Running for free

Last updated: 23-Sep-16

By Shane Benzie

“No pain, no gain”, “If it’s not hurting, it’s not working” 

These phrases may be true in many situations including, perhaps, training, however when it comes to running and walking over long distances and long periods of time good technique dictates that less is definitely more.

We are no longer strangers to the theory that as persistence hunters in a previous incarnation, we are perfectly designed to cover long distances over extended periods of time. As well as my work as a technique coach, I also spend time in Kenya and Ethiopia working on research projects with coaches and athletes looking at natural movement and I work with Kent and Kingston Universities to try and better understand how the human body reacts to endurance events. The more of this work that I do, the more I am convinced of the theory that we are perfectly to built to run, we’ve just forgotten how.

Whilst working in Iten, Kenya with the Runfast team, I was very privileged to spend some time with Wilson Kipsang. The chance to do some video analysis and chat about his thoughts and approach to technique were invaluable. As I watched Kipsang and the Runfast team train I pondered on the subject of how come these men and women can be moving so fast, trying so hard and yet look so relaxed, even smiling as they put in times we mere mortals could only dream of. Then suddenly, it struck me, I had one of those moments where everything becomes clear! They’re not trying hard at all! Everything about their motion is relaxed, but very, very deliberate.

Ok, so less is clearly more but how and why?

Two years on I completely get it. Continued work in Africa, with Kent University and, in particular, James Earls (a specialist in Myofascial release and structural integration) and author of Born to Walk has enabled me to understand and coach a thought process and technique that allows us to move with maximum energy efficiency and minimum impact on the body. I’m sure you will agree that runners who do not complete ultras don’t do so because their cardiovascular system can’t keep up, it’s usually because the body and/or mind breaks down. Moving your body naturally and understanding the process that is taking place will help with both of these issues significantly.

There are three main components that contribute to natural movement: the fascia system, posture and gravity.

The fascia system

So, the fascia system. We’ve heard about plantar fasciitis and that our IT band is constructed of fascia but beyond that many of us are not really that aware of fascia’s role in the movement of the body. Included in the fascia system are tendons, ligaments and myofascia. Myofascia is a connective tissue that covers the muscles. In fact, I like to think of myofascia as one complete organ in the body that has around six hundred pockets in which the muscles sit. This makes it the body’s second skeleton and you could argue that, from a movement point of view, it’s as important as our bone structure. After all, the concept of tensegrity dictates that without fascia connecting our bones they would be just a pile of individual units lying in chaos on the floor.

Facia has many exciting qualities, three of which are important to us as runners.

Within the fascia system there are receptors that pass information to the muscles when movement takes place. Our feet contain 25% of all the nerves in the body. They are our proprioceptors and antenna for the rest of our body as we move. We have around 200,000 nerve endings on the bottom of our feet. As the foot makes correct contact with the ground (a whole other article) the nerve endings send vital information into the fascia system, which is passed on to muscles by the receptors. The fascia then receives information back from the muscles and acts accordingly; this communication chain continues in order to enable our body to move correctly and with fluidity. We have the most amazing self-levelling system that, providing our foot makes the correct contact with ground and we have the correct posture, we do not even have to think about it, it comes naturally. Synergy is created in the body, thus creating fluid movement. The creation of this fluidity is free, making the movement of our body far more energy efficient and ensuring that the impact from the ground is dissipated correctly through the body, thus reducing injury.

Myofascia has elastic qualities and providing our movements are correct and our posture is good resulting in efficient tension in the fascia any movement of the limbs is aided in its transition back to its original position, using elastic recoil. For example when the arm swing has a dynamic movement to the rear the tension created in our fascia results in elastic recoil bringing the arm back to its original position. We have twelve lines of fascia that influence the way we move, if we understand them and utilise them our economy of movement can be improved significantly. Elastic recoil is free energy, making the movement of the body far more energy efficient with no extra effort needed, in fact the more we release the tension from the body and ensure that we make the correct movements the better we move, less is definitely more!

As if myofascia wasn’t clever enough saving us all of this energy, it also actually produces energy! When receiving impact during body movement, the fascia creates, stores and then releases natural energy. No doubt we have all have read about 180 being the optimum cadence when we run. This cadence falls in line with the creation, storing and release of the natural energy produced by our body’s movement. Providing we move at the correct cadence we optimise this energy source. It’s also free and helps us to move with maximum energy efficiency.

Posture

Without good posture the myofascia system will lose some of its integrity and tension. The proprioception and elastic recoil in the fascial system will not work optimally, so having good posture and running tall becomes incredibly important. Good posture also ensures that our skeleton supports our body weight. So often when we run our muscles have to join in to support our structure, hence, muscles tire and injure because they are overused or misused. Good posture ensures that our muscles can concentrate on propulsion. Sounds simple and actually, once we understand good posture, it is! Once again, this is natural to our body and is free. Moving with good posture is much easier than moving with bad posture and the payoffs are huge.

Gravity

This will not be the fist time that you have heard about lean being good for your running technique and it’s not breaking news that gravity can help our propulsion. What we have to consider, however, is how we lean and from where in the body the lean comes from. We already know that its important to have good posture and run tall so that we fully utilise our fascia and ensure that our bone skeleton supports our body weight. It feels natural to lean from the waist but in doing so we loose much of the integrity in our structure, leaning from the ankle will ensure you embrace gravity and maintain good posture.

When we run ultras and multi day events we put a lot of time and thought into kit, nutrition, hydration and mileage during training. These are all very important but if we get them right and our running technique wrong, we have a very weak link in the chain. Many ultra runners stand on the start line well below 100% as they have weakened the body during training rather than strengthening it. Concentrating on running technique can improve economy of movement and reduce the effects on impact by up to 10% if we thought we could carry 10% less weight or have 10% better lung capacity we would surely jump at the chance. Including technique in our training can make the difference between success and failure.

Running is a very subjective issue and there are clearly many things going on as we run, but making the most of everything that is available, natural and free, will surely help us to be the best we can be and make the whole experience more enjoyable!

That’s why we run, right?

"Our feet contain 25% of all the nerves in the body. They are our proprioceptors and antenna for the rest of our body as we move"

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