Thursday, July 16, 2009

What is "Natural?"

I recently was given the following to take into consideration:

that it might not be advisable to mess with "your natural way of running" and that seems to be the majority opinion about how to run, and the way the majority does it.

This suggestion was offered to me in response to the fact that I have been exploring a method of running called "Chi Running," (About Chi Running)which is promoted by Danny Dreyer in a book by that name. Yet one of the primary premises of Chi Running is that it is better because it is more natural to us, and that the way we have been running is not natural. He asks us to observe the examples of children and the form they use, and contends that the way they run is more natural (and more like Chi Running) than the way adults run.

And although the majority of runners do it in a way that is natural to them, the statistics read that the majority of runners are contending with a great deal of running injuries.

I hear that suggestion a lot when it comes to physical fitness and other physical endeavors: Do what comes "naturally."

It is appealing to follow this advice because it speaks of a wisdom of the body and nature that is above our attempts to improve on it. You don't need any kind of technique, because you already have a built-in technique that will work just fine for you. You can relax, follow your instincts, be yourself and you'll be just fine.

When a person is good at a sport the very first time he tries it, they say "He's a natural."

When a singer is struggling to figure out breath support and breath control to handle the difficult singing tasks of a gargantuan piece of music, some say not to mess with your breathing and "just breathe naturally."

When a new mother tries to breastfeed, she thinks that it is going to be easy because it is "natural."

But I begin to think about what being natural means, I start to think that it can be much more complex than at first glance. After all it is also "natural" to want to hit someone when you are angry. It is natural to slump in a chair and have bad posture. It is "natural" for a small child to resist going to bed at night. It is natural, but not always better, to take short-cuts and do things the easy way. And the way we sing "naturally," cannot always be heard over an orchestra.

Getting back to the running form as an example, I begin to wonder about a person's "natural" way of running. I must confess I have been influenced by a book recommended to me by VeganDiva on her blog (Running Scales)*  I just finished reading this book, Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. In the beginning of the book, Mr. McDougall, plagued by injuries that interfere with his running, is exposed by his doctors to the conventional wisdom that running is not natural to us, is hard on the body, and if you really want to be injury free, you just shouldn't run. But after a lengthy journey that includes exploring and researching various evidence, he concludes that we are "born to run." That we are designed for it. He readjusts and retrains his running stride, and frees himself of his injury problem and goes on to run an ultramarathon.

So, let's say it was true that we are "born to run" and that it is "natural" to us. What might happen that would cause our natural gait to go awry?

Well, for one thing, I recall having read that infant walkers, those little seats on wheels that many parents put their children in for the enjoyment of some mobility before they can actually walk, interfere with the natural muscular and biomechanical development of the child's future gait. (New York Times article on baby walkers slowing infant development: and also Abstract from a case study on infant-walkers and motor development) If this is just one example, I wonder how many other influences can cause a gait to develop in an imbalanced way?

If a person's gait has developed improperly, they may be walking or running in a way that is "natural" to them, but may not be biomechanically optimal and could cause them problems or even serious injuries when they want to try something of a higher athletic nature. (The same can be applied to speaking and singing, or any other physical task that is developmental.) Because of insufficient development of one muscle group, there may be an imbalance that causes another set of muscles to compensate, and eventually develop problems from repetitively having to perform improperly.

Another question that I have read about is that of wearing enhanced and bolstered running shoes. Is it "natural" to wear these shoes. Or are we designed to run barefoot? The way we land on our foot when we have shoes on, and the way we land on our foot when are barefoot are different. Which one is the "natural" way?

This youtube video shoes the different way the same runner lands with and without running shoes:

(I thank Barefoot Ted for making me aware of this youtube example on his blog.)

My reasons for exploring good form, besides just being a little curious and obsessed about it out of general interest and curiosity about how things work, is because I have trouble. I think that's why most people start looking into form of any kind. When you love something and you really really really want to do it, it is a major bummer when you have obstacles like injuries that get in your way. In my case, I am aware that people over 40 are more prone to injury, and good form becomes way more important. An older person can have a great advantage over the speed and strength of youth by cultivating good form.

I had trouble breathing in singing. Breathing "naturally" did not work for me, because somehow some way I developed habits of breathing that interfered with the way I needed to breath for singing.

I had trouble singing high notes because of imbalances in the way I phonated.

I have had some plantar fasciitis pain that is interfering with my training for my very first ever 1/2 marathon next January.

All these are reasons to look more deeply into the matter. If doing what comes naturally to me does not get me where I want to go, I have to learn more. I envy those naturally coordinated people who developed perfectly and don't need to do this. Natural singers. Natural runners. Natural socialites. But my path is a different one. I'm not sorry that it's my path because I am meeting and hearing about some interesting people and learning a lot about being human along the way.

(For anyone interested further reading on human evolution and being designed for running, here's an article I found while hunting for links for this blog post and which I'm going to read right after I publish this post: Born to Run Article from Discover Magazine web site)
(edited 12/26/10 -- "Running Scales" no longer exists and has now been changed to  The Athletic Performer blog)

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