A few years ago, Richard Knobbs, an Internet friend, asked me a series of questions about running I had never considered. I couldn’t find the original message, so I’ll paraphrase. He asked the following:
- Is there a right way to run?
- If so, how should it be taught?
- What happens if we’re wrong with either question?
The questions were framed around the idea of barefoot running, but can be generalized to the greater running community. A recent article in the New York Times asked a similar question– “Can runners become better, more efficient runners on their own, merely by running?”
The questions have profound consequences. almost all barefoot runners, supporters of “natural running”, and almost all professional running coaches would agree there’s a right way to run. Exactly what that looks like varies greatly, though some common ground can be found. How it’s taught is even more variable.
Richard’s questions made me question my own methodology. It opened my eyes to something us barefoot runners like to ignore- lots of people have success using a running form that, to us, looks terrible. His questions also made me examine the different methods used to teach running form. It forced me to acknowledge the strengths and weaknesses of my own methodology along with the other methodologies. Lastly, it forced me to recognize that all methodology, including my own, could only be successful with a sliver of the population. The entire line of thinking was instrumental in developing my six guiding principles from my book:
- There is no single right answer.
- You must experiment and learn from your successes and failures.
- Your body is your best teacher.
- Patience is mandatory.
- Relaxation is the secret to great form.
- You must enjoy the process.
In the course of expanding my knowledge about running form, I initiated conversations with some podiatrists that were fairly skeptical about barefoot running. Several made a point that any runner will eventually adapt their running form to produce maximum metabolic efficiency- barefoot or otherwise.
This concept is the exact concept touched on by the research in the NYT article. The research suggested runners would eventually become more efficient without any outside intervention. That would seem to reinforce the podiatrists’ point.
That brings us back to Richard’s questions. A few days ago, I wrote about becoming a more efficient runner. My hypothesis is too many runners listen to “better running form” advice that calls for the activation of muscles that aren’t necessary to maintain running gait resulting in wasted energy.
In the realm of psychology, we study the brain’s tendencies to take shortcuts. The brain is always trying to conserve energy by eliminating unnecessary thought. That’s why we have trouble remembering details, develop stereotypes, etc. The brain ALSO works to conserve physical energy. Unless otherwise overridden, the brain seems to have a tendency to make all movements as simple as possible. In short, our brain is exceedingly lazy. That laziness seems to transfer to running, too.
So… does teaching better running form really result in greater efficiency? Or are we better off leaving people to their own devices? I’ve tried to walk this delicate line for awhile by distilling “good form” down to two or three simple concepts, then focusing on the idea of allowing your body to guide you to that promised land of greater efficiency.
I’m curious what my readers think. Some are coaches that teach a specific method. How do you assure your clients are really becoming more efficient? Some readers are hardcore barefoot runners, which usually support the idea of just “listening to your body”? But will that always work?
I’d love to start a discussion on the topic… post your thoughts!