So much information was relayed during the natural movement workshop that it has been hard for me to synthesize my thoughts in a short space of time, especially with a busy Kerry weekend behind me.
But I wanted to briefly summarise what I have taken out of it. The first thing to make clear is that the workshop is not about barefoot running and I am not a barefoot running advocate per se. Rather I see myself now as a “natural movement advocate” which is different.
The laws of gravity, equilibrium and motion
Human bodies are just objects in space and as such we all follow the same natural laws. Unless you were born with obvious deformities and unusual limbs and body structure, we all play by the same rule book when it comes to movement regardless of our bodily built (thin, thick, tall, low).
What Tony Riddle taught us is simply that natural movement is the movement patterns that best take advantage of natural laws and which are the ones adopted naturally by animals. The modern overly intellectual man, unfortunately, adopts an unnatural lifestyle which alters these pattern into something sub-optimal. We can function, even excel to a certain degree, with these patterns, a testament to the remarkable adaptability and durability of the human body if nothing else. But sub-optimal remains sub-optimal. To ignore restoring your natural movement pattern is to accept that you will always be less than you could be.
My visit to Tony in London provided me a basic tool-kit but it take a significant amount of time to absorb all the knowledge he has to bring and lots of practice to get it right. Ideally, I’d work with him regularly, so it was with some excitement that we set up the course in Ireland a few weeks ago. Thankfully, it turned out such a success that we are revising it both in June and August and Tony will travel over for us to discuss further details in late April and refine our concepts and plans to help Irish runners improve their injury prevention skills.
Tony had essentially succeeded in fixing my posture the first time around but I was still showing several unnatural movement patterns which will eventually put a limit to the amount of training I can absorb without injury and also hampers my energy-efficiency and power generation.
With a fresh view on all the drills and the huge amount of new material we went over, especially the uphill barefoot run on the Wicklow Way I did with Tony and Ben Medder was a real eye-opener. In an attempt to summarise what I have changed let me say it in a few brief points:
No static stretching
I had removed all static stretching from my routine early this year already and have not looked back since. The workshop only confirmed the damaging effects of this unnecessary and irritating practice. I allow myself a few yoga and pilates poses but only those most relevant to running and only performed in the correct manner (meaning in the correction pose, with centre of gravity correctly aligned, relaxed and not in a position where muscle is being pulled to the point of pain).
Flexibility is generally misunderstood. Static stretching is not the way to get there. Tony’s drills are essentially ballistic movements in natural poses utilising tendons and ligaments rather than muscle power.
No traditional strength and conditioning
Animals don’t strength train yet have superb muscle tone and so would we if we recognised that proper muscle tone is the automatic result of proper movement patterns. As Hagen Stroh told me earlier in the year: “form follows function”. So if you move well, your muscles well develop well.
The paradigm of exercise focusing on targeting specific muscles in isolation or through using movement patterns that do not occur naturally and have no relevance to the movement patterns of your sport is misguided, dangerous to the athlete and detrimental to their performance.
As a result I have removed any exercises that are not part of natural movement patterns and focus all my energy on the exercises given to me by Tony such as the different variations of jumps, squats, pushes and crawling. The only exercise involving weights that fit this understanding of weight training is properly executed Olympic lifting techniques and similar (for instance, doing it with kettlebells). Doing this requires you conduct the lifts in bare feet, place your weight on the big toe joint and use your body’s natural elasticity in executing fluid movements rather than pulling and tearing and exerting yourself through stinted movements where you isolate one muscle group at a time.
Transition away from normal footwear
A heel raise on a shoe alters the position of your centre of gravity and takes away the sensory input you need from the soles of your feet to time your movement perfectly. Since all natural movement patterns have to begin with being in the correct posture it is not possible to practice this with shoes featuring a heel raise. Newton runners, who have no heel to toe differential, are also no solution as the slap of rubber on the front of the foot affects your natural foot-fall.
My natural foot senses, ankle, toe and foot mobility and other prerequisites for the natural running pattern are still somewhat hampered by years of faulty movement patterns. So I transition by switching between minimalist, racing shoes and barefoot. What’s a “minimalist” shoe then you may ask?
“Unless it has zero heels to toe differential and a 3mm or thinner sole and a front wide enough to allow all toes full mobility, the shoe is not barefoot or minimalist,” was another conclusion from Tony’s workshop and both Aoife and I have ordered two of the few shoes that fall under this category as a result. I ordered VivoBarefoot Breatho (for trail) and Aqua Lite (for road and track).
Eliminate unnatural elements of lifestyle
This is the most difficult because practically everything about modern life is unnatural: our work, our food, our sleeping patterns and our environment and stress levels.
All of these effect our psychological, physical and biochemical health and since the brain is at the root of all movement, creating the tension, or lack thereof, in muscles, they all affect your ability to move naturally.
I have adopted a standing desk, but standing all day is not natural either, so I try to throw my exercises in whenever I can. All sitting positions, except squatting, are likewise unnatural, so I try to avoid extended sits and don’t worry about sitting position. While some seated positions may or may not be better than others, they are all detrimental to our ability to move naturally.
I don’t diet, but I do my best to avoid foods that are heavily processed and are leagues away from what you would find in nature. The Kerry weekend was not great for such discipline (you don’t get many British ales in the bush) but generally my compliance is ok, while it needs to be better.
Activity is the cure, not rest
I have long advocated “recovery activity”, which can mean a leisurely bath or a nap, but it also means that in general our problem is disuse and misuse not overuse. If my ankles are sore and stiff, I do more squats and more box jumps with good posture and so on. “Resting” by not using the joint or forcing a return of natural movement patterns is a blind alley that offers temporary relief at best.
I don’t like to summarise conclusions based on hundreds of hours of study, thousands of pages of reading and endless practice in a few lines because it can be hard to convey all that information to the reader, it' really is better to see for yourself but hopefully this resonates with some of you out there. Coming to these realisations and beginning to reject a lot of the nonsense we have been taught over the last decades is the key to curing the injury plague and restoring more runners to joyful running. The current levels of injury are simply completely unacceptable and has to be reversed.