06/27/2013 05:57 pm ET Updated Aug 27, 2013

Running: Barefooted (Part 4)

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 painkillers, 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, M.D., 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 M.D.s 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.

Check out Running: Barefooted (Part 5): In the Long Run-- "... 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..."

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