Soft body, soft surfaces

This Blog’s name ‘Running Culture’ had two sources of inspiration:

  1. the book ‘Kenyan Running: movement culture and global change’ by John Bale and Joe Sang
  2. movement teacher Ido Portal’s term for his group ‘Movement culture’

It became obvious to me that the word ‘culture’ in both the title of the book and the movement group deserved central attention because our beliefs are based on our culture and our beliefs shape our actions and thus our success in running as in other sports and different aspects of life. Fix the culture and you fix all the downstream issues.

One cultural belief taken to task by Ido Portal within the broader context of ‘movement’* are the limitations we built around ourselves and our physical development. In an interview with Daniel Vitalis, Ido Portal references a teacher who told him ‘soft body, soft surface’. I want to explore this briefly below and bring it within the context of running culture.

* Ido Portal uses the word ‘movement’ to describe his practice rather than ‘training’ or even ‘physical education’ (my own preferred term) because the focus is on ‘moving’ the body, something that can be done at any time, rather than bringing a Westernised mindset of ‘boxing set artificial movement patterns into a rigid time’. We will talk more about this dichotomy when discussing Ido Portal’s ‘Classical vs. Romantic’ training methods – both of which have a place that must be understood not as exclusive of each other but living in harmony. The issue in the West, as always, is the fitness industry gravitating towards only one side of the continuum – the one currently appearing most appetising to the market thus providing ‘people what they want, rather than giving them what they need.’

Hard surface or hard body?

Today it is the norm to train on soft surfaces such as padded gym floors or yoga mats, we spend most of our time sitting on soft chairs and car seats and our feet are enveloped into increasingly soft rubber cushions. This presents a radically different challenge to the human body than our ancestral environment and even the world of grand-fathers or great grand-fathers were luxuries were more scarce, car journeys less common, sitting around all day a rarity and sports shoes made from hard canvass soles.

Many years ago a coach called Tony Riddle confronted me with the notion that training on a harder surface forces your body to become softer – if something is uncomfortable, it forces us to find a work-around to make it more pleasurable. Ido Portal’s teacher, a practitioner of shadow yoga, considered closer to the original traditions of yoga by many, did all his classes without any yoga mats. He felt such mats limited the physical development of his students. ‘If you feel pain, perhaps you are putting weight on something that should not have weight on it.’. Certain structures of the body are better equipped to handle body-weight but the clues to develop this awareness are often robbed from us by our artificially softened environment. In this case our soft environment makes us soft in a different sense: less strong, less adaptable, less able to cope.

In our context as runners we see this in the move towards extreme cushioning of the heel. Practice jumping with a hard sole or barefoot on rigid surfaces and you very quickly adapt away from a heavy heel-landing putting to bed theories about whether it is appropriate to land heavily on the heel during high impact activity. The cushioned sole robs us of the necessary perception to understand where on the surface of the foot it is appropriate to place certain loads. Here our culture of ‘cushioning’ perverts our beliefs into believing certain physical movements are appropriate when in reality they are not. From this false belief, erroneous actions such as heavy heel-striking running patterns are born.

Another practical example is very instructional: if you move over rugged, wet and uneven terrain you will not choose to sit down for a rest – you will squat to avoid getting cut, wet, cold or sore.   Without artificial support we pick the correct movement for the scenario, we are in. The price of comfort (such as a fold-out chair) is movement degeneration and destruction of your full athletic potential. Is your comfort worth this price? Only you can answer this question.

Within our little box

The yoga mat serves as a great example not just of how we have tried to eliminate the natural variation and hardness of surfaces, we need to develop proper sense of body-weight shifting and loading, but of how modern training and fitness practices place artificial limitations on our training essentially unsuitable to the real demands of life.

Any ‘mat-based’ exercise artificially constrains itself within a generally purple rectangle. Movements that should be happening do not happen or are not explored. Our motion control footwear limits us in the same way by robbing our foot of experiencing its full range of motion. A foot without a natural ability to fall into pronation (inward roll) and bring itself back out into a supinated position (an action Gary Ward appropriately calls ‘resupination’) cannot function to its full potential. Yet many shoes will steal away this movement potential bit by bit until it is gone altogether. At this stage the runner will be more dependent than he was before on the control of the shoe. This is essentially similar to the predicament of the drug user – the more he or she takes, the more she needs to maintain the addiction and feel comfortable.

“The more support you wear, the more you will need in the future. Supportive footwear thus works by the same mechanism as drug use – the more you take, the more you need for comfort. – author”

Modern exercise routines – including our own sub-disciplines of track and road running – are very linear sports with low variability in surface variation and density. Cross-country was long the yearly anti-dote for serious runners (and remains so for many, thankfully) with the (re)-emergence of trail running, our natural locomotive transportation mode, also benefiting our current running culture. However, it must be recognised that many runners ‘step out of the mat’ and take to the trails mentally only, not physically, because when they go onto the trail they chose to wear a heavily cushioned runner*, running gaiters, water-proof socks and compression gear.

* The emergence of maximalist and super-interventionalist monstrosities such as Hoka One-One are particularly instructive of our desire to reconnect with nature ‘from behind a looking glass’. This culture also permeates the hiking community where hills are to be enjoyed from behind layers of water-proof GoreTex and gaiters. This is an expression of a modern mind longing to reconnect with the wild and unpredictable yet still too fearful and domesticated to fully shed the comfortable trappings of modernity. 

This weakens our running culture in ways many may not expect. Since I have mentioned Ido Portal several times in this article let me ‘lift’ another of his well-known quotes: ‘don’t wrap your joints in supports, wrap your joints in exercise’. And what about this one: ‘the more expensive the tools, the cheaper the mover’. This ports directly into our sport: ‘the more expensive the equipment, the less developed the runner’.

To improve our running culture, we must not seek comfort for comfort’s sake and we must step outside the artificial boundaries set by mats, shoes and coaches schooled in excessively linear training methods and explore the wild and unpredictable. Have weak ankles? Stop taping them all the time and begin to explore their full ranges in squatting, walking, jumping and running over increasingly complex terrain. Cannot control your foot pronation (‘over-pronation’)? Rehabilitate foot issues and practice exercises teaching your body how to react and move the foot out of pronation back into a supinated position. Stop seeking the easy artificial solutions and the band-aids and look for permanent cures which leave you stronger – not weaker.

 

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