What exactly does it mean to "run natural"? Danny Abshire, co-founder and CTO of Newton Running, defines natural running as ,"the way your body was meant to run"(Abshire and Metzler 11) which simply means, the way we run without shoes. A lot can be learned about running by watching children at play. As kids run about barefoot they are relaxed, light on their feet, and land with a bent knee on their forefoot which absorbs much of the impact. How did we stray so far from the path?
As more and more people began to take up recreational jogging in the early 1970's running shoe companies began producing shoes in response to the demand. As more and more people, people with no prior running experience, began jogging injury rates also began to rise. It was in response to these injuries that the modern running shoe came to be. Running shoe companies began hiking up the heel, adding more cushioning, and utilizing various densities of foam to help alleviate the all-to-common running injuries. However, despite all the advances in technology, the running injury rate is the same as it was in 1989 (Abshire and Metzler 9-10). Going back to the example of kids at play, humans do not naturally heel strike... so why then are most running shoes designed around a heel striking gait? What happens when you heel strike, and why does it matter?
As you heel strike you are actually breaking your momentum each time your foot comes down and then having to overcome the deceleration through muscular force produced by your calf muscles. Not only that, but when you heel strike your tibia and femur are subject to all kinds of rotational forces which place stress on your knees, hips, and IT band... all of which is no good. What happens then when you land with a midfoot or forefoot?
By landing on your midfoot or forefoot with a bent knee your leg acts as a natural shock absorber and, through elastic recoil, will actually return some of that energy back to you making you a more efficient runner. Not only that, but when you land with a mid or fore foot you are not subject to rotational forces.
Here is a great illustration of the difference.
So, what do you do?
Run barefoot!!! Well, not exactly. While running barefoot is a great training tool on soft surfaces clear of debris and hazards it just doesn't make sense in today's modern world. There are too many unnatural surfaces with injury lurking around every corner be it a broken beer bottle or a large rock. "Fine, I wont ditch the shoes", now you're on the right track but traditional running shoes are not really designed for mid to forefoot running. Most running shoes feature a heel that is significantly higher than the toe which causes your pelvis to tilt anteriorly and causes you to lift your knee against resistance (read: not efficient) not to mention how hard it is NOT to heel strike with a dramatically raised heel. Furthermore, with thick padded shoes you lose a lot of really valuable feedback from your feet. The best shoes in which to run naturally have very little heel to toe height difference, are light weight, and will provide feedback about the ground under your feet.
You've got your shoes, now what? First and foremost, transition slowly. When switching to a shoe with a lower heel there is a whole lotta stretchin' goin' on. Your calves and Achilles will need time to adjust. Take it slow, run a mile every other day one week, a mile and a half every other day the next week, and so on.
Now let's work on running naturally.
How is your posture?
Are you hunched over or looking down at the ground?You should be holding your head high and looking towards the horizon. Lean slightly forward at the ankles, not at the hips. Be proud that you are running.
Now that you've found shoes... take them off. Run barefoot through some grass that is free of debris and other hazards. Notice how naturally you run and how easy it feels. Do this often to imprint that feeling into your running subconscious.
How is your cadence?
Probably the quickest and easiest change you can make is to increase your cadence (how quickly you take steps) optimal cadence is at least 180 steps per minute. By increasing your cadence you will immediately stop over striding and land under your center of gravity. You can check your cadence by counting right foot strikes for 20 seconds and multiplying by 3 (it should be at least 30) or by counting 3 foot strikes for every second. It may feel odd and exhausting at first but keep working on it and it will become second nature.
Lift from the core!
All of the running action should come from your hip flexors and your core. Think of your knees as if you are a marionette and your lower leg is a pendulum. Lift your knee, let your lower leg swing forward, and let your foot fall under your center of gravity. Repeat. If your calves are sore you are pushing off, if your hamstrings are sore you are pawing back, if your quads are getting tired you are kicking... STOP!!!
I picture running naturally as a constant controlled fall in which momentum is pulling you forward and you are constantly reestablishing your center of gravity one step at a time. Your exertion should be minimal with most of your energy being used to lift your knees, the rest of you is just moving effortlessly through space and time.
Now put your clothes back on and go run naturally!!!
Sources:Abshire, Danny, and Brian Metzler. "What Is Natural Running." Natural Running: the Simple Path to Stronger, Healthier Running. Boulder, CO: VeloPress, 2010. 11. Print.
NewtonRunning.com is a wealth of information that offers more and better information than I could ever hope to. Check out their videos on YouTube and read Natural Running by Danny Abshire with Brian Metzler for more info on running naturally.