Transitioning to Natural Running

The day I started running my only thoughts were on getting outside and exercising, one step after the other. I had no plans to do it often and no ambition of becoming a runner. The goal was just to get the body moving and the heart pumping.

In those days my professional life took most of my time. Regardless of being abroad at work or at home in the Lisbon area, 24 hours were just not enough to fit work, food, a lot of commute, more work and some sleep. As I became increasingly aware of the lack of investment I was dedicating to myself aside from all things routine, I knew that something had to change.

What at start seemed to be a hobby, a getaway, a way to exempt myself of a guilty conscience, soon became a passion and a way of being. There is no doubt today that I’m a runner.

As I started to train more often, it soon became apparent that running is not just about getting some sports clothes on, shoes on your feet and off you go. As training gave ways to participating in a few races, as intensity raised and I started putting more load on my legs, the first signs of injury came knocking at my door.

– Oh hello! Who are you?

– My name is Pain. Right Knee Pain. I come to stay for a while…

The web has always been my friend and so I asked for its help to get rid of my unwanted guest. Looking back it is interesting to realise how in those days, more than a decade ago, there was little information to be found about foot type and the way the foot rolls when walking / running. Nowadays most brands and shops already tag footwear as appropriate for athletes having overpronation, neutral pronation or supination gaits. It didn’t take me much to understand that I needed additional support on the foot and that investing on a proper pair or running shoes was the right thing to do.

Sports gear shops dedicated to running were uncommon at the time. After finding Barcelona 92 in Odivelas, just north of Lisbon, I’ve decided to pay them a visit and to leverage on the new world of information I’ve discovered online. It was in awe that I was received by the staff with the same jargon I was now fluent of. Soon after I had a pair of Asics Kayano Gel in my feet… and wow!!! I still recall the fluffy feeling of running on top of clouds!! Amazing cushioning, great support, exactly what I needed!

– Hello Mr. Pain! You are cordially invited to leave my right knee. Oh and please stay at bay…

Asics Gel Kayano shoes

Asics Gel Kayano shoes

Most runners are heel strikers, which means their heels are the first point of impact with the ground when they run. As the foot levels with the ground to continue its gait cycle, the foot can roll slightly inwards in a healthy manner for runners with neutral pronation, can instead have a more pronounced roll inwards in case of overpronation or outwards in the case of supination (also called underpronation). The Asics Gel Kayano provided not only excellent cushioning on the heel to absorb ground impact, as they provided extra support on the inner side of the shoe to compensate an overpronation gait. Looking at present-day shoe labeling is a great way runners have to ensure they get the proper support that is right for them.

I’ve always been eager leveraging on the web to get new insights on everything there is. My friend Pedro Custódio, founder of the SHiFT Conference, invited me in 2010 to give a talk in Lisbon under the Do It Yourself motto, about my findings and experience on the world of running. It was interesting to see a room nearly full with people interested on the resources, the techniques, the training plans, the gear but most important the foot type identification, gait cycle and shoe recommendations to avoid injury.

Needless to say that there was so much more to explore… I wanted to try out listening to music on the run with a tempo specifically designed for desired speed, where beats per minute would regulate the cadence of the legs. I wanted to drill into the world of nutrition and better understand the impact of food on energy levels required for the sport. I wanted to tap into running communities and listen to first hand experiences from those who were giving it all out there.

The most appealing subject came from a good friend of mine as he showed me his new pair of Newton Running  shoes. The cushioning was not on the heel but rather on the mid-foot, in the form of lugs! He succinctly briefed me on how heels are the most unnatural spot on the foot to strike the ground, as they’re mostly bone and skin. How they’re unable to absorb any ground impact and pass it on to shins, knees and hips. How I should dedicate some time focusing on running form…

Curiosity killed the cat, right?

I’d then start a deep dive into the world of Natural Running and the Newton Running shoes.

Lugs on Newton Shoes

Lugs on Newton Shoes

Running form and injury expert Danny Abshire, founder of Newton Running, wrote a superb book titled Natural Running: The Simple Path to Stronger, Healthier Running, which I strongly recommend a read to any fellow runner. With my interest levels high during summer 2013, I bought the book and set out to read it during a fantastic holiday season in the Alentejo region, south of Portugal.

Backed by studies at MIT and Harvard, the book presents the principles of proper technique, natural form and running dynamics. It sets the baseline on how humans evolved the mechanics of running over thousands of years into an efficient tool of survival. A case for barefoot running is made, recalling how running shoes haven’t been around for that long and challenging the reader to run barefoot on a sandy beach or soft grass to understand how after a few minutes the body will automatically adopt a natural running form. Have you ever tried it? Could I challenge you as well? Pay special attention whether your heel will strike the floor on first contact (likely will at start) or not (it starts hurting if not). Take the chance as well to watch how children run next time and how they set the foot on the ground.

The book starts getting extremely interesting when Abshire explains, based on recorded facts, how modern running shoes distorted the natural running technique, by adding additional cushioning on the heels of the shoes, to neutralise the counterintuitive form amateur runners were using – mostly the same as walking. It demonstrates how amateur runners in the 70s stepped into the sport without any athletics preparation, contrary to other sports (such as swimming or tennis) where athletes typically seek training prior getting into the sport. The reader is fully put into context on the impacts of improper running form on the human body and the injuries it can bring, from heel, ankle and knees, to the hips and spine.

Inducing a fluid reading (specially with a Mojito glass on the side 😉 ) Abshire describes common characteristics of the human body, some of which were not unknown to me any longer and which resonated very well with the thoughts I was having at the time: the different foot types, mid-foot placement on contact with ground, arm carriage, leg turnover (cadence), body alignment, etc. It ends with a fantastic training plan to get runners transitioning to natural running form, providing strength drills to invigorate less-used muscles, as well as form drills to enhance posture and running dynamics.

The storyline was coherent and I’d recognise a lot of the concepts I had been drifting upon in the months past, hence I decided it was the time to give it a try as soon as the season was over. The large heel to toe drop, high cushioning shoes I had been using may as well be the reason why Mr Right Knee Pain came to pay a visit.

Low drop shoes are now offered by most brands but 3 years ago it was quite challenging to find them in any shops. Even worse was to find Newton Running shoes being sold in Europe, at least the introductory models I was seeking. Through a friend of a friend I got a pair flying from the US to Europe on an intercontinental flight right into my doorstep! The biggest challenge was deciding how to do it: slowly transitioning into the new method or going all in. I took the latter at the very start of 2014, ditching all my old running shoes and starting Abshire’s 8-week transition plan with the new shoes only.

What I recall from those days was that it was hard to keep focusing on drills rather than running. In fact in the first weeks there was no running at all! Looking into it from as far away as the day today, it took quite some determination as I approached the end of the transition plan, requiring early morning wakeup calls at 5 AM to do nearly two hours of strength drills in the living room and another one and half hour of strength drills and some running in the park next to my place (in the dark!). That was tough…!! 😐

The key concepts were very clear:

  • proper running form with a strong core, upper body slightly leaning forward, taking advantage of the progressive momentum in the direction of running
  • knees slightly bent, legs relaxed in order to act as a natural spring, absorbing the impact with the floor
  • foot level with the ground, hitting it with a mid-foot strike, softly landing on the ground, with the heel gently settling afterwards
  • getting feedback from the ground as much as possible, feeling it, landing lightly and avoiding high impact
  • lifting the legs instead of pushing from the ground, using the natural inertia of the body moving forward and avoiding any waste of energy
  • leg cadence around 180 steps per minute, with a high turn over, focusing on a smooth glide instead of losing energy bouncing up and down

There’s a comprehensive set of resources you can find online, from which I’d recommend the Principles of Natural Running with Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, the Newton Natural Running Drills with Arland Macasieb and the Proper Running Technique tips from Sage Canaday. The principles above are a good enough reference in case you’re interested on or starting your transition already.

Looking back in time, having a focused “do it yourself” attitude can bring a lot of value and the web is a world of resources. At a certain stage however I felt the need to have evidence that corroborated my natural running form. I needed an outsider view, an external appreciation of the progress done so far and guidance on what to correct next.

Newton Running were a great source of advice. They promote to runners using their gear to film themselves while running and to send them over the videos for analysis. There was a lot of good feedback received in the early stages of the transition which was crucial to stay on track.

The swiss company Flugphase and the women behind it, Larissa Kleinmann and Sabrina Schulz, former members of the German national athletics, cycling and triathlon teams, were a superb finding! They offer athletes with running seminars focused on identifying and perfectioning an efficient running form. Through 2014 and 2015 I took their 1.0 and 2.0 training courses, verifying lessons learned, continuing strength and form drills, doing video analysis and building upon the natural running foundation which was becoming instinctive to me already. Always loved the motto of the company, seeking to improve the art of the flight phase (“Flugphase” in German) and turning athletes into harmonious gazelles. They are now good friends and it has been great to see the community of happy athletes they’ve built so far.

I knew this post would be long. I wanted it to be a journey through the memory lane, while at the same time a remembrance of the concepts of natural running, a collection of useful resources and a banner of the challenges I felt first hand while doing the transition. Hopefully it captures all these points and leaves you as curious and hungry for more as I did.

As of today I continue focusing on proper running form. I continue attached to Newton Running shoes and continue exploring other quality brands providing low drop shoes, fitting with the natural running technique and capable of handling the challenges of trail running.

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