Running

How serendipitous that just last week I was looking for the latest edition of Fascia: In Sport and Movement. This nicely bound compilation of articles, edited by Robert Schliep, PhD— noted fascia researcher from Ulm University in Germany— offers tremendous insight from many perspectives on the significance of the body tissue that had once been summarily cut away and discarded by anatomists and physicians. I wanted to add this text to my library and was hoping to find a good price on the latest edition from amazon.com. Rats!— sold out. So I visited Schliep’s website. Bingo! As well, I discovered his Fascia in Movement & Sport seminar was being hosted by Michelle Bond of Fascia Fundamentals right here in Los Angeles. Rather than buying the book right then I enrolled in the workshop. And what a fascia-nating workshop it was.

Dr. Robert Schliep leading the Fascia in Movement & Sport seminar, February 9 & 10, 2019.

Schliep detailed:

  • Biotensegrity
  • Fascia as a sensory organ
  • Elastic recoil properties and conditioning of fascial tissues in jumping, running and walking
  • How “Rolfing” for rats prevented receptive stress injury and “Yin yoga” (a long hold posture) for rats reduced cancerous tumor proliferation by 52%
  • Embryology of fascia (Michelle Bond)

What’s more, I had the great fortune of personally asking Robert Schliep (far too many) questions, sharing ideas with some of the six-dozen physicians, physical therapists, body workers and fitness trainers in attendance, doing several fascial-oriented exercises with the class and meeting Michelle Bond— a local, up and coming a-fascia-nado, herself. We all received the Fascial Fitness (companion) DVD, the slide presentation from the seminar, a thumb drive with additional fascia-related research articles and sources for continuing inquiry.

I bought the book, too. At a discount. And, signed by Dr. Schliep.

How’s That?

As astounding a run as it is in the 2016 Olympic 400m men’s final, Wayde van Niekerk leaves even greater speed untapped. How’s that? Notice that in these video stills he doesn’t begin falling until about 13° past the vertical! He ultimately reaches about 30° of Fall which clearly is sufficient for setting a World Record of 43.03″, but what if he begins falling at 0°? Like previous WR holder, Michael Johnson, and his mentor Usain Bolt.

van Niekerk at Vertical Moment

Wayde van Niekerk hits the Vertical Moment of his running stride.

van Niekerk at Pose Position

Here, van Niekerk reaches the Running Pose at about 13° from the vertical.

van Niekerk at end of Fall

Then, at about 30° from vertical, van Niekerk reaches the end of his Range of Fall. 

 

Why?

By the way, there is a reason for this, and it can be seen in this video still. By leaving the previous support behind (his right foot, in this case) after his bodyweight passes over it, van Niekerk is forced to coast past the ideal midpoint of the running stride stride— the Vertical Moment— before he’s able to start falling again.

van Niekerk Flight Phase

Late recovery of support leg prevents reaching Running Pose “on time.”

 

Not Harder, Smarter!

Wayde van Niekerk has the talent— that is, exceptional neural, metabolic and psychological capacity— to continue developing as a runner, and it’s inspiring to anticipate his realizing even grander achievements in the coming years. I suspect more records will be set as he further refines his skills, maybe harnessing those unused 13°. And why wouldn’t he? Since it’s said that we’re either striving to move forward or allowing ourselves to drop behind, and, since van Niekerk set a new WR from lane 8, effectively racing against himself, it’s really a foregone conclusion. That’s what he does. You see, genetic potential is quickly reached— we compete against our physiological peers— but skill can always be improved. Greatly, in fact, and at any age. And, while not the only factor in racing, skill is a primary factor. While no one needs to work harder per se to acquire new / refine current skills, they must work smarter. That begins with knowing precisely what to train.

You can learn more about how you can apply the skills of Pose, Fall, Pull to your own running success, right now. Start here:  Correct Running Form.

 

It’s been said there’s a right way, a wrong way, and the Army’s way. Growing up a military brat I sat ringside to this truism. Today, while there’s not been wholesale change, at least fitness-wise someone’s been doing something.

Dollars & Sense

Spearheaded by Majors Charles Blake and David Feltwell, both physical therapists, Pose Method founder, Nicholas Romanov and his son, Severin, Pose Method is now being incorporated into the United States Army’s physical readiness training (PRT) routine because it’s standardized, thus easily taught and learned, and because Pose Method prevents injuries.

That last part’s a big deal because, ironically, soldiers suffer a far greater prevalence of injury from running than from battle! Since such consistent damage to government property at once reduces the fighting force and costs many millions of dollars annually, any viable solution should get the attention of the top brass. And, it did.

Long story short, the right way would become the Army way.

The plethora of Pose Method drills recently introduced into the Army’s Fitness Manual (see Military Running) allows you to learn for yourself exactly how the health, fitness, and performance of Army troops is now being improved– and medical expenses averted– step by step. For greater context, just search on this site for “running” and read more.

Confusion Is the First Step Toward Clarity

Today, clever quips, sound byte solutions and silver bullet expectations dominate the fitness discourse. So do confusing, often self-contradictory running form tips, techniques and testimonials. An alphabet soup of running advice is served up daily by coaches and athletes, health professionals and hucksters. Most, like the commercial varieties, offer little clarity and less sustenance. But that running form has become at all food for thought is a good thing.

Now, when people ask “What’s Pose Method running?” I know they anticipate some snap, crackle, pop answer. Nothing substantial, helpful nor healthful, really, just something that’s easy to ingest, digest and pass.

While any twenty-five-words-or-less explanation risks reducing potent grains of insight into pablum or processing them into poison I think, within context, this sums it up:

Pose Method distills running into its essential elements (Pose, Fall, Pull) which best coordinate natural forces, so we can run– farther, faster, and free from injury.

What It’s Not

Pose Method isn’t the latest thing, the shiniest thing, nor any pop-culture physical patois. It isn’t esoteric advice from some grizzled guru, and it isn’t another pet endorsement of a Hollywood celebrity. Most of all, Pose Method isn’t a new and improved running style.

What It Is

Pose Method is a system of movement that identifies gravity as the prime motive force human beings use to run, cycle, swim, etc., and recognizes muscles’ efforts a subordinate force. That is, instead of creating movement themselves, muscles only redirect the motion that already exists, which is the vertical pull of gravity. This may intuitively ring true to you, or not. Either way, conventional wisdom sure appears blind to its implications.

As Pose Method founder, Dr. Nicholas Romanov puts it…

Gravity is still very much the elephant in the room and it is treated as something that “applies to this, but not to that”, “it is here, but not over there”. Fact is, gravity is a silent dictator that rules this world.

All human movement is gravity-dependent. Whether you’re running, swimming, walking to your car or reaching for milk in your refrigerator– you’re moving under the influence of gravity. … But it doesn’t just pull us down.

Pose Method Running

Pose Method teaches running as a skill sport, with its own technical particulars, like golf, martial arts and ballet. The running Pose is the key position– a standard. How a runner gets into and out of it distinguishes deviations from, or adherence to good form. Specific exercises develop the sensory awareness and frame of movement that allow a runner to discern “correct” from “incorrect,” and adjust as needed.

Romanov says…

A “standard” is an… accepted model of something… used as a basis for judgment…

When there is a clearly identified and put forth model… any deviation from that… is easily seen. That [deviation is] the definition of an “error”.

[W]hen it comes to human movement in sports, when it comes to running… [a standard provides a] precise model to learn, to teach, [and an] ability to correct errors.

He specifies…

The laws of operation of all natural forces with gravity at the helm consequently lead to a particular set of rules in movement of a human body.

Unless we figure out how to defy gravity or it suddenly changes the way it works, we will abide by its current standard of operation…

Novel, But Not New

Others of note have described precisely how the vertical force of gravity is translated into horizontal movement.

From antiquity, Romanov references…

Leonardo da Vinci [as] the first to recognize gravity as a propulsive force, [quoting him:] “Motion is created by the destruction of balance, that is, of equality of weight for nothing can move by itself which does not leave its state of balance and that thing moves most rapidly which is furthest from its balance.”

Then, from a hundred years ago…

[Neuro-scientist] Thomas Graham-Brown [who] expanded on da Vinci’s thoughts, [wrote], “It seems to me that the act of progression itself– whether it be flight through the air or by such movements as running over the surface of the ground– consists essentially in a movement in which the centre of gravity of the body is allowed to fall forwards and downwards under the action of gravity, and in which the momentum thus gained is used in driving the centre of gravity again upwards and forwards; so that, from one point in the cycle to the corresponding point in the next, no work is done (theoretically), but the mass of the individual is, in effect, moved horizontally through the environment.”

I might add that in 1952 physician Dudley Morton reiterated specifically…

Under the effects of an unbalanced body center, the combined action of these constant factors, gravity and structure, produces a mechanically determined rate of forward motion which is almost independent of muscular exertion.

Even so, the birth of a universally applicable running form, along with a unified theory of general movement would have to wait for Nicholas Romanov to connect the dots of scientific research and practical action.

Necessity Is a Mutha

Dr. Nicholas Romanov founded Pose Method in the late 1970s. As a university professor of physical culture and sports he was immersed in teaching track and field events to his students. But, unlike other sports, when it came to running, technique was more a matter of mojo than method. Incredibly, there seemed to be no commonly accepted platform from which to coach. Over time, by sifting through the strides of thousands of runners and distilling their common elements, the clouds confusing the issue would clear and he’d see the one, single, correct running form.

In going forward, bear in mind the perspective of aviator and author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery…

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

…because it’s so beautifully expressed in Pose Method running. Better still, begin experiencing it yourself by doing the perception drills below. Just remember, less is more.

Anatomy of a Stride

Variables & Invariables

What Romanov found was that invariably, all runners Pose, Fall and Pull. Not every runner, though, heel strikes nor tries to paw at or push off the ground. These other pieces of the running puzzle, then, are affectations, embellishments, superfluities. All variables. Romanov’s Method includes particular drills that train runners to eliminate the variables and reinforce the invariables. At the same time, his conceptual model of running dismantles the prevailing paradigm that running is generated by muscular effort.


Running Pose as seen in stride to stride sequence.

Running Pose as seen in stride to stride sequence.

Conventional Wisdom

A common belief is that because we’re all seemingly so different, running form and running success are individual affairs. Runners should celebrate the freedom of their own unique style, however convoluted it may be. Therefore, for better or worse, running fast and far boils down to genetic gifts and dutifully training muscles’ strength / stamina. Injury– incredibly, pervasive among runners– is normally attributed to biomechanical deficiencies, over training and inappropriate footwear. It’s expected, inevitable and immutable. And, the role of gravity, despite its universal presence and overwhelming power, is roundly ignored or dismissed.

On the Flip Side

Pose Method operates under irrefutable facts. Because we human beings are more alike than we are different, and because Nature’s laws work the same for us all, the prospect that there could be a naturally right way of running ought to be self-evident. What’s more, one correct running form is liberating even as it might sound limiting.

Yes, some runners perform better than others, but human hearts and lungs all work the same way. It’s true for eyes and ears, too. Isn’t it nonsensical to think that our functionally identical musculo-skeletal systems would behave differently from runner to runner under the same laws of physics and in response to the same mechanical demands? You see, in shaping our bodies and prescribing our movements Nature has already done the math and engineering so that with nary a thought we precisely express her most complex equations of locomotion just by running. Running right, anyway. But we’ve also grown big brains which let us think we might outsmart, defy and deny the forces that have created us. Nature, it seems, is not without a sense of humor.

Myth Bustin’

There could hardly be a more definitively human activity than running. Yet, it’s rarely questioned how something so natural could prove so inherently injurious as to require radical external intervention, such as those orthotic devices known as running shoes? And, we do need support, cushioning and motion control to run, don’t we?

Researcher Adam Daoud investigates…

There is evidence that evolutionary pressure selected for endurance running ability around 2 million years before the development of the modern running shoe in the 1970s (Bramble & Lieberman, 2004). It is therefore reasonable to hypothesize that natural, habitually barefoot (BF) running is adaptive in ways that habitually shod running is not. If natural selection acted on running, then one would predict BF running to be both efficient and safe.

Then how might running become unsafe?

Daoud goes on…

…modern distance runners use a maladaptive [landing] pattern, specifically heel strike running, which is promoted by running in modern, viscoelastic cushioned running shoes.

You see, because insulating shoes so dampen our sensory acuity it’s nearly impossible to interact with reasonable certainty, or sure-footedness within our physical world. Not until, anyway, we can dispense with the arbitrary, shoe-sales-based notion of some seven billion unique stride signatures, and instead reorient our mindset and movements within the absolute, unifying framework of gravity.

It Starts with Perception

In running, once we break the balance of the Pose position we begin translating the vertical pull of gravity into horizontal motion by utilizing ground reaction, musculo-skeletal interaction and intent. An accurate perception of ourselves within and as part of our three-dimensional world allows us to best refine our movements, consciously or otherwise. But popular training, treatment and tangible goods touted to improve our running experience usually interfere. The modern zeitgeist of “more” continues to distance our senses from our activities. Far too many runners notice little more than their injuries. Some can’t even tell whether or not they heel strike! Happily though, as Gestalt therapist Fritz Perls would say, “awareness is curative.”

And, as Romanov says…

Our progress will only be as good as our ability to differentiate one movement from another, one effort from another…. taking in and processing all the signals, all the information about our body position in space, the timing of our movements and the level of efforts exerted…

He continues…

Gregory Bateson, a great American scientist, wrote that learning and “science [are] way[s] of perceiving… But perception operates only upon difference… and all perception of difference is limited by threshold. Differences that are too slight or too slowly presented are not perceivable.”

For instance, with one or two centimeters of foam underfoot diluting or fully depriving us of instructive stimulation, how could we possibly feel what’s naturally correct or incorrect? Short of having a conceptual model and a standard of running in mind, how else would we effectively frame, evaluate and adjust our actions? Successful running always remains a “less is more” proposition. Here, less distraction affords more awareness.

Cushioned Running Shoe

Cushioned Running Shoe

This Leads to Running

Pose

Start from the Pose position where we’re balanced on (the ball of) one foot while the other is pulled up under your hips. Picture this as arranging the lower body in a closed-top, figure-four position (4), with the upper body resting vertically above.

This “Pose” is that singular point in space and time that separates the previous stride from the next. It is where the centers of gravity of the body and swing leg are in line with support, the ball of the foot. Ideally, this occurs at mid stance. But, whether at mid stance or slightly beyond, the next component of continuing running– the Fall– cannot happen until the the Pose is reached. This isn’t my opinion, nor is it Romanov’s creation, rather it’s the laws of physics that make it so. Nature sets the standard.

So from here, in this Pose position, we stand on the precipice, ready to give ourselves to gravity and fall forward at 9.8m/s2 into the next stride, and the next…

Pose Position | Figure 4

Pose Position | Figure 4

* Experience it yourself: Get the feeling for the running Pose. Maybe do a few single leg quarter squats. Bounce up and down a bit. Do all this barefooted and feel support. Lean forward and back, exploring balance and imbalance. Notice where support begins to disappear.

It’s important to know that only by initially touching down on the ball of the foot are we able to access all the available leverage and elastic properties as we gently load our biomechanical spring system at mid stance. The first force plate graph is revealing. The running Pose occurs at the peak of the curve.

Force Plate 1 | Gentle Forefoot Touchdown

Force Plate | Gentle Forefoot Touchdown

In contrast, by crashing down on the heel or a so-called mid foot we forfeit the soft and safe loading of our natural spring and impose an oblique impact to a system ill designed to receive it. (Jump rope on your heels and flat footed to drive this point home.) But, in running we don’t feel it so much because even the thinest of soled shoes can attenuate enough local pain to allow the error to persist. Still, the harsh impact of 2 to 3 times bodyweight evidenced by the second force plate graph is being hammered into the body, stride after stride. With heel striking typical of most runners, is it any wonder that injury is so prevalent?

Force Plate | Harsh Heel Strike

Force Plate 2 | Harsh Heel Strike

Fall

So, immediately following mid stance our compressed biomechanical spring is quickly uncoiling and pushing us up slightly as we are now falling forward like a felled tree through a speed-appropriate range. Instead of pawing or pushing, our muscles simply hold our Pose position as we rotate from the ball of our foot which takes our center of mass along a horizontal plane, from point A to point B. Happily, rather than hitting the ground like the tree, we just change support and fall again, and again.

* Experience it yourself: Run in place. Notice how you’re interacting with the ground. Find to the differences between naturally running in place, landing flatfooted, and landing on the heel. Which feels right? Are you pushing into the ground, or are you pulling each foot from the ground. Now, keep running in place and let yourself fall forward…

End of Fall

End of Fall

* Also: From the running Pose stand maybe twelve inches from a wall. Now, let your whole body fall forward as a single unit, toward the wall, while holding your Pose position. Make sure to pivot on the ball of the foot instead of leaning from the ankle. (Please catch yourself with your hands before bumping your nose, okay?) Push yourself back to the vertical and repeat several times. Then, step back six inches and Fall again. Finally, step back another six inches and Fall once more. Switch support legs and repeat.

Notice how different it feels to Fall from twelve inches, eighteen inches, and twenty-four inches away from the wall. This is an easy way to begin understanding gravitational acceleration, and the difference between a narrow and wider range of Fall.

* And, now: Put your back against a wall and your feet a few inches from the wall and try running by using your powerful leg and hip muscles. Go ahead, try harder.

Bottom line, no one runs until they Fall. Again, Nature sets the standard.

Range of Fall Determines Pace

Romanov says…

In the Pose Method, the concept of gravity plays a prime role to make us run fast. It works just through different angles of deviation of the general center of mass from the point of support. If we want to run faster, the first thing we have to do is to [fall] forward more in each step. … At this point we are talking about high perception of the athlete allowing him to recognize all these nuances of the body [falling] forward… and its timing happening in a fraction of a second.

Our usable range of Fall, by the way, is narrow. From 0° to 22.5° from the vertical. Imagine falling from 12:00 to 12:04 on a clock face as the full extent of horizontal displacement. What’s more, most runners will access only a fraction of this available Fall. Slower runners necessarily Fall through an attenuated range, whether they are holding themselves back, or because they inadvertently arrive late to the running Pose. Dispense with the description “Speed = Stride Rate x Stride Length” and know now that it’s range of Fall and a complimentary cadence– a more specific rate of foot turnover– that are the real arbiters of pace.

Range of Fall | 12-Oh-4

Range of Fall | 12-Oh-4

Usain Bolt is a good example of a runner giving himself to gravity, as he Falls here from the vertical to more than 20°. See how he’s maintaining the Pose position? His knee is still bent, and his ankle is neutral as he hinges over the ball of his foot. Here, he’s accelerated and ready to release the ground.

Usain Bolt | Falling

Romanov explains 22.5°…

The forward displacement of the runner’s body is determined by the geometry of the falling body on support. The horizontal movement (acceleration) of the body is a function of the angle of deviation of the body from its vertical position that is a function of the vector of gravity and ground reaction force.

Of most interest was the dynamics of correlation between the horizontal and vertical components of [the] resultant vector between gravity and ground reaction, for every angle of deviation. The maximal prevalence of the horizontal component occurs at 22.5° angle, after which the vertical component starts dominating.

Pull

At the end of the Fall, when vertical ground force has dropped below one bodyweight, all that’s left to do is to get the support foot off the ground and recover the running Pose. This is the one volitional muscle action in running– simply, bending the knee– and its timing is everything.

Whether it’s just forgotten and left behind, or whether by trying to push off or paw back, a tardy trailing leg tends to precipitate an active landing, that is, having to throw a foot out in front of the body to prolong time on support so that that sluggish leg can catch up. What’s more, exaggerated leg-muscles tension interferes with letting go and freely falling with gravity around the support foot.

In any event, when precise timing is degraded, through dulled senses or because neural fatigue has set in– despite even extreme aerobic and muscular fitness– concomitant increases in impact, time on support, and biomechanical irregularities begin conspiring to undermine endurance. Endurance, then, can best be described as how well we’re able to maintain good technique, rather than by long we’re willing to continue slogging out the miles. Skill must last.

Pull Sequence

Pull Sequence

Like a musician practicing scales and arpeggios, or a martial artist rehearsing katas, a skill set is taught, learned and mastered so that technical fluency can flow, just so. Freely. Mindlessly. Indefinitely. Fortunately, instead of a multitude of notes or postures, running requires only that we become proficient at one thing– releasing the ground on time. That is, we Pull!

Romanov describes…

In order to do this an athlete has to have quite a high level of skill, which includes pulling the foot from the ground coinciding with falling in space and time, and muscle efforts enough to make this pull, but not more than this in order to avoid muscular tension.

* Experience it yourself: Balance in the running Pose, then change support, meaning Pull your support off the ground, and let the other foot find the ground on its own. Easy? Maybe not.

The tendency to reach for the ground before actually lifting the support foot indicates a greater concern with regaining support rather than removing it. See this by recording a couple of your stationary Pulls on video. Step through each, frame by frame, and notice where your feet pass each other. Is it about knee level, or closer to ankle level?

You’ll probably need to unweight yourself to leave support, and that’s okay– a brisk shoulder shrug is enough. Make sure to Pull before you begin letting the other foot down. Snap crisply into the running Pose with each Pull. Practice on each leg. Then, explore the Pull as you Fall toward a wall (as before).

Hardwired, But Short Circuited

Where we adults have to work at it, most young kids do all this naturally. And why wouldn’t they? Their primal grace, their inherent physical fluencies, still intact, engender action aligned with intent. Ah, the purity of movement.

Kid Running Pose

Kid, Running Pose

But, since childhood, most of us have been unwittingly rewiring ourselves to forget the sensations and coordinations that permit us to run fluidly and easily. Why? Again, wearing shoes disconnects us from any tactile appreciation of terrain, balance and motion. Also, by thinking of running in terms of muscles’ efforts we errantly reverse the current between brain action and bodily effect. That is, by our typical disregard for the primacy of gravity in creating human structure and locomotion we impede our conscious reacquaintance with natural motion. This, all bad.

And Now?

The good news is, by looking at the schematic of running as simply a linking together of one pose to the next we are able to again switch-on our psycho-physiology and run safely and effectively. Pose, Fall, Pull– nothing more, nothing less.

It could be that your desired fitness menu includes some combination of running farther, running faster, and running free of injury. If so, by learning to land in the running Pose you can avoid the injurious impact transient that is created by active heel strike and mid foot landings. By utilizing greater ranges of fall, you can capitalize on the same gravitational acceleration that the very fastest runners are using. And, rather than arbitrarily exercising muscles, by specifically training to consistently pull the support foot from the ground on time you will develop the metabolic and neural endurance– and confidence– that can extend your running skill even out to ultra distances. Finally, by re-learning how to work with instead of against physical laws you can now start running “naturally.”

Thus, we come full circle. Pose Method distills running into its essential elements (Pose, Fall, Pull) which best coordinate natural forces, so we can run– farther, faster, and free from injury.

***

References:

Links:

The New York Times occasionally publishes sound articles on fitness, but I’ve found their take on running to be routinely flawed. Tragically so— like their misguided pleas for gun control. In following suit, columnist Gretchen Reynolds asks Is Barefoot-Style Running Best? and reports that “If foot muscles become tauter and firmer, the scientists say, people’s arches should consequently grow higher.” Normally content to laugh and shrug off such errors, today I feel compelled to provide some perspective on running barefooted beyond pointing out that it’s ligaments— not muscles— that determine the height and integrity of the arch of a human foot. Since 140 Twitter characters just won’t cut it, here is “Runnin’ Nekkid,” a full chapter from my book Fitness, Straight-Up.

Bass Ackwards

Mark Twain said, “Civilization is the limitless multiplication of unnecessary necessities.”

Shoe companies and health care providers have traditionally put forth that various levels of biomechanical shortcomings are the root cause of our locomotive problems. We are inherently flawed, and only cleverly designed footwear is the solution. It’s no surprise then that the Brooks shoe company president, Jim Weber says, “We strongly believe most of our mileage should be logged in a performance running shoe, not barefoot.” He goes on, “Supportive, cushioned footwear is not only beneficial, it also plays an essential role in delivering a comfortable, injury-free running experience.” That perspective is not without precedent. Since the 1930s, corrective shoes have been designed and marketed as tools necessary for proper function.

Original Sin

Again, that we are inherently flawed is the presupposition, and indeed, physician R. Plato Schwartz plainly stated that humans need a heel under their shoe to throw their weight forward, step by step. Schwartz, an unseemly looking gent had eked out a niche for himself as an insurance company bloodhound sniffing out fake limps from genuine, injury-caused disabilities before he’d give himself fully to gait research. Later, he would claim that the horrors of flat feet could be mitigated with specialized heel-counters that prevent errant movement of the heel bone beneath the shin (pronation).

That Schwartz’s research and gait laboratory were directly funded by the Armstrong shoe company seemed to have escaped scrutiny by American physicians. Even his far-reaching claims that his Balance In Motion shoes, “when properly fitted, would correct flat feet, obliterate bunions, and callouses, alleviate sacroiliac pain, and,” in certain cases, “cure mental derangements by removing strains from the muscles and tendons of locomotion” weren’t sufficient to arch an eyebrow. Rather, it was Schwartz’s application of his methods to race horse performance that finally raised the ire of the medical community.

Fashion or Function

Historically, shoes and especially shoes with heels have served several functions, but none (save for, say, protective motorcycle boots) were functional, per se. On the acting stage heels and platforms were employed to distinguish rank and social status. Ancient Egyptian royalty was depicted in murals wearing heels while commoners were relegated to the lowly stature of bare feet. In Venice, Italy, platform shoes of 18” to even 30”— chopines— were worn by those who could afford such finery, along with the concomitant expense of hiring assistants to help them ambulate through street refuse and debris. Eventually, horseback riders found that a heel on their boots was useful for securing their feet in stirrups. The term well-heeled, by the way, derives from the association of the riding wear and the wealthy equestrians who wore them. However, in human locomotion and stance heels are necessarily problematic.

Consider the Leaning Tower of Pisa. This example of a columnar structure tilted slightly at its base leaves its crown hanging precariously farther afield. We’re similar, except our joints allow adjustment which provides a more visually vertical posture, but not without severely compromising our musculoskeletal alignment, our interface with the ground itself, and our very manner of movement, all so carefully arranged over eons by Mother Nature. I’d like to add that physician Victor Barker, in his book Posture Makes Perfect, describes any heel under a shoe as a “retrograde step…back towards the four-legged posture.” Such a pervasive artifice undermines some twenty million years of human evolution, and precipitates modern infirmity.

As a fashion accessory, shoes have their place. I appreciate a stylish pair of pumps on a shapely set of legs leading up to a short, short skirt as much as the next guy. But aside from the aesthetic, heels of any kind are bad news.

Nix the Kool-Aid

Now, incredibly, the problem of gait and shoe research is exacerbated by the presupposition, which is the assumption— and you know what happens when we assume things, right? — that the shod condition is somehow the baseline, the norm. Naturally, this skews all subsequent results. Conclusions are built on faulty premises. Of course, within that context, trying to talk sense to those invested in the medical / shoe-industry complex is akin to admonishing the ills of alcohol abuse to revelers at college fraternity bacchanalia. The intoxicated, you know, know no reason. Now, on the sober side there are podiatrists, MDs, and researchers who recognize some irrefutable facts.

Michael Warburton, an Australian physiotherapist, says…

Running related chronic injuries to bone and connective tissue in the legs are rare in developing countries where most of the people are habitually barefooted.

Canadian researchers, Robbins and Hanna say…

Where barefoot and shod populations exist, as in Haiti, injury rates of the lower extremity are substantially higher in the shoe wearing population.

Lynn Staheli, MD, renowned pediatric orthopedist says…

If you look at a place like China, and you compare the feet of those who don’t wear shoes with those who do you find that the non-shoe-wearers have better flexibility and mobility. Their feet are stronger, they have fewer deformities, and less complaints that the shoe-wearing population.

Further, the late podiatrist and author, William Rossi (who grew up in Boston, living above his parents’ shoe store) points out that…

From infancy on, most of the hundreds of millions of shoeless people of the world habitually stand and walk, not on soft, yielding turf (a persistent myth among the medical practitioners) but mostly on unyielding ground surfaces. Most shoeless children are raised in such environments in cities like Bombay, Manila, Mexico City, Calcutta, Jakarta, Bogota, etc., where the streets are either cobble-stoned or paved or hard packed turf. Those uncovered, unsupported feet grow with strong, normal arches.

Rossi continues…

A century ago, the rickshaw, which originated in Japan, was the common means of transportation in many Asian cities. In 1910, some 18,000 rickshaws and 27,000 rickshaw men were registered in Shanghai alone. The rickshaw men, most of whom began their occupations in their late teens, averaged 20 to 25 miles daily, trotting barefoot, mostly on cobbled or paved streets and roads. Many stayed at this occupation for 40 or 50 years. The feet and arches of almost all were healthy and exceptionally strong.

Consider too that researcher Adam Daoud of Harvard University references the 2004 work of Harvard professor, Dan Lieberman and University of Utah professor, Dennis Bramble, when he says that…

…evolutionary pressure selected for endurance running ability for around 2 million years before the development of the modern running shoe,” and, that “one would then predict barefoot running to be both efficient and safe.

What About Injury?

Over the last 40 or 50 years, as recreational running has enjoyed immense popularity in America, foot and leg ailments have become increasingly prevalent. Despite the claimed advances in running shoe technology, rehabilitation techniques, and training methods, there is still no real consensus on the actual cause of these injuries, and thus there has been no real remedy offered in the mainstream.

There is, however, the business model that treating the symptom is preferable to finding a cure because the revenue stream stops right there, with the cure. But, who would really believe such tacit collusion could exist in the modern, civilized, medical / shoe-industry complex? It can’t happen here, right?

In any event, about half of runners will be injured by their sport this year, next year, and the year after, and it will continue like that indefinitely. This necessarily indicates that the running shoe, and any other external fix has proven to be— based on evidence— an overall, abject failure. Instead solving problems, our trusted shoes could very well be causing problems.

The running shoe has been shown to materially alter sensory perception, making it more difficult to respond in correct context to variations in surface firmness. Moreover, cushioning makes it near impossible to sense the additional impact transient of a heel strike, which tends to accompany shod running, but is normally absent in barefoot running. You don’t feel the shock, but it’s still there! Compounding this, shoes, because they insulate and “support” the foot, necessarily weaken it in the same way that helping a chick peck its way out of its shell prevents initial, natural strengthening.

I know some might bristle at such a conclusion in large part because it’s unlikely many of us know a world without shoes. Most of us were forced into shoes before we were walking! So, such knee-jerk defensiveness of convention can be expected. The tenacious grip of belief can be hard to shake even in the face of irrefutable fact.

I might point out that through all the research that has sought the cause or causes of injury, running technique has taken a back seat. That’s because running, unlike other sports, is considered to be a natural activity. It’s argued humans already know how to run, which is true— up to a certain point.

As a species we’re more similar than we are different. We’re hard-wired for (endurance) running. As children, before we know anything, most of us experience our three dimensional world viscerally. From this most primal level, we begin running with a technique as fluid and efficient as that of any wild beast. Prescriptions of society— restrictive shoes, and fearful or irritated early parental admonitions, “Stop! Don’t run into the street.” — negatively affect gait, and create a cognitive dissonance that can be recognized in the body language of most runners. A heel-strike, common to about three-quarters of the running population is a startling example of the conscious mind saying, “Go!” and the subconscious mind saying, “No!” Every step slams on the brakes. This running style is a gestalt that reveals just how far we’ve veered from our natural alignment with those physical forces that originally modeled our form to suit our function. Understand that running speed is irrelevant in this equation, and that endemic injury is the smoking gun. That leads right to running technique, because it’s only through egregious misuse that we could so consistently be injuring the most resilient structures of our bodies, our feet, and legs.

I address this in lectures and in other, more running-specific writings, but let me just offer a quick aside. There could hardly be a greater voluntary insult to the body, to the lungs especially, than smoking cigarettes. Anyone who can recall their first smoke probably remembers the physical effect: quite a bit of coughing, burning, watery eyes; and, probably dizziness and nausea, too. That smoking provokes physiological responses akin to poisoning, or allergic reactions, would clearly seem to demonstrate that inhaling cigarette smoke, which contains carbon monoxide, among other toxins, presents a clear and present danger to the physical health of the human organism. Yet, Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, and the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center determined that the likelihood of getting lung cancer from smoking, which is said to kill about 130,000 people each year, can be accurately predicted by age, sex, and smoking history. For instance…

A 68 year-old man who smoked two packs a day for the past 50 years and continued to smoke had a 15% (less than 1 out of 7) chance of developing the disease in…the next ten years.

That 15% is at the high end of the scale. Compare that with the certainty that this year about half of all runners will be injured by their sport— running! — which is as natural to human beings as breathing fresh air. The issue here is not the severity of the ailments, say, lung cancer versus shin splints, but their respective prevalence. How could the odds possibly favor smoking forty cigarettes a day (more than two per waking hour), every day, for half a century? Let me say again: only through egregious misuse are we able to so consistently injure the most resilient structures of our bodies!

Because the running shoe materially alters natural gait and simultaneously robs us of the feedback necessary to correct and adjust our faulty stride, this protective, supportive device creates, and becomes itself a threatening environment. Sadly, with cushioned shoes, we don’t even get the initial red flag that a drag on a cigarette provides.

What’s the Fix?

In our consumerist society, according to the author of the best-selling book Born to Run, Christopher McDougall says, “We’re told to just buy something, instead of to just learn something.” Then, after purchased pain killers, hi-tech shoes, and orthotics fail, we still seek other passive remedies, dismissing learning how to run differently as too much bother. Lack of consensus confounds the issue. McDougall, in his book, queries Irene Davis, MD, then head of the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware, “So, what’s the right way to run?” She replies, “That’s the eternal question.” And, it gets worse. “There is no correct running form— and you can’t learn it. Form is God-given…If you systematize it, you destroy it,” says Olympian, Kip Keino in Roy Wallack’s book, Run For Life.

I say, however, that there must be one correct running form because Nature is parsimonious. Her process painstakingly fashions function and filters out the faulty. Correct running form is defined by that technique that allows each of us, with our functionally identical musculoskeletal systems to run in harmony with Nature. That means to run comfortably within the framework of the same physics (including gravity and ground reaction) that determined our morphology and physiology, and to do so without shims, splints, or crutches. If you cannot run barefooted with a particular running style— heel striking, paw back, foot drag, what-have-you— then that style is necessarily invalid. By the way, McDougall learned how to run barefooted, and in so doing he cured an injury that stymied two MDs, and a marathon-running podiatrist. Barefoot is potent medicine! Well, more accurately, let’s just say that running barefoot removes one cause of injury.

While running form itself is fully detailed and annotated in Correct Running Form and Running Form: Simplified, the following briefly describes how running really works.

As a Pose Method running coach I consider running in a novel way, but one that’s as natural to humans as are the undulations of flying to sparrows, and swimming to elephant seals. That means regardless of medium, on this planet, horizontal locomotion requires us to hitch a ride with gravity. In running it’s like this:

From the moment our (fore) foot touches the ground until mid-stance, aka the running pose, our bodies hinge from that support on the ground. As they do this gravity is accelerating our center of mass as it falls to the earth. At the same time our natural biomechanical spring— that musculoskeletal system so carefully arranged through eons of evolutionary processes, and which includes the arch of the foot, the ankle, knee, and hip joints, and all their elastic tissues— is being compressed, not unlike a pogo stick. From mid-stance, this spring quickly recoils and pushes us up to where we can again give ourselves to gravity.

Following this rebound, as our stride continues, the hip, knee, and ankle extend further, but not to push us forward. This extension serves only to keep the foot in contact with the ground so the body can fall through a longer arc, pivoting about its support like a tree felled in the forest. This increases the horizontal displacement of the center of mass. Beyond a certain point foot traction begins giving way to slippage.

All this occurs in about a quarter second and between -6 and 22.5 degrees from the vertical, depending on speed. In faster runners it happens more quickly, there is less knee flexion, and vertical oscillation is reduced.

The last step is to change support. That is, to lift or pull the foot from the ground. The center of mass and the body then begin free falling more downward than forward, right into the next stride.

I’d like to mention that an erroneous concept in running— the push-off— endures perhaps because of a visual illusion. An extended lower limb appearing to powerfully drive an archetypal running stride reinforces the impression of strong muscular effort in fast running. Yet, for the push-off to work as described the posterior ground reaction force (PGRF) would have to be greater than bodyweight to provide acceleration. This, according to Newton’s Third Law of Motion— for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The problem is, it isn’t. PGRF is always below bodyweight, so push-off cannot accelerate the runner.

What’s more, ground reaction forces are the same between faster and slower runners at the same lean angles meaning faster runners are not pushing themselves any harder. You see, both speed and PGRF increase with lean angle because of angular velocity (of the body rotating about its contact with the ground). Posterior ground reaction, instead of being the seat of propulsion assumed by conventional wisdom, since it remains below bodyweight, turns out to be merely supportive. PGRF is a frictional force that allows a longer horizontal resultant vector.

So, running correctly and naturally is elegantly simple— just Pose, Fall, Pull! I advocate and teach this running technique because I’ve researched running enough to understand the Pose Method to be precisely that singular correct form that necessarily allows safe and efficient running. (If there were something better, I’d be using it instead.) The system of Pose Method drills ingrains proper mechanics and that all-important perception that allows runners to know, by feel, when they are running correctly, and more important, when they are not. While having such a blueprint dramatically shortens the learning curve, just by barefootin’ we tend to move closer and closer to the natural ideal anyway, each time we run. Our success becomes a matter of awareness, practice, and patience.

In the Long Run

Whether or not you will choose to learn Pose Method running, my recommendation for now is that by taking off your shoes and running you will immediately begin to reconnect with the natural function of your body. Injurious and inefficient heel-striking will soon give way to springy forefoot landings, a quicker cadence (foot turnover), and a much greater proprioceptive sense, which over time will allow you to run across a variety of terrain, lightly and comfortably, with or without shoes.

So, barefoot running is best learned during the preseason when fitness is a lesser concern. Unless you are already regularly barefooted the progression toward appreciable distance takes weeks for some, and months for others. Avoid rushing this! Should you be able to get through two miles on your first time out, prematurely exposing your tender feet to the harsh world, you could be rewarded with deep blood blisters, surface abrasions, and aching and burning sensations that can last for more than a week. That’s hardly encouraging. You might erroneously conclude that barefoot is not for you. Frequency, not duration, is your key to successfully adding barefoot to your training. Rx: Run a city block every day for a week. Then run two blocks for two weeks. Run three blocks for three weeks, and so on. Get the feel for barefoot running, step by step and give your bones, muscles, and soles of your feet the months of time required to sufficiently develop and strengthen. Your body will adapt at its own pace.

By the way, Andrew Weil, MD, in his audio book Breathing: The Master Key To Self-Healing, describes one of his patients who, suffering terribly from stress and anxiety, was prescribed specific breathing exercise to elicit his desired calm and relaxation. Though it took several years of practice before the patient would realize the full internal peace he sought, he did eventually succeed in taking charge of his own state of mind instead of turning himself over to passive, anesthetic treatments. My point is, however long it takes, it’s worth your time and effort if you can learn to more comfortably run without restrictive, numbing, and gait-altering shoes.

Choosing Your Path

As you weigh the evidence on both sides of the argument, and perhaps apply Occam’s razor— the simplest solution is probably correct— you could very well determine for yourself that shoes are an unnecessary necessity. Or not.

I don’t really expect that you will throw away your shoes for good and now only run barefooted. Indeed, because of additional traction, protection from ground-surface heat, the occasional bottle-cap, or piece of broken glass, or the unknowns of nighttime running, a light, flat pair of shoes is probably a good idea. (So is looking where you’re going.) Nonetheless, the compelling reason for you to include unshod sessions in your training is that barefoot supports and generally strengthens your feet, and therefore your fitness, overall.

Without admitting they got it wrong all along some shoe companies have hopped aboard the barefoot bandwagon with various iterations of minimalist footwear. Some are vast improvements over ordinary running shoes while others are just more of the typical bells and whistles. Remember, less is more.

For what it’s worth, when I run barefooted I prefer to run without shoes. When I do wear shoes for running I’ll use the Vibram Five Fingers, Classic. Their new EL-X model looks like a promising model, too. In triathlon, for speed of transition, I’d choose a racing flat that would just quickly slip over bare feet. Besides consuming precious race time, putting feet into socks is doubly confining and restrictive. When I do wear socks I choose Injinji five-toe socks to keep my digits free inside of motorcycle boots and dress shoes. So to sum it up, instead of cultivating fragility and weakness by wearing shoes, my aim in runnin’ nekkid is to celebrate what Leonardo Da Vinci called a masterpiece of engineering: that is, the human foot.