Want to change your stride safely? Learn about your body.

In my last post,  reader Ana Maria Castro Monzon commented:

“Great contribution! something that happens to me eventually when I’m running is that I feel that I run too slowly. I identified with “I’m just a slow runner.” How can I observe the alignment of my body when I run to improve my step?”

That’s the million-dollar question. I’ll say again what I answered in the comments: aside from going to a gait specialist, the best thing that you can do is observe, observe, and observe.

Most of us don’t really zoom into what we’re doing when we run. But if we did zoom in, and we watched and felt our body move, we would feel the slight disparities in our pushoff, the small differences in our arm swing, etc. That’s the very first step. Simply stated, look for differences.

First, we need to see that something needs to change, in order to change it. And when we develop experience in observing the motion and shape of our bodies, something happens. Just like when we develop experience observing brush strokes on a canvas, we develop an intuitive awareness of what’s wrong, of what’s missing, or what should be removed.

Observation and introspection are the key to developing this intuition, which later translates into knowledge. Why? Our bodies are systems, and systems are like puzzles: every single piece has a particular place in the whole, and its shape and color reveal its place relative to the others. In our bodies, every muscle, bone, and tendon has a particular place, and all of these parts function relative to every other. When one of these parts is functioning incorrectly, this reflects on itself and on the parts that surround it: when you put a puzzle piece in the incorrect location, not only does it seem out of place, but the pieces that surround the spot where it should have been are also negatively affected.

In the human machine, not a single part is superfluous, or out of place. Just like when you look at a car’s engine block: even if you don’t know much about cars, or engines, and at first glance you swear that one of its parts is superfluous—that it’s there just because, for “no rhyme or reason”—you’ll likely find that it has a very specific function, that you couldn’t pinpoint because you weren’t an expert.

This is the story of the appendix: some 20 years back, it still was thought that the appendix was a remnant of evolution. People would jokingly say that its only purpose was to get infected so that it could be cut out. But now we know better: the purpose of the appendix is to safeguard intestinal bacteria in the case of diarrhea or disease, so that the intestinal flora has a chance to repopulate.

All systems, across all domains, function largely like this. If something exists, it is there to perform a certain function. And when we introspect about our bodies and observe them, we’ll realize two things: first, that our bodies are systems, and second, that if we’re slow, or sick, or injury-prone, we can be certain that it is because some part is not doing its job, and certain that it’s not because we are slow, or sick, or prone to injury.

Further introspection will reveal what part (or parts) that is.

Even more introspection will reveal what to do about it.

And then there is the research. Although not every one of us has to become a physical therapist or a doctor—who are experts in all bodies—there is no good reason why each one of us shouldn’t become an expert in our own body. That’s the path that will take us towards being injury-free, and towards speed. While some of us may just want to be told what to do by a coach or a physical trainer, firsthand knowledge of our bodies is the most invaluable tool. Let me put it to you this way: two-thirds of the way into a marathon, we can be wondering why we’re getting hamstring cramps, or we can be exactly sure why we aren’t. There may be a few shortcuts to success, but there are no shortcuts to excellence.

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