It doesn’t serve us to think of running as we generally think of “sports.” Instead, let’s regard running as a form of expression. When we approach an activity we see as a “sport,” we typically ask: “what’s the goal here? Is it to get from A to B as quickly as possible? Is it to get the ball into the net?” And we put our bodies and minds in service of answering that question.
But there’s a problem with that: if we approach a sport with neural, muscular, or skeletal issues (which pretty much all of us westerners have, to one extent or another), our bodies will find ways around those problems for the purpose of achieving the stated goal.
That means that the body will find a less efficient way to conduct mechanical energy through the body, as long as the job gets done. Too much of this and you’ve got yourself an injury.
But suppose that instead we treat running (and other sports) as forms of expression. Then we enter a path of self-discovery, where improvements in speed and power are achieved as a by-product of increasing our efficiency, and our knowledge of the deep principles of our sport.
When most of us beginner athletes ask ourselves what is “the goal” of a particular sport, we tend to think of the most overt goal: getting to the finish line, catching the ball, hitting the quarterback, etc. It is only as we become less recreational and more competitive, that we begin to break down the activity into its component parts, often with the help of a coach.
All sports, in one way or another, depend on the athlete’s ability to increase their hip extension (i.e. push against the ground with their leg), in order for their skill to continue to evolve. Ball-throwing involves transmitting the mechanical energy generated from the leg’s action agains the ground through the hip and across the torso in a twisting action, to send the arm whipping forwards at a great speed. Running involves getting the swing (forward) thigh as far ahead of the pushoff (back) thigh as fast as possible, and using the arm swing to counterbalance the leg, making use of the torsional forces in the upper body to power the next phase of hip extension.
The point: skill development in all sports centers on the ability to extend the body from the hip.
For a runner, this means that employing a typical compensation pattern such as a heel-strike will only amount to so much speed, consistency, and safety. (The heel-strike typically compensates for a very common problem with western athletes: tightness in the hip flexors and hamstrings and a weakness in the glutes, which is why switching to midfoot-striking or forefoot striking is not a simple task). The expression of this runner’s body, (concerning, in particular, their hip extension), is compromised: Not all muscles are available to take part in the task, and so the full potential of the body cannot be harnessed.
I think of running as an “expression,” and not a “sport,” to allow me to more freely and easily perceive where the inefficiencies are. What I want is not to “heel-strike” or “forefoot-strike”—or to get to the finish line—but for my body to express itself as freely as possible and with as few mechanical, neurological, and subconscious limitations as possible, in the mission of shortening the time it takes me to cross the finish line.
That’s not to say we can’t get some speed from just focusing on the obvious goal (getting there faster). But if we bring all that neurological, muscular, and skeletal baggage into the game, we’re highly likely to just train those alternate, less-efficient ways of conducting mechanical energy—and at some point, we will become injured, and/or our training will plateau.
It’s not that we trained inefficiently—it’s that we trained the inefficiencies themselves.
However, if we focus our efforts into training our body’s capability for expression, instead of its capability for propulsion, our efforts will translate into increasingly greater speed—and there is no readily apparent limit to expression, as there is for propulsion. Too often in sports we ask: “how can I be faster?” when we should be asking: “what is making me slower?”
Our capacity to expend effort can only go so far, but the journey of streamlining our bodies and our minds is limitless.
It’s very telling that the “streamlining” approach is both well-known and well-used by people in just about any activity that we consider to be “expressive” (such as painting, dancing, and theater, just to name a few), but in very few sports, and even then only at a very high level of achievement.
To learn writing, for example, students are encouraged to break down their thought process into chunks—creating an outline—and to condense an essay into a single sentence: the so-called “thesis statement.”
I’ve done the same here with running. The “thesis statement” for running centers on the concept of hip extension. And the outline, well, for each of us it consists of all the little tiny details that spring from that statement, which turn a thought into an essay. (For runners, those details are neuromuscular, mechanical, endocrine, etc). We western runners are still in school, as far as running goes—and so we should consider our running stride to be our essay.
Because, actually, our stride is exactly that: an essay. It is the argument that we present to the world that we understand the expression of running.
The more studied and carefully crafted the essay, the more we can hide our work. In the essay, it is the parsimony and elegance of our words, backed by endless thought and research, which strengthens our argument. On the run, it is the simplicity and economy of movement, backed by study and repetition, that grants us speed.
I quote from Bruce Lee far too often, but he is, in my opinion, the greatest exemplar of speed. He knows things. If he speaks, I listen. And I hear stuff like this:
“The height of cultivation runs to simplicity. Halfway cultivation runs to ornamentation.”
It is absolutely no coincidence that this advice works as perfectly for writing as it does for athletic expression.
The metaphor of writing just keeps on giving: the cohesion between the various components of our essay, the various topics and paragraphs, work to create one argument that is greater than the sum of its parts. It’s the same with running: the more closely interconnected the various components of our body, the more resilient (and more powerful) the physical machinery will become.
Let’s train ourselves to ask: “how am I expressing myself along this trail?” By doing so, we will very quickly find that the barriers to our expression are all too obvious: perhaps right left foot supinates too much and too early (as is my case). Perhaps it is 70 different things. As we introspect, the answers to lifting those barriers will become more and more obvious, and we will find ourselves correcting and developing incrementally finer details of our athletic essays.
How to actually go about doing all that is a story for another time.