“Running does not hurt your body. It’s the way you run that does damage and causes pain.” – Danny Dreyer
“Running was mankind’s first fine art, our original act of inspired creation. Way before we were scratching pictures on caves or beating rhythms on hollow trees, we were perfecting the art of combining our breath and mind and muscles into fluid self-propulsion over wild terrain. And when our ancestors finally did make their first cave paintings, what were the first designs? A downward slash, lightning bolts through the bottom and middle—behold, the Running Man.” – Christopher McDougall
Quite simply, our bodies are made to move. Regular physical activity makes us happier, healthier, and more productive. The long-term benefits are well documented – it lowers blood pressure, blood sugar, and cholesterol, while dramatically cutting the risk of heart disease, cancer, and Alzheimer’s.1
The short-term benefits of exercise are even better. It increases brain function, oxygen intake, and blood flow, which helps to deliver nutrients and clear out waste – kind of like an internal shower. It also stimulates cell growth and unleashes a sea of serotonin, the feel-good chemical that powers many anti-depressants. In fact, exercise has been shown to be as effective in treating depression as Zoloft.2
When we don’t move our bodies, bad stuff happens. “Perhaps all our troubles,” suggests Christopher McDougall, in Born to Run, “all the violence, obesity, illness, depression, and greed we can’t overcome—began when we stopped living as Running People. Deny your nature, and it will erupt in some other, uglier way.”
I didn’t always love running, but today it’s one of my favorite ways to move. The difference was learning how to run as nature intended.
DISCLAIMER: I am not a doctor, nor am I officially certified by any athletic institution. I’ve just done a lot of research and spent tons of time and hundreds of miles practicing. I fought through the Chicago marathon with plantar fasciitis before learning this stuff, and the difference since then has been night and day.
Our Physical Advantage Over All Other Land Animals
I’m always impressed by the power and speed displayed by the animal kingdom, but there’s one thing that humans have a biological advantage in over all other species: running really far. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard University and Dr. Dennis Bramble of the University of Utah explain, “For marathon-length distances, humans can outrun almost all other mammals – and can sometimes outrun even horses, especially when it is hot.”3 Since 1980, the annual running of the Man versus Horse Marathon in Wales has put that claim to the test. In 2004, British man Huw Lobb won the race, a feat that was repeated three years later by Germany’s Florian Holzinger.4
What makes us so good at long distance running? Among other things, our legs were designed to absorb impact, and then use that energy to recoil – like springs. We can also cool ourselves off exceptionally well due to a surplus of sweat glands and lack of fur.5
All types of exercise are good, but I find something particularly satisfying about doing the thing that my animal body can do better than any other animal. As Dr. Bramble puts it, “If you don’t think you were born to run, you’re not only denying history. You’re denying who you are.”
How to Run Faster and Farther With Less Effort
Modern running techniques all share the same goal: running faster and farther with less energy and fewer injuries. No matter whether it’s Evolution Running6, Barefoot Running7, Chi Running8, or POSE Running,9 the underlying principals are the same. They’re also the same principals that have been practiced by the famed long-distance running Tarahumara people of Mexico for centuries.
Here’s what they suggest:
- Keep your spine straight. Proper running posture is an extension of proper posture during any other activity. Your spine should stay vertical and strong while the rest of your body stays loose and relaxed. Chi Running founder Danny Dryer describes it as a “needle in cotton.” Straight spine = needle. The rest of your body = cotton.
- Lean forward from the ankle. The key is to keep a straight spine while also leaning forward from the ankle. To get an idea of what this feels like, stand facing a wall about one foot away. Put your hands on the wall, like you’re going to do a wall pushup, and then slowly lean forward from your ankles while keeping the rest of your body perfectly straight. That’s the lean that you want to be mimicking when running, although you only need to lean one to two inches for most situations.
- Take short, fast steps. When you take shorter steps, your foot naturally lands where it’s supposed to: directly underneath you, or just behind, but never in front. Landing in front is like putting on the brakes – it both slows you down and increases the impact on your body. Aim to take around 180 strides per minute. You can use a watch and count the number of times your left foot hits the ground in one minute and multiply by two, or buy a metronome and set it to the desired pace.
- Relax. With a straight spine, a forward lean, and short, fast steps, you can sit back and let gravity do the work of moving you forward. It’s less about using your muscles, and more about “falling with style!” like Buzz Lightyear. Relax and allow your legs to fall behind you as you move forward, rather than pushing off with your foot and reaching them out in front.
- Land with a mid-foot strike. A mid-foot strike uses the support structure of the foot and leg to absorb the impact of running. One way to teach yourself to land with a mid-foot strike is to run barefoot, since landing any other way starts to hurt. As Barefoot Ted explains “Barefoot running is about tuning-in to your own body’s highly sophisticated set of integrated awareness systems, systems that communicate through feelings and senses that are being collected in real-time as you move.”10 If you’re going to go this route, just make sure to start slow!
- Move forward. Any motion that isn’t headed forward is wasted energy. Try to limit as many up-and-down and side-to-side movements as you can. As Dryer explains, “Whenever you’re running, you should have as many of your body parts as possible moving in the same direction you’re headed.”
- Breathe. Focus on your breath as a tool to gauge how hard you are working. As ultra-marathoner Ann Trason describes, “You have to be in tune with your body, and know when you can push it and when to back off. You have to listen closely to the sound of your own breathing; be aware of how much sweat is beading on your back; make sure to treat yourself to cool water and a salty snack and ask yourself, honestly and often, exactly how you feel.”
- Practice. Start slow, focus on technique, and increase distance before you increase speed. Only choose a few things to focus on during each run – otherwise you’ll get overwhelmed. When I’m running, I only try to focus on two things: my foot impact and keeping my spine straight.
“Think Easy, Light, Smooth, and Fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one—you get those three, and you’ll be fast.” – Micah True aka Caballo Blanco, ultrarunner
- Robert Sallis, MD http://info.kaiserpermanente.org/html/partnersinhealth_co/august2012/fitness.html [↩]
- http://www.health.harvard.edu/mind-and-mood/exercise-and-depression-report-excerpt [↩]
- http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2007c.pdf [↩]
- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_versus_Horse_Marathon [↩]
- http://www.fas.harvard.edu/~skeleton/pdfs/2007c.pdf [↩]
- created by Ken Mierke, a two-time World Champion triathlete and physiologist [↩]
- taught by Robert Vervloet, certified US Track and Field running coach, exercise science researcher in animal movement, and an athletic trainer who shares what he has learned from Mother Nature’s top athletes [↩]
- created by Danny Dreyer, an American Ultra-marathon runner and T’ai Chi practitioner [↩]
- taught by Dr. Romanov, two-time Olympic Running coach for the former USSR [↩]
- http://www.barefootted.com/index.php?q=/2010/04/so-you-wanna-start-running-barefoot.html [↩]