The Whole Body Kinematics of Natural Running
14 October 2010
The following article was written by Danny Abshire, Newton co-founder, and covers the mind-body connection necessary for natural running.
Learning to run with natural, efficient form isn’t just a physical endeavor. It is a whole body movement, coordinated by an instinctive mind-body connection. The many motions your body makes when running are choreographed and orchestrated by the brain as it continually tries to rebalance your body with gravity.
When running naturally, two major factors allow us to default to the healthiest, most efficient running posture. The first is maintaining a posture that is neutral or balanced with gravity. Stand up barefoot and notice if your feet and pelvis are level, and if you are lined up vertically from the head through your shoulders, hip and knee through the center of the foot.
Second is the sensory input derived from your feet, specifically the forefoot. The brain is a proficient computer that instantaneously responds to input from the foot by making the micro adjustments needed to keep your legs, arms, torso, shoulders and head positioned to be balanced with gravity. And thanks to the harmonious mind-body connection we have, it can all happen without us thinking about it.
Through gait analysis patterns and scientific studies we know that when running naturally or barefoot humans will instinctively touch the earth with a midfoot or forefoot landing, and we will touch with less impact than a heel-strike landing. When running naturally, your forefoot senses the ground the instant it touches down and starts a kinematic chain that propels your running mechanics into the most efficient and effective position for the terrain you’re on. Subconsciously, you alter your form slightly on different types of terrain and in different conditions — slippery, wet, dry, rocky, muddy, steep, flat. Why? Because your brain takes the sensory feedback from the forefoot’s interaction with the ground and positions your body accordingly.
Your brain helps the body make adjustments to find the proper balance with gravity, no matter what compromises it has to make. For example, something placed under a portion of the foot which puts it out of a level, balanced position will cause the whole body to react and make micro adjustments to center itself.
A common but detrimental example of this is running with shoes where the heel is lifted 12-15mm higher than the forefoot. The ramp angle caused by this lift (which can be found in most traditional training shoes made in the past 30 years), forces the body to make adjustments to become balanced with gravity. Knees become locked instead of the pliable spring suspension systems, hips tilt forward, the lower back arches and the upper torso tips backward. This results in more pressure put on the knees, hips and lower spine. In other words, the mind-body connection puts us in balance with gravity, but the whole body kinematics will be such that we’re trying to move efficiently from a very inefficient (heel-striking) position. Worse yet, the soft cushion of foam in the built up heel sends the incorrect message that it is safe to run with an inefficient heel-striking position.
It’s easy to see that this is not an optimal. Running from this position, your body must continue to compensate with all of its movements. With each stride, it’s trying to return to a compromised balanced-with-gravity position. The most common result is a heel-striking gait rather than the more efficient midfoot or forefoot footstrikes. The braking motion involved with heel striking allows your body to quickly get balanced with gravity, but it demands more muscular force to regain the momentum lost while braking at the start of each stride.
That’s why some runners — many whom have been running for years — will say, “I’m a natural heel striker,” or “I heel strike when I get lazy.” The truth is, it has nothing to do with being natural or lazy and has everything to do with the mind-body connection. Your body is compensating for the compromised starting position in shoes with a built-up heel, which is not sustainable for most people.
If you’re starting in a position in which you are balanced with gravity and your feet are flat on the ground (or in shoes with only a slight ramp angle – less than 3%), your body doesn’t have to compromise at all. With a slight forward lean from the center of your mass, you will start to fall forward. Lift your leg and place your foot level back under your body, and you’re running naturally. Meanwhile your uncompromised mind-body connection will position your head, arms, torso and hips so you can move as efficiently as possible. It’s what our body knows from the time we’re born and it’s the most efficient form of running. And it’s what allows our muscles, heart and lungs to exert the least amount of effort while running at any given pace.