Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Barefoot lessons for bike fitting

The NYT had a blogpost addressing the question, "is running barefoot better for you?" The conclusion is rather simple: it does not seem to matter much. Surely you do change your biomechanics when you run barefoot -i.e. you tend to favor toe or at least forefoot striking- but you adapt quickly.

There were several comments however that got me thinking. One reader pointed out that there is no need to make a case that barefoot is better. Barefoot is the default option. The case that needs to be made is whether shoes are of any use. I couldn't agree more. Another reader said your calves will get sore, and those of you who read my blog, know that that too is right. Finally one said, so what, running barefoot is fun. And I couldn't agree more. But that is not all.

I have written extensively about bicycle frame fitting. I have often made the point that it does not matter much and that you can adapt to many different frame sizes and geometries. I know that from personal experience. I also know that none of this affects your performance all that much. The barefoot experience (as documented in the Well blog) seems to strongly support this idea.

Recently, I read an article about fitting in the coaches' newsletter. The argument they made was that fitting is quick, whereas adaptation is slow. In essence they agreed that you can adapt to many frame sizes and geometries, but it takes (a lot of) time and therefore you should get an optimal fit first and you can adapt later. Is that really so?

One key study the Well quotes (published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine last year, so much for a good reference), points out that your landing pattern changes as your shoes wear out and flatten, becoming more barefoot-like. That certainly points to a very dynamic and near-instantaneous response. I.e. your landing pattern changes continuously as your shoes change, from one day to the next.

I would certainly argue that -in my experience- adaptation is very fast. It did not take me very long to get used to a 51 cm frame when I started cycling again after a long break that lasted 4 years. Within a month, I rode the Wildflower triathlon on that frame and did not notice any performance issues. Surely, my bike times were not ideal, but that was due to the short training. I kept riding on that small frame for a long time and got better quickly. The key issue is that I never felt like it stopped me from hammering.

Also, although adaptation is fast, very fast really, it is not instantaneous and it cannot bridge large changes. So you can't train on your road bike and then hammer on your tribike with a different geometry and expect to walk away without being sore (or worse, injured). I also told you the story of John Cobb's bike fit session before CaliforniaMan. Although the changes he made were great and helped in the long run, the fact remains that two days later I was very sore after racing in that new position.

All adaptation takes place over several days and all requires many small steps. You can adjust a little bit every day and bridge large gaps, as long as the whole process is gradual and smooth. Or you can adjust to a large change by starting easy and gradually increasing your exposure. It's all common sense really. Think about it.

Rode KOM 28 miles today. Fun ride!

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