Matt Metzgar

Musings on Health

The Evolutionary Correct Guide to Running (2019 update)

Running can be a tricky activity to do well. This guide looks at how a person can run in a healthy, injury-free manner as nature intended.

Current research suggests that humans are ‘born to run’. If a person runs in the same way as our hunter-gatherer ancestors, then this can turn running into a positive, enjoyable activity.

The following are the key points to running in a natural way:

  1. Run barefoot

  2. Run on natural surfaces

  3. Run with correct form

  4. Run at the optimal pace

  5. Take walk breaks

  6. Run in a fasted state

  7. Breathe in through the nose

Each of these will now be discussed further.

#1. Run barefoot

Humans have run barefoot for millions of years. Research by Daniel Lieberman shows that there important differences in footstrike when running barefoot versus in shoes. Many people who have thought that running was drudgery in shoes have found that they can run barefoot and pain-free.

Though minimal running shoes are currently becoming popular, running in a minimal shoe is not anywhere the same as running barefoot. Once a person develops a proper barefoot stride, then they can learn to run in shoes ‘as if’ they were barefoot.

#2. Run on natural surfaces

Humans have run on trails for millions of years. This uneven, rocky surface is the best running surface for a number of reasons. Primarily, running on an uneven surface causes the body to spread out the load over the foot and also to reduce vertical impact. This website, which features the work of Steven Robbins, MD, discusses the topic further.

#3. Run with correct form

For those that grew up running barefoot on natural surfaces (like the Kenyans), running with proper form is not a problem. It is something that develops naturally over the years. For those of us who have grown up with shoes, relearning to run is often necessary.

Running coach Steve Magness has a detailed description of how to run here.

There are also a number of different schools of running technique: Pose Running, ChiRunning, Evolution Running, and others. Each has different strengths and weaknesses.

These techniques all have a few elements in common:

Postural alignment (straight line from ankles to hips to shoulders)

Quick turnover (180 steps per minute or more)

Slight whole-body lean from the ankles

Forefoot landing

Another great resource for learning technique is this video by Pose coach Lee Saxby.

#4. Run at the optimal pace

This study found that there are optimal running paces for each gender in terms of metabolic efficiency. Running either slower or faster than these paces is less energy efficient. These paces are:

7:15 minute per mile for men

9:15 minute per mile for women

These paces are averages, and there can be slight differences due to body size and leg length.

The paces most likely developed in humans as the speed to successfully perform an endurance hunt. The idea for an endurance hunt is to run at a moderate speed that will cause the prey to overheat.

#5. Take walk breaks.

During a hunt, hunter-gatherers would often take walk breaks. This could be to check the trail, or it could be the give the lead runner a break and let another runner take the lead. Plenty of runners have found that walk breaks are beneficial in distance races. Former Olympian Jeff Galloway has written about this for years and is still running marathons this way in his 60s.

#6. Run in a fasted state

Hunter-gatherers went on endurance hunts for a reason: they were hungry. New research has shown that endurance training in a fasted state can be more effective than training in the fed state.

If a person runs in the morning, then fasted training can be done easily by running before breakfast. If a person runs later in the day, they could try not to eat a few hours before a run.

#7. Breathe in through the nose

Nasal breathing is a way to make your running truly aerobic. The theory is that running with the mouth open stimulates the fight-or-flight response while nasal breathing keeps the nervous system calm.

Running coach John Raucci recommends breathing both in and out of the nose during running. More information is available in this article he wrote. On the other hand, the Tarahumara Indians, featured in the book, ‘Born to Run’, breathe in through the nose but out through the mouth. Either way, breathing in through the nose can be a key to relaxed running.


What about long slow distance (LSD) training?

Much of the development of LSD training comes from the famous running coach Arthur Lydiard. Lydiard prescribed lots of long, aerobic runs. However, these runs weren’t necessarily slow. As Peter Snell points out here, these runs were often done at a 7 minute mile pace (which is right around the optimal running pace mentioned above).

What about speedwork?

A minimal amount of speedwork is probably beneficial. A number of new studies have shown how sprints can build endurance. However, consider the training of top masters runner Nolan Shaheed, discussed in this article. He does all his off-season training at a 7 minute per mile pace (again, close to the optimal running pace) and often jumps into shorter races like 800 meters with no speedwork. Aerobic training is still the basis of successful performance.

What about chronic cardio?

Mark Sisson wrote a great article about the dangers of chronic cardio. Running at a high heart rate for a continuous period of time is unhealthy. Historically, the objective of an endurance hunt was to exhaust the prey, not the predator. By running at the optimal running pace, using nasal breathing, and including walk breaks, a person can protect against the dangers of chronic cardio.