Driving from the pool back to The Depot one lunchtime last week, I was surprised to hear the dulcet tones of Dr. Vybarr Cregan-Reid on Radio 5 Live. As well as contributing an educated commentary supported by a vast literary repertoire, the prime reason for Dr. Reid’s presence as guest editor on Nihal Arthanayake’s Afternoon Edition was to promote his latest book, Primate Change: How the world we made is remaking us. As the School of English Reader in English and Environmental Studies at Kent University, I really shouldn’t have been surprised by either his 5 Live appearance or his publishing his third book in five years. In fact, I think that I should really come clean here and confess that my reaction was less surprise and more disappointment.
Two years ago, I had been invited by a former colleague from the University of Hertfordshire to attend a presentation by Vybarr to support the launch of his previous book; Footnotes: How running makes us human. Whilst very grateful for the invite, I sat amongst the small audience and nodded knowingly as he presented his thoughts with which I agreed, and unmoved for those with which I did not. At that time, my disappointment was not that I didn’t want to hear what he had to say, but that I really wanted to have the opportunity to discuss and debate the topics with which I didn’t necessarily agree.
Whilst his presentation was not the most polished I have heard (he came over better last week on the radio), enough of his content was consistent with that of my running workshops to reinforce my confidence that the underpinning theory of Natural Running Form was heading in the right direction. As I joined the short queue to purchase a copy of his book, I decided there and then that not only would I use his tome to further inform my workshops, but that I would use my additional knowledge and experience to write my own book on running. My disappointment last week was with myself in that I had only reached page 76 of this book during which time Vybarr has been published again!
There are, of course, plenty of mitigating circumstances for the slow progress on my part, and some of them are almost justified. However, the intent has always been there and, to compensate for the lack of scheduled time set aside for such research, I have diligently carried his book with me to each of the countries I have visited in the ensuing period. That’s some air miles for one book! In reality, however, the real reason for this tardiness is that unlocking the science behind running is proving to be a spectacularly time-consuming experience. Whilst not quite the vade mecum that I am intending to publish, every page of Vybarr’s work is so well informed that it leads me on to make additional research, either to understand the primary research that informs it or to find conflicting studies and thus make a better fist of the explanations. This practice is consistent with every other book and research paper I pick up; hence the ponderously slow progress.
This then is proving to be the problem. Much of the basic mechanics of running have been well known for hundreds of years and well documented since at least the 1960s. As a general guide, Geoffrey Dyson’s The Mechanics of Athletics provides an accurate enough model for running that should have informed running coaches since its first edition. What Dyson didn’t account for, however, was the second running revolution that led to jogging and with it, the birth of the modern running shoe.
Poor daily footwear choices were already a feature of modern culture and, combined with a changing and more sedentary lifestyle, this was a problem that was simply waiting for its time. Before this second running boom, in the main, runners were those who diligently toiled away on running tracks and, in so doing, further developed and reinforced the biomechanical movement patterns that they had established whilst they were young. This was a progressive process because whilst running is a natural behaviour, running form is a learnt skill.
In encouraging the population to go outside and take exercise, the jogging revolution came with good intent. However, all cultural revolutions have a tendency to become the victims of unexpected consequences and three things were to quickly overtake the positive ideals. The end quickly became more important than the means; a common result of the human nature of always being in a hurry to achieve. In the process, and unknowingly because we had yet to fully understand the risks involved, we sacrificed running form for speed. And, in so doing, we made the outcome, the performance, the only indicator of progress.
The net result of this attempt at a fast track process was, of course, the evolution of the modern running injury. The running shoe with its built-up heel and motion control support enables poor running technique – including heel striking – and contributes toward muscle atrophy whilst providing only limited sensory feedback (Cregan-Reid). Without the modern running shoe, jogging, which is an extension of walking, would have not been possible. This hybrid walk/run locomotive pattern is unnatural both in terms of posture and forces (Saxby) and, although not solely responsible, modern running shoes are a contributory factor to this phenomenon and reinforced the regular cycle of running injury. Such is the rate of injury, Christopher McDougall quipped that “the real mutants are the [runners] who don’t get injured”.
As we accelerate and progress from a walk to a run, the foot is meant to inform the brain of the changes to both impact and pace. Proprioception – our body’s sense of its own position, balance and movement – uses stretch receptors and pressure receptors situated in our muscles, joints and skin to inform our brain about our interaction with the physical environment (Saxby). Often called our sixth sense, I refer to proprioception in running as our forgotten sense.
A large percentage of these receptors are in our feet, the part of the body where we should be fully engaged with the physical environment. When our feet are masked by “inappropriately constructed and excessively cushioned footwear” (Saxby), our brain is deprived of the necessary feedback that would otherwise influence running form. Thus, by enabling the runner to exceed their developed biomechanical ability, the modern running shoe has led to a regression in running form which, more often than not, has led to injury. The process of heel striking is thus a cultural adaptation of learnt behaviour rather than a biological one which is only possible as a result of reduced proprioceptive feed back to the brain.
To consider something like running to be a skill, you have to believe that there is a right and a wrong way for it to be performed. If we are to find the solution to this problem, then we must believe this to be the case. In fact, the alternative, would now be to hold a position against all the evidence.
The further and deeper that I dig into the mechanics of running, the more I discover that the real work is not so much in understanding how we should run – Dr. Cregan-Reid and others got the easy job there – but in trying to deconstruct how we currently run. Understanding this will allow running coaches to identify and prescribe to runners the necessary changes to allow a safe, effective and permanent transition to Natural Running Form. This perhaps over simplifies what has become such an all consuming task for me. However, as yet, we still do not have the ultimate model of running which remains my work in progress.
Yet another month comes to a close with too much rapidity and things are already shaping up well ready for next year. The race calendar is filling quickly, and so is our weekly schedule of athlete testing, analysis, feedback and coaching along with multiple weekends of coach education. Whilst it is difficult not to already be drawn into preparations for 2019 (and in multisport this actually means qualifiers in preparation for 2020!) we still have much to do this year and much to be proud of too. Thus, I will close on Dr. Chris Taylor’s total domination of the Seriously Brutal Duathlon. Now that is going to be a tough act to follow next season!