Thoughts on “Form” from 1908: Bliss Carman on the Development of Graceful and Efficient Motion

Bliss Carman

Bliss Carman (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Animal motion is good through being instinctive and free, and our own motion can only become graceful when those qualities are ensured for it.”

-Bliss Carman, The Making of Personality, 1908

In my previous post I shared several passages about “barefoot shoes” from a 1908 book titled The Making of Personality by Canadian poet Bliss Carman. I’ve been reading a bit more of the book, and in a chapter titled “Rhythms of Grace,” Carman once again writes about a topic that has been oft discussed amongst runners in recent years: form. Carman has a beautiful writing style, and the following passage is particularly good – I really like the part about the development of form in children:

Here is another great passage – particularly relevant to any discussion about how to change one’s running form:

Enhanced by ZemantaI couldn’t agree more!
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About Peter Larson

This post was authored by Peter Larson. Pete is a recovering academic who currently works as an exercise physiologist, running coach, and writer. He's also a father of three and a fanatical runner with a bit of a shoe obsession. In addition to writing and editing this site, he is co-author of the book Tread Lightly, and writes a personal blog called The Blogologist. Follow Pete on Twitter, Facebook, Google+, and via email.

Comments

  1. Josephfroncioni says:

    Pete,

    Let me firstly admit that I have only just now discovered your blog. Kudos on the all the great work you have put into it. I look forward to reading your forthcoming book. 

    Secondly, I should probably introduce myself. I am an orthopedic surgeon and runner. In the mid-1990s, the work of Steven Robbins caught my attention and I started looking into the possible harmful effects of the modern running shoe. My literature search led me to write an article on the topic which can be found on my blog here: 

    link to quickswood.com

    When I first distributed the article in our local running club (Mid-Atlantic Amateur Athletic Club, Bermuda) it was met with scorn and derision.  I brought the matter up at the running symposium during the 1995 meeting of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgery in San Francisco and was nearly booed out of the room. It was finally published in 1995 in SPIRIDON, a German ultra-marathon magazine after being rejected by Runners World and Running Times (for obvious reasons, you’ll see, if you read the article). It has since received quite a number of hits and I suspect I may be having the last laugh. I am now preaching to the converted, I know, when I say that we are in the midst of a major paradigm shift in our understanding of running and running form. The work of Dan Lieberman and others is yielding new insights and, hopefully, useful information to help trainers and physicians improve running performance and prevent injuries. 

    Having said all of this, I think it is important to realize that we are not reinventing the wheel here. Before I started looking into this topic, I did not know there was any way to run other than heel striking. Until the mid-90s, I thought the  big fat cushioned all-supportive high-tech shoe was the be-all end-all and the more expensive the better. However, my reading has led me to realize that until the 70s, what we now see as a NEW style of running and running shoe was the default….which brings me, finally, to my comments on your recent post about Bliss Carman’s 1908 thoughts on running and shoes. Her words, coming as they do from more than 100 years ago, remind me that what we consider “new insights” are merely rediscoveries of the past. With this thought in mind, you will no doubt be interested in the following little gem (although you may already have discovered it):  RUNNING FAST AND INJURY FREE by Gordon Pirie (edited by John S Gilbody). Published posthumously in 1996, the book was probably conceived the the 1980s. This is a very short book and is available in PDF format here:

    http://www.williamsichel.co.uk

    Gordon Pirie (1931 – 1991) was one of the many great runners to come out of the UK. He won a Silver in the 5,000 M at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics and he broke 5 world records in the course of his career. His thoughts on running form are a must-read for anyone interested in the topic and reinforce my suspicion that, as I stated before, we’re rediscovering the past. 

    A particularly intriguing passage for me in the book is the following: 

    “Bill Toomey, the 1968 Olympic Decathlon Champion from the United States, made video tapes of 100 champion runners in Montreal in 1976 in order to evaluate their technique. It is common-sense to assume that the best athletes in the world (those who consistently place highly in major championships) share common technical traits. All of the athletes filmed by Toomey used the same basic technique – the same technique I use, and teach to my athletes. The athletes filmed by Toomey all landed on the forefoot. None of the 100 landed heel-first! “

    I have as yet been unable to find these videos but I feel they would add a great deal to our understanding of proper running form at a time when the modern running shoe was in its infancy. 

    Cheers and keep up the good work. 

    Joseph Froncioni

    • Pete Larson says:

      Joseph,

      Thanks so much for the comment – I’m familiar with the article you wrote as it was one of the first I read after developing an interest in this area back in 2009. It was indeed very influential! I also have read a version of Pirie’s book, and he is quoted in my own book with regard to his thoughts on foot strike type. One of the most enjoyable aspects of writing my book was going back to some of the writings of the great runners from the early 1900′s. Arthur Newton in particular was a phenomenally interesting writer. Alfred Shrubb as well. It’s quite an interesting time to be a runner!

      Pete

      —-
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      My book: Tread Lightly – Form Footwear and the Quest For Injury Free Running<http: 1616083743=”" gp=”" product=”" ref=”as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&amp;tag=thviofli-20&amp;linkCode=as2&amp;camp=1789&amp;creative=390957&amp;creativeASIN=1616083743″ http://www.amazon.com=“”> Work: link to anselm.edu
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  2. Adolfo Neto (UTFPR) says:

    I can’t read the passages.

    It would be better you you copied from the link at archive.org:

    link to archive.org

    care we bestow on the culture of the body may be thought sufficient, — in our colleges, at least, — it is certainly for the most part lacking in the wisest guiding educational principles, and is very rarely made to yield the best general results. The prime mistake seems to be that all except the greatest educators have overlooked the possibility of the higher education of motion. They have devoted themselves exclusively to developing muscular and special strength, but that is very far from being enough. Strength, without the habit of using it with the utmost economy and appropriateness, is only of limited advantage.  It is true that sports and athletics do cultivate motion, and in the long run do give their  kinds of dexterity and skill and physical efficiency. Our great natural bodily proficiency  has been achieved through long ages of trial  and practice in work and play, and the elimination of the inefficient. But it is not true  that mere exercise in itself necessarily affords  the most valuable education in motion or in-  sue illaftfng of ipetsonalfts  duces the best motional habits. The processes  of natural selection are effective but ruthless,  and attain their purpose with entire disregard  for the individual. The blind cosmic forces  which play through us produce perfection of  the species in their own good time only by  sacrificing with supreme unconcern myriads  of the weak, mistaken, and ineffectual. 

    Thanks anyway.

  3. Jae Gruenke says:

    I too was having difficulty reading the excerpts (using a Mac, not a mobile device) so thanks Adolfo for retyping the text.

    I’m very interested in looking at the whole book to sift out the ideas.  To me as a movement educator there’s a lot that’s provocative in these passages but also a very problematic idea that a kind of authoritarian guidance is needed to perfect movement.  That’s the opposite of how children come by their generally beautiful form in running, sitting, squatting, etc.  Outside authority generally sends things awry, actually, rather than the opposite, because the feedback loops that children use for learning are sensory.  As an engineer client of mine said, “that part of the brain doesn’t speak English” so there’s little point in instruction or explanation. 

    When a child has vast scope for varied play and exploration of self and environment, and a healthy nervous system that can perceive when results didn’t match intentions and try things differently next time, their movement becomes beautiful.  No amount of instruction can improve it.  As the parent of a three-year-old, I feel one of my most important jobs is to know when to keep my mouth shut, my hands in my pockets, and not break his flow.

    When a child’s nervous system isn’t healthy or they aren’t allowed enough unstructured time, variety, exploration, and play without being directed and interfered with, or if by chance a learning experience they need just doesn’t happen to come up, then someone may usefully step in and create a learning experience for them.  But the discoveries still have to be theirs, you can’t instruct or drill!  All good teachers know this, regardless of whether they teach movement or science or history.

    And that same process is exactly what helps adults learn to move better as well.  Not lectures or drills, but learning experiences which allow them to draw their own conclusions.  This makes teaching running form an art as well as a science, and a fairly delicate process.

    Well that’s a bit more than I meant to write, but I’m totally jazzed to find a real reflection on pedagogy for running form.  Thank you!

    Jae Gruenke

    • Pete Larson says:

      Thanks for the comment – you should be able to download a PDF of the book via Google Books. A number of people have indicated trouble seeing it, others have no issue. Strange. Anyway, I think Carman would mostly agree with what you wrote, he goes in much more detail in the chapter about the need for individuals to develop their own graceful motion, and how “classes” can be counterproductive.

      Pete

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      My book: Tread Lightly – Form Footwear and the Quest For Injury Free Running<http: 1616083743=”" gp=”" product=”" ref=”as_li_ss_tl?ie=UTF8&amp;tag=thviofli-20&amp;linkCode=as2&amp;camp=1789&amp;creative=390957&amp;creativeASIN=1616083743″ http://www.amazon.com=“”> Work: link to anselm.edu
      Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
      Dailymile Profile: link to dailymile.com
      Twitter: link to twitter.com</http:>

  4. Adolfo Neto (UTFPR) says:

    The processes  of natural selection are effective but ruthless,  and attain their purpose with entire disregard  for the individual. The blind cosmic forces  which play through us produce perfection of  the species in their own good time only by  sacrificing with supreme unconcern myriads  of the weak, mistaken, and ineffectual.  It is the object of education to better this  clumsy process, to discriminate among natural  tendencies, to guide and assist evolution, to  modify and adapt it to the crying need of each  particular being. One might quite as well  expect to become a good reader merely by  persistently reading aloud without instruction or criticism, as to hope to acquire good  habits of motion by unaided practice alone.  We forget that bad habits of motion, bad  habits of walking or standing, may most easily be acquired in childhood, and may  be unconsciously and tenaciously retained  through any amount of exercise, unless they  are recognized by a competent instructor and carefully eliminated, just as bad habits of  speech — unpleasant tones and inefficient  breathing — may be contracted in childhood  and retained through life, unless duly corrected. Unguided exercise does not necessarily eradicate faults in the individual, but  the faults merely tend to vitiate the exercise.  The exercise of any faculty is of little educational value, unless it is wisely directed with  definite educational purpose. 

  5. yang xiaohan says:

    When a child has vast scope for varied play and exploration of self and
    environment, and a healthy nervous system that can perceive when results
    didn’t match intentions and try things differently next time, their
    movement becomes beautiful.  No amount of instruction can improve it. 

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