Natural Running Technique?

Recently a well-known running coach posted some general comments about ChiRunning®/Pose Method causing injuries.  This is a highly respected (from myself included), published coach who has helped 1000s if not 100,000s of runners get moving, keep moving and accomplish their fitness goals.  His work is complimentary to anyone with a similar purpose.  His identity is not important; and the following may be considered useful so each of us can fully consider which approach to running technique we wish to adopt.

Some Running Approach Options:
1.  Run the way you run ‘naturally’, and don’t mess with your running technique.
2.  Consider running technique; usually based on the body’s design and simple laws of physics for the purpose of energy efficiency and injury-prevention.

First, consider that running ‘naturally’ or instinctively might mean running the way we ran when we took our first running steps as a toddler.  A lot has happened between then and now, it is called ‘life'; and this biography can certainly affect our current approach to life’s experiences.  Go to any playground and watch little kids run.  They will run with a subtle angle of lean from the ankles, and their feet land flat underneath them.

In addition, we might also want to consider how we first walked as a toddler.  Watch little kids walk and you will see a very similar technique.  Lean is even subtler, which might be considered simply leading with the body, and their feet land underneath them.

In both cases, kids move more from their center with alignment and balance.  If you watch people run or walk from non-industrialized areas, they will generally maintain these same concepts.  And the longer into life people consistently run or walk (in particular without shoes), the more closely they maintain these concepts.  A prime example is many of the world class runners from African nations.

[Update: Another great example is the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico, which have recently been highlighted in Born to Run by Christopher McDougall.  They also run with great posture, a subtle lean forward from the ankles, and a mid(full)-foot landing under them.]

So … if we want to run/walk ‘naturally’, we might want to define that term a bit more.

Second, athletes in almost every other sport consistently consider technique to improve performance/efficiency and reduce/eliminate injury.  Why would running or even walking be any different?  If someone was running or walking very awkwardly, every one of us would probably cringe, look away and think “ewww, please don’t do that”.  So at what point is considering technique no longer necessary; where is the line drawn?  When you can’t see the extreme need?  Or perhaps when you can’t sense (feel) the need via discomfort, fatigue, aches, or injury?  And who decides where that line is drawn?  From my own experience, there is always a way to improve my technique on any given day, even practicing some aspect of my running when I am not running.  It is an ongoing process to improve to reach higher and higher levels of fitness and overall well-being.  For me, there is no line.  For you, you get to decide.

Common ChiRunning Misconceptions:
– A lean is a lean is a lean.  Not true, a lean from the waist is very different than an efficient lean from the ankles.  If you are trying ChiRunning, make sure your posture is aligned* and you are only slightly leaning from the ankles.  If not, you will likely suffer from the back or neck pain mentioned in the published comments referred to above.
– Land on the forefoot or land on the midfoot (full-foot) and then push off with the feet.  Again, not true; in ChiRunning you land midfoot (full-foot) and you do not push off with your feet.  If you do; stress on tense feet, ankles and calves can result in one or more lower leg injuries common to running.  It is also very important to have loose ankles and feet so you can efficiently fall with no resistance as your foot lands.

[*Postural alignment is based on the body's functional design; 1) shoulders over hips over ankles, 2) a level pelvis and 3) a neutral head position, ears aligned over shoulders with back crown of head tall.]

If the above two misconceptions have not been fully addressed, then back/neck or foot injuries cannot conclusively be linked to the ChiRunning technique itself.

Running Upright vs. Running with a Lean:
– If you run from an upright vertical position (diagram to the right), you have to nCRv2power yourself.  If you run with an efficient lean from the ankles (diagram below), you can tap into gravity for propulsion reducing effort and negative strain on the body.
– And if you run from a upright vertical position, your feet/legs will likely land in front of your body.  A simple law of physics states that if your foot lands (ie. heel strike) in front of your body, it is essentially acting as a brake to your forward momentum.  This means you are powering yourself and braking (‘breaking’) yourself at the same time.  What happens in a vehicle when you have your foot on the gas and the brake at the same time?  When you see a vehicle traveling with its brake lights on, what comes to mind?  The equivalent result is working harder than you need to; and many of the running injuries at the knee and below, or sometimes in the hip or lower back.  You may not feel this impact right away, but many runners will eventually be affected by this simple law of physics.  Laps, miles or years down the road the repetitive stress impact of braking can result in injury.

Here is the best analogy I have for Upright Running vs. Running with a Lean.  If you had a 175 lb object to move across the ground, would you rather move a 175 lb sphere or a 175 lb cube?  Running with a Lean, and keeping your feet landing under you, is more like rolling a sphere and once you get it moving momentum will do most of the work.  Upright Running, with your feet landing in front of you, is more like pushing a cube and if you stop pushing … it stops moving.

CRv2[An additional note on the concept of 'rolling';  most web resources regard the wheel as one of the oldest and most important inventions of all time.]

The statistics indicate a high percentage (~65%) of runners get injured every year.  Injured or not, changing technique is to be done slowly and carefully; there are years of habits in mental programming, muscle memory and muscle conditioning to be re-formed into new habits.  Just like everything else in nature, change occurs gradually for long term success.

In the end, it is an individual decision about what is best for each of us.  If you are not running and walking/hiking effortlessly, with little to no recovery and without any discomfort/aches/pains/injury … ever … I highly suggest you consider ChiRunning® and/or ChiWalking® and take a good look for yourself.

[As I was blogging this, a fellow ChiRunner contributed the following quote to the latest ChiRunning Newsletter which suggests the Egyptians utilized a lean when running:  "I know the proper attitude for a statue, I know how a woman holds herself ... the way a man poises himself to strike with a harpoon...the bewildered stare of a man roused from sleep... the tilt of a runner’s body..."
- From an Egyptian Tomb, Approximately 1280 BC]

[What about running barefoot? Some thoughts on this approach to running 'naturally' here: Blog Post: Should We Run Barefoot?]

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[An added note on the results of a ChiRunning Study are below.]

ChiRunning Study conducted by West Virginia University:

Study Results Highlights:
91% reported the technique has played a role in preventing injury.
95% reported their ease of running has improved.
91% reported they would recommend ChiRunning to other runners.

Study Conclusions:
– “You can change your mechanics to a biomechanically more efficient, lower impact form.”
– With these changes “you can reduce your rates of injury and effort“.
– “Running technique should and must be taught, just as proper technique is taught in almost any sporting endeavor“.

Study References:
– An article on the West Virginia Study study is online here:  http://www.runwashington.com/news/may08chirunning.html
– The study results can be accessed directly here:  http://www.chirunning.com/shop/pages.php?tab=r&pageid=18&id=354

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David Stretanski is a holistic health, fitness and wellness coach and Certified ChiRunning®/ChiWalking® Instructor.  For more information on David, please see his About, Contact page or his website at http://www.eChiFitness.com.

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ChiRunning® and ChiWalking® are registered trademarks of ChiLiving, Inc.

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6 Responses to Natural Running Technique?

  1. [...] a previous post “Natural Running Technique?, the question of running technique was discussed via the following two [...]

  2. [...] lift the knee. Lifting the knee brings the leg forward and allows it to land in front of the body (see the impact of this here).  Bending the knee creates a vertical arc with the feet.  See the diagram to the right showing [...]

  3. [...] [*We might consider that the way we run 'naturally' is the way we ran instinctively as young children in bare feet.  This is the same way many people or cultures who have been running all of their lives continue to run.  They have maintained the instinct for running efficiently and without injury.  There are numerous images and videos on the internet - some examples of 'natural' running might be elite Kenyan runners, and also the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico (See related post).] [...]

  4. [...] [*We might consider that the way we run 'naturally' is the way we ran instinctively as young children in bare feet. This is the same way many people or cultures who have been running all of their lives continue to run as an adult. They have maintained the instinct for running efficiently and without injury. There are numerous images and videos on the internet - some additional examples of 'natural' running might be many Kenyan marathon runners, and also the Tarahumara Indians from Mexico. More on this in a related blog post: Natural Running Technique.] [...]

  5. [...] lift the knee. Lifting the knee brings the leg forward and allows it to land in front of the body (see the impact of this here).  Bending the knee creates a vertical arc with the feet.  See the diagram to the right showing [...]

  6. [...] a previous post “Natural Running Technique?, the question of running technique was discussed via the following two [...]

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