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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.