Had the pleasure last week to be a guest on Nora Speakman’s “Liminality Life” podcast! Really enjoyed our conversation around my evolutionary journey and how I bring that experience into the work I do to help people navigate theirs. Have a listen, I’d love your comments!
My current impassioned physical pursuit is trail running. I’ve been a runner on and off since college and for the most part have enjoyed it as a great way to stay aerobically fit. And as many of you know, as a Certified Rolfer in Austin I’ve posted a lot over the years on Facebook about feet and going barefoot. But I’d never really made the leap to barefoot or minimal-shoe running – though I’ve owned two pairs of barefoot/minimalist shoes for years now and have loved hiking in them. Running barefoot or minimal, though, seemed hard; painful even.
When I took a MovNat natural movement workshop last summer, I was finally introduced to “natural running” technique – I think it’s safe to say this is barefoot running technique. As a Certified Rolfer in Austin and a dedicated explorer of somatics and the Self, this really just clicked a lot of things into place for me about human biomechanics, my own body, and how we’re designed to move.
In a nutshell, running “naturally” employs your fascial system’s natural elastic rebound to create efficient movement, lessening the impact on your body and reducing energetic demand, making it possible to run longer distances with ease and flow. Now, of course it’s not that simple for everyone – a whole host of factors go into this efficiency such as posture, biomechanical freedom, overall health factors, etc. We all know someone who jumped on the barefoot running bandwagon and got hurt. After spending our lives seated for the most part, “natural” doesn’t always come naturally!
The fundamental difference in techniques is between a “down” in heel-striking (pushing forward and landing downward on the heel), and an “up” in barefoot running (pulling/lifting oneself off the ground, landing on the forefoot, and allowing the body to spring back upward).
These mechanics, when available, are remarkably simple. The primary driver of your run is your psoas (in my opinion), a deep hip flexor that attaches your femur to your spine – something I work on with clients a lot as a Certified Rolfer in Austin. As your psoas flexes your hip and brings your knee upward, you effectively contract the fascia of the leg and foot flexors. Releasing your flexed leg and foot downward “springs” your leg open – very little effort is exerted here, you simply contracted the spring and then let it spring back open on its own.
Landing on the forefoot lengthens the plantar fascia, Achilles’ tendon and hamstrings – three extremely resilient and springy structures. What happens when you lengthen a spring beyond its resting state? It will naturally spring back into place, of course. This action in the foot and posterior leg enables the leg to easily and efficiently spring back upward, where the psoas can then gently flex the knee upward again and continue the running cycle. Efficient, easy – a natural cycle of flexion and extension happening with little effort.
Using this technique employs the body’s natural shock-absorption, resulting in an easier run with less exertion and impact throughout the musculoskeletal system. And, it doesn’t require the use of an artificial, external device (a heel cushion) to provide you with support and protection. See the video here for a beautiful example of barefoot running in action.
Contrast that with ‘traditional’ running technique that we all know and love – reach the leg forward, strike the heel (which is protected by a rather thick cushion in your running shoe), and push the ground away as you extend your hip and leg backwards. Lots of impact through the system here, hence the need for padded shoes and the high injury rates among runners.
Over the years I’ve had several conversations with very good competitive runners on this topic. A marathoner friend of mine recently claimed that we as humans have evolved such that we need heel support. I strongly disagree, naturally (it’s only been a few decades with these shoes), but it was a good conversation to have and it helped me hone my thinking on the subject.
Even more impactful to my learning, years ago I had an ultra-runner client – phenomenal athlete, dedicated to her craft. We worked together around the time I was reading ‘Born to Run’ which introduced the world to the long-distance running Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, ultra-running culture, barefoot-running celebs like Barefoot Ted, and had an amazing, insightful dose into human evolutionary development. And I was very into my barefoot shoes at the time. My client posed a great (if somewhat cynical) question my way: “If we’re meant to run barefoot, why haven’t any barefoot runners won races?”
Boom. Kind of put me in my place. She was right in a sense. If it’s so great and what we’re supposed to be doing, why are heel-strikers kicking butt over barefooters out there? My marathoner friend echoed that sentiment.
Well, here’s the deal: A Certified Rolfer in Austin’s Theory about Running. I think there’s an inherent fallacy underlying the heel-striker/race-winning argument. That fallacy is that running is about racing, speed, and winning. It’s not, plain and simple.
Humans did not evolve as runners in order to go fast. Any apex predator that would have it in for us – a cheetah (70 mph), lion (50 mph), hyena (37 mph), or grizzly bear (30 mph) – would easily overtake a human at perhaps 20 mph in a sprint. Heck, even if a buffalo (40 mph) or elephant (25 mph) decided to trample us we’d be toast. We’re evolved to outthink and outwit our natural enemies, not outrun them.
Humans did not evolve as runners in order to be fast and win races. Winning races came much, much later, and is primarily an ego-centric notion. We aim for speed and to win races because we want to, not because we’re designed to. At its core, running is about adaptability, efficiency, and endurance. Christopher McDougall laid this argument out extremely well in ‘Born to Run’ describing native peoples’ long-distance travel and hunting of game that’s naturally faster than us. We steadily chase the gazelle, wearing them down to the point of exhaustion and collapse. Then, dinner time.
My experience on the trail, running efficiently and easily (for the most part, I’ll admit to some fitness and structural kinks along the way), and using my innate elastic support and motion has been pretty close to blissful when I’m in the rhythm. It’s a meditative, hyper-present experience with my body, how it works, and how it interacts with the Earth. Adding in occasional nature Parkour, climbing and balancing on trees, or crawling up and down steep slopes makes for a great natural movement playtime! I don’t think of myself as fast out there, but I am in the FLOW. And I’ve gone from being able to run about 20-30 minutes with a traditional gait in recent years to easily 45-60+ minutes on the trail. This shift came quickly and easily as I dialed in my mechanics, it had little to do with a dramatic increase in fitness. That’s next.
Now, barefoot/minimalist running isn’t for everyone. It requires your mechanics to be dialed; you cannot be lazy (I also think heel cushions are one of those inventions that allow us to be lazy), but you don’t have to be a Certified Rolfer in Austin to get it right. All of this doesn’t make traditional racers/heel-strikers incorrect in my mind. It’s just a different orientation. If you want speed and race results, thick shoes and striking your heel may be the way to go for you. If you’re into a steady, meditative exploration of your body in the natural environment, I’ll see you out in the woods!
Mike Williams is a Certified Rolfer in Austin. He can be reached at (512) 470-8998.
Last month’s topic was Does Rolfing Structural Integration Hurt? As I mentioned there, I speak with just about every new client and acquaintance about why it shouldn’t. Usually when I have this conversation with new clients, it’s pretty quickly followed with something along the lines of “well, I have a high pain tolerance anyway, so do what you gotta do.” This is a similar, but slightly different topic, and I think it’ll be a great segue into a little bit of technical information about the process of Rolfing Austin TX. But first, a bit on our thought processes.
While I think most people understand that Rolfing Structural Integration needn’t hurt in theory, in practice we often come up against a mental construct that tells us the way to achieve major change in our bodies (or lives, or careers, or relationships, etc. etc.) is to exert ourselves more. Working harder yields greater results, right? Our experiences often support this idea – whether in school, at work, at the gym, etc. – and our culture most certainly supports that notion as well. Take a look anywhere in the media and you’ll see a bevy of messages about working hard, playing hard, always living life to the fullest, not resting, and on and on and on. See ads for 5-Hour Energy, Nike, or anything else that encourages you to never kick back and relax. Especially on the weekend. Like this one! (I especially love that it adds in the guilt — way to hook us in even more!)
Now, there are many examples where this notion breaks down – overtraining syndrome, adrenal fatigue, pulling an all-nighter to try and actually learn something, expecting quality production from someone consistently working 90+ hours a week (that one’s a nod to my previous career in investment banking!), and repetitive stress injuries to name just a few. But until you’ve experienced one of those situations, you may still believe that “more = more.”
So, I may clearly explain to clients that “pain does NOT equal gain,” but the expectation is often still there. To get significant change in the body, we must be about to work hard. Right??
Wrong. We’re going to work smart.
A Rolfer friend of mine once told me that a client described our work to him this way: “Massage is like the boy scouts, and Rolfing Austin TX is like the Special Forces.” With apologies to my many LMT friends out there, I love this. As a Rolfer, I’m constantly looking for the most efficient way to help your body move easier and feel better. That doesn’t mean I’m going to hammer away at that already-in-pain part of your body with some greater level of force (that’s what most people think Rolfing Austin TX is – a “deeper-tissue” massage). It means I’m going to make gentle changes to the organization of your entire body so that your pain will resolve itself. If we work smarter, we don’t have to work as hard. Your body will come into a place of better balance, and the pain symptoms will very often resolve.
Many, many times this has happened – at the end of a session a client expresses their surprise for how mellow our work was, and when they return for their next appointment, they casually say something like, “Now that you ask, I guess I haven’t really noticed the pain that much since our last session.” It sometimes catches them off-guard, and they almost can’t believe it’s true. Both of these things are the result of an expectation coming up against a different reality.
Holistic methods – like Rolfing – ask the whole of your body to become healthier so that symptoms can resolve. This isn’t always painful or “challenging.” We’re often more used to palliative methods that seek to fix the very-specific thing that’s wrong, and those can often (not always) be very challenging – surgery, physical therapy, pharmaceuticals, Airrosti and other, more-forceful manual methods.
In the next installment, I’ll get into a bit of a technical description about how Rolfing Austin TX works in order to explain why it doesn’t need to be among the challenging therapies and hard work we’re used to. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you – where have you been surprised by the greater effectiveness of less effort in your life? Leave a comment below!
I get this question about Rolfing almost every time a new client comes in, or I tell someone what I do for a living. For some reason the assumption that Rolfing Structural Integration is painful just lives out there in the world. It’s a holdover from the 70s, the era of catharsis-inducing, confrontational therapies (I bet that was an interesting time to be involved in the healing arts!).
The short answer is: No, it shouldn’t. At least not in the way you’re thinking. And when most people think Rolfing, they think this:
But there’s a REALLY important longer answer. And it starts with the fact that there is absolutely no objective measurement for pain. Not a single one. If I ask you “On a scale of 1 to 10, what level is the pain?” every single person will have a different set of definitions for what those numbers represent. Pain is a completely subjective experience folks, and neuroscience has done a lot in recent years to help us understand this. Check out this TED talk; the speaker does a great job outlining how this all works. Your brain has a set of meanings that are associated with different sensations – some are safe, and some are dangerous. Your response to those sensations, your relative perception of “pain,” depends on what they mean to you.
During a Rolfing Structural Integration session, you WILL feel sensation. I often use my fingers, palms, soft fists, and forearms with a gentle shearing force to coax stuck fascial tissues open, to unstick them from their too-closely-held friends and neighbors. Sometimes this burns a bit, sometimes we’ll approach an edge of your tolerance to free something up, and you’ll certainly feel the pressure of my hands and arms contacting your body. How your brain defines pain will determine if it “hurts” or not. And it’s not as you’d expect all the time – I’ve worked on huge, muscle-bound athletes that wince at a relatively light touch, and thinner, more-delicate people that don’t bat an eyelash with deep contact. Everyone’s different.
I make it a point in my practice to not just make it an overly-simplified matter of “Well, you just have a lower pain tolerance.” The most important thing in my Rolfing Structural Integration practice – I can’t over-emphasize this, the most important thing – is that you and your nervous system are able to integrate the experience of our work together. That means that you’ll actually get some long-term benefit from it. You can certainly overwhelm the system with huge, intense, sweat-inducing work, but most of my clients that have experienced that from other types of bodywork tell me the results last just a few days (That’s just endorphins folks! Your body just sent some feel-good chemicals to the rescue.)
So how do we know whether or not your body’s going to be able to integrate the work? How do we know that we’re at a “good edge” vs. a bad one? Well, I think the simplest way to track for that is to notice what you and your body are doing during the session.
•Are you bracing for impact? Are you clenching your teeth / curling your toes / holding your breath and just suffering through with the hope of relief when it’s over? This is a surefire sign that your nervous system is overwhelmed and on the defensive.
•Are you checking out, dissociating from the experience, heading off to your happy place (or even your non-happy, thinking-about-work place) to avoid noticing the sensation? Yep, this means you’re not integrating the work well too.
•Are you having trouble relaxing into the contact, with the perception that the tension simply needs to be worked through?
If these types of things are happening, the pressure’s too much. Perhaps you think that I can work deeper than I am…even that thought (like your definition of what pain is) may be based on a preconceived set of definitions for what constitutes work, benefit, change, etc. in your body, and often that’s at odds with how your body is responding as well. That’s what I’m listening to as I work — how is the body responding? The physiological response in your body always trumps the “thinking” response. As I’ve written previously, working in mindfulness is a powerful way to authentically connect with the true response of the body, beyond the thinking mind’s construct of what “should” be happening.
During Rolfing Structural Integration sessions I make it a point to regularly ask for feedback about the contact, and how the body’s responding. I’m pretty good at tracking your body’s response to the work, but I also want regular, mindful feedback; it all helps me learn how to best work with you and your unique system. My goal as a practitioner is for you to get the absolute most out of each and every session. I’m committed to your growth and change as a person as manifested in positive change in your body. So while you will feel sensation as we work, I want you in a curious state, a place where you can be interested in the changing sensations as we go, so we can both notice where we begin, where we go, and where we end up. That makes for a positive challenge in the journey, where we both learn about you and how your body works along the way.
And, interestingly enough, most of my clients will tell you that they were surprised at how much they could relax during sessions (they really thought it was going to hurt!)…I regularly have to ask people to wake up and participate a bit! Besides, if this little guy can take it, it must feel pretty good.
If you’re curious about what Rolfing Structural Integration will be like for you, give me a call! I’d love to answer your questions!