Natural Running: What The Heck Does it Mean?

Barefoot heel strikeThe phrase “natural running” gets thrown around a lot these days. For example, there’s the Natural Running Center, there are natural running stores, Newton’s Danny Abshire wrote a book called “Natural Running,” and Saucony uses Natural Running as a category for shoes on the more minimal end of its range. But, what exactly does the phrase “natural running” mean?

I get the sense that most people equate the phrase natural running with barefoot running, or at least running with a form similar to that which you would adopt when barefoot (shorter stride, increased cadence, more plantarflexed foot at contact, generally a reduced impact transient if not heel striking, etc.). I largely agree with this definition. However, I think there’s a bit more to it than this.

Though barefoot running form has certain general elements that characterize it, it’s not something that can be defined concretely. There is no single barefoot running form, and thus there is no single natural running form that applies in all circumstances for all people.

Understanding what natural running means is further complicated by the fact that it’s become increasingly common for barefoot and natural running to be equated with forefoot striking alone, whether that is the intended message of those teaching natural running form or not. Sometimes a 180 cadence and forward lean are tied in, but I’m not going to go there in this post or I’ll never stop writing…

The reality is that running form is highly variable, and is largely dependent on an individual runner’s body and the conditions in which they are running (things like speed, surface, incline/decline, etc.). This applies even to foot strike. For barefoot runners, things will change depending on speed, surface, etc. There are habitual barefoot runners that forefoot strike, there are habitually barefoot people who heel strike when they run on softer surfaces. There are barefoot runners who heel strike on asphalt (and I have seen some very experienced barefoot runners making initial contact on the heel while running on asphalt). Most shod runners probably forefoot strike running uphill, and heel strike on the flats and downs.

In fact, when it comes to foot strike, Prof. Daniel Lieberman of Harvard emphasized variation when I interviewed him for my book. He said:

“I think everybody does everything. This idea that you’re just a forefoot striker, or just a midfoot striker, just a heel striker is bizarre. Variation is what biology is all about – everybody does everything! I think barefoot runners heel strike sometimes, of course they do. I don’t think they do it all the time. It’s speed dependent, terrain dependent, warm up dependent, etc.”

Let’s take a look at  a few videos from the 2011 NYC Barefoot run to further emphasize this point. When we think about natural running form, we tend to think of something that looks like this – short stride, forefoot strike, vertical shin at contact, etc.:

But, sometimes, barefoot running form on asphalt looks like the video below – is this natural running form?

How about this clip, which of these runners is exhibiting natural running form?

To a certain extent, I’d argue that all of the barefoot runners in the above videos are using natural running form. They are using the form that is working for them in their current situation, with zero assistance from footwear or other technology. That’s really how I would define natural running. It’s not some ideal, archetypal running form, it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground. It’s what happens when you let your own muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones do all or most of the work. It will vary depending on the type of ground under your feet, how fast you’re running, and so forth. It could hurt you – just because it’s “natural” does not necessarily mean that it’s always good. It could also help you – some people have overcome chronic injury by going “natural.” It’s a form employed by you, not necessarily a form employed by all. And your natural running form can change with time and practice. It might reach a comfortable steady state, or it might continue to change in small ways.

The last point is an important one. The form employed by the barefoot runners in the videos above is their current “natural form” while running easy on asphalt, but it may not be the “best” form that they could be using given the situation. If they are inexperienced, their form may change over time as they continue to practice. There may be some residual baggage in the form of ingrained motor patterns from running “un-naturally” with the assistance of footwear for many years (and yes, for good or for bad, I absolutely believe that shoes, even minimal shoes, change the way we run). Practice may be a required element to finding one’s natural running form.

It’s worth considering, however, that given that the individuals in the above videos came to a barefoot running event (some traveled a long distance to attend), we might assume that they have at least some experience running barefoot. Furthermore, unless they jumped in after the race started, these videos are taken of people running a second loop around Governor’s Island (i.e., they had already run a few miles on asphalt). Maybe heel striking is “natural” for them.

Now that these videos are posted on-line, I fully expect the usual slew of YouTube comments telling the heel strikers that they’re idiots and they might die if they keep running that way. Will they break their calcaneus? Maybe, maybe not. Most are running with other hallmarks of barefoot running form – short stride, bent knee, etc., and we can’t tell what the forces acting upon them at contact look like from a video. If they are highly experienced barefoot runners without an injury history, I’d probably just tell them to keep doing what their doing. Embrace the heel strike! Their natural running form is working just fine. If they are inexperienced, some advice or coaching might help them along the way to undoing their neurological baggage and finding their natural form without getting hurt.

As a final point I’ll say that “unnatural” isn’t necessarily bad. I run the vast majority of my miles in cushioned shoes. I’m pretty sure my form would change a bit if I ran regularly barefoot. But, I haven’t been injured seriously in 6+ years of regular running, and I’ve never missed a target race due to a running related injury, so I’m not too concerned about my form. My wife has found that the only shoes she can run in without foot pain are Hokas. Sometimes a bit of help from a shoe can keep you going, and there’s no shame in that.

How about you, how would you define natural running?

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. Clifford Clark says:

    Pete, I totally agree with Prof. Daniel Lieberman, for about a month recently I tried to figure out my foot strike. I run 90% on trails and most are very hilly. What I determined was on steep uphills I was a forefoot striker, steep downhills a heel striker, in both cases when the hills were less steep I tended to mid strike at a faster pace, if at a slower pace I would heel strike downhill. On the flats again it depends on pace. If at a fast pace I’d be fore foot striking and as pace slows I would be mid foot striking at a moderate pace and heel striking at slow pace. Mind boggling. I eventually just gave up and decided to just call myself a runner.

  2. Adam Kelly says:

    This comment thread rivaled your actual post for peaking my interests! Hah!

  3. Stephen Boulet says:

    Of all of the optional elements of natural running, the most universal might be cadence and the 180 minimum rule. I have short legs, so I’m typically closer to 190.

  4. tkent26 says:

    It’s hard to separate what’s “natural” from long-ingrained motor patterns. For example, I have to maintain conscious attention to detail while I run, focusing on posture, lean, cadence, foot-landing, etc. The instant I lose focus, my body reverts to overstriding, heel-striking with a locked knee, and wobbling around an unstable spine. I can’t imagine this injurious running form is “natural,” and yet it’s what my body “naturally” wants to do as a result of decades of running with poor form.

    • Pete Larson says:

      It took a long time before things click for me, how long have you been at it?
      Sent from my iPad

  5. bob baks says:

    OK, so my wife and kids put together a collection of pictures as a gift for Father’s Day. One was a shot from a couple of years ago. I would say that focusing on form, and foot strike in particular, has been beneficial. Did a 10 miler today, and will probably do a marathon next weekend. No way I would be able to do that if I was still running as pictured.

    • bob baks says:

      Ah, that’s better…
      Recent shots showing a definite change in foot strike.

      • bob baks says:

        Here’s my favorite pic from my last marathon. Look at dat pronation! I’m sure some people would be horrified looking at that. The guy in front of me was wearing some shoes that I think have a big old medial post. You can see how his foot and ankle stay locked in placed. Meanwhile, my foot is squashing down in my little flats. I don’t know how he felt afterward, but I felt great and ran a 5k a few days later. Still feel fine, in fact. I finished ahead of that guy, BTW.

        • Pete Larson says:

          If not injured, don’t mess with pronation control is my opinion :)

          —-
          Pete Larson’s Web Links:
          -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
          -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
          -Twitter: link to twitter.com
          -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
          -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

          • bob baks says:

            I don’t seem to have any issues. Maybe I’d eventually run into problems if I ran as much as some of those high mileage Hoka wearers. But I wonder if anyone needs to run 70 to 100 miles/week. Does coach Caleb even run that much?

          • Pete Larson says:

            I suspect he does. Mileage becomes important if you want to run fast for long distances

          • bob baks says:

            I checked further back in his dailymile history, and indeed he does. I went through a little period where I was worried about the pronation. I even tried on some Brooks Beasts for kicks at Dick’s. Ending up leaving with a pair of Pure Cadence 2s. That was back in the winter. Only wore the Cadence once because they felt so big and knew this was not the answer. Decided to go whole hog with barefoot/minimalism. I’ll probably never try training enough for a sub 3:00 marathon, but if I do, I’m not worried about my pronation. I feel like being loose and bendy may ease the stress on my body.

            Sorry about hijacking your posts with all my comments.

          • Pete Larson says:

            No problem, comments are very welcome, they’re the best response I can get to what I write! Bloggers love comments :)

            —-
            Pete Larson’s Web Links:
            -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
            -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
            -Twitter: link to twitter.com
            -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
            -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

    • Pete Larson says:

      I can tell by my wear patterns that my form has changed, also think I’m better of now :)
      Sent from my iPad

  6. Ellen Mangan says:

    Hmm. I left a message but it seems not to have shown up….

    I was saying that it struck me that the whole process is akin to an artist learning her or his trade. There is something perfect out there and you learn the techniques, etc. But unless and until you make them your own, with your own idiosyncracies, etc, your art will never be “alive”. Same with running form. You practice it so that you can become more of who you are in terms of how you run. My thoughts are informed by this article by Scott Douglas:link to runnersworld.com

    Thanks for these articles. Very helpful for me as I work my way back into running form/shape. I especially appreciate the sensibility and research/observation you bring to the topic.

  7. Vybarr Cregan-Reid says:

    Natural running means not having to wobble about on spongy stilts. http://www.psychojography.com

  8. Mark Cucuzzella says:

    Pete,

    This is a fun thread with no answer. that is the beauty of a term which I feel each needs to interpret for themselves, like soul or spirit. our site Natural Running Center is focused on play, running with a smile without injury, trying new things yourself and not relying on experts, and challenging some conventional beliefs. I experienced natural running with nearly 20,000 mostly Africans a couple weeks ago at Comrades and wrote on this (http://www.naturalrunningcenter.com). Being part of this mass of humanity ( many extremely poor by US standards) and the 1000′s of kids watching was the true experience of natural running for me. i’m sure I had many heel landings on this journey as I tried every form I could to make it.

    Mark Cucuzzella

  9. AthleteInTheMaking says:

    Every time I go for a run, I pay attention to my form and I often make necessary changes based on how my body feels, however minute those changes may be. I have been running for about four months now, and I am still tweaking form as different things come to light. I had an issue with my right knee that built up over a couple of runs the end of last week. The first adjustment I made was to tuck my hips up under my body to reduce the strain on my hips, knees, and ankles. This did wonders my first run, eliminating all knee pain. However, after another run, I could feel some irritation again. Today, I shortened my stride just a bit more, especially on all inclines, and found that all knee irritation was completely eliminated.

    Who knows if tomorrow I will have the same results or not. What I do know is that I am making good adjustments based on the terrain I am running and how my body is responding to that terrain. I think one of the most important things, for me anyways, is to keep assessing without obsessing, and adapt as I need to as I continue learning about my body and how I run best.

  10. Bob Schroedter says:

    My issue with the “if it ain’t broke…” concept is that for this to ring true as good advice you have to count on NOT getting injured, and who doesn’t get injured at least once as a runner? And more importantly, just because you don’t change anything consciously doesn’t mean that nothing changes at all. Owners of this philosophy have learned to stop time and aging simultaneously! Great for them, bad for those who live in reality.

    FULL DISCLOSURE: I am a PT and ChiRunning Instructor.

    • Pete Larson says:

      To recommend that someone who has not had any problems or injury history change their form would imply that there is very strong evidence that A. changing form does not carry any added risk and B. one type of form is definitively better than another from an injury prevention standpoint. I don’t think A is true, and I don’t think we have strong evidence supporting B.

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
      -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
      -Twitter: link to twitter.com
      -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
      -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

      • Bob Schroedter says:

        For the small percentage of people who have NEVER had ANY running injury **to-date**, they can stay with their current running form and take their chances that nothing else will change in their bodies and movement patterns to impact their form. This seems like a timid approach to avoid increasing risk at the cost of not increasing knowledge and body awareness. While my original post was not advocating for one type of form over another, I am advocating for components of running gait which are more advantageous for long-term, injury-reduced running. These are the same components that the literature and running pundits from various circles identify as having a better chance for increased efficiency, effectiveness or injury prevention. Lack of evidence does not equate to lack of effect.

        • Pete Larson says:

          I don’t disagree that there are some things that all runners should consider – avoiding overstriding for example. But it’s always important to make sure that any change doesn’t do more harm than good. Foot strike is a good example, way too many people have latched onto that and forcing a forefoot strike can be problematic.

          —-
          Pete Larson’s Web Links:
          -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
          -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
          -Twitter: link to twitter.com
          -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
          -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

          • Bob Schroedter says:

            Agreed that forcing any change is the wrong approach. Gradual progress is the boat people seem to miss, and not listening to one’s body is the plank off which they tend to walk.

  11. Ashwyn Gray says:

    Fantastic analysis, Pete! Now, do you suppose you could turn that into a spiffy infographic? :p

  12. Craig Payne says:

    The simple use of the term “natural” is a flawed fallacy. The implication is that “natural” is supposed to be better for you. There are plenty of natural things that are bad for you and plenty of unnatural things that are not good for you. Arsenic and snake venom are natural and is not good for you, so to imply something is better because its “natural” is just plain silly.

    http://www.runresearchjunkie.c

    • Zedric Dimalanta says:

      Yeah, I agree that “natural” is a loaded term when used in this particular instance, especially when the idea of “natural running” is paired with fixed and inflexible notions of ideal footstrike and such—it suggests that straying from a strict ideation of “natural running” is automatically bad or an affront to “what Mother Nature intended,” never mind that most of us are probably running on paved asphalt and concrete surfaces that didn’t really exist until relatively recently in our short evolutionary history.

      Maybe “adaptive running” gets the message across clearer that good running form is (or should be) dynamic and context-dependent?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I have this exact argument with my wife all the time :)

      • Craig Payne says:

        My wife has even heard me lecture on the “natural fallacy”… but she still wants everything to be “natural” … go figure

    • bob baks says:

      It appears that some people have an automatic, knee jerk, bah humbug reaction to anything that’s “natural” or “good for the environment” or any other such stuff. No matter how much some people enjoy being naysayers, it is possible that there is a better way-whether we’re talking about the environment, or food, or running–or medicine! Of course, just because something is called “natural” does not make it better, but it doesn’t automatically make it bogus bullshit either.

      • Pete Larson says:

        I think a healthy skepticism is fine, especially when things like “all-natural” become phrases used to sell us stuff. Marketing often pushes the envelope of the truth, happens with both food and running shoes. I’ll take natural over processed crap any day, but I also like to look at things objectively and play devil’s advocate. For example, my wife likes herbal remedies, I’m a skeptic and will tell her that. I don’t avoid drugs just because they are modern if I know the evidence says they’re safe and they work.
        Sent from my iPad

        • bob baks says:

          Man, we’re WAY beyond herbal remedies at this point. I mean, really weird stuff. Stuff we won’t talk about in public because it’s so kooky. At least, I used to think it was kooky. We have this kid who used to get sinus infections every winter. The docs would automatically put him on antibiotics. They may (I stress MAY) get rid of the infection, but they also kill all kinds of beneficial fauna in the gut and who knows what else. With the new treatments, this kid has been off antibiotics for a year and a half. There’s a lot of shit science still can’t account for, and some people would be wise to have more of an open mind.

          • Pete Larson says:

            But, there is also a lot of stuff science can account for, and simple observation shows that running form is really variable.
            Sent from my iPad

          • bob baks says:

            OK, as far as running is concerned- I mean, I’m no scientist, I haven’t seen ALL of the available data, but come on… There are certain traits that most of the best, most efficient, least injury-prone runners share. Does it really vary that wildly among the really good ones? Caleb Masland looks similar to Mark C. who shares similarities with Rupp, who is similar to Farah, etc. And they all look a lot (except for maybe the arms) like most kids just running around in the driveway without shoes on. It’s natural, baby, and I’m a hell of a lot better for trying to do it that way. But my observations may be flawed, and I may have a dreadful injury lurking around the corner, but so far, so good.

            BTW, I love science, and objective facts and reasoning. I still kind of poo poo all of my wife’s nutty stuff.

          • bob baks says:

            One more thing. All of the stuff I’ve gotten from your excellent blog has led me to my thoughts about running. I would think it would be the natural conclusion one would come to after reading everything and looking at the videos on Youtube and Vimeo. It’s your fault I’m hassling you! :)

          • Pete Larson says:

            No worries, getting people to think about what they are doing is what it’s all about. I’m a proponent of less shoe, and a more barefoot style form, but I don’t want to be dogmatic about it since I don’t think one size fits all solutions are helpful. I need to keep questioning myself :)
            Sent from my iPad

          • bob baks says:

            Well you certainly got me thinking. Obviously everyone is different, but for me, having less shoe and running in the barefoot style has worked very well. I’ve shaved 7 min. off my 5k time since I’ve been doing it this way. I’ve run at least 10 miles a day for the past several days. Woke up this morning with no aches. Unfortunately, at this moment sitting in the waiting room for some new quack alternative medicine doctor my wife insisted we all visit.

          • Pete Larson says:

            Even in these guys running crazy fast in a track there is variation – link to runblogger.com
            Sent from my iPad

          • Pete Larson says:

            Even elites are variable: link to runblogger.com…. Are there general features shared by elites, bare footers, and kids, yes, I’d say most don’t over stride horribly like many runners in big bulky shoes. And when those three groups are doing something similar that’s when I pay attention. But for foot strike? It’s all over the place, and even among elite half marathoners the vast majority are heel strikers.
            Sent from my iPad

          • bob baks says:

            Even looking at Meb, you get a sense that they are passing over their foot-that the foot is not causing any braking action. Their knees are bent, and their cadences are certainly high. Can’t tell looking at the pictures from the 10000m, but maybe it’s the same with them. With such good athletes, perhaps foot strike isn’t so important. Maybe with not-so-good athletes, being less heel strike-y might be a good thing to strive for. Maybe not. Don’t think I’m gonna try going heel to toe any time soon, though. Call me crazy…

          • FernandoL. says:

            A vast majority of elite half marathoners heel strike? I have been watching slow motion videos of elite 10000m runners and I wolud say most of them do not heel strike. Also, if you have a look to many kenian marathon runners…they rarely heel strike. That makes me think ff and mf strike are more efficient for speed…but I may be missing something here…

            In any case, there is this idea, shared by many barefoot style proponents, that we ALL were ff strikes until Nike started the heel lift shoes and heel strike appeard on earth for the first time. And that is not true. That study were a tribe of unshod kenians were shot heel striking; videos like the ones above…show us that things are much more complicated. This simple idea where heel strike is bad and ff/mf strikes are good should be left behind.

            But still people will look for advice in running form, and they will like to know wether there is a running style that reduce the rate of injuries. Althoug the answer to that is on the individual level, there are some advices that may work for everyone: do not overstride, try to land smoothly and close to your body…al of which are rather barefoot style features.

          • Pete Larson says:

            For the half marathoners – link to ncbi.nlm.nih.gov
            Sent from my iPad

          • FernandoL. says:

            Interesting! I leave this video of the 10k Us olympic trials: link to youtube.com…. I would say most of them are not heel strikers. Needless to say, 10k is a bit faster than half marathon, but not that much! When I see this, I can`t help but thinking the way they run is quite different from average popular runner, and much closer to barefoot stile. Even in those who land with the heel…

      • bob baks says:

        I wanna add that shoes that allow my foot to move more “naturally” still work better for me. I went on a 13 mile run today in the Kinvara 3, thinking I need something more substantial for upcoming longer races. I really want to like this shoe, and it feels good at first, but it’s definitely harder to sustain the same pace I can in my Samsons or flats. I only run on hard surfaces.

        To answer the question posed at the top: watch the videos we’ve all seen of Mark Cucuzzella. That’s natural running, and it’s better. Just because some may get injured trying to run like this does not mean natural running is a phony fad. The running in those videos shares more similarities with the running displayed by elite athletes than it does with average, maximally-shod runners.

        • Pete Larson says:

          I don’t disagree at all. Mark running barefoot is displaying his natural running form. But when you see people who have never worn shoes heel striking it makes you realize that it’s not as simple as saying one form is natural and another is not. Or that one form is better than another. Barefoot and shod running are different, whether one is better than another is determined at an individual level.
          Sent from my iPad

          • bob baks says:

            Yeah, but those people you’re talking about are not heel striking like recreational runners. And those “heel strikers” in the middle video up there are not either. Their heels may touch first, but their knees are bent and their full weight comes down when the foot is fully settled. You’re right when you say that all heel strikes are not created equal. The “heel strikers” I just mentioned are really still on the “natural running” end of the running spectrum.

          • Pete Larson says:

            But that’s my point, it is a spectrum, it’s not black and white as it’s so often portrayed. People call certain shoes natural running shoes, but even minimal shoes create differences from running barefoot. I can’t tell you how often I’ve been told that people don’t heel strike when running barefoot on pavement. Even just today on Facebook someone wrote that habitually barefoot tribes never heel strike. It’s not true. And yes, these people are running differently that most shod runners, and I pointed that out, but some of those barefoot heel strikes sure look like their shooting force through the heel bone when you go frame by frame.
            Sent from my iPad

  13. Sam Winebaum says:

    Thanks Pete for providing the actual evidence of the variety and diversity of our running forms even barefoot. I would like to take it a step further and propose that “natural running” is not running on pavement barefoot or in very minimal shoes on a day to day basis regardless of stride type (forefoot, heel, mid foot) for the great majority of runners. As of yet, and evolution may change this over time, we humans most likely were not “Born to Run on Pavement”. Through the forest, on grass, on the beach barefoot, in moccasins, or today’s minimal shoes a different story. For me “natural running” is about lighter shoes and less or no heel to toe drop. Note I did not say necessarily less cushioned shoes. The amount of cushion in my view depends on stride type, cadence, ability, age, injuries, terrain, surface and work out goal.

    • Pete Larson says:

      I asked Lieberman about the surface issue – he’s spent a lot of time in Africa in areas where humans originated. His take is that the ground is often pretty darn hard. No manicured grass lawns like on a golf course :) But, is it as hard as asphalt? Maybe not. I think we’ve evolved to adapt to surfaces that we encounter, and sometimes that means adapting our stride and foot strike. the human body is really pretty amazing when you think about it, it can adapt on the fly.

      • Sam Winebaum says:

        I don’t doubt that the ground is hard in Africa and I agree we can adapt to surfaces. For most of us we did not grow up barefoot walking and running on hard or soft surfaces so adapting without undue stress or injuries to barefoot or near barefoot on such surfaces may be very difficult for most if they go super minimal day in day out abruptly. I wonder if there have been studies of minimal or barefoot running for places where people do grow up shod all the time and compare injuries and adaptation based on age starting with kids. I did note that Runner’s Alley has Vibram 5 Fingers on sale for $25,

  14. simon bartold says:

    I dunno Pete.. I suspect maybe natural running has more to do with redistributing the load. A lot of the discussions have revolved around what does or does not cause injury, and what does or does not prevent it. So we have had interminable arguments about barefoot vs minimalist vs traditional, when probably all this is irrelevant. Runners get injured.. a fact we can’t escape, and probably the shoe or strike pattern has a part to play, albeit small. The problem with running, especially in the western world is that we all tend to be time poor and use the same route in the same manner. Maybe natural running is all about mixing the input signal.. trying to reduce the repetitive load of running, which is cumulative and I think we all agree, a big player in injury genesis.

    So my theory in relation to “natural running’, is to mix up the training as much as possible: different terrain, different surfaces.. and.. different footwear. Throw in some barefoot training from time to time, but be judicious.

    i have a sneaking suspicion that Chris McDougall’s Tarahumara for the most part remain uninjured not because of what they do or do not wear on their feet, but because, apart from being genetically isolated and training since early childhood.. they never run in the same fashion on any given run. They run up and down hills, across hills and across different surfaces.. so the input load is greatly varied.. and, maybe.. that is what natural running is all about and where the lesson lies for us city runners.

    best

    Simon

    link to facebook.com.

    • I love this thread. So many fun and interesting things to think about.

      We tend to want to label things to make them more easily understandable, so when “natural” and “minimalism” and similar words get tossed around, I think we’re trying to attach words to things that may not have a single definition. Simon is right on. Natural running is probably more about simply running–”play” as Mark puts it–than what many of us do, which is to try to run faster or farther or a combination of the two.

      We do tend to quantify, qualify, categorize and label everything. It’s kinda what we do. But the things that are difficult to observe are probably just as much a factor as anything else. When something is “play” there is probably less stress involved, which might lead–in a roundabout way–to fewer injuries. So, there may be some sort of mind/body connection (that I certainly don’t understand) that indeed plays a role.

      For whatever reason, we’re more likely to think a specific shoe, or no shoe, will do more for us in terms of injury prevention than, say, changing our approach or perspective. Like Simon said: A variety of terrain, a variety of input load. And then to that we add a change in the way we actually go about it.

      With training, with shoes–with everything running–the answers, if there are any, are likely much simpler than we want to believe.

      Keep it going! I love this stuff!

    • Pete Larson says:

      I totally agree with this Simon, mixing things up is what I advocate as well. I think the reason why going barefoot helps some people is that it redistributes the load, but if all you do is take your shoes off and continue to do the same thing every day you risk injury in other places, things like met stress fractures and the like. I’m lucky in that I can wear a load of different shoes, but even if that is not an option then running different routes, different terrains, different speeds makes sense to me for managing cumulative load to any particular tissue.
      Sent from my iPad

    • Wow. I just witnessed Mark and Simon essentially 100% agreeing (and me with them) on the topic of natural running. This could be the first sign of the rapture…

  15. andy-1967 says:

    I define “natural running” in a similar way to how you did Peter,

    “it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground.”

    I adjust my form to the terrain and speed in the best possible way if I have nothing on my feet, as soon as I put my bikilas on I can get away with a bit more speed but my foot is landing in such a way that would be painful if done barefoot (nowadays I run 60% of my distance barefoot)

    This is only my second year at barefooting and I have been more successful at it this year, I believe, because I ran on more challenging surfaces (dirt tracks with stones e.g.) – I was finding last year I was getting persistent calluses which were too painful to continue with barefoot and this was (IMO) because I was running on smooth pavements and again (like with the Bikilas) I could get away with more speed

    “barefoot running form” for me, was something which has come to me now because I learned to run on the rough stuff first (albeit @ 12/mi) – this translated to how i ran barefoot on smooth surfaces like pavements (as well as how I ran in bikilas to an extent) and now I can do both without problems (no painful calluses, no heel pain no nothing – touch wood!)

    So Barefoot running on smooth surfaces in my experience allowed me to run with poor form (otherwise I wouldn’t have developed painful calluses) – therefore I would define “natural running” as you did Peter,

    “it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground.”

    … and
    Running barefoot and on “natural” (not man-made) surfaces (ie. stone-littered dirt tracks, mountain trails etc), very much like our ancestors had to run before roads and pavements ;-)

    so, by running on pavements, roads etc. you are effectively protecting your feet from the tougher, natural environment

    (just a thought)

    Andy from

    http://www.myrunningtips.com

    • Pete Larson says:

      I agree – I think friction is the big factor here that differs when you go barefoot. You can still run and avoid friction blisters when you wear Vibrams, but you have to learn to run differently if you go barefoot on a rough surface. I don’t see this talked about very much though.

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
      -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
      -Twitter: link to twitter.com
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      • andy-1967 says:

        Ken Bob rattles on about “running on gravel when you BEGIN barefoot” (or words to that effect – but only run for short intervals. I nearly fell off my chair laughing when I first read it and then, (months later when it was warm enough to run barefoot) I caught myself changing my form whenever the surface suddenly changed from smooth to rough – my knees would drop slightly and my foot-fall would be zippier. Then when the smooth stuff returned I relaxed, and my form went back to how it was (A-Ha!!, a light-bulb moment) – That’s when I thought i’d try running on rougher surfaces and it worked a treat. The carefull running form I learned from running on the rough stuff gradually translated into other types of running (bikilas, barefoot on smooth surfaces etc.). I know ken bob is a bit of a nut when it comes to barefoot and he hates people who wear five fingers etc. and anyone who wears shoes for that matter! – but I think there’s a lot to be learned from this barefoot master – I just wonder if I’ll ever go completely barefoot and be able to run the longer distances (in time maybe)

        Andy from
        http://www.myrunningtips.com

        • Pete Larson says:

          I think with time you can get there, but requires a slow progression and dedication. You’re making me want to do another barefoot run!
          Sent from my iPad

  16. Damien @ ToeSalad says:

    It sounds to me like you are saying it doesn’t matter what you wear on your feet, or how you run – it’s all good. Is that what you believe? Is there not a “wrong way”?

    • Pete Larson says:

      I believe that there are things that should be avoided (e.g., overstriding, locked knee with a 45 degree heel strike, etc.), but in general I don’t think there is a wrong way to run unless what you are doing is causing you trouble. The challenging part is whether “trouble” may be something that manifests itself far down the road due to long term accumulation of minor damage. But, I don’t know that we yet have the ability to predict those specific things. My biggest issue is boiling running form down to just foot strike, which in my opinion is missing a lot of more important things.

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
      -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
      -Twitter: link to twitter.com
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      • Damien @ ToeSalad says:

        I guess that is what happens when a “craze” runs it’s course (pun intended). The mainstream picks-up on one element and puts it at the forefront (a sound bite, like natural=forefoot).

        It seems like the natural running proponents just can’t win :-) First they (we?) said, you need less shoe. Then some people got injured. Then they said you need to take it slow and adapt the new motor skills. Then some people got injured. Then they said, you need to run with proper form. Then some people got injured. Then studies come out saying this whole natural running thing is not actually any better, we need to do more studies. In the end the public is just as confused as before. Par for the course with pretty much anything related to health and fitness.

        • Pete Larson says:

          I’d actually look at things a bit differently. In general my feeling is people should minimize interference between the foot and the ground, but the end goal need not be barefoot or ultraminimal. Get as little shoe as you can tolerate individually. Every one of the people in the videos I posted is running very differently than they would in a pair of big, bulky training shoes, and my guess is that their knees and hips are better off for it. But, their feet might be experiencing more stress. It’s a tradeoff. My personal feeling is get a barefoot-like stride with just a bit of cushion and you get the best of both worlds. But, that’s what works for me so I’m biased. Some people will need more, some will do better with less.
          The big thing that has come out of the barefoot thing is that much of what we thought we needed in running shoes probably wasn’t really all that necessary. There was a lot of BS marketing gimmickry going on without much science to back it up. We now have options, and we are finding out that these options for the most part are equally viable. So, people who have had long term trouble in traditional shoes now have something else to try. this is a good thing. Those who have run forever in traditional shoes can keep doing what they’re doing. It’s all good. We just need to stop making things black and white.

          —-
          Pete Larson’s Web Links:
          -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
          -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
          -Twitter: link to twitter.com
          -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
          -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

          • Damien @ ToeSalad says:

            I don’t disagree with you at all. I am not black-and-white when it comes to footwear. I was not stating how I see it, but how it looks from the outside (i.e. uniformed public). It is the same with a lot of things with labels. Paleo = eat meat, natural running = forefoot strike.

            (I am not a paleo person, nor do I want to get into that debate… just using as an example).

          • Pete Larson says:

            Ahh, I was a bit surprised by what you wrote, I figured you and I had a similar take on things :) And I”m a paleo sympathizer, but not really a paleo practitioner. I like beer and pizza too much.

            —-
            Pete Larson’s Web Links:
            -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
            -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
            -Twitter: link to twitter.com
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            -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

  17. bob baks says:

    I know that I saw a lot of unnatural running in the last 5k I did (the results of which I’m still waiting for, for some unknown reason).

    Is anyone still really arguing this topic? Like I alluded to in an earlier post, watching videos of world-class runners is a good idea. While they may vary a bit, nobody is clomping along with a slow, sticky cadence and landing with a straight leg smack on their heel. Would anyone advocate running like that? No. Maybe it’s time for everyone to move on… Perhaps we can start by focusing on what’s up with the way some people carry their arms.

  18. Ellen Mangan says:

    ps Looking forward to your book…..

  19. Paul Wallis says:

    Natural Running is the same as barefoot running, this is our default state to be without shoes. Something natural isn’t always better, as Mr. Payne pointed out. Specifically though as to whether or not this is the case here, one only needs to look at all the research that has been done to show how much better shoes are than bare feet……..Oh yeah I forgot there is no research to show this. Probably better to stick to the bare feet (our default) then unless you have a medical condition, or in the case of extreme environmental conditions until the research shows otherwise.

  20. Steve Tremblay says:

    Natural running means: My running style is better than yours.

  21. bob baks says:

    Wherever I go, it seems that running form is on my mind. Yesterday, we stopped at a rest stop during a long car trip. Other families were stopped as well. There were a bunch of barefoot kids running around on the pavement, displaying beautiful, natural running form. High cadence, bent knees, and what looked like a midfoot landing. Looked pretty easy, and fun too. My kids were displaying the form I had at their age: they were more interested in the snack machines.

  22. FernandoL. says:

    Better or worse, good or bad…humans need this categories to simplify reallity (Hollywood movies know something about it :). But, unfortunately (or I might say luckily) reallity is very complex.

    In any case, I think there are a number of things that flow from each running style and type of foot strike. If one uses the forefoot to hit the ground, their calves will absorb a great deal of the impact energy. And in doing so the knees and hips get less of that energy. Is this good? Well, yes and no. This will stress more calves and achilles, which might suffer more injuries, but may reduce knee injuries. In your book, Peter, you mention something similar that Lieberman commented: barefoot style will worsen a type of injury and reduce other. As with everything in life, natural running involves some advantages and, in turn, has some drawbacks.

    • Pete Larson says:

      Yes, it’s all about tradeoffs. Forefoot striking places more stress on the foot/ankle, reduces stress to the knee/hip. Jay Dicharry likened it to adding another shock to a monster truck. It spreads the load around more, but the load doesn’t go away, it just gets distributed differently. But, we can use this info to target specific problems. For someone with chronic knee problems, running barefoot may move things in a better direction.

      —-
      Pete Larson’s Web Links:
      -My book: Tread Lightly: link to ow.ly
      -Blog: http://www.runblogger.com
      -Twitter: link to twitter.com
      -Facebook Page: link to facebook.com
      -Discussion Forum: http://www.runblogger.com/forum

  23. Sme great information here,thanks…
    Ok so I’ve worked out my son is a forefoot striker which places more stress on the ankle…now he has constant pain in his calves and I’m curious after doing some research if the product in the link below would help at all?
    We thought maybe he wasn’t warming up as best he could but after reading this thread there is so much more to consider….it’s a bit confusing but maybe we will try something like this?
    link to amazon.com

Trackbacks

  1. […] Natural running is not some ideal, archetypal running form; it’s what happens when you let your own body figure out what works best for you when you minimize interference between the foot and the ground. It’s what happens when you let your own muscles, ligaments, tendons, and bones do all or most of the work. It will vary depending on the type of ground under your feet, how fast you’re running, and so forth. It could hurt you – just because it’s “natural” does not necessarily mean that it’s always good. It could also help you – some people have overcome chronic injury by going “natural.” It’s a form employed by you, not necessarily a form employed by all. And your natural running form can change with time and practice. It might reach a comfortable steady state, or it might continue to change in small ways.– Pete Larson, Runblogger […]

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