The Art of Running: Bad Software
As an engineer the human body amazes me. We have a number of systems all over-layered with one another yet there’s this harmony of form, function and sophistication that no man-made system can duplicate. Our built-in software and organic CPU is what really blows my mind though (pun intended). Before we are born our native OS (Operating System) is hard at work controlling our involuntary systems and responding to our inputs. This software is so complex and fine-tuned that it enables us, over time, to perfect our movements. We compensate for our environments, we learn and adapt, we develop techniques and improvise ways to overcome obstacles (climbing a tree) and obstructions (crossing a river) practically on the fly. As we hit the same challenge time and time again our OS analyzes our various responses, identifies which is most successful, and then stores it in long-term memory for future use. If you’ve haven’t picked up a baseball bat in ten years or ridden a bike in fifteen, you still reflexively know:
- where to place your hands and feet.
- how much pressure to apply with your grip.
- how to balance your weight.
- how to keep your movements fluid and in rhythm.
and this all occurs subconsciously.
With the continued advancements over the past several decades in artificial intelligence and robotics, we are still no where close to duplicating our natural capabilities in a computer program. If we were a machine, any scientist would find us ‘fascinating’ yet we find ourselves in our later years lumbering along on our runs when we used to glide effortlessly. We started with the best software ever written but at some point during our lives we got hacked. Let me explain…
The day before the Boston Marathon I did my best to just relax in my hotel room and save my energy. I had a dinner reservation at 7:30PM but by about 5 I started getting antsy. My hotel was right next to Boston Common so I decided to take a short walk and sit in the park for a while. In my ‘retirement dry run’ I couldn’t help but notice folks running through the park and then I started noting their strides. I saw the typical range of form from smooth to awkward and then a family with a few kids came walking by. Correction, the adults were walking, the kids were running. Back and forth and around in circles, little balls of limitless energy bouncing off each other. Then I paid attention to how they were running, it was practically flawless. I was jealous of their technique for a moment, I realized I’d spent the past two years working on mine but had yet to reach the level of a four year-old. A real ego boost the day before Boston.
At one point we were all kids and had this instinctive ability. Then we lost it, why? First think about what kids spend most of their time doing. Any parent will tell you how hard it is to get preschoolers to sit still. They are constantly moving and providing input and feedback to their software as they run, jump and climb. It’s also tough to get them to keep their shoes on (and their clothes in some cases). The reason kids hate wearing shoes is the same reason they hate wearing gloves or being blindfolded. It’s sensory deprivation.
Preschoolers eventually become teenagers who eventually become adults and the further along that timeline we go, the more sedentary we become. We also spend the majority of that time encasing our feet in thick protective enclosures. During this process our adaptive systems are continually at work. Inactivity and lack of sensory input is seen as an obstacle so our brains immediate start compensating and begin overwriting our efficient movements. What was once easy and fluid becomes hard and awkward. Years of bad footwear choices and spending most of our waking hours relatively motionless resulted in us hacking our own code. The learned movements that were refined during our youth weren’t forgotten, it’s worse than that, they were overwritten. Imagine how difficult it would be to swing a baseball bat if you spent the last ten years wearing thick oven mitts. All the compensation your systems made for the mitts has replaced the natural sensation of gripping the bat. You’d be a complete klutz.
If you were raised in a modern society this was inevitable, like some bad Sci-Fi movie plot your memory’s been wiped and replaced. We’ve got bad software, flawed code, so now what? If you spend a lot of your time in front of a keyboard like I do, it’s an ongoing battle to relearn those fluid movements and retain them. To fight your way back to efficiency, you need to take some proactive steps:
- Education: Seek out experts.
- Dr. Pete Larson over at Runblogger has several excellent articles that discuss both form and footwear.
- The Natural Running Center is another excellent resource to learn about proper form. The director of the center, Dr. Mark Cucuzzella, knows his stuff and finished 4th in the 45-49 male age group at this year’s Boston Marathon with a 2:37.
- Runner’s World, Running Times and Competitor can also help in pointing you to good articles and subject matter experts.
- Practice: Do the work.
– You need to reprogram your form. During your runs shorten your stride, keep proper cadence and posture and integrate form drills into your workouts and warm ups
- Change is hard and takes time. The longer you’ve been running with flawed form, the longer it’s going to take to correct. Go slow, make small changes and reinforce those changes with consistent technique.
Now that you understand the problem, it’s time to start working on the solution. Free your feet, embrace change, run with joy.