Is running natural or ‘what sex and running have in common…’

The long-standing debate around whether running technique should be ‘taught’ tends to create two oppositional camps – one which believes running technique is natural and thus should not be taught and one which believes that while it is natural it is not necessarily optimal.

Seeing what we want to see…

In my experience, most human disagreements arise over a failure see the gap between our perception of the world and the perception of others – ironic when we consider that we are, by far, the planet’s most cultural and social species. We do not define our terms accurately enough when entering verbal sparring on some argument with others. As a wise man once asked ‘why are no Christian children born to Muslim parents or Muslim children to Hindu parents’. We are the product of all the things that come before us: cultural conditioning at an individual level but we are blind to what these elements are and how they have shaped our views. We possess many cognitive failures prime among which is a predilection for confirming our own biases and so make sense of a chaotic world. Every discussion thne invariably begins by each of us reading into each other’s statements the meanings most supportive of the interpretation we are trying to confirm.

On the topic of whether running should be taught, much confusion cycles around how we interpret a common word like ‘natural’ as well as a lack of understanding of how learning occurs within a cultural species like humans. Many assume that if something is natural then it must not be taught. This distinction is false and based on ideas about motor learning without any foundation in facts.

To ensure balance to this argument, I must point out that the contrasting view that ‘running, whilst natural, must still be taught to develop optimally’ often makes the same theoretical and practical mistakes as their opponents believing that because something ‘must be learned’ that is must be taught through a systematised methodology. This view fails to account for all the informal ways in which human motor learning occurs – namely through cultural transmission (more on this below).

Like sex?

We can help our understanding by shedding the loaded term ‘natural’ and instead employ the terms ‘innate’ and ‘learned’ to explain our abilities and behaviours (Henrich 2017). I used to view these two terms as oppositional but they are not: many human behaviours are simultaneously innate and learned. The assumption with ‘innate’ or what we previously referred to as ‘natural’ abilities is that they ‘come with the package’. This is obviously not the case as human infants can neither walk nor run fresh from the womb. Joseph Henrich provides a delightful example by pointing out that no society – no matter how isolated – only hop and crawl. We all, without exception, learn to walk and run – so the ability is innate but at the same time is must be learned. If we are still not convinced Henrich asks us to consider sexual intercourse as another example explaining that throughout history many have had to figure out how it works on the fly (!) or ‘most couples eventually figure out what to put where and for how long, at least well enough for natural selection’s purposes’. Yet anyone reading this will likely agree that sexual intercourse is a learned skill – even if it is certainly innate and natural as well. How we learn then becomes the crucial question and here we can continue the comparison with intercourse: some things feel right and other things not so much. In other words, our sensory systems are geared to provide the necessary feedback to refine skills as they develop.

When it comes to running it is by now well-known that modern footwear – despite advantages it can provide – dampens and distorts the sensory input we receive. It is also now well-established that many modern habits such as excessive sitting, provide sensory input which directly sabotages the development of motor skills related to running. This way our innate ability to run does not develop as well as it could be. The long-term solution for our species is simply to rid ourselves of the culture of sedentarism and insist that our children run in footwear that does not compromise sensory feedback and anatomical shape of the foot during the crucial development year. Such a policy would – within a generation – probably almost eliminate the need for technique coaching and reduce the number of runners who need to see therapists by a significant margin. It would not remove all injury because technique errors do not cause every injury – stress, poor training habits, nutrition and many other factors would have to be separately attacked. But a very easy win exists here which our culture currently cannot exploit as the vested interest groups it would damage have no incentive to support such policies short-term and they are the groups setting the course for our sport right now, dominating the debate and acting as arbiters of what is ‘sound advice’ and what is ‘crackpot’. The wolf is guarding the running sheep.

How is the only question

For those who have already missed the crucial development window, we can nevertheless take hope just as someone who has poor ‘intercourse skills’ is not forever doomed in the bedroom. There is no question whether we should teach running technique – only how it must be taught. For our children the solution can simply be ‘better footwear, less sitting’ to improve this learning. For us late-comers who already have deformed feet and heavily ingrained suboptimal motor habits programmed into us when we run, the path must be different. Because running is innate much more care must be taken when changing it the actions involved in the movement are so reflexive and automatic that tampering can be often making people worse. Essentially you can think of what happens as ‘writing a layer of good code on top of false code’ instead of rewriting the code from scratch. The solutions we seek lie in how members of a cultural species (us) learn movement from observing role models around us. I will turn to this topic in my next post.



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