I went to a day of the UKSEM (sports exercise and medicine) conference a few weeks ago and it has been churning round in my head since then. A really interesting exciting day. It was encouraging that over and over speakers said that the best way of training and best form varies according to the person or athlete. As a Feldenkrais Teacher that’s good to hear. It was also really interesting to hear them all agree that we are moving away from thick cushioning, motion control, wedge heels and so on in running shoes and towards improving training and running form. But it did point out to me the huge gap between what those world experts are saying and what is still being sold to the person on the street (and what they think they need). And,very interestingly for me, in so much that was said that day there seemed to me to be a very Feldenkrais-shaped gap.
Whether I think about excellent running methods to help people improve their form like Chi, Pose or Evolution, or whether I think about the argument over fore-foot/rear-foot strike or the biomechanist at UKSEM who said he realised it was hard to get an Olympic long-jumper to jump better by telling them they need to land for so many seconds with their knee at such and such an angle, I keep coming back to the gap that is to do with HOW PEOPLE LEARN.
If we take the fore-foot/rear-foot strike argument, there is good evidence out there* that shod heel-striking involves higher impact forces than fore-foot striking in habitually barefoot runners. But many sensibly point out that simply forefoot striking isn’t going to improve your chances of not injuring yourself if you still stick your foot out in front of you as that creates another set of problems (and we can argue about olympians who heel strike and all sorts). So what turns out to be more interesting in practice is where your foot lands relative to your pelvis. Good. So maybe we can teach people to land with their foot under them as Chi and Pose do and as bare-footing pretty much demands. And those ways can work. Some people will learn through consciously changing via a method, some people will just unconsciously adapt because they don’t have shoes on. But here’s the gap: SOME PEOPLE CAN’T DO IT. Or at least not in a helpful way. Some people don’t just adapt. Some people can’t follow the instruction. So either you say ‘that’s that, they just can’t do it’ – or you ask how do you help them learn? and that’s the question Feldenkrais addresses.
What would I say to that question? well it depends why they can’t do it. For example, you have to be able to bend your hip, knee and ankle to land with your foot under you softly and that can be the first set of problems that you have to deal with on an individual basis depending on what they can’t do and why. For example many people have surprisingly little ease of flexion in their ankle (given we need it even to stand up!) or indeed the subtle rotation that is also part of this movement. Landing like this is not just about strengthening the calf and achilles to cope, its also about the ability to lengthen the achilles and shorten the front of the ankle and have that small rotation available too in the moment to just the right amount. Giving them basic strength and stretching exercises may not really do the job. The foot and leg need to learn to work differently. It happens at neuromuscular level. Its worth remembering that the foot and the ankle will need to adapt to differences in the ground so a variety of subtle movements in the many bones of foot (26!) and ankle are needed not just a repetition of the same kind. Feldenkrais offers individual hands-on work as well as class exploration to help a runner learn many possibilites so that their system can produce just the right combination at just the right moment.
Then you need to be able move your pelvis forward to keep it over your feet when you are landing and have the stride open up behind you instead of in front and people do that very differently depending on how they use their torsos. What you need will depend on how fast you are going, but ultimately to really move the pelvis forward you have to be able to lengthen through the whole of your front without just tightening your lower back. Some people will shorten the lower back and hitch the tail bone (which won’t make them happy for long). Some people will find it hard to get the pelvis forward much at all because their front is habitually short from sitting, too much tightening in the abs/core or just personal habit for all sorts of reasons. Or they might do it by pulling their head and chest forward and down and kind of running into the floor. And that’s just a couple of possibilities! You can’t just tell them not to do what they are doing. ‘Do it like this’ doesn’t work if you simply can’t do it. They may not even really know or be able to feel that’s what they are doing or how it feels to do something different. (And I haven’t even started on what the pelvis and torso need to do for the leg to go backwards) But the kind of explorations Feldenkrais uses helps them learn to feel what they are actually doing with their pelvis and how their back, belly and chest are involved. It enables them to explore what ways they can move the pelvis in conjunction with the rest of them in many directions and how that changes where their weight is over their feet, what they can do with their legs and what kind of difference that makes to how they run. It doesn’t tell them what to do as much as help them find out how to do things differently. It helps them LEARN HOW TO LEARN – so then a useful instruction like ‘move your pelvis forward over your feet’ has a chance of working for them if that’s what they want to do.
But at the same time they don’t have to be stuck with one rule either because they have opened up many options that they can play with. After all what you do with yourself running up hill, down hill, slower, faster, on shingle or tarmac, for fun or to win, all varies and you don’t want to be stuck with one possibility for everything as nothing works for everything in every situation. And that is the Feldenkrais-shaped gap. Its not a ‘running method’. We can help people learn so that their systems can pick a pattern that works better in that moment and so that they can consciously try out ideas more effectively. And at the same time we give them the tools to feel for themselves how to vary what they are doing usefully and whether their choice is really helping them in how they want to run or not. Will everyone learn? Probably not even so. Not because they can’t neccessarily but because it might take more time and patience than they want to give to a bit of weekly exercise – and for a few the challenges faced may seem simply too much to be worth it. But on the other hand many people will learn enough to do it better enough for their purposes – and those who really want to run better will be able to make serious change.
and if you want to read more about the UKSEM round table debate Ross Tucker who chaired it has written a nice summary of it on his website www.sportsscientists.com make sure you check out the comments as well – some of the panelists come onto the site. Its pretty dense biomechanics but interesing if you have the time to really follow it.