Learning to Run

Running is a natural movement, we just kind of know how to do it, right? What’s there to learn? It’s a gait that is available to us humans. It’s kind of like breathing, we don’t have to think about it. I used to love running as a kid. I would chase bunnies in the park and I loved the feeling of air rushing past and even more so the sense of ease I was able to achieve. No, I never thought about how I did it, no I never felt tired, and no I never felt restricted in my movement. In fact I felt completely free, although I never caught a bunny. But then I changed the way I run three times.

When I started to realize that the bunny chasing is actually sprinting and I am kinda good at it, I joined the track team in middle school. That’s when I got a pair of running shoes they sell in any sporting goods store. The shoes had a big ol’ heel about an inch and a half thick and were marketed for trail running. Well, I figured that people who make them know what they are doing and you are supposed to land on your heel when you run since it is so well cushioned.

So I changed the way I run to fit the shoe. Debilitating shin splints and black toe nails quickly followed. Yes I attempted to sprint while landing on my heels. Yes it was painful, and of course my performance decreased, actually plummeted. My coaches started to say that my gait resembled that of a middle distance runner. Oh the horror when my dream of being an elite sprinter started to slip away.

When discussing appropriate footwear at a specialty running store that I made my parents drive me to for over an hour each way, I was told that everyone has their own gait and some people land on their heel and some less so. They were more concerned with my supposed pronation and put me in a shoe with a stiff arch support. Well, in addition to landing on my heel, this shoe got me landing on the very outside of my foot, not allowing my arch to absorb any impact whatsoever, doing that job for me, so to speak.

Well I lasted with this running style until about sophomore year, training as a hurdler and middle distance runner, putting in about 30 miles a week. All the while, I kept searching for a way to get back to that sense of ease when I used to run in the park and it felt so fast and easy. I was reading a National Geographic that explained why cheetahs ran so fast. There was a visual of the anatomy of a cheetah’s leg, showing that the heel was so far away from the ground and that cheetahs (like many other animals) run essentially on their toes.

Anatomy of a cheetah

That was my revelation. I realized, that to run faster, I have to land, and stay up on my toes. I took that a bit too literally, oscillating toward the other extreme. So I changed my running style to be completely on my toes. I now had to fight my heavy thick heeled running shoes to land on my forefoot. Needless to say, my soleus muscle burned like crazy while I got used to it. Although it introduced a whole new type of pain, I was able to sprint faster and got a bit closer to that sense of freedom I was looking for.

After years of running this way, high up on my toes, my back had enough. What I didn’t realize was that by staying completely on my forefoot, I was not allowing any amortization and cushioning to occur neither from the shoe, nor from my arch, so my lower back absorbed the shock of landing with every step. Finally in grad school my back pain was so bad that when I had it looked at, I was told at the age of 22 that I probably shouldn’t run anymore.

Well that was really confusing. I was doing my best, and I thought I was doing the right thing. No one was telling me I was doing the wrong thing when it came to my running form, in fact no one ever talked to me about running technique even though I was happy to change it and make it more efficient. Besides, the whole running thing was supposed to be good for you instead of excruciating on the joints. I continued searching for the answer.

Right around this time, I started seeing studies and videos come out about barefoot running. Even a book was published about just how natural barefoot running is. Minimalist running shoes entered the market with a huge back lash about how dangerous they are. Well I started doing my own research and my own experimentation. I found myself jogging very slowly completely barefoot or in socks on the concrete sidewalk, on grass in the park, and even on the rubber track. Needless to say the blisters on the bottoms of my feet were tremendous. So much so that I could barely walk and hobbled around on the outsides of my feet.

However, I did discover that running barefoot provided immediate feedback. You absolutely cannot land on your heel when running barefoot. That will send a shock all the way up the spine. You also cannot be stiff in the shoulders, core, and hips. All of these work together to counteract the shock of each landing with a twisting motion. Most importantly, you land with the whole foot, allowing the arch to act as a major shock absorber. I discovered some excellent books that helped me immensely along the way, as well as a whole new approach to movement. After about six months of training, I found a happy medium. Using minimal shoes and allowing my arch to do all the work, I was able to run pain free with an incredible sense of ease.

My whole running journey is an example of me oscillating around thid natural equilibrium where after the initial displacement of running in thick heeled shoes, it took me a while to rediscover something I already knew how to do. I overrode my body’s instinct in favor of what I was being offered by the market. It took me years of pain, injury, and suffering to figure out how to listen to my body and rediscover an optimal movement pattern I naturally had all along. At this point I am much less concerned with my performance, but I certainly have regained the sense of ease when sprinting and chasing an occasional bunny.

Lessons learned:

  • Running is a natural movement pattern that can get easily obfuscated by modern conveniences
  • You can definitely change any movement pattern, even an ingrained one.
  • Your body knows what to do, you just have to let it.
  • You have all you need in terms of arch support. Humans managed just fine before some guy in Oregon made shoes in a waffle iron.
  • Movement should feel easy not painful. The “no pain no gain” mantra is just not true, no matter how much pain I was willing to absorb. The gain only came once I found a way to move pain free.

Comment below on how your feet land when you run. What types of shoes do you like to wear?

Dedicated to the memory of Warren who spent his weekends going on 50-100 mile runs in minimal shoes with a thermos of bone broth.