sat around jawing for a while, we decided to drive into town and get something to eat (well, we were actually thrown out by our hosts, but that's another story.) Erwan said he needed to move a bit and asked us to pick him up further down the road...and literally took off like a gazelle. Driving along the country road, I thought he must have taken a wrong turn because I didn't see him anywhere in sight. When finally, over the next rise, there he was, at full speed, with an effortlessness that could only be ascribed to a wild animal. I was all the more impressed since he was running barefoot...which brings me to the second interesting character I met over the weekend, who calls himself Barefoot Ted.

Ted is a leader of the barefoot running movement. On his website, he's documented some incredible barefoot feats. He has studied and trained with the Tarahumara Indians, who are considered the greatest distance runners on earth. Ted adopted their running style and goes either completely unshod or dons Vibram Five Fingers. He has also experimented with traditional native sandals and has run hundreds of miles in his home made huaraches. I've long been an advocate of barefoot training and I consider over-engineered running shoes as more of a detriment than aid. Ted is certainly in agreement. Thick cushioned running shoes create a neural amnesia wherein the brain loses track of the foot in space. Worse, cushioned running shoes encourage heel striking whereas the ancient way has always been running off the balls of the feet.

I've been an outspoken critic of so-called cardio exercise, and even wrote an inflammatory blog on the ten reasons I don't do "cardio". I do, however, enjoy using my body as it was meant to naturally be used, which includes running through forests and sprinting on beaches. I don't look upon these activities as "cardio" or "calorie-burning" (although they are both) I see them as skills. Moving your body along a winding forest path, jumping over roots and rocks; making steep climbs and descents, is what our bodies were designed to do. this is a far cry from running like a domesticated rodent inside a stuffy gym under the spell of iPod and mirror. Running barefoot through a natural landscape provides a genuine skill element. My friend, the yoga master Andrey Lappa, used to run barefoot though rough terrain in the night to develop his sensory perception to such a high point he could slip and slide through the woods as comfortably as a wild beast.

Running on the balls of the feet is exhilarating and far less stressful to the knees, hips and low back. I'm very impressed with Ted's accomplishments. I have been trail running in minimalist footwear for some time, but Ted and Erwan have beyond-inspired me. My girlfriend has been running barefoot for many years (or in Vibrams) and she runs like a deer. She effortlessly runs over some of the roughest terrains and has some of the finest developed feet, ankles and calves I've ever seen. After looking at some photos of Ted and Erwan running barefoot in the snow just a few miles out of downtown Los Angeles, I pulled out my dusty Vibrams and slid them on my feet. After a push-pull workout, with bonus Pistols, I started my barefoot run (in the middle of a rainstorm) at a slow and easy pace, so my feet would adapt. The rain-soaked muddy trail offered the perfect soft surface for my feet.
After my run, I felt ecstatic. Interesting enough, barefoot running is so efficient--and thus less taxing--that despite not having run in a while, I felt great. I like this natural movement technique and will be including it as part of my kettlebell and body weight regimens.

I recommend anyone interested in this type of training to check out Ted and Erwan's sites and to view Erwan's video again and get a copy of April Men's Health. This type of training is so far removed from the pavements and typical indoor gym workouts as to be incomparable. Caveat: If you wish to throw off your shoes and get started, begin slowly, in order for the feet to adapt. As a matter of fact, it's not only your feet which need to adapt but your entire running form.

If you'd like to learn more about my natural body weight movement and conditioning system, I have several upcoming instructor training events and workshops.

In Strength & Health!


Chris said...

Great Stuff.

Steve - you might be interested in an interview I did with Erwan recently. He is a great guy and he covers some really good stuff in the interview. It is inspiring.

Liljeros said...

Yes, barefoot running is the real shit, Coach! And It´s a good idea to begin slowly! I had big problemes with my calves when I run the first times, could barely walk for one week. After that I started a new strategy and just began to warm up with FiveFingers about 5-6 minutes 2-3 times a week. Done that for 5-6 month now and doing great progress! I feels more and more natural to run barefoot!

See my vids here: http://liljeros.blogspot.com/2009/01/fivefingers.html

(language translator up to the right)

gereeves said...

I have been wearing wrestling boots everywhere for quite a while, even in the hills of appalachia (which is where I reside), how does this compare to barefoot?

Steve Hopkins said...

Oh wow. This is really something. I loved that video, very inspiring! I think Ill be looking into that magazine.

Kat said...

Ask Erwan if he'd ever come out to Guam. A single lady who loves the outdoors is real interested in being his host! Very hot...

Steve Maxwell said...

Hi Chris,
Thanks for the link. I agree, Erwan is a very interesting guy! - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Liljeros, Thanks for writing. I agree, for people used to wearing shoes, you must wean yourself off, not jump right in. it takes a while to strengthen feet weakened by heavily cushioned shoes and arch supports, etc. - Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Gereeves, It comes close. Wrestling shoes are certainly a minimalist foot wear and a step in the right direction. The foot is still rather confined- Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

Thanks for writing Kat! Your message will get through--good luck! - Steve

Joe said...

Hey Coach,

How would you recommend adapting to barefoot running? Growing up I rarely wore shoes in the summer, which is awesome living in suburbia *rolls eyes* so my feet are fairly tough. But I'm smart to realize tough does not equal strong. I've been doing all my kettlebell work barefoot since the summer so I have some exercising barefoot background.

When the spring comes, I'll be starting up a HIIT schedule at my local park because they have a track that's maybe 1/6 of a mile around and they also have a pull-up bar (making the push-pull rest periods easier to do). Should I do my sprints wearing shoes and then kick them off for the last lap or so and then slowly add more barefoot laps as I progress?

Also, is there any damage I can do by running for short periods on asphalt barefoot? There are some more rural and grass covered areas in my town that I could jog on and there are plenty of hills to get my heart rate up but I'm probably going to have to run across streets or driveways on occasion to do that. Is this going to be a problem? Or should I stick to the park when I'm doing HIIT and the one or two nature trails in the area?

Stanton said...

Steve - I thought I'd mention the Vivo Barefoot shoes by Terra Plana. They're about as close as you can get to barefoot in a fairly normal looking shoe. I have four pairs now and I wear them pretty much every day.

I bought a couple of pairs to start off with and wore them intermittently as my feet got stronger. As I started to wear them more there was even a point where I got cramps in my feet. My feet actually feel like they have muscles now. I've relegated the sneaker-looking pair to the gym, and have done a bit of running in them, but not much. And when I did my calves were sore for days. I have done a 8-10 mile hike in my Vibrams though, and I think wearing the Vivo Barefoot shoes has helped prepare me for those hikes. My lower legs were tired after the hike, I think because the unevenness stresses the lateral movement of the ankle much more than walking on the sidewalks of NYC.

I used to suffer from plantar fasciitis, and I think the strengthening of my feet has pretty much done away with it.

The Vivo shoes also inadvertently taught me that I wasn't walking on the outside of my foot enough. I got some heel rub with a couple of the pairs, in a different way in each one, and I eventually realized I was letting my right foot overpronate.

Any one interested in them might want to check out Frank Forencich of Exuberant Animal's newsletter. He sent a newsletter out in the past few days saying he'll have a discount code. http://www.exuberantanimal.com/

The shoes are a bit pricey, but I've caught a couple of pairs on sale. The Terra Plana catalog showed some upcoming sandals this summer, which I'm curious to check out. I curtailed my Vivo wearing last summer so I could wear sandals.

The Vibrams do let you move your toes around more, but the Vivos are made to have a larger toebox than normal and not squish them as much as normal shoes (one of the reasons regular shoes feel bulky now). However, I can wear the Vivos pretty much anywhere, which I can't do with the Vibrams--unfortunately.

Dan John had an article a couple of months ago where he mentioned wearing the Vibrams for a while, and eventually noticing with surprise his little toes gripping the ground. I've notice the same thing.

I've tried other shoes, but the Vivos have been great. I started wearing MBTs a several years ago, which helped my feet, but they're bulky and awkward looking. I haven't worn them much since I got the Vivos. I've been curious about the Fit Flops to see how unstable they are and if they might give my ankles more stability work than they get now. I'm not hopeful, but I'll probably try them out eventually.