Minimalism, Science, and the Body Engine

Minimalism, Science, and the Body Engine

4 Stroke Engine

If we run, we know what it is to hurt. Pain in the knees, feet, hips, and well everywhere. But why? Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about the minimalist approach to running. In the journal Nature, Dr. Dan Lieberman et. al. approach the science of minimalist running through a ground-up approach. In order to understand pain and running, it’s important to look at the body as a fully integrated system.

Step out side and go for a run. Before we take that first step, the entire body begins to work as a unified machine. I like to think of it as a four stroke engine (seen to the right.) An engine needs to cycle through 4 processes to fully function and provide your car with the power it need to operate. Air intake, pressure, spark, and exhaust. If we remove one of those cycles, the car will sputter and in most cases, cease to work properly. Similarly, the body rely’s on 4 processes working in conjunction with one another to help you run most efficiently – keeping in mind that it’s still possible to run through a faulty function, peak efficiency is less attainable.

The first stroke: Energy


Fueling the engine gives us energy to perform. There are infinite opinions on what specifically are the best foods for pre, during and post run; ranging from the holistic Chia seed, to scientifically created powders, goo’s, bars, chews, pasta, sushi, Mountain Dew, Slurpees, bananas, protein shakes, beef, chicken, gummie bears, and even pizza. The one thing that all of these foods have in common is that they all contain calories of some kind. Without getting too scientific, the body needs calories to convert into energy. Because everyone’s bodies are different, it’s hard to say what foods work best in general regarding each individual. In general however, there is a consensus that carbohydrates are the best form of energy. Carbohydrates are converted into glucose which is then used to create physical energy. When running longer distances however, energy from carbohydrates can run out, at which point the body begins to use energy converted from fat calories. Identifying the foods that work best for you can be fun. Journal or takes notes on what you eat and when you eat it.

The second stroke: Mechanical (RunnersWorld has a great article on Perfect Form.)
“GET LOOSE! Get funky…get your body moving. It started with your feet….awwww your feet. Your hips, your legs, your arms…GET LOOSE!…”
Acknowledging and analyzing the physical movement of the body when running is critical and can influence our entire running cycle. Starting in the feet, Dr. Lieberman makes a case that how our feet impact the ground can determine a runners overall experience. He breaks down and analyzes the rear foot strike (RFS), mid foot strike (MFS), and the fore foot strike (FFS), and examines the physical impact on the body through each of the motions. Assuming that less impact = greater efficiency, then MFS-FFS is the first foundational element to efficient running mechanics.

Moving upward (assuming MFS-FFS,) the calf muscles act as shock absorbers. As the mid to fore foot strikes the ground, energy is transferred from the impact of the foot up the achilles tendons and into the calf. Traditional RFS runners experience energy transfer from the heel up the leg into the large quadriceps. Transitioning from RFS to MFS/FFS, runners will, within a matter of minutes, begin to feel fatigue in the calves. I’m convinced that building these muscles slowly over time will result in a successful transition. With the burden of energy now in the calves, the quadriceps require less oxygen to operate, resulting in a more efficient distribution of energy and less stress on the knees.

Continuing upward, the core muscles of the abdomen hold the lower back in place. When the core muscles weaken, the lower back tends to scoop inward and can become sore, especially after long runs. Leaning very slightly forward at the ankles can help tuck the hips under the rib cage, protecting the lower back.

Upper Torso
Shoulders and arms are the final mechanical element working together to help produce momentum and balance. Keeping the shoulders relaxed and the wrists pinned close to your hips can help improve efficiency. Sprinters tend to move their arms with greater motion to help generate power and forward momentum over short distances. Running longer distances with large movement in the arms will tire you out quickly. Less upper torso movement + relaxed muscles = greater efficiency, IMO.

The third stroke: Respiratory
Breathing is something we do every day without thinking. We do it when we sleep, when we work, when we eat, and always. But we can also breath when we think about it. Try it right now. Take a deep breath and really enjoy it. Try to identify all the parts of your body that enabled you to take that breath. Breathing starts in the brain. If I want to take a breath under my own power, I first think about it and almost instantaneously, I feel my lungs fill with air. Thinking about running while your out beating the pavement can actually have an incredible impact on your performance and stamina. I generally try to breath in through both my nose and mouth every second step, exhaling forcefully but relaxed through my mouth. When’s the last time you actually thought about how you breath when running? Here are some great tips to think about.

The forth stroke: Intangible
Willpower is often spoken about in an abstract way. But what is willpower and why even discuss it as part of the running machine? Websters dictionary defines willpower as energetic determination. How appropriate given the nature of this post. How can determination be measured? When all energy is spent, our bodies and running form begin to brake down. When it feels like we’re on our last breath, it is energetic determination that can push us to surpass our physical boundaries; the casual runner included. I enjoy visualizing the intangible nature of willpower binding the energetic, mechanical, and physical properties of running together in symphony of moving parts, all working together to, for lack of a better definition, move the body from one place to another under its own power at varying speeds. As an example, consider the female finishers of last years Boston Marathon (great read.)

Trailing with less then two miles to go, Desire Davila made her move on Caroline Kilel. Seen in the clip; Kilel was able to edge out Davila to win with what appears to be a combination of factors. Unseen in the clip; the inner thoughts of energetic determination that drove this spectacular finish between two competitors. We are privyed the results of their willpower through observation and left considering the massive accomplishment of running 26.2 miles in 2 hours 22 minutes. But such energetic determinism isn’t reserved for the elite. We all have access to the intangible nature of willpower. Digging deeply to find exactly where it resides remains a question for another day.

So we’re left contemplating our existence as runners; asking ourselves what we can do to better our experience. When we look at a car on the road, it has thousands of individual parts all working to accomplish their goal of, well, being a car. Complex systems interacting with one another creating movement, converting fuel to generate energy, etc. All the while at it’s heart is the 4 stroke engine, without which, it wouldn’t run.