This article appeared in the June 2011 issue of, The Journal of the Rolf Institute.
The first thing I teach all my clients is how to breathe. When I can get my clients breathing correctly, it helps them manage their stress, and hopefully they won’t need me anymore. After breathing, the next thing I work on is walking. Breathing is an instinctual behavior; walking is only partly instinctual; much of it is modeled. We watch our parents walk, and we copy their movement style as well as the emotional style embodied in their movement. Some of us may rebel against our parents to create an opposing style (think about the rebellious, slouching teenager). Either way, we are in some manner being affected by how and why our parents walk a particular way.
In this culture we study walking and running biometrically, yet we still don’t understand how to do either correctly. For whatever reason we adopted our walking style, we invariably create a limited approach to dealing with gravity. To compensate, we created high-tech shoes that soften our walk and encourage us to walk and run incorrectly. Propelled by these shoe companies and our mechanistic paradigm of human movement, we created reductionistic models of how humans are meant to move.
Why the Natural Walk?
As Rolfers, we all tend to agree that this “civilized” model of walking is not working. It might be good for generating clients for our practice, but it’s not good for human bodies. We’ve forgotten something so simple: how to walk and run like an indigenous person.1
Possibly the most brilliant focus of Dr. Rolf’s work was her emphasis on gravity. As fish aren’t aware of water, we were not aware of gravity before Rolf championed the importance of not just relating to gravity, but using it. Back in the 1970s when I was training to become a Rolfer, I had sessions in Rolf Movement® (or, as it was called then, Patterning) with Megan James and Heather Heartsong (Wing). Both instilled in me how to have gravity work for me. I’ve practiced Rolfing® Structural Integration for more than thirty years, with no injuries to myself, and I credit them. I also credit them with planting the seeds of “Natural Walking.”
Soon after I opened my practice in Scottsdale, Arizona, in 1980, I started seeing runners as clients. Their injuries taught me what not using gravity can do to a body. Regardless of orthotics, new shoes, or knee surgeries, their injuries would return. And it wasn’t just my clients: up to eight out of every ten runners are hurt every year.2 Rolfing SI and reorganizing their structures weren’t enough. With Rolfing SI they improved more, and they went longer between injuries, but the injuries could still return.3 I tried teaching our movement work, but I wasn’t getting through to them. Maybe it was too theoretical, or maybe it was how I was teaching it. Regardless of why, I needed to come up with a way to build on the principles of Rolfing SI and Rolf Movement that these runners would understand – and practice.
Maybe it’s my dyslexia, but I’m a simple man, so I look for simple solutions. One day as I was explaining these principals to a runner, I showed him how to just fall forward. In my exaggeration, he understood. He tried it a few times in my office. When he came back the next week, he was starting to embody the fall. Over the course of a few more sessions, he mastered falling forward. I knew I had something when he reported that he was running pain-free, faster, and enjoying it once again.
With the resurging interest in Rolfing SI and the barefoot running craze, there is a new opportunity to step in and help runners in a simple way. Who better to speak about gravity, structure, and movement than a Rolfer?
I suspect you’re also seeing clients more frustrated than ever before with the institutional answers they have been given for years. People are smart. When you explain to them how something works, they get it. When you tell them that we’re meant not to fight gravity, we’re meant to use it, they get it. People want easy, low-tech, and inexpensive ways to enjoy their bodies.
From a professional and marketing prospective, I found working with runners very rewarding. Yes, some can be neurotic about running. The upside of that is they all are very aware of their performance, so when you improve their performance, they know it! Over the years I have done running clinics teaching Natural Running to clients and non-clients. Everyone gets it. All of them, in some way, apply.
As you start teaching Natural Running, you’ll become a local expert and resource for the running community and beyond. My Phoenix practice took off once I started helping local runners. Until they receive this kind of help, runners’ injuries will continue to get worse and worse. Eventually, some will have to stop running. The runners you help will become your best advertising, telling all their injured friends how you did more good than the six pairs of orthotics or the running coaches.
The Development of Natural Walking and Running
I will not go into the biomechanical theories or research behind Natural Walking or Running as Rolfers Gael Ohlgren and David Clark wrote a thorough article on the science behind natural walking.4 I used my clients as my beta testers, and began to see that the more I simplified what I told and showed them, the quicker they got it. I knew I was getting it when these clients were teaching their friends what they had learned from me.
After a few years of success with runners, Arizona State University’s Exercise Physiology Department approached me about doing a study with elite runners. They randomly divided the participating men into three groups: a control group, who received no treatment; a group who received ten regular massages; and the Rolfing group, who each received ten Rolfing sessions.
I warned the researchers that their measurements, such as shank angle (angle of the ankle), were just measurements of the parts and not the functioning of the whole body. They assured me that these biomechanical measurements would show any improvements there were. As it turned out, there were no significant differences in measurements between any of the groups, yet every runner in the Rolfing group saw his injuries disappear and set new personal records. Unfortunately the researchers were focused entirely on biomechanical indicators, and did not measure the injury reductions or the performance improvements.
It’s All About Gravity
Using gravity to move forward is a simple concept, but teaching it can be tricky. The part my clients find the most difficult is to surrender to gravity, letting go and falling forward. It’s difficult to shift from decades of leaning back (“Stand up straight!” “Square those shoulders!”) to leaning into life, trusting that if you lean forward, you won’t fall. It’s no different than a new skier learning to lean into the “fall-line,” that imaginary line of gravity pulling him down the mountain. Every cell in your body is saying, “If I lean forward, I’ll fall flat on my face.”
I use Natural Walking as an opportunity to increase the ease of breathing and body-awareness clients have developed from Rolfing SI. As they start to get the walk, I keep reminding them to breathe a full, relaxed breath. I want their walk to be a subtle meditation of breath and gravity. This is a great way to metaphorically set the person up for bigger surrenders and changes. Inevitably, as a client starts to get the walk down, he or she starts to lean more into life.
Now that every trainer is a “core strength trainer,” we see clients come to us shortened and tightened from “strengthening their core.” I use natural walking and runing to teach clients what the core muscles are and how to use them for the ultimate core exercise. Sometimes, I tell them stories about Rolf’s “psoas walk.” When they relax and let gravity do the work, the body is positioned in such a way that the core muscles are used and the sleeve muscles are only secondary supporters on level ground. Walking and running correctly will make a person’s core stronger without making it shorter or tighter.
A simple model allows the client to focus more on his body. These are the ways I communicate my key points:
Breath: A relaxed breath is required to fully embody this walk:
- A relaxed breath goes from the floor of the pelvis up the front, side, and back of the trunk to the neck.
- Allow yourself to feel whatever is tense, and then relax it. Once you relax one area, you may feel another tense area. Relax it. This doesn’t mean you are holding: It means either your old unconscious pattern returned and now you are aware of it, or that next layer of chronic tension wants to release.
- Holding tension is wasted energy that restricts the body, making it less efficient. By letting go, your body eventually becomes more efficient.
- Breathe like a baby.
Use gravity: Let gravity do the work by pulling you forward.
- Feel how gravity wants you to move forward.
- Imagine you are a caveman man out for a walk. Forget all the other instructions others told you about how to walk. Go primitive.
- After breathing, learning to use gravity was the next behavior you started learning. Now you get to master it.
- To run, lean forward more, surrender more, and you’ll go faster. Let your legs be spokes on a wheel.
- Allow your body to be erect and relaxed while leaning forward from your ankles.
- Don’t work. Let gravity do it.
Find your sweet spot: Go to where you are in your zone of minimal effort and maximum results.
- Keep letting go with your breath, lean into gravity and let it get easier and easier.
- Use the negative feedback of tension or pain to direct you to pleasure and ease; i.e., when it hurts, readjust. (I have a client who knows when she is forgetting to lean forward while running, because she starts to get a headache. She adjusts her stride, leans into it again, and her headache goes away.)
- The entire experience becomes a movement meditation, surrendering and surrendering more.
- When you have surrendered, that peak experience can show up. This is where that runner’s high comes in.
Cues and Shoes
I tense every time I hear “experts” give postural and movement instructions like this (ostensibly about natural walking): “Pull your shoulders back slightly. Keep your body perpendicular to the ground and walk tall. If you walk in a confident manner, you will gain confidence. With each step, land on your heel. Flex your foot and allow it to roll from heel to toes.”5 Through the Rolfing process, I make a point of correcting misconceptions around good posture and proper walking.
I found that trying to teach the Natural Walk directly rarely worked, and that practicing an exaggerated form of it is the best way to create a new default walking form. By going overboard, you quickly extinguish the old proprioceptive anchors of what alignment is and what the correct walk is. When I demonstrate the exaggerated version, clients’ first comment is usually, “No way. I’m not doing that. I’ll look like a dork.”) But then I contrast this to the “shoulders back” command quoted above, and show how this forces the head forward and trunk back, while restricting breathing even further. I show clients that when we walk while leaning back, there is a natural tendency to counterbalance by holding the shoulders. Understanding that shoulder, upper back and neck tension can come from their walk, and that they can release that tension just by moving correctly, clients are more receptive and less worried about looking stupid.
There’s also much to consider about our choice of shoes. Up until the 1950s and 1960s, high school cross-country teams training barefoot was a commonplace sight.6 Heel-striking became popular when that’s what runners were told to do – particularly with the introduction of high-tech shoes. But heel strike transmits all the force of impact directly up through the leg, hip, and lower back and, over time, the weak links in a person’s structural chain start to break. (As Rolfers, we are about the only practitioners who don’t keep trying to repair the weak links; rather, we strengthen the whole chain while, more importantly, decreasing the stress on it.)
We continue to create shoes either for the aesthetics (e.g., high heels), or we attempt to develop shoes to fix problems stemming from our stride.7 But recent research shows that the more expensive the running shoe, the worse the runner’s injuries:
Dr. Daniel Lieberman, professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, has been studying the growing injury crisis in the developed world for some time and has come to a startling conclusion: “A lot of foot and knee injuries currently plaguing us are caused by people running with shoes that actually make our feet weak, cause us to over-pronate (ankle rotation) and give us knee problems.”8
As if the return of the Earth Shoe, with its negative heel, is not bad enough, now we are seeing the rocker sole shoes with rounded bottoms meant to make the walker roll through her stride. Obviously, they must work for some people in the short-term – and the promise of a tighter butt is a strong selling point. They certainly are not promoting a natural stride or the development of a person’s soft tissue and structure, however. As the antithesis of the Vibram Five Fingers9shoes, they take away all instinctive muscular development.
Nevertheless, long-held beliefs about walking and running are being questioned now with the popularity of barefoot running and the book Born to Run.10 (They’re still missing the most important piece of the puzzle though: the secret is leaning into gravity.) Writing about his experience with Vibram Five Fingers, one of the barefoot runner’s shoes, a popular blog author relates: “The way to walk, these new experts claim, is to shorten the stride, keep the hips over the feet as much as possible, and to land on the ball of the foot with the heel striking second. This method uses the foot and lower leg as nature intended – natural shock absorbers to minimize impact.”11
In teaching new concepts I always look for metaphors that people understand experientially. One I use for Natural Walking and Running is Nordic skiing. I explain that your stride will look much like the stride of a cross-country skier who is leaning forward, stretching his leg out behind him. The skier wouldn’t get anywhere if he were leaning back.
Many years ago while in Arizona, I had a golf instructor for a client. A fellow Vermonter, he told me he’d tried Nordic skiing, but could never get the hang of it. It was obvious why when you saw him walk – if he’d been leaning any further back, he would have fallen over. He struggled with the walk for several weeks. As his body released and realigned, it became easier. One day he came in to proudly show me that he finally had it down. The Natural Walk had helped him in other areas too. He told me that for the first time, he was able to practice what he was preaching to his golf students: he could now easily get over the ball and swing from his lower body.
With skiers, I tell them to walk like they ski. Lean into the fall line. I steal Moshe Feldenkrais’s line “stand like you are going to jump” as the setup for taking the first step, which is not a step. I show the client that the first act is not a step that puts him back; it’s falling forward, which puts you in front of the vertical axis. We all want to start the movement with a controlled stride of leading by extending the leg forward, rather than a fall. When the leg is forward, the torso shifts back behind the centerline. With the leg forward, we are leaning back – being pulled back by gravity, rather than leaning toward where we want to go and having gravity propel us forward.
I kid with clients that I am teaching them to regress back to their ancestors. Our developed world is finally taking an important step backward in our ability to walk and run: our ancestors and the few indigenous peoples left are the ones who know how to walk and run efficiently and correctly. Humans evolved to be runners as much as we evolved as thinkers or tool-users with an opposing digit. It was our ability to outrun any animal with our endurance that allowed us to survive.12 I tell my clients to run like a hunter chasing down a gazelle.
Putting It into practice
I never see a client get the Natural Walk or Run without practice. There are a few that get it down in a week with minimal practice. Most, particularly us men, take weeks of exaggerating the walk or the run. I tell my clients to go someplace where they won’t be recognized so they don’t worry about looking stupid. I also emphasize practicing on a flat surface; walking or running up or down hills is a different stride. Irregular surfaces will be a distraction at first.
Fall forward from the ankles
- It’s all in the setup. Get straight – not what you thought was straight, but the Rolfing straight, where there is a sense of lift.
- Imagine there are two sheets of plywood, one in front of you, one behind you, both hinged where your ankles are. Start gently rocking where only that hinge moves – only your ankles are moving as you stand tall.
- Surrender, let gravity do the work. Let gravity pull you forward as you relax and breathe.
- Lean forward and let gravity pull your back up and straight. When you lean forward there is a natural tendency to move out of a collapsed state and into straightening and lengthening.
- Allow one leg to be like a pole when you pole vault. You pivot over that leg as you fall. The other leg remains behind you, not pushing off. Then that second leg becomes the pivoting leg as you continue to fall.
- When the natural stride kicks in there is no sense of pushing off with the back leg on level ground. That leg pushes to pick up speed or to climb a hill. On level ground you feel very little effort coming from the rear leg. It is more like a rudder guiding the forward movement.
- The hind leg first starts bending not in the knee, but in the toes, foot and ankle. The knee only bends once the weight is off the leg at the end of the stride for the rear leg.13
Once you are doing the stride, then focus on secondary areas
- Keep your eyes on the horizon. Train yourself to increase your peripheral vision. Learn to trust that you don’t need to look down. You will see what you need to see. And because you are leaning forward, you will actually be better able to recover if you lose your balance.
- Elbows are out to your sides, not pointing behind. (Elbows rotated back promotes adducting the scapulae along with rotating the shoulders back. This pulls your whole body back as your head goes forward.14) As you run, your thumbs should point towards each other, not up.
- Your knees are headlights – have them shine straight ahead. Everyone has some eversion of their feet. Don’t be concerned where your feet go. Focus on your knees going straight.15
- Relax your feet. Let them flop. At first, you have to make them flop. This is the high point of the exaggeration16 – making a flopping sound as you walk. Slap your feet on the floor. Don’t force them, just pretend you’re a kid trying to make as much noise as you can. If you’re flopping, you’re leaning forward properly, and you aren’t lifting your foot or toes17, which is a consequence of leaning back. Virtually everyone mistakenly holds their feet when they walk or run.18
- Push a cart. For my elderly clients (or anyone unsure of their balance), I encourage them to go to the supermarket and push the cart around to get the falling forward. A client who had been a marathon runner finally got the walk one day when she found herself running through an airport, pushing a luggage cart. She finally got what it was to fall forward.
- The forward falling momentum keeps us up, just as a bike will stay up once it is moving forward.
- Use pain or discomfort as a signal to let go or remember the Natural Walk and Run form.
- Don’t push through pain. It’s telling you something. Figure out what you need to relax or fix in your form to get the pain to go away. For example:
- feels jarring – you’re landing on your heels
- breathing is a strain – you’re holding your breath, tensing your shoulders, maybe you’re hunched over, or your stomach is tense
- knees hurt – you’re not leaning forward, you’re lifting your toes, not letting hips and legs swing naturally, or taking too wide of a gait
- shins hurt – you aren’t flopping, rather, you’re lifting your feet and possibly your toes
Common Symptoms and Benefits
After years of leaning back, with the calves never moving in a full range of motion, Natural Running or Walking may leave the client feeling discomfort or a pulling in the calves. As I tell my clients, if you went to the gym and did bicep curls by only lifting the dumbbell two inches, your bicep would shorten. Well, that is what happened to the calves; they shortened from years of never being fully extended. (In a supine position, you see that their calves pull their heels up, causing their feet to point down.) It’s as if we all wore high heels for years. After a few sessions of Rolfing SI and several weeks of practice, the calf muscles will start to lengthen.
A similar thing can occur with the plantar surface of the feet: the feet might ache as they release, particularly feet with high arches. One client gained two shoe sizes from Rolfing work, and from doing the walk as his feet unclenched and stretched out. Another client created a sustainable arch from developing his intrinsic muscles. Frozen joints can break loose. At first it’s painful, but once released, clients become ecstatic.
This walk will take a posterior pelvis and make it horizontal, thereby creating a lumbar curve. Some people worry about that, because they were told to tuck their pelvis to reduce its curve. People who never had a butt develop a butt. As the pelvis finds a balanced position, the lateral structures of the legs cease to propel the person forward, and the core muscles guide the fall, cellulite will often disappear. (This will be last thing to happen, usually from months of doing the walk).
Sometimes clients report their shoulders or necks hurt when they didn’t before the Rolfing sessions. I show them how in their old posture and walk, they were always holding them. After the Rolfing process releases the shoulders and neck, they are feeling the effects of the habits still being there. As they master falling forward and breathing, the shoulders find a new, relaxed home. Other than a frozen joint in the foot releasing, there shouldn’t be joint discomfort. If there is, it’s usually a sign that the person is not doing the walk correctly.
Even five minutes per day of going out and practicing the Natural Walk for a few weeks is usually sufficient [I encourage people to learn it by themselves – not walking a dog or talking to a friend. Once they get it, they won’t need to concentrate on it. Again, exaggeration is the key. As strange as it feels and looks, it works. It takes time to unlearn a strong unconscious movement pattern and to stretch out restrictions19,20. The biggest complaint I hear is that it doesn’t feel natural. I say, if it felt natural, you would already be doing it. We are creating a new set point for natural. Or more accurately, recreating an old, correct set point for natural.
The beauty of Natural Walking and Natural Running is how simple it is. Clients might resist the exaggerated practice form, but they all understand it and feel it. Most will practice it. Many have transformed their bodies with it. Several of my clients who never thought they could run are running races and marathons.
Many years ago, I had a client who was a business executive in his sixties. Earlier in his life, he’d been a professional athlete. In his sixties, he was still athletic and loved his daily walks. Flat feet and back pain eventually brought him to me. Being a walker, he had ample time to practice the Natural Walk. As a fellow flat-footed man, I knew it could be a little more challenging to master this walk with flat feet, but he was determined. Every week he would come in showing me his latest accomplishment. He was slowly getting it. About seven weeks into the series, he came in beaming like a ten-year-old boy who’d hit his first homerun. You would have thought he’d had his first orgasm with how he described the first peak exercise experience of his life. That day he went for his walk and he fell into a zone where time and space ceased to exist. He said he could have been out five minutes or five hours and he wouldn’t have known how long it was.
You are welcome to take what I have written and use it or experiment with it. I created a free short ebook for runners that is equally applicable to walkers. Go to www.RunningFlow.com to download the ebook. Feel free to share it with your clients.
1. McDougall, Christopher, Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen. CITY: PUBLISHER, YEAR, 40.
2. McDougall gives a beautiful description of a Tarahumara Indian running his natural run.
3. McDougall, op. cit., pg. 170. “Every year anywhere from 65 to 89 percent of all runners suffer an injury.”
4. Ohlgren, Gael and David Clark, “A Rolfer’s Response to Gracovetsky.” Structural Integration: The Journal of the Rolf Institute®, vol. 37, issue 4, Dec. 2009, pp. 31-37. Also available at http://rolfhub.com/2010/03/05/natural-walking/.
5. Sravani, “The Natural Way to Walk.” Alternative Therapies, March 29, 2010, http://www.drgranny.com/fitness/the-natural-way-to-walk/.
6. McDougall, op. cit.
7. McDougall, op. cit., 168-179. The author weaves in several studies, expert opinions, and stories to show how the better the shoe, the worse the injury.
8. McDougall, Christopher, “The painful truth about trainers: Are expensive running shoes a waste of money?” Mail Online, Feb. 22, 2011, http://www.dailymail.co.uk/home/moslive/article-1170253/The-painful-truth-trainers-Are-expensive-running-shoes-waste-money.html
9. See examples at http://www.vibramfivefingers.com/barefoot-sports
10. McDougall, op. cit.
11. Hozaku, “Natural Walking and a Vibram Five Fingers Experiment.” Hozaku: Random ruminations” [weblog], July 1, 2009, http://hozaku.com/post/Natural-Walking-and-a-Vibram-Five-Fingers-Experiment.aspx
12. Parker-Pope, Tara, “The Human Body Is Built for Endurance.” The New York Times, Oct. 26, 2009, http://www.nytimes.com/2009/10/27/health/27well.html?_r=4&ref=health.
13. With short, tight calves, the knee will bend early. But with this walk, the calves and plantar surfaces of the feet will release and lengthen, often more than from stretching, or as much as from Rolfing SI. Additionally, even if there is a torque in the knee, it often doesn’t matter because the knee is not bearing any weight in this stride. The weight is on the pivot leg, where the knee is straight. This can be the key to eliminating a runner’s chronic knee problem.
14. Twenty years ago, an Olympic marathon runner came to me complaining about “weak shoulders.” I assured him the problem wasn’t weakness; it was tension from holding them up and rotating his arms back. Once he learned to drop his arms and his shoulders, his exercise asthma was gone.
15. The Olympic marathon runners I had as clients had the straightest legs I have ever seen, yet they had a little eversion. Anyone I see with straight feet is working at it – torquing their feet and ankles to create a straight or inverted foot.
16. Not allowing the foot to land in a relaxed and natural manner tightens the foot, particularly the plantar surface. Plantar fasciitis and heel spurs develop from the fascia becoming short, thick, and brittle. Flopping the foot allows its twenty-six bones to start articulating, as well as allowing the ankle to increase its range of motion.
17. McDougall, op. cit., 91. There is a quote from the highly-respected running coach, Dr. Joe Vigil, about the Tarahumara Indians: “Look how they point their toes down, not up.”
18. Lifting the foot causes the anterior tibialis to feel like the tibia. Eventually, many runners develop shin splints from the fascia being torn off the periosteum of the tibia as it keeps being traumatized and thickening from the micro-traumas of a muscle doing a job it is not meant to do.
19. McDougall, op. cit., 170 on how stretching does not work.
20. van Mechelen, W., H. Hlobil, H.C.G. Kemper, W.J. Voorn, and H.R. de Jongh, “Prevention of running injuries by warm-up, cool-down, and stretching exercises.” Am J Sports Med, Sept. 1993, vol. 21, no. 5, 711-719. Available at http://ajs.sagepub.com/content/21/5/711.abstract?sid=2ed54888-b116-4237-a122-7d6ba3df12d6. This study, with a follow-up study at the University of Hawaii, showed how stretching produces the same results as no stretching in terms of injury prevention. I continually see that stretching does not release the chronic fascial adhesions – and not just with runners.