What Is Natural Running?

What Is Natural Running?

Did you know that running barefoot isn’t as bonkers as it seems? Today we’re going to look at Natural Running.

Although human beings are made to move and run, with modern life they have lost the ability and functionality of many of their muscular-skeletal structures by adopting less natural and innate movement patterns.

We’re going to see in detail what Barefoot Running and/or Natural Running is in order to understand how we can recover more natural movement patterns and more efficient running.

What is Natural Running?

Let’s start by defining exactly what «Barefoot Running» and «Natural Running» are, and some of the ideas related to them.

As the name indicates, «Barefoot Running» is running barefoot.

And «Natural Running» is understood as running naturally, adopting a natural running pattern of movement.

Run

Although the concepts are often used interchangeably.

When referring to this natural and innate way of running for humans, being animal of endurance, we also find definitions related to the type of footwear used.

Running with minimalist shoes (from the sandals used by the Tarahumara Tribe to shoes with no or minimal cushioning and zero drop).

But we’ll look at this in detail in another article.

When did the Barefoot Running and/or Minimalist Shoes trend begin to emerge?

To do this, we need to know the history and evolution of the human being and study our story from prehistoric times.

The human being evolved to adopt the bipedal position.

It is the only bipedal primate that runs upright.

At that time, it was a hunter, and the tribes walked and ran until they found settlements where they could spend some time.

So, speaking about «Barefoot or Natural Running», inevitably means to know about the structure and functionality of the feet.

This will be the starting point and working focus for any sportsman, especially when it comes to runners.

We are really endurance animals that can cover very long distances, and unlike the rest of the animals, we have the sweating mechanism to thermoregulate ourselves.

Barefoot

This is why we’re able to run for long periods of time.

Regression

Running is a natural locomotor movement, just like walking and sprinting.

However, the evolution in modern life and changes in lifestyle have led to us forgetting how to run naturally.

This revolution in natural running and/or barefoot running begins with the research of Dr. Daniel Lieberman (Professor of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University).

His studies mark the turning point:

  • In 2004, along with other researchers, he published the article «How Running made us Human» in Nature.
  • Meanwhile, Chris McDougall contributed to this conceptual evolution with the book «Born to Run”».
In that book, he explains how the Indian Tribe of Mexico, the Tarahumara, run barefoot for hours and days without resting, and, most revealingly, without suffering any injuries.

What does science tell us?

For this, let’s get to know the arguments of Professor Daniel Lieberman an Chris Mc Dougall.

In November 2013, I started to become interested in these topics in order to improve my running technique and to learn the necessary tools to teach my athletes to run in a more efficient way.

«…Learning to analyse, evaluate and correct in each case…»

At that time in Spain, a very exclusive group of instructors formed a training group, led by Lee Saxby, who would help Professor Lieberman and McDougall, mentioned above, in their process of re-learning to run.

I’m going to share some of the reflections of both of them on the concept of “Natural Running” and re-learning to run.

Natural running

Thoughts of Daniel Lieberman

When he started researching barefoot running in 2005, Lieberman was extremely sceptical.

Then, together with Dennis Bramble, he started to write the article ‘Born to Run’ for Nature magazine.

In this article, the authors argue that long-distance running has played a key role in human evolution for two million years.

As such, barefoot running could be regarded as “normal”.

Over time, he began to experiment with runners who frequently ran barefoot, and found that they ran in a wonderfully light and gentle way, without compromising speed and apparently without injury.

Many were formerly shoe runners who tried unsuccessfully to cope with the familiar litany of injuries (plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee syndrome, tibial stress, Achilles tendinitis) by using orthopaedic inserts, expensive shoes, and even surgery.

In the end these, runners simply recovered their natural running, and the results spoke for themselves.

Barefoot Running

In recent years there has been an unbelievable revolution in the world of runners, as more and more are trying out running barefoot or in minimalist shoes.

Though it’s true that many of them were unsuccessful due to a bad or non-existent transition, as we will see in the next article.

Running barefoot is a fashion, but we’re talking about a fashion that’s been with us for 2 million years, and is here to stay.

Injuries?

However, even if some reports say so, running barefoot doesn’t mean being injury free.

Being in good physical and functional shape is of the utmost importance for every runner, and those who run barefoot or in minimalist shoes are no exception.

In fact, I myself have seen runners with minimalist shoes who should really be wearing traditional footwear, as their strides are still too big and a pattern not at all like natural running.

Strengthen

Which is why injuries provoked by bad technique continue to appear.

Professor Lieberman, in his barefoot running process, and following the recommendations of his colleague Chris McDougall, put himself in the hands of the Coach Lee Saxby – who directed and taught those courses to which I referred – and I was lucky enough to meet him personally.

Thought of Chris McDougall

During the years he was immersed in research for his book, he began to suffer from heel pain.

But he thought that after studying the Tarahumara tribe in depth his running had improved, and that he wouldn’t suffer any injury.

Like many of the popular and professional runners who go through a foot or calf injury, he visited doctors, podiatrists etc.

And, as is usually the response – many of the runners I work with suffer and/or are injured and never receive consistent advice from doctors – they advised insoles, anti-inflammatories.

If you’re a runner, you may be familiar with this, likely knowing many colleagues who’ve been through the same thing.

Analysing the movement pattern

Like Chris McDougall, none of these doctors, chiropodists or specialists ever ask you to run to analyse the pattern of movement and see what might be happening that has caused that discomfort or injury.

And he noted, more often than not, that incorrect pattern of movement is not caused from the feet:

Bad alignment or bad posture, or a lack of gluteal strength causing excessive pelvic tilt etc… are some of the causes.

So Chris McDougall got in contact with Lee Saxby, who analysed how he ran, and was able to determine what was causing the problems he was having with his heel.

After a variety of exercise drills (which are the ones I also learned in those classes), Chris McDougall recovered the functionality and natural way of running.

Feet

The issues disappeared

Studying the Human Foot

Leonardo da Vinci thought that the human foot was a work of engineering, and he wasn’t wrong.

Due to our bipedal position, our structures have been shaped to counteract the force of gravity.

Thus, we have an “S” shaped spine, great muscle mass in the hip area (powerful glutes), straight legs and longer tendons than other primates.

Functionality

One of the most important characteristics that make us different at a structural level are our feet.

They constantly support our weight and have an infinite number of nerve endings that make up the proprioceptive system.

On top, they have a complex system of levers and spring, whose role is to cushion the force of impact, amongst other functions.

What happens when running?

When we run, the mechanical behaviour of our foot is basically reverse compared to our walking movement

Instead of putting the heels down first, we put the forefoot down first and the heel after.

By using the retraction of the Achilles tendon, the plantar fascia (supporting tissue) and ligaments, our foot and ankle function as a powerful spring.

The elastic energy produced by working the tendon like a powerful spring means there’s less energy required generally

Like running animals

This elasticity is very much used by animals, especially by those specialised in running, such as horses and dogs.

In fact, these animals take this characteristic further and only touch the ground with their fingers or the front part of their hoof while a tendon goes up the whole lower part of the paw.

Barefoot runner

Running Heel-Toe

Because the heel-toe movement is designed only to withstand the little force present when walking, using that same form of locomotor movement when running leads to many potential injuries throughout the body.

From the biomechanical point of view, this implies that the force must be distributed in an adequate way in the complex structure of the foot.

Because the foot and ankle work in a specific way, the moment they adopt different functions or roles to those they’re designed for, the chances of injury, discomfort or pain increase significantly.

It’s common sense, then, to see that using this part of your anatomy in an unnatural way and/or out of its normal structural possibilities will be the cause of many typical running injuries.

Loss of functionality

The strange thing is that, having a structure as powerful as the foot, we’ve forgotten how to use it effectively.

On top, the lack of mobility and functionality, as well as the use of certain footwear that detracts from proprioceptive sense, causes them to be as if they were asleep.

Role of industry

On the other hand, we have a very powerful footwear industry and market which, in most cases, alter and/or manipulate control and forces through different footwear technologies, such as “Movement control”, “Impact absorption”, “Damping increase”, etc.

Injuries

This might be the principle reason that, despite an infinity of studies and research into the field over the last 25 years, the number of runners suffering injuries not only hasn’t declined, but continues to increase year on year.

How would you define Natural Running?

In all, an easy and skillful way of running in which every structure and muscle acts in a synergic and functional way to move efficiently.

So, taking into account for example the functionality of the heel and the biomechanics of the natural running pattern, this is not made to cushion, and yet the vast majority of popular runners adopt this pattern.

If you try running barefoot on a football pitch, you’ll automatically feel your running pattern changing.

Run grass

Once your feet receive all the sensory information available, the biomechanics change.

How to run naturally

A natural run involves maintaining an upright and relaxed posture, in which the maximum support phase of the foot falls perpendicular to the hips and centre of mass.

Normally, also due to poor postural hygiene, a lack of mobility in the ankle, and the use of shoes with too much cushioning, the position is greatly altered.

Common errors

  • Body thrown forward;
  • Strides that are too long, in which the first point of contact with the floor is inevitably the heel
This can lead to an increase of up to 3 times in the impact forces on other structures…

Given this, we can get a first idea of what a natural run is, and the importance and need for good foot, ankle and calf strength work before starting the transition to a natural and/or barefoot run.

Conclusions

The first conclusions we can take from this introduction are the following:

  • Recovering function and re-learning to run
  • Injuries and problems should be treated from the start and with an analysis of the pattern of movement, rather than looking for solutions that only hide the problem.
  • We can run barefoot or with minimalist footwear if the methods teach us to recover our natural step and we follow a very progressive process.
  • Everything is about working our feet.
In the next articles, we’ll look at the process of re-learning to run naturally, as well as minimalist footwear and the correct footwear for running.

Bibliographic sources

  1. Bramble, Dm and Lierberman, DE (2004). Endurace Runnig and the Evolution of the genus Homo.
  2. Bramble DM, Lieberman DE (2004). Endurance running and the evolution of Homo. Nature.
  3. Daniels J. (2005) Daniels’ running formula. Human kinetics Romanov, N and Fletcher, G (2007). ‘Runners do not push off the ground but fall forwards via a gravitational torque’, Sports Biomechanics.
  4. Lieberman et al (2011). Foot strike patters and collision forces in habitually barefoot versus shod runners. Nature 463: 531-536.

Related Entries

  • Go to Part 2 of Natural Running: Transition
  • We tell you 10 Benefits of Running at this link
  • Running on the beach brings you into direct contact with nature… continue reading.
  • Learn how to go from zero to running by clicking here.
Review of Natural Running

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About Isabel del Barrio
Isabel del Barrio
Sport runs in the blood of Isabel, which she has proven since she was very little up until now. She wants to share that passion with all those who are passionate about sports.
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