27-year history of Natural Running development
Starting in 1990 Paul Collins, a British endurance running Champion and Alexander Technique teacher offered courses to runners under the heading “The Art of Running”. These courses brought the practical insights of the Alexander technique to explore running form and technique.
I co-tutored the development of those courses in the early 1990s until Paul died. It was a huge privilege and it enabled me to deepen my particular interest in natural running by working with Paul who tolerated my eccentricities: Since the 1970s I have walked and run barefoot. It was great to work alongside a passionate runner and a great teacher who had the forbearance to put up with my unconventional approaches on those early courses.
Certainly both Paul and I shared a commitment to exploring how the fascinating mind-body integration work of the Alexander technique might be applied to improve the efficiency of running form. This generated a raft of original ways to look at the efficiency of the running gait. Back in the 1990s these would be considered very left field. Now before he died Paul engaged in a bit of crystal ball gazing, which turned out to be spot on. Paul suggested that in the future it would probably take two generations before such original ideas would become a more accepted part of running lore and practice. What a shame Paul did not live long enough to see the contemporary interest in working with the proprioceptive sense and the degree to which barefoot running has become incorporated into running training schedules. This would have delighted this far-sighted and visionary runner and teacher.
I will forever cherish memories of running through the lanes of Devon late into the night with Paul, of talking Quantum reality ‘till four o’clock in the morning and frequently getting spectacularly drunk together! He was a great mentor and inspiration.
Thrift in an age of abundance
John has a well-established 27-year history of Natural Running development that has pioneered many new and more expansive horizons in the way that we move, walk and run. One great starting point for Natural Running and movement is that as a species, we have within us a fully formed set of “thrift” systems to ensure safe, and injury free, efficient and natural ways to move and to run. However in an age of Super Abundance we have disconnected from these scarce-energy management systems that originally developed out of thrift and raw survival as they were beaten out on the uncompromising hammer and anvil of our human evolution.
A central feature of Natural Running coursework involves a process of re-engaging or reconnecting with these thrift or energy economy systems that have become radically disconnected in a modern body. Implications of this disconnection are expressed physically and mentally. One very obviously physical disconnection occurs when we put a heavy-duty protective soled shoe around the foot. A mental aspect off the disconnection can nowadays be readily observed in the street as you watch a modern “Zombie”, a member of the Walking Dead shuffling down the street while chatting on social media. Such individuals for sure are not present; they are disconnected from their moving bodies and all that is around them. To work on reconnection is to power into the neuro- side of the neuro-muscular partnership.
The process of re-connection frees you in the way that a naturally agile mind and body can move. It can become the beginning of appreciating a fascinating “more is less” possibility. We are already massively overloaded with information and overly burdened with busyness. It is in the nature of the way these systems work that they do not demand of you that you add yet another something to do and to think about. Instead they challenge you not to do something but to let go of and to take something away. The essential focus of attention in Natural running and movement focuses on whatever is hampering the operation of these highly evolved systems.
What do these “thrift” systems achieve?
Essentially these systems create poise and grace. You can “do” neither of these higher, fine human qualities. Poise and Grace essentially concerned Being. They concern what you are and not what you do. A distillation of this is in the aphorism: “knowledge adds – wisdom subtracts”. Wising up to these possibilities of achieving more by doing less can radically transform the way that you think and act- as well as improve the agility, efficiency and enjoyment of how you run.
To work with these thrift systems is to achieve poise. A central feature of Natural Running reveals how poise in action is something that is achieved by a process that happens before and not during the action. This extraordinary complex neuro-processing is achieved by the thrift systems working fully in preparation for the action. It is Thought-into-Action! These systems have come into being to create the minimum effort in order to achieve a given muscular end-result. These processes work in much the same way as you might set out with a hammer and chisel to make an elephant out of a block of granite – that is by process of knocking off all the bits that are not elephant shaped! Poise and grace are achieved through a constant paring down on the amount of energy expended. Evolutionary psychology is inevitably speculative. However it seems fairly certain that saving often very small amounts of energy would, way back in our evolutionary origins, have made the vital difference between starvation and survival. This has shaped the way we think and move and makes us the kind of creature we are.
Certainly re-engaging with these systems can be like re-acquainting yourself and shaking hands with your inner child. A sense of play and enjoyment in natural movement is a sure sign that the reconnection has begun.
Could it possibly be that our continued future as a species may be dependent on the radical changes in mind and body that come about when we connect with our origins in grace and poise: in thought and action?
We are lazy creatures – live with it!
In a very important sense we are lazy creatures and it is okay- it is all a direct result of the nature of our evolution. Our evolution has shaped us to follow lines of least resistance and to become fine-tuned in the economy and efficiency in the way we expend energy in order to hunt and gather vital food. If it is true that various systems evolved to enable us to survive in a world where food was a very scarce resource and also highly energy demanding to obtain, then it should come as no surprise to us how such systems might come to work, not for us but against us in an age of one-click food shopping and super abundance!
In a weird way our relationship to food has flipped around by 360° from the way that it worked for our ancient ancestors! According to the forces that have shaped the human creature that we are, the prime motivation to move at all was mainly to obtain food by hunting and gathering. In the very occasional prehistoric circumstances of abundance we developed resources to store fat as we binged out in preparation for the inevitable future lean times. So storing fat and also saving sometimes just a teaspoon full of energy in the way we moved shaped the fundamentally lazy creatures that we are!
We have become disconnected from the once vital resources of grace and poise in action. Nowadays we are perilously inactive and while we store the resources of fat for the lean times – the lean times never arrive. In this bizarre 360° turn around these days we have become neurotically anxious about our inactivity. Here is the flip: in an age of plenty, we now become concerned that that we now need to go out and have that high energy calorie burn just to get rid of the energy in the food we have all too easily and indulgently consumed. It is now the other way round to our prehistoric days! Now the main motivation is not to obtain scarce food in order to have as the energy to survive and breed but instead to workout and neurotically try to rid ourselves of the unhealthy and unnatural effects of super abundance over-indulgence. This underpins our contemporary rather driven exercise culture. If it is true then it remains one mighty huge paradox that our continued existence as a species in an age of superabundance and choice, may demand that we reconnect and rediscover the grace and poise of our ancient origins.
While it might not be true that our future survival depends on the rediscovery of grace and poise, it is certainly much more likely that to re-establish this connection could help enormously with a huge raft of contemporary suffering that is unique in the entire story of our evolution. Our fundamental health, well-being, happiness and fitness is being severely strained in a contemporary body!
For me, the most striking and gob smacking realization to come out of 30 years of natural running work is that natural movement is a low-lying fruit– an easily available and vital resource that is all around and within us. All we really need to do is to reconnect with it. In the present circumstances we become increasingly disconnected as we live more or less exclusively in our heads – disconnected from our physical being. To establish the reconnection to natural movement is to “know”, not in an intellectual sense but in an experiential sense, exactly where we have originated from. This deep and profound sense of knowing our past and honouring our ancestry makes the present moment all the more precious– after all it is all that we have really have. One key feature of the Digital Age is the extraordinary capacity it has to shrink the present moment. To reclaim the present moment in natural movement is the only place when we can truly plan for a future that wholly fulfills the promise of grace and poise of our early human origins.