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.