This may be a very short blog post… in fact, the title says it all. You run the way you do for a good reason, or actually many good reasons, having to do with how you learned to move as a child, the sport or musical instrument you played, accidents you may have had, glasses you’ve worn, desks you’ve sat in… and of course the shoes you’ve run in. You have developed your movement habits over a lifetime and bring them with you into the cyclical, rhythmic interplay of forces we call running.
If something you do when you run doesn’t match up with what you think you should be doing – what you’ve heard, read, or even learned to do – there’s a good reason why. There’s a force you’re unaware of generating that throws your gait awry, it almost never originates in the place that you notice being off but has its source somewhere else. It may be due to an old habit that lies beneath the threshhold of your awareness, residual tension from doing something ususual yesterday, or footwear that changes your balance of weight, your effort, or your perception of how you’re moving and where the ground is.
Irene Dowd, my anatomy teacher, taught me that the main job of the brain is to keep most of what goes on in our bodies unconscious. We would be totally overwhelmed if we were conscious of the flow of blood in our veins, each little gas bubble in our bellies, the feedback from each nerve ending, and had to make conscious decisions about each one of these sensations. Instead, most of what our brain does is to handle these things behind the curtain, as it were. We do have some control over where the curtain is, how much sensation we allow ourselves to be aware of, and the more time you invest in learning how to listen to your body the more you’ll be able to move that curtain at will to reveal more clearly what you’re doing and why. The Feldenkrais Method has given me a great deal of control over where the curtain is for me.
But regardless of how much control you have over your ability to feel what you’re doing, if you intend to be running in a certain way and it just doesn’t happen, DON’T FORCE IT! You haven’t been able to tell what’s making you run differently than you intend and so if you do force yourself to run “right,” you won’t be able to change the thing that was “wrong” to begin with. Instead, you’ll override your nervous system’s self-protective mechanisms, force yourself to move in a way that just won’t work, and may suddenly find yourself having pain or getting injured.
Moshe Feldenkrais, creator of the Feldenkrais Method of Movement Education (as you might have guessed from the name) liked to say, “When you know what you’re doing you can do what you want.” The corollary is that if you don’t know what you’re doing – or don’t know clearly enough – you won’t know what to change. Don’t use force to fill in your self-knowledge gap, it just doesn’t work.
I write, teach, and create videos illustrating how to run because the information we have on that subject informs what we imagine doing and feeling when we think, “I’m going to go for a run.” I’m frequently amazed by the feedback I get from runners who do nothing other than read an article of mine or watch one of our YouTube videos and tell me their pain went away or they just sped up by a minute per mile. Having correct information about the nature of the sport you’re participating in is very important, and it makes you open to noticing when you spontaneously do something right, and encourages you to continue to allow that to happen. For example, reading that it’s actually right for your pelvis to make a gentle rocking motion encourages you to allow that if you feel yourself doing it, rather than trying to hold it still. And as a result your knees may feel better.
Feeling your pelvis doesn’t move, or even feeling you can’t tell what your pelvis is doing, and then reacting to that by forcing your pelvis to move around when you run is the kind of thing that’s likely to get you into trouble.
If you have difficulty feeling what you’re doing, or if you can feel that you’re doing something wrong and can’t seem to get it to go right then instead of banging your head against a wall what you need to do is go a different direction. You need a learning experience, or probably actually quite a lot of them. Variety interferes with movement patterns and requires you to tune into your body in new ways. Vary your runs – terrain, footwear, distance – do drills (as many different kinds as you can find), do yoga, Zumba, bellydance, jumprope (even Punk Rope!), parkour… and dare I suggest Feldenkrais lessons, which are all about learning to feel what you’re doing and do what you want instead of just what you’re in the habit of. Take it easy, don’t overdo new things, adding in one “experimental” activity per week is probably a reasonable approach. Avoid ruts, keep learning new things, and your form will improve without any force at all.
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.