Skimming stones and Kung Fu

Run Technique, September 08, 2019

Imagine running like you are floating with just the right amount of energy required.

We've all experienced that magic feeling as a kid - Picking up a flat, round, smooth stone. Then throwing it with just the right trajectory and force for it to skim along the lake with multiple skips - seemingly going forever until it slowly loses energy, the space between the water skips decrease and it finally sinks into the watery oblivion after coming to a gradual stop.  Other times we put more force into the throw but the angle isn't quite right and it either reflects at too much of an angle and flops down into the water on only the 2nd or third thud; or it enters the water with a loud "plop" without even one skip.  


The amount of force or effort isn't the determining factor when it comes to stone skimming success; it's the dimension of the stone, the angle, and the trajectory. When all the components come together the energy applied is harnessed in symphony to produce maximum range and efficiency. The stone bounces over the water like a pebble shaped Jesus mixed with Elvis - dancing across the water with ease.

Running has similar principles. If you try and "muscle" through a run then you might go well over 100m but as the distance increases then your form will fall apart and you will sink into the ground rather than skim across it. The secret to running well is applying the right amount of energy and efficiency as able to "skim" across the surface, maximising time in the air (this phase has minimal resistance to forward momentum), and minimising time on the ground (this phase will suck energy from you and slow you down). 


I loved reading "Bruce Lee" - A life by Matthew Polly and the classic "Tao of Jeet Kune Do". Bruce transcended his sport of Kung Fu and movies. He took bits and pieces from several different martial art styles and configured a style with no boundaries, a style that suited his own dynamic personality. He once famously stated "Classical methods of martial arts create a form of paralysis, they only solidify and condition what was once fluid...........I want a system of totality, embracing all but yet guided with simplicity."  Bruce also said "Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specially your own."  He was the first martial artist to train like a modern professional athlete. His particular martial art style was named Jeet Kune Do. This translates into the way of the intercepting fist. He recognised that base fitness and proper full body conditioning was important to peak performance.


"An out of condition athlete, when tired, cannot perform well." Bruce Lee


He coached athletes from many different sports and taught one connected principle that rings true for ALL activities - especially running. It is the concept of "relaxed tension". You have to have just the right amount of energy to hold your framework in the best form to allow efficiency but not waste a drop of energy outside that except for the task at hand. That task could be performing a punch, or a kick, or in the case of running any distance - maintaining momentum in a forward direction with energy apportioned out for the time required to FINISH the distance. Once you have your energy balanced then you start to move towards your true potential. As Bruce says "you need to strip a movement down to it's essential purpose without any wasted motions."

So let's simplify the complex. To run FAST and EFFICIENT you need to be lean/light (while maintaining total wellness and happiness), full body strong, flexible, stable through the range, and cardiovascular fit.

ALL runners work on the last point. They run to improve their running fitness, but if you want to skim over the running surface for longer distances (most of us can do it for 100m or even up to 3-5km) then you need to work on other facets to complete the symphony and maximise your potential as a runner with "relaxed tension". 


  1. Improve your full body strength. You clean your teeth twice a day, why not do full body strength work at least daily? I talk to my EVERFIT athletes, and my physiotherapy clients about blending in push ups, planks, pistol squats, pull ups, and single leg balance work DAILY. Bruce Lee blended exercise into his every day - even putting his pants on was a chance to improve his balance. He had a striking board set up in his car which he would hit at the traffic lights (this could be disconcerting to his fellow motorists). There is NO excuse that you don't have time. Your body is the most incredible instrument you own. If you don't make time to fine tune it daily then make time for more injury, pain, and dysfunction later.  
  2. Do YOGA. This full body stretching has been refined and honed over thousands of years. You need to have restorative practices in your week. If you don't have time, then reorganise your life and make time. Aim for one class a week, then add in 5-10min self practice daily. Yoga with Adrianne on You Tube or the down dog app are good teaching aids. 
  3. EAT a plant based whole food diet if you want to get lean. The NZ based Broad study has shown that you can eat as much as you like of a whole food plant based diet and lose weight (even without exercise!)  Look at maximising your nutrition per kcal with more photonutrients, minerals, and vitamins. Society on the whole has a need for more fibre and less saturated fat and animal protein. Meat and dairy has NO fibre and has abundant (especially cheap processed meat) saturated fat, and cholesterol. Around the world recommendations are taking dairy and meat off the plate as stables (not only for individual health but global sustainability). NZ guidelines will never concur with this as long as we have NZ Beef & Lamb and Fonterra interwoven in our nutrition guidelines. 
  4. Meditate. If you want to be able to mitigate stress and let go of thinking that doesn't serve you when it occurs then training when you are not stressed is the best way to start. How are you supposed to relax and control form when stress and discomfort build during a race or in life for that matter if you don't train your mind for it? During times of stress you DON'T rise to the levels of your expectation you LOWER to the level of your training. Sitting down and focusing on your breathing while letting thoughts come and go without getting caught up in them is the simplest way of training your parasympathetic system (rest, digest, heal, relax, defrag, restore), and calming your mind. 10min  is only 1% of your day but it will enhance the other 99%. 

Bruce Lee was an athlete that transcended his chosen sport (much like Muhammad Ali); he taught us to tap into our unique potential and not conform to rigid dogma. The way to improve is knowing yourself then finding pearls of wisdom that you can apply to that simply makes you better holistically. If you want to run faster - stop logging junk miles (and stop eating junk food) and aim to run light, strong, with relaxed tension.