I recently ran across an article in the LA Times suggesting that running could be good for us. Specifically, that running can even improve joint integrity. This is encouraging, but I’ve been saying the same thing for nearly thirty years, right alongside with weight training being a healthful activity, too. Science eventually validates what athletes practice on their own. Yet, for a quite a while the common and medical wisdom seems to have been that the constant, so-called pounding of running is harmful to joints. Running, it was claimed, would eventually beat us down and leave us hobbled by arthritis. But long, long ago, once our earliest forebears had come down from the trees it was exactly those forces and impacts of running that shaped our modern physical bodies and defined our movements. If not for this pounding— something known as ground reaction force (GRF) where the Earth pushes up as we push down— we wouldn’t run at all.
What was as plainly obvious to me as my first-grade, in-class recognition (in 1965) that all the continents on the world map fit together like a jigsaw puzzle— then a novel notion for geologists called plate tectonics— is that today running is inherently natural and beneficial to humans. Sadly the arrogance of medical opinion and its dismal appreciation for the natural function and resilience of the human body, the greed of the shoe industry and running publications dependent on advertising dollars, and the blind trust and lack of further investigation of the running community has allowed the myth of running’s intrinsic danger to persist.
Incredibly some physicians have gone on record as saying that we humans are not meant to run. Hogwash! Have they never set foot outside their Ivory Towers? Also, a self-serving medical / shoe-industry complex has developed over the last several decades “treatments” for ailing runners— shims, splints, cushions and analgesics— but has yet to make any progress in solving the ongoing running injury epidemic. If anything, despite all of the new technology and advances in treatment injury in runners is expected, accepted, and is becoming even more common. (By the way here is just one report that indicts the sacred running shoe as an injurious variable in the unsafe running equation. And one more by Dan Lieberman, Ph.D.) I might add that this year at least half of all runners will be injured by their sport. Next year, too. The year after, and on and on until we recognize the real problem. But solving the problem dams the revenue stream— and that’s no incentive to profiteers.
Of course, running itself isn’t the problem. That’s because we evolved as athletes, and in large part as runners. (And what is athletics if not modern, symbolic celebration of our natural daily physical lifestyle— running away from danger, throwing objects in hunting, dueling with others as individuals or tribes, etc.?) This is evidenced by several million years of evolution, and some more “primitive,” present-day societies. Our distant ancestors had to adapt to far more than we can imagine to develop these bodies that we take for granted and so routinely abuse with inactivity, indulgence, fashion, and other carelessness and indiscretions. Thing is, our civilized ways have so insulated us from our primal grace that we’ve simply forgotten how to run. While we are actually hard-wired for running, severe deficiencies in activity and low self-expectancy owing to our modern lifestyle leave us woefully out of touch with our birth-given physical fluencies.
Unwitting parents are the first to undermine their kids’ natural running abilities by slapping shoes on their feet even before they are walking, often squeezing and deforming the feet and certainly deadening their proprioceptive connection to the ground. Further, many parents, startled by their children running with abandon toward a street, or just beyond their immediate reach scream “Stop!” Their kids then usually throw a heel out in front of them to hit the brakes. A gestalt develops where, as the youngsters are growing up, many— most actually— soon adopt a running style of leaning forward with their upper bodies which is consistent with their conscious intent “Go!”, and at the same time they extend a straightened leg out ahead of them to land on their heel, effectively stopping themselves on each and every stride, which is the subconscious direction “No!”
Later, shoe companies pad the heels of these kids’ jogging shoes to mitigate the pain of longer distances using their improper stride, and traditionalist coaches teach injurious techniques like “heel striking,” “paw back,” “foot drag” to some of the more gifted, and the more naive athletes. Many top athletes succeed in spite of their coaches due to superior physical and mental resilience. (Again, thank those ancestors.) Others, less talented or less robust buy into any number of silver bullets positioned in the guise of essential gear— expensive cushioning and motion control shoes come to mind straightaway. On the flip side, however, barefoot runners tend to suggest that reacquainting oneself with his or her own feet and re-learning how to run offers the greatest reward…to the runner, anyway.
Now, there are, uh-hem…barefoot shoes. And, while I run in Vibram Five Fingers, and have even worn a hole through the sole of one pair, I run barefooted, too. My feet don’t wear out like do the VFF, rather they get stronger. Plus, the couple millimeters of rubber and felt underfoot in the VFF significantly reduces my ability to feel the ground and adjust my stride (though not as badly as a conventional running shoe). Point is, barefoot is best. As I mention in the Runnin’ Nekkid section of Fitness, Straight-Up, I don’t expect everyone to throw away their shoes for good and start running exclusively barefooted, even though it’s a really good idea. What’s in our interest though is to at least learn how to run “like” we’re barefooted so we can make use of the natural biomechanical spring that those earliest forebears developed for us.
I learned Pose Method running about a decade ago directly from Nicholas Romanov, Ph.D., the founder of the Method. Over the years I’ve explored others’ takes on running, and have done a fair bit of research on running, and have ultimately recognized that in Pose Method I’ve found the one singular natural running style. Pose Method is a conceptual model of running that has a precise methodology. It’s system of movement that’s learnable, teachable, supported by scientific studies, physical laws, and thousands of athlete testimonials from novice to Olympian. Best of all, it works really well for me, as shown here, and here, and here. Pose, Fall, Pull— simple, elegant, and efficient.
You see, nature tends toward parsimony. For instance, many children when they first begin interacting with the physics of their three-dimensional world naturally run Pose. Before they know that they’re even running they just feel the relationship of their bodies with gravity and ground reaction and fall in the direction of their interest, and their bodies follow. Their joints remain bent and so capitalize on the springiness of their muscles, tendons, fascia and bony architecture. They land on the forefoot beneath their hips which preserves their momentum. They quickly pull their foot off the ground instead of trying to push themselves forward, meaning they allow gravity to do its job, accelerating them to whatever speed their enthusiasm and foot turnover will allow. They tend to enjoy the experience because it’s natural and it feels good to them.
How, then is this parsimonious— there’s so much going on, so much in which to invest attention? Fortunately, the only active part of running is changing support, or pulling the foot off the ground. It’s just one thing, and the rest happens more or less on its own, and it hinges on timing. Kids just feel this timing. However, most will lose it the more they “learn” about running. So, as adults, we must reorient ourselves. Barefoot makes it easier, but it can still be accomplished in shoes. The key is pull the foot off the ground on time, as soon as the body’s center of mass passes over its support, the ball of the foot. And while new running mechanics are quick and easy enough to get across through specific drills, perception— knowing when to pull the foot from the ground— takes focus and patience to develop and refine. Now, I’m good at it, but I’ve worked at it, and I still work at it. It’s like playing a musical instrument, or practicing a martial art— you can become good, even great, but there will always be room to improve. That’s a good thing.
Ultimately safe and successful running is a matter of learning to feel when your technique is correct, and when it needs adjustment, and then making that change. Happily, science now gives those who need it permission to run safely, so finally we all have the rest of our lives to run toward greater skills, fitness, and health. And some runners have a head start.