A detailed account of a Three hour Natural Running workshop in Chiswick April 2014
The aim of the workshop is to identify weakness in a foot that has adapted to a gait in a protective shoe. Unique procedures are presented to regain control and strengthen a degraded foot in a reliable and safe way. Some ‘starting blocks’ are put in place as to how to incorporate these changes into your head-to-toe running form.
There are three sections.
Session 1. Establishing the right effort of attention.
In the first session you are invited to engage a particular quality of attention. It is open, curious and playful. This will help you to identify some of the issues and problems that the middle part of the workshop intends to address. Essentially the problem is that we are only using a tiny proportion of the potential that evolution has packed into the human foot.
Session 2. Engaging the whole foot.
The second session explores some site-specific foot issues in great detail. In this session we open up fast-track ways to engage the Whole foot. The most important way to bringing about full foot function focuses on a key joint: the Foot Knuckle. This is the equivalent joint in your foot to the knuckle joint in your hand. The technical name for this joint is the Meta-Tarsal-Phalangeal Joint.
(MTPJ for short).
Session 3. Proprioceptive Prowess. Changing your gait. Neuro-muscular re-patterning.
By the time we get to the final session of the workshop, the economy, the efficiency and agility that opens up with a Whole foot becomes clear. The aim of the third session is to focus on how to effectively to change your gait. This involves the “neuro” aspect of neuro-muscular re-patterning. We need to change a gait that has had to compensate for the protective shoe. There are head-to-toe implications. This final session facilitates a move towards a natural stride, one that engages the Whole foot by skillfully and intelligently using the proprioceptive or body sense in some of the ways developed by F.M Alexander.
Session 1. The right effort of attention.
We tend to think of effort in terms of physical exertion but there is another kind of effort very different from of straining and trying. It is more about engaging the right effort of attention. Only by engaging the right effort of attention can we hope in the end to produce the right result! In this case the right result is a gait that is more efficient and economical. The right effort of attention is one that will enable you to effectively change and remodel your gait. This is no easy matter. The skill of walking and running is far and away the most complex psychomotor skill that you will ever master. Changing any element within such a complex habit is a real challenge- a Big Call. The other aspect of the right effort of attention is to discover and identify site-specific issues concerning the foot and in particular to consider how it might be that a key joint in your foot may well hardly work at all!. This effort of attention can be thought of as like an inner eye opening. In the final session of the workshop this inner eye is revealed as the marvelous proprioceptive sense. In terms of the latest neuro-science this sense has been expanded and upgraded to the Intero-ceptive sense The Intero-ceptive sense is used in a skilled and intelligent way to change to a more natural and energy efficient gait.
Getting your brain into “Learn New Patterns mode”.
It’s useful to know about an aspect of brain chemistry. There is something called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor: BDNF for short. This is squirted into the brain from an area in the brain stem called the Nucleus Basilis. This important neuro-chemical facilitates neuro-plasticity. In other words it puts the brain into “learn new patterns” mode”. This could be thought of as “CONNECT” mode. This openness to change and new possibility has its opposite function in your brain. If there is an impending sense of threat then the brain will close down to the world around and in particular to others in the world. It then goes into “PROTECT” mode. It closes down an open attitude to the world in order to prepare the body for flee, fight or freeze. It is obvious that if you are in fight or flee mode you are not in a good place to start to learn new patterns!
We have become habituated to wearing protective shoes. At the start of the workshop you are invited to remove your feet from the protective casing of your shoe, and then to take off the ‘woolly bag’ of the sock. Obviously this leaves your feet feeling vulnerable and unprotected. However the naked sole of your foot now contacts the ground directly. The trade-off for removing the protection is to make a natural connection. Bear in mind here that the sole of your foot has only slightly fewer sensors packed into its surface than there are in your lips! The simple act of removing shoes and connecting the foot to the ground massively enriches the amount of sensory information flooding up to the brain. This is the ‘pro’ part of the trade off.
In many ways the wearing of protective shoes can be seen as a symbol of disconnection from the ground, from the Earth. Think about it for a moment: where there is a sense of something in need of protection, there may also be some underlying sense of threat. Perhaps the Environment/Nature as a whole, as in recent times become a source of threat. We respond to that sense of threat with a need to be shielded unprotected. This is fed by a ‘Big Bucks’ industry. The recent Guardian review of Richard Askwith’s book “Big Running” details some of the statistics of an industry worth £426.000,000. It employs more people in total than in agriculture fisheries and food production put together. The journalist who reviewed the book pointed out that it’s not unusual for the average runner to go out of the door for a run wearing £1,000 of gear. If we consider for a moment the foot/shoe end of this industry, it is built upon the notion that your foot is needy, that it is vulnerable and in need of protection. Is this wholly true?
The assumption that your feet are needy and inadequate in this way is very shaky indeed. In terms of evolution we have yet to find the fossilised remains of a Niki factory in the Savannah of Africa! One key aim of the Natural Running course is to demonstrate that while it is true that the modern foot has indeed become needy and vulnerable, the cause of this is largely the protective shoe and not to some inherent inadequacy, or some insufficiency of evolution that is the cause of its neediness. If we have degraded something like 90% of the whole foot’s full function, you need might not need to look much further to find a major underlying cause of the fact that two thirds of runners are liable to injure themselves in the course of a year. Way back in evolution when we hunted in small groups it is inconceivable that we could have survived with 2/3rds of the group laid up with injuries!
This section of the workshop is about connections being made at many levels. It begins by focusing on connecting to an open and curious form of attention. Mindful awareness of present moment sensations will tend to slot into place quite naturally when you become more thoughtful and careful as to how your feet leave the ground and then reconnect with the ground. Besides an open curious attention, the brain will release BDNF and enter into “learn-new-stuff” mode. It tends to do this particularly after short bursts of rhythmic playful, physical activity. Research shows that there is a golden period after intense natural rhythmic activity in which the brain is awash with BDNF. Then it is really up for learning new patterns. This is why we warm up, following the practice of natural runners, by running on the spot and playing with the rhythmic sounds of steps and stamps supported by rhythmic chants.
Procedure 1) Running and skipping on the spot.
In this fun opening session a heel and toe theme naturally opens up as we explore some of the changes that take place when a step becomes more of a stamp. Natural runners the world over will use rhythmic songs and chants to get the brain awash with good-energy chemicals. Besides BDNF for example, such shared physical activity is also known to release yet another important hormone called oxytocin.
Tip: Warm-up to stretch. Never stretch to warm up!
Stretching in order to warm up and run is so full of contention in contemporary sports science that the very best advice is “Don’t Go There!”. The chances are that by stretching may do you more harm than good. The best advice here is that if you must stretch always warm up first in order to stretch. Never stretch to warm up. Rhythmic running or skipping on the spot is my preferred natural running warm up.
It is important to realize that there is no right or wrong with this stepping and stamping. It is designed solely to be liberating and playful. However in one sense it is in fact serious fun. There is indeed a method in the seeming madness! You become attentive and curious as to how your foot behaves when it lands underneath you as you run on the spot. No one in these workshops ever runs on the spot landing with a heel first. A curiosity about this opens up. We take a back step. We then step to one side and then the other. We step up and onto and off a bench. Still nobody lands heel first! Later in the workshop we will give a lot of attention as to how walking and running is undertaken in one important plane of action. They refer to this as the Sagittal Plane. It is curious that once we enter into the familiar groove of moving forward in the Saggital Plane, that we have somehow developed an habitual tendency for the foot to land heel first. Perhaps this might have something to do with the wearing of protective shoes? It is important to maintain an open curiosity about this possibility.
Procedure 2) Follow your name: Getting the Brain-between-the-ears to connect with the Brain-below-the-ears.
The naked sole of the foot connected to the bare Earth is a symbol of a re–connection. The implications of the Disconnection caused by the modern protective shoe fan out like ripples in the pool. One aspect of the Disconnection involves a head that has disconnected itself from the body. The original purpose of a sophisticated brain is to better mind a body in the same way that you would mind your child. However there has been a major disconnection in which the brain-between-the-ears has de-synchronized from the brain-below-the-ears (think of this as your Body Sense). Dis-coordination must inevitably follow. The other key implication is that in this state we are rarely present. Our heads are off somewhere in the past or future and in this state our bodies are mostly locked into the mechanical automaticity of the Robot, of Habit. Our bodies then move out of the present moment and into the past tense! The ambitious aim of the first session of the workshop is to awaken mind and body from this state of mechanical torpor to welcome in the Present Moment.
In this simple procedure we explore a fast-track way to strip away the veneer of modern lifestyles in order to experience a re-awakening and reconnection of mind and body. This reveals the predominant mindscape of our natural running ancestors.
We work in pairs. One partner agrees to close their eyes while the other partner leads the ‘blind” one around the space. A lot goes on in this simple procedure. Trust is very important: trust in one’s own process and trust in the partner who leads you around space. We are breathtakingly good at this but only if you are prepared to leave yourself alone. The state we enter into is the awakened and alert state of our ancestors. We are here, present today because our ancestors were the ones that survived. If this opening connection is made the “blind” partner is brought rivetingly into the Present Moment. Then the brain-between-the-ears will re-enmesh with the brain-below-the-years. The whole head-to-toe length of the body is brought into an intense and listening state of poise. An active form of listening is engaged. I call it “listening loudly”. This will bring the spine into a poised length. With the reconnection, the axis of the spine uncoils like taking a finger from off a coiled spring. The body will turn around the axis of the spine with an uncanny precision as the head, balanced as it is in on an axis that begins with the ears, spins around to follow the direction of the call of your name.
This procedure is a fast-track way to experience the awakening aspect of the right effort of attention. It is like waking up from a mechanical sleep, like reconnecting with the kindred spirits of our natural running ancestors, a way of linking deep into our origins.
Procedure 3): Exploring how your foot leaves the floor.
Getting your foot from off the floor is pretty basic. If your feet remain in contact with the floor you don’t really walk at all, you shuffle. As we go into this next procedure it is clear and beyond doubt that you can do this act of lifting your foot from off the floor. The fact that you can do this, that you can achieve this objective is really of no interest. The challenge of this procedure is really a different one: you are invited to enter deeply into the How of it: the means by which your foot leaves the ground. Once again to achieve this challenge involves that particular effort of attention, the one that is open and curious. This is really what all this first session is all about!
The “What” of lifting the foot from the floor is of no interest: so …just how do you achieve getting your foot from off the floor?
In this next procedure we set up a playful heel and toe theme. Here we simply open the door and we go outside with a key difference: we choose NOT to do something we habitually do before going outside: put on our shoes. You are going to have to be alert and careful on the riverside walkway as you explore what changes take place when you go from a walk to various speeds of running while barefoot. The walk to run transition is a key procedure in this workshop. It is something that we do quite frequently, for example when you are just getting a move on to catch a bus or train. What exactly happens when there is this “gear-change” as you switch from the idea of walking to the idea of running? You are encouraged to be mindfully aware of how you achieve this transition. You are outside on the hard pavements transitioning from a barefoot walk to a barefoot run and exploring different speeds:
- a transition from a walk to slow jog;
- a transition from a walk to an easy run;
- a transition from a walk to a fairly fast run
- and finally from a walk to an all-out sprint.
This is a good point to affirm that there is no right place for the foot to land. There is however a right condition in which the foot lands with the whole foot engaged. Being the extraordinarily adaptable structure that it is, the human foot will at some stage use every kind of landing possibility from heel to toe. There will always be a circumstance when for example, a heel strike is appropriate (for example slowing down) and where a ball of the foot strike is appropriate (most obvious when running uphill).
If you maintain a lively curiosity throughout this procedure, then it starts to become clear that the faster you go, the more your foot tends to move more toward to a fore-foot landing. We can draw this together along with our observation that the closer the foot lands to a point underneath the centre of gravity, the more the foot tends toward the forefoot as it lands. In this instance the ankle will be loose and open in front and long and ready to lengthen through the Achilles tendon at the back, very much as it does when you run on the spot. There is also a tendency for the foot to cant over slightly and to land towards the little toe side of the foot. The main feature here is to experience how your heel drops fractionally after a first contact of ball of the foot in a Whole foot landing. As we shall later see, importantly this also happens with the toes raised in extension.
An important feature of this effort of attention encapsulates that all important non-judgmental attitude: There is no right or wrong. There is simply an intense curiosity as to just how the foot leaves the floor. It turns out that there are multitudes of ways that you can achieve a foot lifting your foot from the floor. A lot of these less efficient ways are related to the adaptations and compensations made to accommodate to the modern protective shoe. However, as we are about to find out, there is obviously only one way in which this happens with a maximum of efficiency, and in which it is achieved with the minimum amount of energy.
This is what we move to next.
A Demonstration: The Gold Standard of a Natural Stride.
Here John demonstrates his version of a natural stride.
The Natural Running course work puts a human stride through a particular lens. A natural stride is presented as one that has not compensated or adapted to the modern protective shoe. The natural stride is then thinly “sliced” into seven sections. Each of the seven segments is then looked at through the prism of the lens of Non-doing. This prism examines the action in terms of the minimum effort. This must underpin the overall efficiency of the stride. In fact we have already initiated the kind of attention that underpins this kind of Non-doing exploration. The key issue is not in terms of WHAT is achieved in each of these segments but an enquiry into HOW it is brought about.. This is inherent in the question of how your foot leaves the floor. It is about the process and not about achieving the end product. The attention and curiosity is always focused around the minimum effective energy that can achieve any given result such as for example, how, by what means your foot lifts off the floor.
Summary of the seven parts of a natural stride cycle.
The starting point of the stride is the Running or Walking Stance. It begins with one foot about a foot ahead of the other and the feet are set about a hips width apart and parallel. The feet are positioned in this way because they are going to be moving principally in the forward or Saggital plane. Your head is initially ‘parked’ in a way that aligns it over the back foot. From here you ease off the ‘parking brake’: ithis means you begin to loosen around the head and neck and start to move forward. The crown of your head is then like the top of a toppling tower. It is the first thing to ease forward. This initiates the first of the seven segments of the step cycle:
1) Weight transfer.
This is then followed by:
2) Preparation or lead up to change of support. (The back foot rolls up lifting the heel).
3) Change of support. (This completes the action by raising the foot off the floor heel-to- rump).
4) Forward lunge in which the centre of gravity leads the hip joint.
5) Leg swing
6) Foot fall
We note that parts 1) through to 6) contain very strong Non-doing dimensions i.e. gravity is being used to achieve the action wherever possible. The final part: number 7) is very much the “Doing” element. It is significant that this comes after the lead of the first-thing components that are all essentially Non-doing in nature. How you get smart with the propulsion element very much concerns the coordination and timing as to when the propulsive energy gets delivered. This is a case of the right amount being delivered at just the right spot and at the right time. Given the swinging pendular nature of what is happening it is often helpful to think of the timing and coordination involved as similar to positioning the shove in just the right place as you push a toddler on the garden swing.
In this three hour workshop only section 2) and 3) and 4) form the main focus of interest.
Next we consider just how vital and important the foot knuckle is to the natural stride action.
The first part of this stride carries the weight forward onto the advancing leg. As the weight transfer completes its part of the cycle in easing you forward, it is followed by a head-to-toe opening release, a progression in which the rear leg is able to release all the way down through to the toes. In this workshop we will focus on this phase of the cycle and the two that follow. These are referred to as 2) the preaction to change of support and 3) the change of support proper (when the foot is completely lifted from the floor) and 3)the forward lunge. It is of crucially importance to separate the preaction form the foot lift proper. When the preaction is fully complete, the heel and in fact most of the foot has been raised from the floor simply by opening up this cascade of releases to the force of gravity. Note this does not defeat gravity, it uses gravity, no direct upward lifting energy has been employed in the preactive phase. You simply let it happen and monitor that it is complete before engaging the tiny “tea-spoon” of energy that completes the cycle by completely raising the foot from the floor. Following the course of this preparatory action as it progresses through the hips, we may note that it achieves the following highly impressive list of functions:
- It allows the hip joint to remain centred as swivels forward.
- It allows the knee to freely swing to catch up with the advancing knee without a push.
- It articulates the hinge of the ankle joint freely ( dorsi -lexion)
- It engages the toes so that the forefoot becomes like a broad and spread rocker.
There is something very important to appreciate about this second phase of the stride action: it prepares and positions the foot so that the arc of movement that has been initiated as the heel raises from the floor, is then picked up by a chain of muscle action which continues so that the heel is lifted toward the rump in a smooth arcing action. The vital point is that: if the action cannot freely complete itself then other muscle groups have to compensate and the foot certainly leaves the floor but it does so prematurely. This achieves the end, but it does so by deploying the body’s own energy instead of making the most of gravity! We may note once more that, while there are an infinite number of ways to get the foot off the floor in order to walk/run there is only one that does this with maximum efficiency and ease and now we are aware that it this crucially requires this key MTPJ or Foot Knuckle joint to lead the way for the action to complete its natural cycle .
You are invited to experiment with this action yourself. Let your foot roll-up as you ease back and forth in a step forward position. Now imagine the sole of your foot is restricted as if strapped to a stiff plank. You will note that not only does this disable the action of this joint but it also severely restricts everything else upward through the kinetic chain: the ankle, the knee, the hip. It doesn’t stop here either: the whole upper body is compromised as the Body Sense eventually finds a way around this restriction: you will learn to lift your foot up from the floor but as this adaptation consolidates into a habit your gait is a heavily compensated one. You will learn to walk “normally” but in a way characteristic of a shod gait: in which:
- the feet leave the floor prematurely.
- the leg lands straight at the knee.
- the heel is placed down first as the protected and cushioned heel strikes the floor.
It is easy to make a common mistake and fixate here on the leg straightening and the familiar heel striking action. This erroneously demonizes the Heel Strike This masks the core-issue, which is the limited and partial way the foot works. The modern foot has degenerated, it has become very vulnerable and it needs the protection and support of the shoe. The core issue is not which part of the foot lands first but how it lands and whether the Whole foot is fully engaged and responsive.
In making some kind of accurate assessment of the degree to which key foot functions have been downgraded or deactivated we will need continually to refer the Gold Standard of a Natural Stride, one that has not had to heavily compensate to the restrictions of a modern shoe. As this baseline ‘Gold Standard’ reveals itself then we may develop some real sense of direction. We need to know how to rehabilitate the Foot knuckle or MTPJ and this issue is the focus of the second part of the workshop.
Section 2: Engaging the Whole Foot.
The whole foot is referred to as the W-foot. When the human foot is fully engaged and all the three main arches are fully sprung, it does indeed look a little bit like a capital letter “W” when looked at from the main inner or medial arch side of the foot.
The human foot incorporates contrary and contradictory demands the like of which, if you were to ask them of a design engineer, would have him politely and firmly, showing you to the door to his office. The human foot is a triumph of bio-engineering and design that incorporates these conflicting demands in extraordinary and elegant ways. The W-foot is soft and sensitive as well as tough and resilient. It is light and speedy and incredibly responsive and strong. The W-foot is swift and agile as well as silent and stealthy. Quite unlike how we have come to think about the human foot, it has evolved to be extraordinarily self-reliant. This only reveals itself when the foot is connected to the ground and when it becomes re-connected from head to toe.
Demonstration: the Transition from Walk to Run.
The aim of this demonstration is to show how, when the whole foot is engaged, that it enables a seamless transition from the action of walking to the action of running. A whole foot engagement remains constant whether in walking or running. In the walking action the W-Foot may tend to land towards the outer part of the heel as an initial contact. Following the transition to running, the faster you go, the greater the tendency for the foot to land toward the ball of the foot. There are key biomechanical differences in the walking and running action. Since the foot can be placed on the floor in the walking action, a light heel first contact works just fine. As you progress through the various speeds of running, the foot is now falling or dropping to the ground. This significant change happens after the flight phase that in fact defines a running action. Now the characteristic heel-strike of the protective-shoe gait tends not to work so well. For the habitual heel strike to be tenable when we run, it requires the cushioning and protective heel of a shoe. The modern protective shoe is making the foot needy and considerably less self-reliant!
The Natural Running Course Procedures for reactivating the Foot Knuckle (MTPJ).
In the first section of the workshop the key nature of the foot knuckle joint was brought to light. We earlier have already established the important way the Foot Knuckle enables:
1) A swivel action from the hip joint.
2) A knee that eases smoothly forward.
3) A full articulation of the ankle joint (dorsi-flexion) that permits a smooth and upward arcing of the heel toward the rump
4 )A preparation of the toes as they straighten out, open and spread (this helps to create a springing of the Transverse Arch)
In the second section we explore this key joint from just about every possible angle:
1 ) We remove foot from the “treasure casket” of the shoe and take off “the protective shroud” of the sock.
2) We examine and handle the joint on the foot skeleton.
3) We bring to light .”the string of pearls” of the MTPJ so that they can be both seen and felt in action.
4 ) We listen for the sound of the spring and bounce that signals that the joint is fully operational.
The Foot Competence Program 1) : Freeing the “rusty hinge”.
The foot competence program begins in the walking or running stance. The feet are placed about a hips width apart with one foot about a foot’s length ahead of the other foot. The main focus of attention is on the rear foot as body weight begins to be eased back and forth.
As this procedure develops it becomes a little like freeing a rusty hinge after it has been oiled. When the MTPJ joint becomes deactivated, it lowers the synergy or cooperation between the foot and the ankle joint. A freeing of stiffness and restriction in the MTPJ joint will begin to improve the synergy with the ankle joint. Generally speaking because of the deactivation of the Foot Knuckle, the ankle joint is usually very stiff and will not fully dorsi-flex. The ankle joint is sometimes referred to as a unidirectional joint. This means that it works mainly in one plane of action, a little bit like the action of a hinge on the door. Without the co-operation and synergy between the uni-directional ankle joint and the MTPJ, the knee cannot hope to track efficiently. In fact both knee and hip have had to heavily adapt and compensate in the walking and running gait. Amongst other things they take on some of the key roles that are really foot jobs. As they take the strain they cannot competently do their own jobs.
Procedure: Using a golf ball to free the MTPJ.
We can get the five separate joints that together form the MTPJ or Foot Knuckle to stand out and see the light of day with the help of a golf-ball rolled underneath the ball of the foot. As each of these joints stand-out and can be counted, we can next give some attention to an important and largely lost and deactivated function: toe extension. Toe extension occurs when the toes remain straight as they lift upwards. As it turns out, like the rest of the modern human body, the toes seem to be caught in habitual flexion. In this state they can never be fully extended. This has drastic consequences.
If you put your index finger on the palm of your hand directly under the knuckle joint and then with all your fingers straight lift them up and down, you will see how this works the knuckle joint in your hand. It makes it stand out prominently. Now in the same position alter the action of the fingers so that instead of working straight the fingers now curl up into the palm of hand. Notice that while this works your fingers, it does not work the knuckle joint in the quite same way. Your brain has a map that separates out these two functions in your hand. You will probably find that your foot does not have this facility. When you ask your toes to go through an action similar to the straight up and down finger movement they will probably only be able to curl up and flex. It might be that on the brain or ‘neuro’ side of things we might have to make a neural map of these functions.
Massaging around the joint with the golf ball will help to free some of the fascial stiffness in this MTPJ joint. Regaining full function is massively helped if at the same time you begin to re-educate the toes so that they can extend again. This is such a crucially important feature of the foot function and flexibility because it is this action of extension in the toes that presents the front two “prongs” of the foot tripod. It is only when the foot is fully sprung in this way that it can begin a journey back to something like full foot function.
Tip: as we delve deeper into reclaiming lost functions in the foot, the quality of attention that opened up in the first session is paramount. It may well be that your brain is learning a new pattern and so your brain needs to be in learn-new-patterns-mode. It is not just a matter of mechanically repeating movements. Your brain may well be mapping a whole new realm of action here. These procedures need to be undertaken slowly with a mindful awareness. Things proceed more swiftly if your brain is awash with the magic BDNF. This will ensure the swiftest return to full-foot function: Keep playful and curious!
Foot Competence Procedure 2): Engaging the ‘W’-Foot.
Of the seven “slices” through the action of a natural stride, it is the second phase that forms the starting point for this particular procedure. This is the phase that involves the pre-action or preparation leading up to the moment when the whole foot leaves the floor. This will form the basis for the Foot Competence ABCD program. Bear in mind that the second phase of the natural stride sequence completes itself when the MTPJ or knuckle joint has fully articulated and allowed most of the foot to leave the floor with a smooth arc that raises the heel towards the rump. In this poised position with most of the weight on the advancing leg, the toes carry very little load and are poised and prepared and poised by becoming both long and also spread out. They form a rocker like surface that will eventually carry the full weight of the body into the forward walking or running lunge. When you look at this joint on the skeleton and consider how delicate and light the bones are that form this joint, you will appreciate what an extraordinary feat that they carry out as they take the full weight of the body take with such great ease and facility.
The long and the short toe extensors.
There are two separate and anatomically distinct functions that operate around this MPJ joint. The muscles that power this action are largely not packed into the foot itself but into the lower leg. If the muscles were packed into the foot it would be incredibly unwieldy, a lot of bit like a moon-boot. The powerful muscles that control the foot are arranged remotely and located in the shin and calf . This gives this joint its extraordinary strength while maintaining delicacy and lightness. This is the key to its litheness, strength and springiness. This is how the foot can cope while sometimes dealing with a ground reaction force that might be measured around a quarter of a ton in each running step! It achieves this with such ease and it can take such repeated pounding with extraordinary endurance!
There are two key functions in this joint that have lost their individuality. It is fortunate that the way these functions are referred to anatomically is really helpful and simple: Working around this joint are the short extensor muscles and the long extensor muscles. The key job of the short extensors is to lift only the toes. This action that lifts the toes is called toe extension. Another, what should be separate and distinct function engages the long extensors. This action lifts the length of the entire foot. These two separate functions should cooperate with one another, but they have somehow “mushed” into each other in a compensated shod gait. We do not need to look very far to understand why they lose individuation: When we first learn to walk there is an unfolding maturing process. As we learn to walk the brain sends a clear message to: “lift the toes”. The problem is that inside the protective shoe this cannot happen or is very restricted. Significant restrictions are in the stiffness of the protective sole and the lacing that restricts the foot knuckle from spreading out. The magnificently adaptable structure that is the human brain works with the equally magnificently and adaptable foot to rapidly compensates for this loss. It does so by moving back one link up the kinetic chain. In the adapted or compensated version the short extensors effectively structurally retire and instead of lifting just the toes, the long extensions cut in and lift the whole length of the foot without the toes extending very much at all. There are drastic consequences! This compensation leads to a habit that at the moment of foot-contact, tends to lock the ankle short in front and to lock it long at the back. This is what primes the shod-foot for the characteristic heel strike. This makes the foot needy and downgrades its natural self-reliance. It now requires the protection and cushioning of the heel to function habitually in this way. You will appreciate that the key problem here centres on the fact that the short extensors have effectively structurally retired and given up the ghost. So much of natural foot function is lost from this one important adaptation. The key that will regain so much of the lost functionality of your foot will focus on reclaiming a separation of the long and short extensor function. As we probe deeper in this foot rehabilitation program, bear in mind that the muscles and tendons involved in the short toe extensor function have probably not been working for a long time, in fact they may never have had the chance to work!. This means that the body’s collagen glue will have stuck and adhered together key tendons and muscles involved in this toe lifting or extensor function. They are glued and jammed up! We intend in the next procedure to break up these adhesions. There are very few occasions in the Natural Running work where we will ever proclaim the maxim:
“Never mind the pain – feel the gain”.
But this happens to be one such occasion! As these key players in the whole foot action wake up and return to life again, they will inevitably be weak and atrophied. Once we have established the necessary freedom from adhesions, then these key foot functions need to be re-educated and re-patterned back into the synergy of a whole foot function. At that point they are ready to gain strength and endurance. Then they can deliver the self-reliance of a completely natural foot as it works in conjunction with the flow of a natural stride.
At this point we know something of why the MTPJ has become so effectively disabled and deactivated. We are also beginning to be aware of what key functions have been largely lost due to the cleverness and technology packed into a protective shoe. Now we have an idea of the direction that things need to take in order to regain that lost functionality in the foot as swiftly as possible.
The Foot Competence Procedure 3): The Dropping Heel. Eccentric and Concentric contraction.
Once more we begin by giving close attention to the second phase of the natural stride: the pre-active phase. This gives attention to allowing gravity to act freely through the unsupported side so that gravity moves in an unhampered way right through to the toes. With the heel raised from the floor and the foot poised on the ball of the foot, we then ease backwards, as if to take a backward step, and then, as the centre of gravity moves back over to the rear foot, we aim to maintain a strong sense of the broad and spread platform of support from the toes. Now we are about to load this rocker like platform as the heel slowly lowers the weight of the body evenly downwards. This will put a powerful eccentric contraction through the foot and leg. It is really constructive if as you do this, that you think that the other end of this stretch is actually the crown of your head as your heel lowers down, You can think in terms of a single length of elastic evenly being stretched from head to toe.
You are regaining both strength and functionality in this simple move. The slower you do it the better. Both load and balance are stretched a bit more when you lift the advancing leg from the floor as the heel lowers. This adds a bit more weight as well as another level of challenge to balance. Aim here for a Tai Chi like speed and sureness. An eccentric muscle contraction happens when muscles are lengthening while under load. This means that the limbs to either side of a joint are easing apart from one another as they are lengthening out under load. Think of lowering a heavy weight placed onto the outstretched palm of your hand with the forearm at 90 degrees to the upper arm. If you were then to lift the weight after your arm has straightened out as in an exercise biceps curl, then you would be putting your biceps under a concentric load. When muscles work in a concentric contraction they pull towards the centre of the muscle body. When they pull away from the muscle centre this is referred to as an eccentric contraction.
Your foot and your leg have compensated in a shod gait so that the action lifts the length of the foot instead of only lifting the toes. This puts the muscles of the calf into a concentric contraction at the foot strike phase of the stride. It is this that locks the ankle short in front and long at the back. This must then present the heel as a first point of contact. In this part of the procedure you are learning a completely new pattern as the MTPJ is guided back towards full functionality. This requires a full and mindful attention. A foot that lands with the toes raised then tends to leave the ankle open in front and ready and primed to drop into a length at the back. This will fully and properly enable the Achilles tendon to stretch in such a way that it gives back the optimum recoil return as the heel drops. It is this that puts a real spring back into a natural step and this action must be led by first reclaiming the action of toe extension. Take a good look at foot that has regained the facility to lift the toes into extension while leaving the ankle primed and open in front and long at the back. You will see all the arches are now fully sprung. Looked at from the powerfully sprung medial arch side you are now looking at the W-foot prepared and fully ready to spring into action!
Foot Competence Procedure 4): Breaking up the Adhesions that restrict the MTPJ.
In the earlier procedure you eased back and forth articulating the toe/ankle/knee/hip relationship while dropping the heel. This forms the basis for the next procedure. This is designed to break up adhesions in the lower leg and foot. We can then move on to a process of rebuilding and re-patterning toe-extension into a natural stride..
This procedure is really ‘layered-up’ on top of the dropping heel procedure, the previous one that works the eccentric contraction through the calf and leg. There is an important difference here however in that this procedure involves actively lifting the toes and maintaining a powerful toe lift, while pushing or driving the heel downwards. In the earlier procedure the heel was simply dropping, now it is been pushed downwards. This procedure works against the action that is lifting the toes. It is the toe-lift that fully forms the rocker like surface of the toes. The toes at this stage are held stiff and quite rigid. It is this kind of strength and support from the fully supinated foot that enables the MTPJ to carry the weight of the body over its rocker-like surface with such ease. Powerfully driving the heel down while maintaining a toe-lift, will powerfully pull through the shin in front and through the calf muscles and tendons at the back. This may well create a “burn” effect as various adhesions are broken up through this procedure. Afterwards you may notice a considerable difference in the freedom and ease with which the MTPJ joint articulates.
Aim to go through about a dozen repetitions of this toes raised/heel drive procedure. While doing this if you also notice how the inner or the medial arch of the foot is raised and lifted when the heel contacts the floor then you are looking at the all-important beginnings of a W-foot action.
Note: All the other W-foot procedures feed like tributaries into the flowing river of a natural stride. This procedure is quite different. It is a stand-alone procedure that is specifically designed to fast-track the breaking up of adhesions. There is no point in the natural stride sequence in which you would maintain toe lift while driving the heel down against the resistance of the raised toes. This procedure is a useful preamble that will free various key tendons and muscles and prepares them for the foot ABCD that then follows. The aim is to separate out and regain that all important toe extension function.
Foot competence Procedure 5) The Foot ABCD.
This procedure begins at the point in the previous procedure where the toes have lifted and the heel has been driven down. When the heel contacts the floor, you will then have full engagement of the three “prongs” that constitute the Foot Tripod. The raised toes will push the fifth and particularly the first metatarsal or the Big-toe joint into the ground. Joints 2, 3 and 4 in “the string of pearls” that constitute the MTPJ are drawn up from the floor as to form the Transverse arch. The foot maintains an extraordinary flexible stiffness in this position. You then maintain this toe-raised stiffness and rigidity while taking a backward step. This will bring the foot that was behind you to become the advancing foot. The toes should still be stiff and raised up at this point. If you then let the toes drop straight to the ground, long, straight and spread, then we are ready to begin the foot ABCD in which:
A) You lift the toes long and straight up until the point where you feel the fifth metatarsal – the big toe joint, press into the ground. At this point create a space – a moment of suspension or space before moving on to:
B) In this phase you will raise the whole length of the foot while maintaining the raised toes. The foot pivots back on the heel. Again create a space before the next phase:
C) Here you lower the raised toes slowly back down to the same point that they were at the end of A) with the first metatarsal/big toe joint pushing into the ground. There is a slow long and controlled lowering of your raised and straight toes After another moment of poised stillness move on to the next phase:
D) In this phase there is a slow, long lowering and straightening of your toes while maintaining a focused attention to maintaining the height and full integrity of the medial arch. This phrase develops the capacity to lower the toes without collapsing that medial arch.
The progression ABCD should be repeated about a dozen times with space between each cycle.
The Foot Competence Procedure 6): ABC… then Lunge.
The final part of the procedure makes a change to the D) phase. The cycle ABC proceeds as above while the D) element transforms into a slow controlled forward lunge action. The slower that you do this lunge, the greater the challenge and the better will be the end result. This ABC-then-lunge should also be repeated about a dozen times.
A note on the Proprioceptive Sense and the use of exercise elastic.
The use of exercise elastic is a really great way to work out. However on these workshops the elastic is more used to create a novel stimulus that awakens the proprioceptive sense. It helps to bring into awareness new and different possible flow-lines of movement. Recent sports science studies have shown that we learn new patterns more rapidly with the introduction of a novel stimulus. The elastic provides this novel stimulus and also unlike weights, mimics to some degree the action of tendon and muscle.
The proprioceptive sense is amazingly adaptable. Notice how rapidly you’re clever proprioceptive sense adapts to the very strong pull of the elastic. When you are removed from the elastic there is usually the “finger off the coiled spring” effect. This lasts for a short period as the Proprioceptive sense goes through a process of readjusting its settings. Rather than “working out” with the elastic we are doing the opposite: “playing-in”. We are using the fact that the Body Sense adjusts to a novel stimulus to yet again create the optimum awakening conditions in the brain for re-patterning towards a more energy-efficient stride.
Session 3 elastic drill procedure 1)
In this procedure we use an ankle strap with the elastic attached to the front of the ankle. Now you go through the sequence of the natural stride up to and including the phase 4) when you actually lift your foot from off of the floor. It is still very important to key into the all important preactive phase 3), but now when you raise the foot. Your proprioceptive sense has to work out how to achieve this and at the same time counter the pull of the elastic. This will help to bring into your awareness the key muscles that pick the heel on its efficient continued arc up towards the rump. These muscles are packed around the rump. The hamstring muscles which attach to the seat bones are the key players in this action. Once you’re unhooked from the elastic and enter into the readjustment phase, you will appreciate how efficiently these muscles can work to organise the change of support phase in a really efficient natural stride.
Session 3 elastic drill procedure 2).
In this drill we awaken a sense of the centre of gravity by positioning a belt so that it catches the top of the hipbones. Then the belt buckle buckle will be approximately where the centre of gravity of your body lies that is 5 to 6 cm below the bellybutton. The accommodation that the powerful pull of the elastic creates is now trying to “yank” your pelvis backwards , when the elastic is attached to the back of your belt. Certainly this will wake up your lower back! The great advantage of this configuration of elastic pull is that it will enable you to really slow down the phase 4) of the natural stride in which the centre of gravity fractionally leads and goes ahead of the action of the legs and hip. The chances are you will experience a really forceful expression of the force of habit: your leg and foot will want to move out ahead of the centre of gravity as if to prevent a forward fall. Again the elastic is really helpful in the process of easing out of an ingrained patterns associated with a shod gate: that is the tendency to stick the leg out in front order to present the heel as the first point of contact.
In this procedure you become a willing participant working along with your extraordinary proprioceptive sense. You are not controlling but guiding the mindbody complex by working at a Tai Chi speed of sureness and slowness in this procedure. The proprioceptive sense is so remarkably adaptable that with the right effort attention you will soon master a rapid re-patterning of phase 4) action of the natural stride sequence.
If you repeat the procedure a few times then, after the elastic is removed there will be that brief re-adaptation phase. You may well appreciate in these few moments, an extraordinary turnaround of the way in which your energies are being used. Instead of your own energies being used in putting the leg out in front, the re-patterned version of this forward movement uses gravity and the movement of the legs is initiated by the centre of gravity easing forward. In a remarkable turnaround now your energies are only engaged to apply the brakes to the forward movement as your foot lands! In this way you begin to experience a movement towards a natural stride. This will follow the lines of least resistance and maximum economy modulated by a skillful use of gravity by the proprioceptive sense.