The 100 Up Exercise: Method for Training Barefoot Running Form

The recent New York Times article [1] by Christopher McDougall, author of the best selling book on running Born to Run, is currently making its way around the Internet.

Entitled "The Once and Future Way to Run", McDougall takes a roundabout path of catching everybody up on the last few years of barefoot running news until finally unveiling a newly rediscovered running technique that he thinks will revolutionize running.

He is certainly right to suggest that despite the prevalence of minimalist footwear, many barefoot or minimalist running enthusiasts are still running with terrible form. By terrible, I mean landing hard on their heels. This isn't the faint heel touch you see with some elites, where its hard to tell if it's actually a midfoot landing. We're talking about the kind of bone jarring heel plodding that makes you cringe.

Despite how clever we humans think we are, nevertheless old habits die hard, and this fact remains true with regard to running form. Muscle memory and other related mental mechanisms keep us running like we have thick Nikes on even where there is actually little more than a few millimeters of neoprene under our feet.

The 100 Up exercise, which McDougall is touting as a surefire technique for training away these bad habits, is actually an incredibly old invention of a long dead English chemist apprentice. Since he was English, in this case being a chemist probably refers to a pharmacist. Walter Goodall George [2] developed his exercise pattern so that he could train for running even while busy at work all day. The technique was apparently quite successful, as George went on to achieve world record times in several short and middle distance races.

You can watch this video here of McDougall demonstrating the technique to a bunch of what seems like New York Times interns.

(link to video)

The exercise seems simple enough, with the exception that for the untrained it will be a heck of a workout. The exercise alone might be good for breaking up the work day with a quick five minute bout of steps.

I got a kick out of this (pun intended) because the whole thing was awfully reminiscent of my time in the marching band in college. Our band's signature move was a traditional high step march at a fast tempo. The techniques for teaching the proper form, balance, and cadence seemed almost identical to this 100 Up exercise. All that's missing is a hangover from tailgating in the summer heat, and the roar of the crowd as we missed another field goal, wide right.

Will the "100 Up" be as revolutionary as McDougall suggests?

I'm sure that it will help some people, no doubt. The emphasis of landing on one's forefoot will make good practice, and likely help some people to transition away from bad running habits. Sometimes, it's difficult to change a behavior until you actually get a chance to feel and see what the right movement is supposed to be.

Still, anything that McDougall suggests will get an insane amount of hype, but that doesn't guarantee that it will be a panacea of barefoot running success. Americans certainly love quick and easy solutions, but there is no replacement for patience, observation, and mindfulness.