Trail Running 2.0: An Introduction to Natural Movement

by Jason Fitzgerald

Over the years, Strength Running has focused on so much more than just running.

If you’re training for a 5k or a marathon, you can’t simply run every day and expect to stay healthy and reach your goals.

There’s more to it than that:

  1. Varying your goal race distance, terrain, shoes, and paces can help you prevent injuries
  2. Dynamic stretches help you warm up before a run
  3. Strength exercises keep you healthy and can rehabilitate an existing injury
  4. Trail running improves your coordination and enjoyment of the sport

Indeed, variety is a hallmark of my coaching philosophy.

That’s why today I’m excited to present a guest post from Logan Jones, the creator of Wild Movement.

Take it away Logan!

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In high school, my cross country coach used to prescribe us “road workouts.” He’d map out a loop through the surrounding neighborhoods, telling us to “stick together and stay on the roads.”

But…we weren’t very good listeners.

In fact, the second we were out of sight my buddies and I would disappear into the woods. The trails. Often barefoot. And spend the next hour hurtling streams and scrambling up mud hills.

It’s not that we disliked running. We loved it. We simply disliked the monotony of “pavement pounding.” And so we chose to disobey. And while I’m still not sure if my coach knew, he never complained. Because — through our unorthodox training regimen — my friends and I led our team to a regional championship.

Natural Movement

Whether trail running was responsible for our success I’ll never know. But one thing’s for sure: “Off road” running kicks ass. It’s fun. It’s therapeutic. And it sure as hell beats trudging down Main Street as cars spew exhaust in your face.

But it gets even better.

You see, after graduation I stumbled upon something that shattered my reality. Something that validated my unconventional training style…and something that took “trail running” to the next level.

What is Natural Movement?

The concept I’m hinting at is called natural movement.

Basically, natural movement is trail running on steroids. It’s running…plus climbing, lifting, jumping, swimming and a slew of other movements — all strung together into one never-ending “adventure.”

Here’s an example.

Now I’ll be honest:

This style of training is not for everyone. It’s raw. It’s primal. It’s a bit “out there.” And that’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to embrace it with bare feet and open arms. But if you’re like me…if you live for the sensation of flying through the forest on a crisp fall morning…it might be for you.

I’ll give you the step-by-step “kickstart plan” in just a second…but right now there’s a question I want to address:

“I’m a runner focusing on performing well at an upcoming race. So why should I break up my well-planned training to go prance around in the woods?”

Good question.

Here are three reasons:

1.  Natural movement “injury proofs” your body

Running is a repetitive movement, which creates muscular imbalances that can lead to injury. You know this. You also know that diversifying your training  can help correct these imbalances. But are you actually doing anything to offset all those weekly miles?

If not, listen up:

Some estimates put the injury rate for runners at 70% every single year. 70 PERCENT! If you don’t want to join the “cripple club,” it’s critically important that you vary your training. Natural movement is a great way to expand your “training arsenal” while embracing nature, challenging movement, progress, freedom.

2. Natural Movement increases your motivation

Back in high school, whenever I started a training regimen I’d be incredibly motivated. I couldn’t WAIT to go run.

But after a while, this intense drive would begin to fade. I’d still run, but it wouldn’t be filled with the same passion and commitment. I’d be “going through the motions,” checking days off in my training log, but not really enjoying the process.

And while I used to curse myself for being lazy, I now realize that that wasn’t the problem at all. It was a lack of variety. My training had grown boring. And as a result, I had grown bored.

Here’s the deal:

Results are directly linked to consistency. Consistency is directly linked to motivation. Motivation is directly linked to excitement. And excitement is directly linked to variety. So mix things up. If you do, you’ll find your running reinvigorated with a new found sense of energy and enthusiasm.

3. Natural Movement is the ultimate form of cross training

When some people are first introduced to natural movement they say, “Okay, it looks fun, but will it actually help me improve my fitness level?” It’s a good question – and my answer is a clear and resounding YES!

Not only is this style of training stupidly fun, it’s also extremely challenging. It’s freaking HARD. And because it works practically every muscle group in your body, you couldn’t wish for a better form of cross training.

A Step-By-Step Plan to Get Started with Natural Movement

Okay. You’ve got the overview. You know why natural movement can help you become a better runner. But how exactly does one “move naturally?” And how can you — as a runner — seamlessly integrate this style of training into your weekly routine?

You see, natural movement is a bit of a paradox. It’s laughably simple and, at the same time, remarkably complex. Its essence is as pure as my high-school trail runs: simply head out in nature and explore.

But at the same time, each respective movement is unique. Each movement takes time and practice to master. And, believe it or not, there is a right and a wrong way to perform each movement.

While I can’t possibly cover all the subtleties in this post, I can give you a basic action plan designed specifically for runners. Something tangible you can weave into your training schedule starting today.

Here you go:

Step 1: Get into nature. As much as you can, try to steer clear of pavement and instead, take to the woods. Or your local city park. Any natural setting will do.

Why?

Because natural surfaces are easier on your joints, exposure to nature increases wellbeing and, as you’ll probably agree, trail running is where it’s at.

Step 2: Complete a bi-weekly strength routine. One of the biggest investments you can make in your running is a consistent strength training routine. It minimizes your injury risk, improves your form and, of course, makes you look like a hunk.

Whether you go “fully wild” and build strength by lifting boulders and climbing trees  doesn’t really matter. Any strength routine will do. The key is to “un-specialize” your training by incorporating functional strength exercises.

This is Strength Running after all…

Step 3: Have a weekly “epic adventure.” And finally, I recommend performing a weekly “epic adventure:” the heart of my training philosophy. If you watched this, you know what an epic adventure looks like.

Basically, it’s a 30-60 minute movement sequence during which your string together unlimited movement combinations. No rules. No regulations. Just pure, explorative, vigorous play.

Your Challenge

I’m going to wrap up now, then give you a chance to snag my free bootcamp at the end of this post. But before I do, there’s one more thing that I want to stress.

When you get down to it, I don’t run to compete, improve my fitness or even test my limits. Those are all nice bonuses…but they’re not the reason I run.

I run because I love the way it makes me feel. I run for the endorphin-rush of a hard-fought race or the clarity that accompanies an early morning 10 miler. And I’m pretty sure you do too.

With this in mind, here’s what I ask:

From today onward, try to infuse your running with a new level of joy. Instead of falling into a boring pattern and “hammering out the miles” like everyone else… disobey. Give conformity the finger. And pursue a training style that makes YOU happy.

Whether or not this includes “natural movement” doesn’t really matter. That’s not the point. The point is to reconnect with the reason you started moving in the first place…and make every run, strength workout and “epic adventure” the best part of your day.

That’s your mission. Now get moving.

When he’s not running barefoot or climbing trees, Logan runs a health and fitness blog at www.WildMovement.com. If you enjoyed this article, he invites you to join the Wild Movement and sign up for his Free 4-Day Bootcamp.

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Sandy

This is brilliant, and just what I’ve been looking for. I’m currently injured (again) even though I’ve been “doing everything right” in my base-building period. I’ve had it with the road. I’ve signed up for my first trail race in May, and I’m so excited.
I do have a question . . . how do you train in the winter, when the trains are snowbound?
Thanks!
S.

Jason Fitzgerald

Ah, what a great question! I struggle with this as well but the simple answer is that you have to stay on the plowed roads/sidewalks. You can do SOME running on snow as long as it’s not too deep, but it’s difficult and you should only do a little bit.

Logan

Yeah, running is tricky. But you can definitely “move naturally” in the snow. Here’s a video of a recent winter workout I completed near my house in Maine: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d5SNn0A4tsg

James @reddirtrunner

On a run last week the weather was kinda nasty around here. Cold and rainy. One of those days when I didn’t see another soul on a commonly used route. And I loved it. Some of my best runs have been out in the elements. Tim Long (aka Footfeathers) who is a very talented ultra runner posted this video http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=R0rrhx8AFLw on his blog this week. And ultra running legend Tony Krupicka is featured in this short filmhttp://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kjDLorXfkao about running in winter. It can be done.
I should note that Tony has been combining a lot of trail running with scrambling and climbing over the past several months. His own version of wild movement.

Sandy

Great video! This kind of running looks so joyful and exhilarating…the exact opposite of 6 miles ground out on the treadmill. :) Thanks for sharing!

Mandy

I feel like I’d get injured more off road. Tripping mainly and twisting an ankle. My stride gets thrown off too. I’m just too nervous on the trails. I do agree that the pounding of the pavement is hard and it’s starting to catch up with me. I’ve been doing all kinds of strengthening exercises, warmups. My body is aching too much and I’m only running about 30 miles/week. I’m almost ready to hang up the running shoes : (. I even went to a PT and she wanted to lengthen my psoas? Maybe I need a different PT….I’m at then end of the road. Running is not enjoyable anymore?

Jason Fitzgerald

Sounds like you need some easy trail running just to reinvigorate your enjoyment of running. “Natural movement” running is very technical and might not be for you (it’s not for everyone) but getting on some trails with good footing could help. You may also want to get a Plateau Buster so I can review your running in-depth and see if there’s anything significant going on contributing to your struggles.

Mitch Davidson

Thanks for sharing these thoughts. I especially enjoyed the comments about why we run. Those other motivations are indeed great “bonuses,” but they can too easily overshadow our running life and suck out the real connection and benefits. Such things can provide new motivation for a moment, but once we hit the milestone or finish the race we find ourselves out of gas and perhaps even feeling lost. I want to run for life, and for myself, not for a few races. Also, I agree with the comments about trails. They indeed are liberating and therapeutic, not to mention how they work so many muscles that are otherwise barely used on flat surfaces. Regarding injuries, you may trip or twist and ankle from time to time, but those are acute or temporary injuries. With pavement, you have a high risk of chronic injury, such as a stress fracture (twice for me), which will keep you on the couch for a much longer time, will revisit you again and again, and will eventually cause you to cease running altogether (you know, “retirement”). Some basic practices can prevent a lot of trail injuries: short strides, pointing your toes down a tad more, staying up more on the ball of your foot, keeping your feet under your hips, scanning near and far frequently, wearing shoes that limit heal dependence (ie, minimal or zero drop), wearing shoes that allow your feet to flex a lot (perhaps even Vibrams), and of course having good traction on the bottom of your shoes.

Logan Marshall

Amen, Mitch. In my experience people tend to overestimate the dangers of trail running. When I was younger, my friends and I used to run miles completely barefoot through the woods — not even on a trail — and we almost never got injured. Now I’m not suggesting you do that…but as long as you pay attention to where you’re stepping you’ll be fine. Like you said, scraped knees and twisted ankles heal fast. Chronic overuse injuries do not.

Sandy

I love your comments regarding acute vs chronic (overuse) injuries ~ that’s something that really resonates with my running experience, to this point limited to road running. For me, it’s chronic ITBS and bursitis in my hip.

James @reddirtrunner

Jason, as you may know from our limited virtual conversations, I am a trail runner by choice. As Logan indicated, moving in the woods along trails and up and down the Ozarks feels so much more organic and natural to me than pavement. I truly believe that I am in better overall physical shape because a majority of my running is off road. First, it keeps me motivated. There is always one more hill to climb or corner to get around to see what is ahead. Secondly, I have found the trail and ultra crowd to be full of folks that are grounded, friendly and less concerned with performance than simply moving in the wild. Finally, I get a better workout with all the turns, vertical and balance required.
With that said, a couple of times a year I take a break from the trails and hit the hardtop for a short time to focus on a couple of half marathons in the spring and again during my annual “break” from serious running in the summer. During these down times I do a weekly tempo run and either a hill or track session. I find the faster paces and a change in my routine helps to keep me interested. Plus I get a chance to catch up with all of my road running friends that are reluctant to hit the trails.
Once again SR comes through with another practical article. Great read, thanks Logan.

Joey

What are your thought on using the Five Finger shoes for trail running? You always hear about those that say you are best running as close to natural with no shoes. What are your thoughts on this?

Thanks,

Joey

Jason Fitzgerald

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