August 27, 2012

The Natural Running Technique



In this second article of the series, we introduce you to Lee Saxby’s barefoot running technique, or Natural Running. The following explanations and graphics come from the coaching material and a live session with Canadian coach Tina Dubois.


What is Natural Running?
According to the method, “Running” is one of the three biomechanical forms of human locomotion, along with walking and sprinting. As you can see, “Jogging” is not a part of the picture here, and is described as an incorrect – an injurious – movement, only made possible because of standard shoes and their lack of proprioceptive feedback.


What’s the technique?
According to Saxby, there is an ideal way for running, and it applies to everyone. It’s composed of three parts; posture, rhythm and relax.



  • Posture means an upright torso with a straight, aligned head. Legs fall under the body, on the ball of the foot… nothing exotic here, except when you look in closer detail. The upright posture doesn’t include the usual “forward slant”, or bend at the ankles, that other methods (such as “Chi Running”) recommend. The foot fall has to be very precise, too, as landing on the side of your forefoot is deemed incorrect. The logic behind this is that your strongest metatarsal bone is, by far, the one leading to your big toe.
  • Rhythm means your cadence is precisely 180 beats per minute. Each of your feet will lift from the ground 90 times each minute, which leads to a very fast cadence. Add in the upright position and the first couple minutes will make you feel like running in place.
  • Relax means no tension in the upper or lower body. Movement is controlled, but not stiff. There is no bobbing of the head or rotation in the shoulders, but nothing has to be held too tight.


Real-Life Example
While at Tina Dubois’ coaching session, she took videos of my running, before and after applying Saxby’s method. For the sake of context, I am a self-taught barefoot runner with a 3-year base, who enjoys mostly injury-free running over all sorts of terrains and distances.


Video 1 : Before

video


Verdict : Head-Chasing, Forefoot Striking Overstrider
My standard posture, it turns out, is not quite perfect according to this method. Admittedly, the head-chasing part is mostly due to my watching the treadmill console, so we won’t pay much attention to that one and blame it on environmental factors. The overstriding, however, is the money shot. I tend to land on the side of my forefoot, a slight bit in front of my center of gravity. This causes an unbalance and makes me stretch my back leg (called “trail leg”) further behind me.





In Tina’s words :
  • Posture – Pretty good, only slightly bent at the waist (probably because your overstride is also quite slight). I can tell that your head is bent forward mostly because you're looking at the treadmill console)
  • Trail Leg – A little long (indicated by the orange line between your knees)
  • Foot Posture - Lateral forefoot with both feet (more lateral on your left than your right)
  • Overstride – Short overstride (indicated by blue arrow between heel and green line)
  • Rhymth – VERY close to 180 BPM
  • Contact time – 16 frames for both feet (filmed at 60 frames/second) for a contact time of just over 250 ms.

Corrective measures
Where Lee Saxby’s method really shines, in my opinion, is in the corrective exercises it proposes. Nothing complicated here, only a couple routines you can do anywhere, with minimal equipment. here’s a quick rundown :

  • Barefoot jumping
    Jump in place with both feet to a 180BPM rhythm. This will force very quick cadence and instil the feeling of the right footfall, as it is biomechanically impossible to land anywhere else than the ball of your foot. “Remember” the feeling in your feet and reapply to your running.

  • Barefoot walking
    While holding a bar overhead (a broom stick or, ideally, something a tad heavier like a weightlifting bar), walk around barefoot without pressing the bar forward or pulling it back. This forces the upright posture recommended in the method.

  • The "1-2-Pull"
    Same idea as the barefoot jump, this one is practiced on alternating legs, while in place or moving. To a 180 BPM rhythm, fold each knee back once, then “kick” once, higher. Repeat, while staying in the beat.

  • Squatting
    With a straight back, squat down with your whole foot touching the ground. Don’t lift your heels and concentrate your weight on the ball of the foot. You can ensure you have a straight posture by doing this exercise while extending out your arms and balancing a weighed bar on your collarbone.


Corrective measures applied to my… case
Since I have a tendency to slant forward slightly, Tina recommends the barefoot walking exercise. She also insists on my increasing my cadence to 180BPM, using the barefoot jumping exercise and a “metronome” MP3 that I can listen to while training. Last but not least, to take care of my lagging trail leg, she recommends I run stretches while performing the 1-2-Pull exercise. The second video below illustrates both my modified running technique and the 1-2-Pull exercise (notice the “kicking” leg).


Video 2 : After

video


Verdict : Natural Runner (!!!)
Although my second posture assessment was made easier by having a metronome beat to run to, I have to admit I didn’t put much effort into “trying” to look the part. I think this is largely due to the pertinence of the exercises, which are both simple to master and easy to practice.





In Tina's words :

  • Posture - Perfectly upright (indicated by the back of your ear being on the green line above your centre of gravity and no exaggerated curve in your low back)
  • Trail Leg - Close, which is perfect!
  • Foot Posture - Medial forefoot on the right and a little lateral on the left
  • Overstride – No overstride at all!
  • Rhythm – Right on 180 BPM (determined by listening to the metronome on the original movie file)
  • Contact time – 15 frames, which is perfect!

So in less than 3 hours, under the supervision of Tina, I was able to go from my "standard" posture to a "natural running" form. It required only a couple focused exercises and getting used to a 180 BPM rythm, which felt too fast for comfort but turned out to be close to what I was doing already.


Video 3 : Before + After, a side-by-side analysis

video


For a somewhat experienced barefoot / minimal runner like myself, adjusting to the Natural Running method was quite a breeze. It seemed like the technique was more difficult to apply for some other "shod" runners attending the session. However, they were probably lacking strength in the stabilizer muscles and had no prior experience of the "barefoot feel", which made listening to their body likely harder. My guess is most of them probably needed only to perform the exercises a couple more times for the posture and the technique to feel more natural.


The next article in the series will be my analysis of the method and what I took away from it, both in theory and practice. As mentioned earlier, I’m inviting you to take part in the conversation in the comments section below. Tina will be there to answer your questions and discuss your feedback.


For a complete run-down of the Natural Running technique, you can visit Tina's official website.

40 comments:

  1. My first comment would be how correcting form on a treadmill compares to running in "real" life. I don't feel as if a treadmill correlates properly and it appears to be at in incline which could throw off your natural form as well.

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  2. Another thing I noticed - in video 2 (after), every once in a while your legs do a weird upkick. What's with that?
    At first glance, I didn't notice much wrong with your before but the video showing the before/after together shows a nice difference. Your COG landings are a lot better. Nice job.
    I'm afraid to have myself taped for all the incorrectness that would appear. Looking forward to the next article.

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  3. Shacky: I agree with the treadmill comment. I would also add (and it's part of my analysis in the third article) that it overlooks all movements that can be observed from other angles, such a torsions in the hips, ankles or shoulders.

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  4. The weird upkick is the "1-2-Pull" exercise performed while running. I wish I had a video bit without it.

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  5. Thanks for your comment Shacky. Regarding correcting form on a treadmill vs on ground, I've done both and usually don't have the treadmill option. The nice thing about the treadmill is that I can give coaching cues while the client is running and observe how it changes their form, whereas on ground, there usually isn't enough room to see what needs to be corrected, give the cue, and see how it affects their form in the amount of space I have and see the correct angles. The first natural running session is mostly about general body posture, landing under the centre of gravity, foot landing, cadence, and relaxation and I've found that those aspects are no different between treadmill and ground running.

    Regarding the treadmill view of not being able to see other angles, this was an 'Introduction' session where we cover the basics. For most runners, whether they're heel-striking overstriders or forefoot-striking overstriders, that's A LOT of information and usually quite a change for one session. As Lee says, "Running is a skill" and skills can always be improved upon with practice. Hip torsions, lateral leg extensions, etc., which require different views can be observed after the client has had some time to practice the basics. :)

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  6. From coach Jason Robillard (on Facebook) :

    My coaching philosophy is derived from my teaching experiences. I throw out the common Procrustean methodology of trying to fit runners to my preferred coaching style. Instead, I get to know the student. I want to know their goals, perceived strengths, and weaknesses. I want to know how they learn best. I want to identify why and where they need help, then figure out the best path to get them to their goal.

    The key for me: I need A LOT of tools in my toolbox. That's why I'm such a proponent of studying how others teach running form. All of it has value- Pose, Chi, Ken Bob's stuff, Mark C's stuff, Pete Larson, Jay Dicharry, Steve Magness, Gordon Pirie, Evolution running, Good Form Running... you name it, I use it. I even seek out info from those that disagree with the idea of natural running. The more info I can absorb, the more tools I have to help my students.

    In regards to Lee's stuff, this would be excellent for students that are interested in road running and respond to visual feedback/drill work. The key for my style is understanding what will work and when it's appropriate. As an example, I would never use this method for Vanessa [Rodriguez, from Vanessa Runs]. Her form is already pretty good and her goal is to run gnarly trails. The dynamic nature of the terrain would make it impossible to utilize something like this. Instead, I'd watch her in the "natural' environment, identify areas of improvement, and give basic learning cues to tweak problems.

    Conversely, I worked with a lady a few months ago and used something very similar to this. She responded well to the methodology (she didn't respond well to "running by feel") and it fit her goals.

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  8. Also, I agree with Tina about treadmills. If a runner plans on road running, a treadmill can be an excellent tool. The small problem with the moving belt is easily outweighed by the convenience of being able to give immediate, direct feedback while your student is in close proximity.

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  9. Heya! Interesting article. I have two questions:

    - Since you're an experienced, injury-free runner who can run 100K straight, what does this "fix"? What is the goal or the potential gain besides conforming to a theoretical ideal?

    - What's the point of a very exact 180 strides per minute? Is it to 'force' newbies into a faster cadence than they do running shod? Why would we always run at 180? With a fixed stride, cadence is how you vary pace: faster candence equals faster pace. I'm pretty sure cadence varies greatly upon fatigue, distance, trail conditions, speed, fitness, etc. Doesn't feel very natural to fix at 180...

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    1. Daniel,

      I have to specify that I'm almost injury-free, which means I've had some smaller issues here and there over the last year or so. I think everyone will benefit from an improved form, whether in terms of injury prevention or of improved economy/performance.

      With that said, I think this method "fixes" smaller, overlooked habits in barefoot runners that have the potential to cause problems in the long term. The precise landing spot and the attention to the center of gravity, I would say, were the 2 areas that could use improvement in my case. I still practice some of Tina's exercises to this day (the 1-2-pull, mostly) because I'm convinced it has positive effects on my posture.

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  10. Thanks for your feedback Jason. The coaching session that Flint participated in was a group of about 20 people for an hour information session and then 2 hours for about 10 people to do personal coaching. We didn't have a lot of one-on-one time during the session. The methodology covered in this article is, therefore, geared for that type of group setting. Because of the group setting, we didn't have time to cover speed, trail, uphill, downhill, etc. but I do cover those topics in one-on-one coaching depending on the goals of the client. Most of my clients so far have been injured runners who want to run injury-free or people interested in learning how to run in minimalist shoes in a way that will keep them from getting injured. I spend a lot of time reading and learning about other running methodologies and incorporate any beneficial information into my teaching sessions as well.

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  11. Hi Daniel. I'll let Flint answer the first question. :)
    A cadence of 180 strides per minute is the optimum cadence to maximize efficiency by getting the most 'free energy' back from strain energy stored in our elastic structures (plantar fascia and achilles tendon) while we run. To increase pace with a fixed cadence, you pull your heel higher under your centre of gravity, which translates into more flight time with each stride and results in a faster speed. Running faster requires more strength and speed in your hamstrings. If you want to run with a faster cadence, which is perfectly fine, you sacrifice some efficiency for speed (which is why you'll find most racers run with a faster than 180 cadence).
    You would only use a cadence of 180 on flat and uphill. Running downhill, you would use a faster cadence which is dependent on the steepness of the slope: the steeper the downhill, the faster the cadence. The faster cadence keeps you from braking with every step and reduces load on your knees and quads.

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  12. Hi Tina and Flint. First thank you very much for doing this. Tina, what is the purpose/goal of the 1-2 kick exercice? Have you posted somewhere a video of someone the squat exercice? With Chi and others, I was thaught to lean forward from the ankle to let gravity pull you forward. A controlled fall as they say. Since this method is all upright, are you not fighting gravity and does it mean you use more of your calves or hamstring to make you run? What about push-off, does this method entice you to used your toes a lot more to push the body forward? Thanks.

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  13. Thank you Tina! That was an informative answer!

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    1. You're welcome Daniel. And thank you. :)

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  14. Thank you Tina.. and thank you Flint for sharing this. I'll work on this. It's very helpful :)

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  15. For Anonymous' questions:
    1) The purpose of the 1-2-Pull exercise is to shorten any overstride you may have (because it is REALLY difficult to overstride if you're kicking up so high at a 108 cadence) AND to help focus on hamstring vs hip flexor muscle action for propulsion.
    2) The sitting squat position, as well as a number of other helpful training videos, can be found at: http://trainingclinic.vivobarefoot.com/running-the-skill/training-videos/.
    3) Even though some running methods advocate a forward lean from the ankles, what most often happens when you tell someone to lean from the ankles is that they lean from their biggest hinge, which is their waist (Lee has seen it in countless runners and I have seen it myself in both Chi and Pose running clients).
    4) If you are upright in gravity, your body is balanced in gravity and therefore using very little muscle action to hold your body up. If you are bent at the waist (which most runners are if they have any overstride), you are using muscles in your back, shoulders and neck to hold your body upright, which you don't need to be using and is therefore less efficient. So if you're upright, you're not fighting gravity, you're balanced with gravity.
    5) This method uses your calves eccentrically while lowering your foot to the ground, allowing your heel to touch the ground after landing on the medial forefoot. So yes, it does use your calves much more than if you're heel-striking. However, the goal is to land on the forefoot with your heel quite close to the ground so your calves don't have to work that hard with every step.
    6) This method of running uses your hamstrings for propulsion (as opposed to your hip flexors). I don't know if you are asking if you would be using your hamstrings more because you're not leaned forward but if so, no, I don't think you're using them any more. Leaning forward wouldn't make you use that muscle group any less because there would be no reduction in load just because you're leaned forward.
    7) With this method, you don't push off with your toes at all. (If you're barefoot and you push off with the toes, you're going to cause a lot of friction and get blisters on the tips of your toes very quickly.) You want to lift your leg under you centre of gravity with your hamstring and not scrape the ground at all with the lift. Pushing off isn't necessary to move forward, and therefore uses unnecessary muscle action, which is less efficient.
    I hope that answers your questions but if it doesn't, please feel free to ask more and I'll do my best to answer.

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    1. Thanks Tina, I regret to have missed your workshop while you were in Montreal. Had I known, j'aurais été là. What's your take on the following form shown in this video on Natural Running. Although it is the same name, the method with the slight forward lean from the ankle and the hip extension seems different. Looking at the video, wouldn't you say that he's got a very long trail leg due to the large hip extension? But maybe I got it all wrong. I tried your method tonight for a short run and I'm confused about how one can get any speed while focusing at making the trail leg small. Chi says to keep the cadence at 180 and to vary the stride length to go faster or slower. How you go faster with your method? Are there videos posted somewhere that shows the gait of someone running faster than say 4:15 min/km? Thanks in advance.

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    2. Oups, here is the link http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zSIDRHUWlVo&feature=related

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    3. This form is very similar to Patrick Sweeney's, and he runs like the wind!

      The only thing I see in this man that kind of tickles is that he seems to have some shoulder torsion (See 0:30) - which makes his head bob a little bit. There's also a strange unbalance in his push forward every 3 steps if you look closely (from about 1:05).

      But all in all, I think he's got a very good posture.

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    4. Oh. He mentions further on (4:00) that he recommends shoulder rotation. I'm not sure about that one.

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  16. I would rather not break down Dr. Cucuzella's running form but I can address your questions. :)
    1) Hip extension is an observed characteristic of running but not an action you would want to put energy into (ie, exaggerate in any way). Hip extension occurs as you relax your hamstring after pulling your heel towards your butt and is a biomechanical marker of gravitational torque (the physics involved in locomotion). If you focus on exaggerating hip extension, you use muscles that are not necessary for propulsion and is therefore less efficient because you don't need to use any muscles when you relax your hamstring. Hip extension makes it appear like there's a long trail leg but the important frame to make trail leg distance observations is the first frame where the foot is fully loaded with weight. As long as there is no distance between the knees in this frame, and the landing is under the centre of gravity, that is ideal form.
    2) Speed in natural running is dependent on the height of the heel of the trail leg: if you want to go faster, pull your heel closer to your butt. This will mean you're in the air longer (ie, longer flight time) which results in a longer stride length (which means the total distance between your two feet for one stride). What most people think about when they hear, "increase your stride length" is increasing their forward leg reach so we don't use that as a coaching cue (as in Chi running), as this results in an increased overstride.
    3) If you want to see videos of Natural Running at speed, you can watch the finishing videos of international marathons. Most of the Kenyan and Ethiopian marathoners run with this form. Watch how high they kick their heels with their trail legs, while maintaining an upright body posture.
    You're asking really great questions! If you have more, feel free. :)

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    1. Wow, that is a lot of infomartion to comprehend and digest. You change my perception of everything I learned on the net watching videos for the last 3 months on form as I was trying to solve an injury problem which kept me off the road after running the Ottawa Marathon. For example, I thought that the heel to the butt was not something to do intentionnaly. But just with a few days of practice of your excerices, I already start the pain going slowly... Tonight, I'm seeing a real running coach for the first time, so it'll be very interesting to compare the methods. I'll have lots of questions for him and count on me for some more questions for you in the next few days. A summer without running is something I never want to experiment again, especially when the goal was to BQ. Thanks a lot for your help.

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    2. Well, I had a good first running coaching experiment the other night. I ran as per your method and after seeing my gait, the coach said that it was similar to what he is teaching. He doesn't understand the thing about pulling the heel to the butt to go faster (not sure I understand myself either) but all the rest (running straight, no trail leg, etc.). Problem I had though is that I injured again myself when I had to run at sub 4:30 km. From what I told him, he says he looked like an hamstring strain or micro tear on the attachment to the pelvis. Since you said you where injured often at various places before finding natural running, I'm curious to see if you had problem with our hamstring and how you healed it and if natural running helped afterwards. Looks like I'm going to have to quit running until next spring since this thing is always coming back after a run now. Thanks for any comment you might have.

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    3. Running fast requires more hamstring strength and speed so if you had an existing hamstring-related injury, it is most likely the speed work that exacerbated it, like you said. I didn't have hamstring issues but it is quite common in high-mileage runners (especially if they run with a long trail leg). To make running easier on your hamstring, keep your trail leg close to your centre of gravity at all times and if speed work aggravates it, run slower. :)

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    4. Thanks for your sound advice. From what you said, trail leg is the distance between the knees when one foot touches fully the ground. Any tip or cue to use when we run to be conscient of this distance? I find it hard to figure that one out when running. If the 1-2 kick drill goal is to ensure we are not overstriding (distance between the back of the landed foot and the center of gravity line) what could be a drill for reducing trail leg?

      Thanks again!

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    5. The 1-2-Pull exercise helps with keeping your trail leg in close, too. Length of overstride and trailing leg are usually proportionate because you have to have an equal mass ahead and behind your 'centre' of gravity.

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    6. Makes sense. Thanks!

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  17. You're welcome. And thank you for the lovely compliment. :)

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  18. Thanks so much, Flint and Tina, for this very interesting series! I'm looking forward to having a gait analysis done next week with my physical therapist to address my "runner's knee"/ITBS and tight hip extensors. I'm sure the video will be quite telling! When I'm back to running I would like to explore this method further.
    ~Dana Pruner

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  19. Over-the-knee-length tight fitting elasticated shorts might help anonymous1 if he/she is habitually running in loose fitting shorts. I sometimes roll up the ends to give extra protection to the hamstrings especially if there's a cold breeze.

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  20. Thanks gwil! My problem with the left hamstring is high at the attachment to the back of the pelvis. Is this where you have your issue too? Thanks for the suggestion. I never ran with these shorts.

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  21. Proximal (meaning closer to centre or butt) hamstring pulls are a common injury in runners, especially high-mileage runners, with a long trail leg because the further the trail leg is behind the body, the more mass the hamstring has to pull forward. The hamstring fatigues faster with the added load.

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  22. Gosh, I should have met you in the spring before my injury. At least, thanks to you, after googling proximal hamstring pulls I finally know what my damn problem is. Now looking for a miracle cure but hard to find anything. Boston dream is dead for 2013 but if I ever can run again, I'll be following your method and advice to eliminate trail leg. Thanks for your help.

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  23. You're welcome and I wish you the best returning to running. :)

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  24. Hey Tina, thanks to you I'm back running! A few months back, I got into entering the Energizer night race in Montreal and at that time although I was injured from that hamstring problem, I decided to pay the hefty entry fee thinking that I would be surely be healed in mid Sept. It didn't turn out this way as I couldn't run more than a few blocks without feeling pain in the back of the upper leg and that kept me off running all summer long.

    Then I read the Micah True story which got me into reading Flint's blog. And then he had the great idea to share his experience with Natural Running Technique with us.

    After reading it and getting answers from you on aspects I did not fully understand, I started doing daily the recommended exercices and although I continued to feel pain even while walking, the pain seemed to not exist while doing the exercices. I was almost sure I couldn't run the night race but I went to pick-up the kit on Thursday just for the sake of getting the damn free frontal light I had paid for dearly (which is very nice by the way). On Friday, I remembered the adage that says do not run if you feel pain, so I tried to convince myself not to even think of going to the race. Yesterday, on Saturday, all day I thought I'd better not go because the risk of injuring myself even more was too great as I pictured myself rushed into the hospital and not being able to run for the rest of my life.

    Then, at 5pm, of course I couldn't resist going just for the fun of feeling a race atmosphere once again in this nice cool end of summer night. The plan was to get into the starting line-up, run a bit and stop as soon as the pain creeped in, probably before passing the 1km mark. So I started running upright, following the 180 spm bips I loaded in my Mp3 while focusing of pulling the heel up, no overstride and most importantly no leg trail. Goal was to run slowly at about 6 min per k. A race being a race, I just followed the pack and kept a 5:20 pace in the first km. At the first km mark, I realized I was running absolutely pain free! Thanks to NRT form! So I kept on going and the second K pace ended up at 5:00 which is my marathon pace. It was so crowded I couldn't run any faster anyway and I thought that was a good pace to keep for the whole race considering I didn't run all summer and I was probably out of shape a bit to run my 4:30 k/m 10K pace. The 2, 3, and 4 kms marker passed and still no pain! I couldn't believe it! Once the 5km mark was cleared, the trail was less crowded as the 5K runners were heading to the finish line and the free beer. I pushed it some more in the 6th km at 4:40 to cancel out the 5:20 pace of the first km and still no problem at all with the hamstring. For the rest of the race I cruised at 5:00m/k as per plan. I did some testing too while running those last few km as I was curious to see how it'd go running using my old form (lean forward, head chasing, overstriding, trail leg, etc. a la chi running) and immediately I could feel a strong pain sneaking in the back of my leg. That proved to me that NRT worked and was the way I will run foreever now.

    This was a great night on the beautiful Ste-Hélene island running trails with 1,500 runners in the woods and longing the river with a view of the Montreal skyline. So after years of heel striking in big cushioned shoes, and switching to almost minimalist shoes (4mm drop) this spring but hurting myself even if I did a slow and gradual transition, I realized I was not running the proper barefoot form. Changing shoes did not change my fom. I was landing forefoot alright but still landing ahead of my center of gravity and it resulted in overstridng and a long leg trail which ended up hurting me. The pain while not running is getting away with time and I could see myself getting training for a half and a marathon shortly with the hope of heading to Boston in 2014.

    And for all of this, I'd like to say Thank you to you and to Flint!

    Best regards,

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    1. That was a beautiful story. Congratulations on your pain-free race. And thank you for sharing.

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  25. Very interesting information! These running techniques are truly very natural. We can improve our running performance with the help of these.

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