Keep on running
New York running guru Jae Gruenke’s ‘natural running’ techniques are internationally-acclaimed. She’s even credited with helping an Olympic athlete rediscover her form. Now she’s coming to share her expertise with runners in Suffolk. Sheena Grant reports
RUNNING is almost as natural as walking, isn’t it?
It’s what we learn to do as children, sometimes even before we’ve properly mastered the art of walking, and it’s what fired man’s evolutionary transformation from herbivore into all-conquering hunter.
Yet according to American running form guru Jae Gruenke, many of us – sometimes even serious competitive runners – have running styles that are not as effective or healthy as they could be.
Jae, a former professional dancer and the founder of a programme called the Balanced Runner, has relocated from New York to Edinburgh with her young son and husband, who is studying in the Scottish capital.
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And, while over here, she is sharing her expertise with us Brits, even leaving the Edinburgh city lights behind to come to Suffolk for a series of three “natural running” workshops in early September.
She will be at Bredfield Village Hall, near Woodbridge, on September 8 and 9 to coach runners in her “gentle and safe but potent” techniques, which are said to be equally suitable for beginners, injured runners or world class athletes.
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Her message is simple: there is a natural, healthy way to run that feels great, minimises injuries and improves performance.
During her two days in the county she will familiarise people with the principles of so-called natural running, barefoot or wearing trainers, educating them about everything from core movements that are key for proper use of knees and relieving stress on hamstrings to the crucial difference between good posture for running, as opposed to walking and standing.
“It will be the first time I have taught in Suffolk,” says Jae, when I speak to her on a rather noisy phone line to the Edinburgh cafe at which she has stopped off. “I moved here from New York last August and have found a great demand for my workshops – everywhere from London to Inverness.
“We moved here while my husband is studying – which will be for another three years – with the idea that we might find we loved it and would look for a way to stay longer. We have a three-year-old and wanted to find a good place to raise him. New York City was not that place.”
Jae, 42, is originally from Ohio but lived in the Big Apple for 19 years.
Despite her credentials and success in helping runners – US Olympian Jen Rhines credits Jae with helping her return to form – she started running only in the last 12 years and ended up studying the mechanics of it only because she found it so hard herself to begin with.
Jae worked as a professional dancer until 2003, performing with a number of New York-based companies. At the time of her retirement from dance she was a senior company member of Sarah Skaggs Dance in the city.
“I was not a runner,” she says. “I was a professional dancer. I came to dance late in college but danced for about 13 years. Towards the end of my career I was working with a choreographer, doing a job that required a whole lot of running. I was having to run like a maniac for 30 minutes and could barely do it.
“I needed better cardio-vascular capacity and the obvious thing was to run – but it was horrendous. It felt awkward, unsatisfying and laborious – not good for my body.
“I could see that lots of people could run more comfortably and graciously than me, although I was a dancer. I had been involved in movement and fitness all my adult life. That was frustrating. I started figuring out what was different between what I was doing and what they were doing.”
Jae was fascinated with the whole idea that someone could learn how to run.
“Now, in 2012, that is a much more common idea than it was then, in 2001,” she says. “What I learned is that the most important stuff, even still, mostly people are not talking about. People from within running are not trained to see it, and take it for granted. We hardly know what we do well and how to do it.
“I learned the most important thing for me was to change what I did with my head and my chest. A dancer has to pull their head back so the chest lifts, and sort of lengthen yourself so the spine becomes a bit stiff. It is completely damaging for running.”
The fundamentals of natural running involve the need to lean from the ankles, says Jae.
The position of the arms has a huge bearing on this, as does the position of the head and the movement of the pelvis, and the alignment of the body. “If the upper body moves properly, the legs feel lighter and easier. You can run faster and with fewer injuries.”
She is also a big advocate of barefoot running.
“If you have been following running in the last few years there has been a huge change in our idea about shoes and what they do,” she says. “It is not a fad. It is fundamentally changing our understanding of running.
“Shoe companies are responding by starting to come out with the most light shoe they can find and runners are looking to make those transitions and to work on their running form.
“Whether or not runners wear shoes they can all benefit from learning to run as if they were barefoot. We evolved to run barefoot. A quarter of the bones in our body are in our feet – they are meant to be active and footwear restricts them. The difference in feeling is enormous between running barefoot and wearing shoes.
“The other big thing about running barefoot is that the soles of the feet are really sensitive and will move better the moment you take your shoes off. You can feel what you are doing. The brain is hungry for that information. You need a certain amount of impact in order to know where you are when you run. You are faster and more supple if running with bare feet.”
Jae admits that the Scottish weather is not always conducive to barefoot running – and neither are the road surfaces (too much sharp gravel) – but it is something she loves to do.
“The great thing about this method is the huge diversity of people who can take the same course and, depending on what their starting point is, they can have the learning process they are ready for,” she says. “I have taught workshops with new runners and record holders in the same room and both have been thrilled with what they have learned. Both are able to address their mechanical problems. Even in a very mixed class they all help one another.
“Most of the time people come to my workshops to work with me one to one because something hurts.”
Jae is obviously endlessly fascinated by the mechanics of good running but you also get the sense that running is almost a spiritual experience for her.
She liked it so much she gave up dancing to concentrate on it and admits to feeling some sort of connection to our long-lost ancestral past when pounding the streets.
“Running is a deep, primal thing,” she says. “When I run I somehow feel more human, in the sense that it is a deep part of who we are as humans. You don’t get that from ballet. A lot of runners feel the same. We are deeply driven to run because it is part of our species. You feel like you reach back down through the centuries.
“We evolved to run. It isn’t like hand-sports or judo. It is a fundamental human gait. If you look at runners up until the 1970s and the advent of the modern running shoe, people looked good. It is our birthright to run well and comfortably, and with a great sense of pleasure. Shoes have messed us up.”
And she has little time for notions that running is damaging to the joints and causes arthritis in later life.
“It is not true,” she says. “Studies show non-runners have more arthritis than runners. It is tremendously healthy for your body. Your body will be in much better shape in your 80s and 90s if you run.”
And before we know it we’re back on the mechanics of running again, this time about the “heel-strike” style of running – and the raised risk of injury this carries – as opposed to landing somewhere nearer the middle of the sole or ball of the foot.
It’s a complicated issue, so we move on to other things. How does she think her style and experience of the New York runnning scene – vastly different to that on this side of the Atlantic – will translate to Suffolk, I ask.
“I’m hoping there will be a big demand,” she says, “although I don’t really know what to expect.
“In the US, New York city is the running capital of the country. The number of runners in the city is unbelievable and they are competitive folk, competitive about everything they do. It is just the personality of New York. It seems to me that over here it is somewhat the opposite. Even in London it seems as if there are mostly just casual fitness runners.
“But I love to start people off on the right track and I am also very experienced in working with competitive runners, running for five or 10 years or even since childhood, and finding a new level to their performance.”
When she comes to Suffolk, Jae will also be doing a workshop for coaches, to arm them with knowledge about running form that may be of help to the athletes they train.
Just as she came to dancing late, Jae also came to running relatively late – she was 30 when she took it up and 33 when she retired from dancing – and has started running competitively only recently.
“When I retired from dancing it was such a huge relief not to have to perform on a schedule,” she says. “So I did not get into racing myself until fairly recently. I feel that I understand runners, even those competing at a high level, because the pressures of performance are so similar to those I faced as a dancer.”
Despite her observations about the differences between runners and running on either side of the Atlantic, Jae is prepared to be confounded in her beliefs.
Take, for instance, the time recently when she signed up for a 10K race in Scotland, thinking it would be a low-key event, only to find the starting line jam-packed with hundreds of competitive club runners.
“It was unexpected,” she says.
n Jae Gruenke will be leading three natural running workshops (what runners (k)need to know; fundamentals for healthy knees and feet; natural running – barefoot or shod; and natural running form for coaches) in Suffolk on September 8 and 9 at Bredfield Village Hall. For more information or to book a place email Audrey Boyle on Audrey99@talktalk.net or call 07876633942.