“Form follows function’. Since first hearing this phrase back in 2012, I must have encountered it a few hundred times in books, publications, videos and general discussion related to the topic of running technique, running form and how to avoid injury. Over-used phrases tend to lose value in the repetition but as I sat down yesterday to begin reading ‘Running rewired‘ by Jay Dicharry he put an interesting running slant on it which spurred me to write you all a short message here as we have entered the New Year:
The old adage says “form follows function.” Likewise, running form follows body function. Running better requires you to move better. Under stress. Under fatigue…”
– Jay Dicharry, Running Rewired (2017)
Despite the fact that the phrase ‘form follows function’ actually can mean the opposite when used in the context it came from (architecture*) which is to say that ‘the form of something is dictated by the function, or purpose, that it has’. A knife’s form (shape) is sharp because it’s function is to cut or slice and so on. Certain animals look in certain ways because they have a particular function in the food-chain and the ecosystem they exist within. Dicharry inverts the meaning of the two words in his quote which is fitting since exactly this happens in real life. We humans are so-called ‘non-linear complex systems’. Such systems have the magical ability of being able to reverse the relationship between cause and effect of any two parts of the system. So if A causes B today then B can cause A tomorrow. This means your body’s function can cause your running form today and tomorrow your running form will become the cause of your body’s future function. Our body’s shape and condition create the way we run and the way we run shape and condition our bodies. Nothing is ever simplistic or straightforward when it comes to the human body.
For our modern day it means that if we sit all day then our function becomes to sit and our form will reflect that. Go cycling and then this will be further strengthened. If you run and walk everywhere then your form will reflect this regular function. Fish look as they do because their primary function is to swim. Some changes happen over ecological timescales (phylogenic evolution) and cannot be changed over your lifetime and some changes are ‘ontological’ (happen in your lifetime). A strong current theory is that we are ‘born to run’ (this refers to phylogenic evolution – the development of our species as a whole) – this can still be saboged if our entire ontological evolution is towards sitting or some other movement resulting in a more specialised body less suited perhaps to running than it should be.
* The principle is that the shape of a building or object should be primarily based upon its intended function or purpose. Full Wiki Entry
Dicharry’s quote made me think of the point at which most people fail to successfully use running technique retraining and I felt like the start of the year would be a great time to bellow out a warning so you do not repeat this mistake. While we harp on about this point in our workshops and consults, I feel a wider audience can be helped by being aware of the issue.
Growing up in a consumer culture, we have been strongly conditioned to expect ‘a pill for every ill’ and I know from my own experience and observing my clients how we often purchase a service with the same mindset as we purchase an IPhone – we expect a neat package we can just take home and play with. But when you begin running technique training – through whatever medium (workshop, consult, online) – what you’re doing is more similar to buying a guitar and a book of chords. If you want to produce songs, you’ll need to spend significant time on focused work – probably daily. The process of improvement has no fixed end-point.
This makes our work – and that of our many colleagues around the work – confusing to many runners I talk to because this is the opposite of purchasing a Garmin or purchasing a pair of runnners. These purchases are expected to provide some kind of instant benefit (even when it is a marketing lie or when the benefit is purely in the entertainment value). Coaching does not work in this way exactly for the key reason we can take from the quote above: your running form EMERGES from the current function of your body. In a 2-hour consult we can begin to make a small change and we can give a road-map to the next steps, in a weekend workshop we can affect a more profound change and send you away with even more ‘chords to practice’. But if the chords are not practiced, the tune will never sound right.
I believe this to be the greatest obstacle to benefitting from running technique training – it always tends to be an eye-opening and entertaining experience – but to transform it into something game-changing, you must grab yourself* by the scruff of the neck because only daily focused action will actually change your body and thus your running form. Becoming injury proof or improving performance is therefore not about finding a coach with near magical abilities to transform you overnight into a Kenyan but one who can pinpoint where you have moved away from our natural predisposition for running and point you to the exercises and routines you need to introoduce into your regular daily routine to bring yourself back towards the ‘Running Man’ blueprint which sprang from your mother’s womb. This often means focusing on many smalls steps rather than one grand roadmap.
My hope is we can continue to play a part in elucidating and guiding you all in this exact process and taking those next babysteps in 2018. Happy New Year everyone.
*and your coach if you have one – USE them, QUERY them, ASK them.