The Simple Science of Natural Running

By Pete Williams

Natural Running

As a running coach and maker of custom orthotics in the late 1980s, Danny Abshire wondered why so many runners got injured.

He realized many were overstriding and landing improperly due to shoes designed to make runners land on the heel rather than on the forefoot as nature intended.

The notion of barefoot or minimalist running shoes was popularized by Christopher McDougall’s best-selling book Born to Run in 2009. Abshire, a co-founder of Newton Running, is an advocate of “natural” running, using a properly designed shoe that both protects the foot from the elements and promotes a natural gait.

In his new book Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger, Healthier Running, Abshire shows runners how to find this happy medium. We spoke to Abshire recently on The Fitness Buff Show. You can listen to that interview or read an edited transcript below.

Q: What was your a-ha moment when your realized people were running improperly?

A: It took a long time to realize what was going on. Great coaches like Danny Dreyer were coming along at that time (late ‘80s) and they were trying to get people to alter their gait to natural running. They didn’t realize footwear was getting in the way and once we kind of studied how people were running barefoot and began to cut shoes down lengthwise, we were seeing that the heel of the shoe was getting higher off the ground. If you were standing barefoot and shoved something under your foot that lifts your heel just a half inch, you see how it alters your posture. I was introduced to (runner) Brian Russell who was working on an alternative to foam and moving to absorb shock better. This was the basis of it all back in 1995-96 when we started working on this process.

Q: What’s happening when your heel is raised?

A: Again, if you’re barefoot, put anything under your heel and you’ll notice automatically. Your hips have to tilt to accommodate. They tip forward and we have to balance over the highpoint. The upper body has to lean backwards to get over that highpoint to provide balance. Even with the most expensive running shoes, if you’re walking around on those all day, you’ll have sore heels because you’re loading up to 50 percent of your body weight on a high heel. A lot of people complain that even in their best shoes, if they stand in them all day their lower back hurts and their heels are sore because of this unequal weight distribution. I try to wear a more level shoe during the day and that aids in your running. With that high heel, you’re chronically tightening your calf muscle group, which pulls on your Achilles, which pulls on your plantar fascia and your upper body has to adjust. So people feel soreness in the lower back. You’ll pull your hamstring in that tilted position and tighten the hip flexors.

Foam lessons the communication of the forefoot to the ground. If you’ve been heel striking, it’s like putting on the brakes. People think it’s natural to push off hard when we run and it’s not. When we push, we strain all these propulsive muscles. It’s counterintuitive that people have been told so long that okay to heel strike. You roll through your step and then you push off. That describes how humans walk. It’s safe to heel strike at a walking speed. If you try to sprint or use a walking form for long distance running, there are a lot of injuries associated with that stop-and-start motion.

Q: Why did shoe companies years ago take the opposite approach?

A: There was not a test to test the forefoot of any athletic shoe. When things began developing in the early 1960s, all we had were flat Chuck Taylors for basketball and minimalist running shoes. Once companies started applying protection from concrete and asphalt, for some reason they decided to put it in the heel. The heel is very unstable when you’re moving quickly. Walking, that’s fine at that speed. If you’re in a running mode, think of an athletic position like basketball. The ankles and knees are flexed. If the shoe starts to alter that, your balance will be less than 100 percent. It would be great to adjust all footwear across all sports. At Newton, since we’re so tiny, we’re focused on running, which is our passion.

Q: How do you get back to a natural running gait?

A: You can do some drills that are easy to understand. If you march in place, you’ll notice that you’re lifting from the core. We have to lift our leg off the ground. It’s very stable and the ball of your foot touches, the heel settles and you lift again. That’s how you want to run. How do we go forward? March in place and then fall forward like a tree being cut at a lower level. Take short quick steps, lifting from the core. Now you’re just balancing instead of braking and pushing. Every track drill – high knees, butt kicks, skipping – is intended to have you land underneath your mass and quicken your cadence. Run like you’re running on hot coals. Lift quickly off the ground and touch quickly. Less impact, quicker speed. We’re trying to go back to one-legged balance as opposed to braking and pushing.

Q: In your book you talk about making this transition back to natural running as an eight-week process. Why eight weeks?

A: We throw that out as a worse case scenario for those really starting from scratch and having a hard time transitioning. Some athletes who are cognizant of what’s going on can transition rapidly. Others should take their time. If you’ve been running this way for years, you have to break down some of these muscle firing patterns and change them. People go from heel striking and they think it’s about running on your toes and that’s not it. We have to think of it as marching, feeling the core, and falling forward. You don’t have to take eight weeks, but if you do it right and gradually progress and think of using less power rather than more, your transition will be smoother. It’s an ongoing process of learning how we move from a strength and balance standpoint. We don’t have to heel strike. It’s simply lifting off the ground with the core and falling forward.

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Filed under Fitness Buff Show Radio, Running, Training

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