This post is part of the The Balanced Runner Keys series.
One of the first questions I ask a client before seeing them run is this: “Is there anything you’ve been trying to do with your running form?” About half say yes, and maybe mention something about their arms or not slouching or picking up their heels or tightening their core or leaning… the potential list is long. In that case, I ask them first to run while trying to do whatever they’ve been working on. Then I ask them to run a second time without making those efforts, but just letting their bodies move however comes naturally. I’ve been doing this for over a decade and I have yet to see a single runner who doesn’t run better in their second lap than the first, even if the technique they’ve been trying to adopt is theoretically a good one.
To understand why this is so, we need to look at what’s really involved in learning how to move. I started explaining this a few weeks ago when I wrote that the crucial first step to improving your running technique is becoming aware of how you are actually running.
You might imagine the next step is to start changing how you’re running. But generally speaking that’s not a good idea.
You’re running the way you are for a very good reason. Once you stop trying to do anything you think you’re supposed to do – either because you read it somewhere (even here!) or a coach or physio told you to – and just let yourself run in the way that comes naturally to you, what you’re doing is the very best and safest thing your nervous system knows.
“Safest” is a key word here. Your nervous system’s job is to help you fulfill your intentions while keeping you alive and intact. Any time you try to override your system’s best efforts to do this, you create a feeling of danger. Your nervous system will begin to try to fight your conscious efforts and protect you from the actions you are insisting on taking, and the result will be increased tension and potentially pain and even injury.
This is why people always used to say it’s dangerous to try to change your natural, individual running form – because it makes you fight yourself, and when you do that you always lose.
The only way to really improve your habitual way of running is through a series of small, gentle experiments that don’t alarm your nervous system, allowing you to experience the changes as in fact safe and perhaps even safer and more effective than what you’re used to. Then your running improves dramatically without you having to try or to force anything.
This is one reason people who have done a lot of different kinds of physical activities often have better technique than those who haven’t – I wrote about this a while back here. It’s also why experiential learning techniques like the Feldenkrais Method are so effective at helping people improve their form while reading articles in Runners’ World and on Competitor.com is so ineffective.
So this is why I added “acceptance” to the instructions for how to approach The Balanced Runner Keys. The whole key reads like this:
Tune into your body with awareness, acceptance, and imagination.
In other words, allow yourself to become aware of how you’re naturally running, then accept that this reflects the wisdom and experience you’ve accumulated up to now. Some of it may be working more perfectly for you than you realize, and need not be changed. Other aspects may require a learning process in order to evolve.
So the next time you go out for a run, stop trying to do anything with your form, give yourself time to become aware of how you naturally run, and then give yourself the opportunity to discover whether some of that is actually serving you very well. And if you feel that you have more to learn, then instead of trying to force yourself to run better, seek out an actual learning experience.