A New Way to Run


barefoot running pose method usain bolt

Lately there's been a lot of questioning of this basic notion that humans know intuitively how to run. Various trends suggest that maybe we don't know how to get from point A to point B faster. Barefoot running is one such trend, inspired by the book Born to Run. The basic tenants are that your foot was designed correctly the first time, and by wrapping it in layers of protective but unstable foam, you are doing yourself a disservice, leading to bad habits. A recent study showed that running with shoes encouraged a heel-strike pattern that led to higher shock forces on the knee, even with the extra padding from the shoe. Barefoot runners have better shock absorption when running midfoot-to-heel (MDA has some great videos).

Relearning How to Run

Another change in running lore has come in the area of technique. Books like Chi Running espouse a more mindful approach to running, as well as providing various technical tweaks to keep in mind. The most influential change in running technique, and the one that most strongly challenges all the accepted wisdom on running, is the Pose Method, developed by Dr. Nicholas Romanov. Pose Method hinges on the idea of falling forward to run, letting gravity do the work. If you want to try this, simply stand up and lean forward until you go off balance. The natural reaction of stepping forward to catch yourself is the most fundamental part of Pose running. To actually run like this, you have to learn how to chain several falls together.

So why complicate all this? What's the point of making up fancy techniques to do something we already do naturally? One reason is the fact that the most common form of exercise in the US is distance running, which leads to the highest number of sports-related injuries (possibly due to poor technique caused by questionable footwear). The other reason is simply performance-related. Better, more efficient technique leads to faster times. That's not important unless you are a performance athlete however.

Back to Your Roots

How about this reason: children naturally use Pose running. When we start to run, we run by falling forward and letting our feet catch up to our bodies. Go to any playground and watch. The younger the child, the more like this they run. I first witnessed it (knowing what to look for) when I was applying for a job at the Little Gym, which is basically rudimentary gymnastics for toddlers. Back and forth little children went flying by, on the very edge of tipping over. It's a little unnerving at first (especially when the kids are in your care), but they seem to just flit by. Running is smooth and light, not grueling. Gravity does all the work.

The concept that running should be easy and effortless is a little hard to grasp for a lot of athletes. Many runners will train weightlifting to increase the force they produce pushing off the ground. Romanov maintains that this is pointless, since real speed in running is not generated by pushing, but rather by falling. To demonstrate, he showed the angle of inclination of various running speeds. A 4-hour marathon time could be achieved by maintaining an angle of 8.5 degrees off of vertical. A 2-hour time necessitated a 12 degree tilt. Usain Bolt's minimum tilt is 18.6 degrees, and his max was around 21. The guy in second was only .2 degrees less in tilt, but certainly speed could be correlated with tilt.

The concept of measuring speed in body tilt, rather than force output against the ground, is kind of novel. It does, however, reveal yet another way the human body interacts with its environment, taking advantage of various quirks of physics and biomechanics to produce a clever and efficient way to move quickly.