In Season Two: Running In A Woman's Body

This is the running story of UK marathon Olympian Sonia Samuels. It follows her journey from its beginning, and goes into detail about how she returned to running pain-free and with great enthusiasm after a long bout with injuries and burnout.  A critical part of Sonia’s recovery journey was the work she did with Jae Gruenke, a running form expert and Feldenkrais practitioner who founded The Balanced Runner. We hear from both women about the transformative process Sonia experienced to return to her passion for running.

Sonia Samuels discovered her love of running at an early age, and it led her to the biggest stages of sport. But after reaching the peak of competition, in her late 30s, she found herself nursing multiple injuries and feeling burnt out. Then, she was introduced to Jae Gruenke. In this episode we hear Sonia tell her running story, and we hear from both Sonia and Jae about the work they’ve done together to return Sonia to pain-free, fluid, and fast running.

Sonia and Jae share detailed insights from both sides of the form rehabilitation process. This highlights Jae’s approach to helping athletes develop their running skill, and return to smooth, efficient running form, from the inside out. Her method leads runners to getting deeply in touch with their own bodies and discovering how to move with ease.

At 42, and having given birth to her first child October 2020, Sonia is running, and racing, strong and skillfully.

Ways to follow Sonia Samuels Online

Learn more about Sonia Samuels on her website.

Follow Sonia on Instagram: @soniajsamuels

Ways to follow Jae Gruenke of The Balanced Runner Online

Learn more about Jae Gruenke and The Balanced Runner on the website.

Follow The Balanced Runner on YouTube.

Ways to follow Sonia Samuels Online

Learn more about Sonia Samuels on her website.

Follow Sonia on Instagram: @soniajsamuels

Ways to follow Jae Gruenke of The Balanced Runner Online

Learn more about Jae Gruenke and The Balanced Runner on the website.

Follow The Balanced Runner on YouTube.

Full Transcript

CHERIE TURNER: Hello, and welcome to Strides Forward where we share stories about running told by women. I’m Cherie Louise Turner. I’m the host and creator of Strides Forward. And in this episode, you’ll hear the story of Sonia Samuels. As to not give away anything, I’m gonna let the story speak for itself, but I will tell you that Sonia discovered her love of running early on in life. And she was driven by really big dreams as you’ll hear. But over time, she also experienced like so many of us do the downsides of burnout and pain and injury. And very fortunately it sent her down a road of rediscovering how to run pain free and with greater fluidity. And it reignited her passion for running, which had never really gone away, but had certainly been dampened through those rough times. And integral to Sonia’s journey was her work with Jay Gruenke who’s a running form specialist and Feldenkrais practitioner who works with athletes at all levels through her company, The Balanced Runner. This story you’ll find is a little bit different from ones we’ve done in the past, because it is told completely in the words of these two amazing women. So with that, I’m gonna let them take it away and you’ll hear from me after the story.

SONIA SAMUELS: Okay. So my name is Sonia Samuels and I live in Loughborough, which is near, uh, Lester in the UK. It was the 1992 Barcelona Olympic games. I was 12 of at the time and I remember watching Sally Gunnell, who was, she was a GB athlete and she was in the four hundred meter hurdle . . .

NEWSCASTER: Gunnell leads and goes for it and she gets it right, Gunnell going for gold and Gunnell gets the gold.

SONIA: And she won the gold medal. And I just remember watching Sally Gunnell coming down the finishing straight, and I just announced, Okay, I want to be Olympic runner. And I just remember the reaction from my family and it was sort of like, Okay, yeah. Okay then Sonia. Yeah. But I really meant it. I thought I can do this. So I was like, okay, I’m gonna join the local running club. And it started from there. I actually, um, spoke to my PE teacher cause I’d done a couple of school cross countries and really enjoyed it. So I asked the PE teacher and they said, oh yeah, there’s a local running club. Um, which was really close to my home. So I actually went along on a Tuesday evening and it all went from there, really. If I take a step back to my school days, I was a very, very shy, introverted kind of girl who wouldn’t speak up in class. And the teachers—like I had great school reports, but they would always say Sonia needs to put a hand up and contribute more. Sonia needs to speak up more. And I dunno what it was about running. It gave me, I dunno, it gave me this confidence that I’d never felt at school or anywhere else. So yeah, I, going through school doing the cross country doing 1500, then I obviously I was getting more into the long distances because I was doing hundred meters, long jump as well when I was 12. Uh, but I think my real love was the longer that I run, the better that I feel. So I decided to take up steeplechase in 2004 and then, and yeah, I, I wasn’t fantastic at that. So I decided to have a go the 5k, the 10k and then someone said to me, Oh, have you ever thought about doing the half marathon? And by this point I was teaching full-time and I was 31. I just got married. We bought a house and I thought, Ya know, maybe I should try it. Maybe the time is right. I’m 31. I’m not getting younger. Maybe I should try the half marathon. And then it was the Berlin half marathon in 2011, actually in April. And it was quite a warm day and I finished third, my debut half marathon in a reasonably good time actually. And then the, the organizer said, oh, do you want to come back and do the full marathon in the autumn? And I was like, whoa, whoa, whoa, no thanks. No, don’t think so. And then I walked away and my husband, we sat chatting. He was like, mm, I think you’d be good at the marathon. And it, it went from there. I decided then cuz it was 2012 and the Olympic games was coming to London the following year. So I thought, well maybe if I ever go, you never know what could happen. So it was April, 2012, the qualifying race for Team GB actually ahead of the London Olympic games that I ran my debut and absolutely loved it. That’s when I discovered for like the marathon is for me. And there is something about not only finishing the marathon, but actually standing on that start line thinking, right, I’m in great shape. I’ve done four months of work. Let’s see what I can do. And you get to run with so many people on the streets of like a great city or whatever. And then when you finish it, that my first marathon, when I finished was the most emotional I’ve ever felt at the end of a race. I just burst into tears. I was like, I’ve done it. I’ve just run a marathon. There is something so satisfying about it that, that I I’ve never felt with any of the distance.
So I finished fourth in the trials for London, 2012. So I obviously didn’t make the team then, but that really spurred me on to think, well, you know what, there’s another Olympics in four years time. And then in the back of my mind, it was like, yeah, but you’re gonna be 37. And I was like, well, we just gotta see what happens. And anyway, in 2015 I ran the Berlin Marathon in the September and actually ran my current PB, which is 2:28:04, which put me in a good place to qualify for the Olympics. Um, but yeah, actual trial was the following April in London, the London Marathon where I had to finish top two, I actually went to the trials with the quickest time. So my job was to finish top two.

NEWSCASTER: At the age of 37. She was the second Brit home at last month’s London marathon enough to make Team GB.

SONIA: That just sounds amazing. It still, sometimes you have to, I have to, people keep saying to me, Oh congratulations on becoming Olympian. I’m like, oh yeah. Wow. I, I still don’t think it’s actually sunk in. Yeah.
And then yeah, I went to Rio in 2016, a couple of months later. Yeah. It was my Olympic games. And it was, it was actually funny because you, you spend like, like I said before, I spent 25 years trying to become an Olympian and you, you stand on that start line and you, you finish. And, but then you walk away from it. You think, well, what, what do I do now? What do I do now? Like, it’s the pinnacle of an athlete’s career becoming an Olympian. But then afterwards I spent a couple of months completely lost at sea thinking, I dunno what to do now, but it’s not just about becoming Olympian for me. I really love running. And it’s something I’m really passionate about. And it’s brought me a lot of joy, but it’s also broken my heart a few times as well. You know, when you don’t have that race you have.
And I think it’s like, it’s almost having like a, a long term love affair with running. It’s it’s crazy because it’s, it’s great when it goes well, but it’s absolutely awful when it doesn’t. So yeah, it was about refocusing on finding something that I wanted to get out and train for. And I think that’s, that’s where things changed a little bit for me post Olympics, because it was almost like, okay, I put my heart and soul into it and I was 37 coming on 38 and I almost felt physically and mentally tired. But I think that the problem with being an athlete and a professional athlete as well is that it’s almost like you identify yourself as an athlete and only an athlete. Okay. Right. Sonia Samuels, she’s a marathon runner, Olympian. That’s what she is. I almost knew like my body felt a bit broken, but my head’s thinking, Yeah. But yeah, but this is what you do. This is your job. You need to go training; you need to do the next marathon. And it was really difficult for me to say, no, I’m not doing this anymore.
I did Commonwealth games, which is quite a big thing for someone who lives in England and then it rolled onto, okay, so Europeans the same year. And so it’s like, okay, right. I can do that. And then I finished that and I think a feeling down again, because things aren’t quite going right. And it’s like, all right, you need to set another goal. Right. I’ll do London next year. And it was London 2019 where I ran around that London course. And it was almost like I was there physically, but mentally I was just looking around thinking, what am I doing? What am I doing now? And I was carrying a hip injury, a foot injury.
And I ran my worst over time. And it was at that point, I said to my coach, I can’t do this anymore. This is, I don’t enjoy it. I’m not happy. I’m trying to run fast. I can’t run as fast as I used to. And I, I have pain and it was as simple as that, it was sort of, okay, what else, what else? There must be something else I can try. And he just said to me, look, he was like, you’re doing the gym work. You’re doing the running. He’s like, you are, you’re going into the physiotherapy. You’re doing the massage. You’re getting beat up. He said, and you’re coming out and you’re so sore. And you you’re still having niggles. He was like, how about trying something a little different? He’s like, you’re gonna have to be a little bit open mind about it. Uh, I’m gonna introduce you to someone who’s worked with, who worked with his wife. You can have a chat and see what you think. And so he put me in touch with Jae.

JAE GRUENKE: Hi, my name is Jae Gruenke and I’m a Feldenkrais practitioner and running form expert.

SONIA: And we had a call and we just saw, I just thought, right, this is me. I bought into it straight away.

JAE: So the thing is running is so deep for us that you can’t like not get deep with this, I think. And the tremendous variety that we see in running form is a testament, I think, to how fundamental running and how important running, you know, at least was to our species in its development. And also just feels still fundamental to us. Um, we can pull it off if need be any number of ways. We can pull it off around injuries. We can manage it if we’re pulling or pushing or carrying something. And that’s beautiful. And at the same time it’s made it, it’s one of the things that’s made it hard to get to the bottom of well, so then how is it, you know, like what is, what is the best running form, if we’re gonna be aiming for something? How is it best done? You can’t say perfectly because there’s no sort of end at which it is perfected, right? Somehow you could always be better, but you’re meeting the needs of each step and that your nervous system is sensitive and responsive enough to tell what those needs are and has a wide enough pallet of options that you can find a solution that works. And so obviously in each step, you can’t be doing that consciously, right? So it’s that you’ve, you have learned and developed enough skill over time that your nervous system can handle that without your conscious involvement. And then you have an option to be consciously involved and make choices, but that’s the least part of it. And that is an outcome is going to look remarkably consistent from person to person. And unless they have a very, very different body from kind of the average, um, it’s gonna look remarkably consistent.
And so underneath all of that, then when I’m looking at a runner and if they, if their running doesn’t look sort of within the range of outcomes that I would expect to see, you know, that you see on average in a skilled runner, then, um, I know there’s a problem. So the difference in thinking behind that between, like a lot of running form work is geared at making the runner look right, no matter what they have to do to make that happen. But I’m thinking about it the other way around, how can I help them be so responsive and so versatile that everything is initiated right? And the outcome is gonna be that they look right, but the movement initiation in the nervous system, the muscles that are working, the amount of tension in the body, you know, are gonna be radically different between a runner who’s been trying to do form work to look right versus a runner who’s been trying to develop their skill. And you know what, I’m really, one of the many things that I’ve been trying to do for almost 20 years. And you know, I’m in this, I’m in this for life. This is my mission is help people understand that running is this skill sport.

SONIA: So it started off with me doing a few, uh, home videos outside in the street, front on, side on, of me just doing a few short runs. And then I sent them over to Jae.

JAE: So let me say first that we have this almost religious faith in video, that it shows us the truth, right. Um, but in fact, video obscures much more than it shows, uh, by being flat, by being small, by being, you know, then it’s often shot on a treadmill or just from one angle. So when I, so I’m trying to do the opposite with videos. I want them to be, you know, like a little bit sloppy in some ways. I wanna see quarter angles. I wanna see them stop and turn around. I’m trying to get to as if it were three dimensional. I wanna understand what kind of effort they’re making. When in the gate cycle they’re working, where is their muscle tone? What is the rhythm? I’m also look, I’m, I’m looking for, where are they working that they shouldn’t be? I’m looking for, what, how are they fighting themselves? Because better running form is, is always easier than worse running form. But at the beginning, my real question is not what is this runner not doing? Or what is this runner doing wrong? But how is this runner running? You know, what are the movements they’re making to initiate it? Where are they working? And I wanna understand that. And I wanna kind of get a feeling for that in my own body. And then I know, you know, where our starting point is.

SONIA: And then we had another call and she was like, okay, right. This is what I see. So she, she basically looked at these videos and did an analysis of how I was running and was there somewhere where I was putting more stress that was causing pain. And, you know, I’d give her 10 out of 10. She like said you’re doing this. And that’s where you’ve got pain there. And I was like, okay.

JAE: Because when I’ve gone through the process of looking at the video and looking incredibly detailed way through the history, um, the person’s sort of physical and movement, and then also health history, because that bears how they move in many ways, history of injuries, very careful tracing of what came first, you know, in usually the multiple injuries that any given runner’s had, what started off this cycle. And then how did that lead to the next thing, lead to the next thing? Then, then let that, lets me start to rewind the process and, and gives me more insight into what does this runner need to learn that would make all the difference? And then I can begin putting stepping stones in front of that person. Starting the first stepping stone is just one step beyond where they’re starting point and then just another safe step and another safe step, because if it’s not safe and if it doesn’t feel safe, then a person won’t adopt it. They won’t learn it. So that’s how that process works.

SONIA: And she said, what I’m gonna do is prescribe you a set of lessons, if you like. You’re gonna go away and do them for a month. You’re gonna redo the videos. I’m gonna watch them again. Then we’re gonna have another chat and see if I can see anything different.

JAE: So there are two ways to give a Feldenkrais lesson. One is using touch and it’s one to one. And the other is we call awareness through movement and it’s verbal instructions. And so that lends itself quite well to a recorded audio format. So the, um, the audio instructions, that’s, uh, they’re, they’re Feldenkrais lessons. And, uh, I have a huge library of lessons that I’ve recorded for runners.

SONIA: So she’d set me a different lesson each week. So it was over the month, there was four different lessons and you would go away and do like an hour lesson. And they were all floor based. And at first I was lying on the floor and she was telling me to move my arm this way and move my arm that way.

JAE: Now, please lie on whichever side is more comfortable for you and arrange your towels or blankets. And now place your arms together in front of you with your arms straight, your hands relaxed and begin to lift your top arm towards the ceiling. And perhaps towards behind you towards the floor behind you. And now be really attentive as you begin this movement so that you only go so far as it feels really easy, and you feel no stretching and pay special attention to what you feel happen at the very beginning of the movement. Maybe even lift your arm so slightly that the top hand never really loses contact with the bottom hand. And just as you begin this movement, what is the first thing that happens? What is the first place you feel work or movement?

SONIA: Um, the first time I did it, I sat up, I was like, what am I doing? What is this? And it just seemed, and my husband was just like, what are you doing rolling around the floor?

JAE: The way the lessons are done. There’s a lot of structure and rigor in the lessons themselves and not by accident do people feel like it’s a little formless and like often they’re rolling around on the ground, you know, and if you’ve watched a baby do you know what we could say is the hard work of learning how to move and fulfill their intent, reach that toy, get across the room, whatever, that’s what it looks like. That’s organic learning. Also the lessons have a lot of feedback loops built in. So you are always assessing, you know, really your success at the goal of the lesson. Is the goal of the lesson to be able to lift your arm off the floor from, in front of you, when you’re lying on your side and get it all the way to the floor behind you, without any effort or feeling any stretching sensation. And then, you know, we’re slowly building the pieces of what the, your whole body has to do to accomplish that, uh, clarifying which muscle activation or which movements might actually interfere with that goal so that you can make a choice not to do them and measuring throughout. Have, has it gotten better? Is this easier now? Or did it just get harder?

SONIA: She was like, how does it feel to you? It was a, a lot of her actually putting it to me. What can I feel?

JAE: And so all your discoveries are your own. It’s only from the learning experience where you are yourself measuring your own movement and getting feedback from your own body, then you make your own discoveries. But it’s my job to set that up so that the discoveries are relevant to what you, what would make you running better. And, you know, again, the series of safe steps. So, but when, when you’re lying down on the floor doing the lesson, you don’t experience any of that structure. You’re just following instructions, exploring feeling sometimes baffled, because, because if you’re not in unknown territory, you’re not actually learning anything new. So, first we have to get you into a situation where you can feel what you’re doing.

SONIA: So I thought, right, okay. I really need to, to tune into this. And I put my headphones on, lay on the floor, completely quiet, shut all the curtains. And it sort of clicked it like, okay.

JAE: And, uh, according to something called the Weber Fechner theorem, you can only feel a change in a stimulus of about a 40th the size of the stimulus, right? So if you are standing outside on a bright sunny day and you light a candle, you don’t notice increase of light. It’s not any brighter outside. But if you’re standing in a dark room and you light a candle, it makes a huge increase in the amount of light and the amount that you can see. So in running, you’ve gotta, you’ve got a lot of strong sensations when you run, you’ve got the impact and the effort and all of that. And that drowns out, out all the tiny things. That’s like your bright sunny day. But if you come indoors, you lie down on the ground, you take out the impact. You take out the muscular effort, then you can feel tiny changes. And those tiny changes are often the trail of breadcrumbs that leads you to a whole new way of moving. So you need to be able to feel those sensations. So that’s why we don’t do this work outdoors when you’re running. You run a little before the lesson, you run a little after the lesson so that you have a compare and contrast. What difference did the lesson make to your running? And so that you can connect what you learned about yourself to your running. You have a really clear carry through to your running.

SONIA: And the more runs you did, the more you went out and practiced feeling these movements and feeling that it felt good. It felt good to run like that. And after the first month, I was definitely feeling a difference in just because I had a lot of hip problems, a lot of foot problems, uh, lower back problems.

JAE: So we have a, a map of our bodies in our brain, just in general, uh, is called the homunculus, um, or cortical map. And you weren’t born with it. You developed it, especially through the very rich period in childhood where you’re exploring and you’re playing, and you’re experimenting, you know, the intense work that a baby does to figure out how to roll over, to sit up to creep, to crawl, to stand, to walk. And, um, you were building your map like an explorer develops a map, and all your subsequent life experiences also affect that map. The repetitive things that you do, the things you stop doing, especially once you’re in school and at work and sitting all the time. And especially the things that cause you pain, which significantly and rapidly change your map. And the only way to replace things that vanished from the map and to correct mistakes that might be on the map is through that same process of exploration that you did to create the map to begin with.
And when a runner wants to run better, mostly they need to learn how to stop getting in the way. And a lot of what’s involved in that is having just a completely incorrect, um, map that they’re working with about what they have to move and how it can move for doing all of this. And so that’s what approaching running form this way allows you to work on. And it’s why you can get sometimes really rapid dramatic results. And every runner has a lesson or two that they do where like the world has changed by the time they finished the lesson; they look learned something that was really, they corrected something that was really wrong. They learned something that was really new about how they’re coordinated just by improving the map that they’re bringing to that project. The gait changes and improves significantly.

SONIA: And I think there’s this misconception that as an early elite athlete, you have to have a six pack and you have to be, have this amazing core, but actually it’s stopping you moving in a way that’s good for running.

JAE: And this is video number eight in the Stuck at Home running tip series. So you may have been trying to hold your pelvis still because a lot of people do because of that term core stability, which means different things to different people. It means different things in a clinical setting, but it is commonly taken to me core held still, which is not ever what a runner.

SONIA: So I think that first month was about me getting a bit more movement around that core. And I remember Jae saying to me like, you know, you don’t have to have this really, really strong abs, six pack. She said, just let it hang. And I was like, let it hang.

JAE: Most of the things that runner needs to do to improve their running form is figure out how to stop getting in the way, because our structures, we evolved to be able to run. And, um, so running better is usually not a matter of doing more, but actually just getting out of the way, doing less, getting out of the way.

SONIA: So I tried it and it’s amazing what movement you get through your pelvis and your, your arms moving that you think, actually, this feels nice. So we went back after a month and she was like, how does it feel to you? How do you feel you’re running? And do I feel different here? And then she’d say, this is what I can see.

JAE: Like I have a little list. And mostly that little list is for other people to use. It’s not necessarily what I think about, but I do wanna see these as outcomes. I wanna see that a runner ultimately can lean forward easily, that they initiate running by swaying forward. And they stop by swaying upright again or backwards, depending on how fast they were running and how fast they wanna stop. Um, I wanna see obviously symmetrical movement. I wanna see that they are landing with a supple leg, that the ankle is directly vertically underneath the hip joint at mid stance. I wanna see that their core is moving, that the pelvis is moving, that the ribcage is moving in this counter rotation motion. So it’s not that we’re trying to freeze the trunk and just run with our limbs, which is a horrible way to run.
And I wanna see that in the forward lean that their head is still vertical and they’re leading the way forward with their face. Not in a way that rounds the back, but you know, if you let your whole body lean forward, then your back is straight. Like all your normal spinal curves are there, but your head is, your chin is farther from your throat then it would be if you stood upright. So I call that face forward. And I wanna see that the arm swing is variable depending on the running situation. Are you accelerating? Are you, you know, running slowly or fast? Arm technique changes, but I wanna in general see that your hands are staying close to your chest, they’re coming around to your heart. They’re swinging more or less along the line of your ribs. Uh, you’re not squeezing your elbows in. They’re just sticking out the way they naturally need to do if you’re gonna keep your hands close to you. And that the swing is pretty compact. That’s my list that I wanna see as outcomes. You know? And so then really, I only refer to that later on, um, you know, in month two or month three of working together, I’m, you know, if any of those things hasn’t happened, then I’m noticing it and troubleshooting it.

SONIA: So that doesn’t come naturally straight away. But over time, if you practice running in this way, it starts to feel normal. So then it becomes normal. And the more you are running like this, the better it is for your body. So that’s when the pain starts to ease. So like, it, it did take a few months for things to actually feel a lot different pain wise, but it did come, it, it just, it just came when I felt like I was moving in a better way, every run, consistently. So I think it’s just that repetitiveness and almost relaxing and not forcing it, cuz I think some of those days where I was just like, right, okay, but what am I supposed to feel? I don’t quite understand. And I think if you just try and let it come to you, it works better. There were days, and there were certain lessons that I, and one of them was seesaw breathing and it was about expanding your chest and taking your stomach in, your naval in, but then expanding your naval and bringing your chest up. And I was lying on the floor and I got so frustrated. I was like, I don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing. Like, what is this?

JAE: Yeah, well, you know, I think, you know, as adults, we bring this social burden and a tremendous amount of conditioning and expectation, you know, from the way we handle education, you know, all of the shoulds that fortunately a baby does not bring to this project, right. A baby is just looking for outcomes, but I’m sure never asks itself, is this what I’m supposed to be feeling? So we can’t undo our adulthood completely and, um, make it like we don’t have that burden, especially because there’s a strong drive towards this end goal to be able to run comfortably, to be able to run healthy, to be able to run, you know, for the rest of my life, to be able to make it to the starting line of my Ironman, to be able, you know, whatever the specific is. Well, so there’s that aspect and that that’s part of what makes it hard for us.
You know, it, it’s a funny thing where the movements, like a Feldenkrais lesson should always be done, again, because of the Weber Fechner thing, it always should be done without any noticeable sense of muscular effort. And so that’s like already, that feels like, what is this? Like, I know somebody who calls this, like the soft stuff, that like power athletes don’t wanna do or whatever, you know, won’t take seriously, you know, and endurance athletes the same. It’s like, this is so the opposite of everything you do in training, every idea that you have about what’s gonna make you better as an athlete. But at the same time, it’s in, in his own way, it’s even harder than anything else you probably do because you need to set aside the shoulds. You need to, um, stop efforting. You need to set aside even the goal, your ultimate goal, you need to set it completely aside. And, um, instead notice what you feel.

SONIA: We actually worked together for eight months on a lot of different lessons and we sort of worked through my whole body and, and it was very much a progression over a long time, just watching things change and to the point where I was running pain free. And I was actually thinking, do you know what I’m, I can go out for a run here and I’d look at my watch. And I’d thinking, actually I didn’t realize I was running as quick as that because, because I was moving better, I was actually running quicker as well, which yeah, I feel, think the problem before Jae was that I’d got to the point where I was so focused on the watch and trying to hit these splits. And the more I wasn’t hitting the splits, the harder I was trying and the more I was forcing it and the more my body felt broken to the point where I didn’t wanna run anymore. Um, and I think it was almost about learning to run in a way that felt nice again, is the best way I can put it.

JAE: The process of improving your movement and engaging in skilled movement and really of true athleticism is like a ballroom dance, two partners dancing together. One is the leader and one is the follower. And the part of you that is the leader is actually subconscious. And the conscious part of you is the follower. And the follower is active. The follower is feeling and sensing and noticing what’s happening, is not being dragged around the dance floor, but is fully participating with the impulses generated by the leader. But things go awry if the follower tries to lead or if the follower fails to follow. Right. And so this again is the opposite of how we tend to think about it, but when you can have that experience and that’s what Sonia was doing in those runs, not trying to consciously lead her gait, but to actively participate in following.

SONIA: And it is finding that movement pattern that feels nice running and not fighting your body like, right. I’ve gotta move my arms quicker. And, and it’s really difficult because you always think of these, you know, if I run more and I, I try and run faster that it’s, you’re gonna get the results you want. But like you say, sometimes it’s almost detrimental and it’s being more mindful about running.

JAE: Yeah. So I mean, part of what goes on with that is that a lot of runners get confused between running harder and running faster. And the only way to run faster that most people have is to run the same way that they run slow, but just harder, right? And your effort level goes up. And so you’re judging your speed from your effort level, plus your watch. And when you get better and better at getting out of the way at having a really responsive and versatile nervous system that can then you form changes when speed changes to run faster is to run differently. And then to stop fighting yourself is for the same level of effort you’ll actually be running anyway. And when you look at your watch later, you’re shocked at how fast you’re running, cuz it just didn’t feel like it because you’re so used to gauging effort to gauge how fast you’re running.
Right. Uh, so a lot of what she experienced with that is for those reasons. Then there’s also this, you know, and, and I’ll be honest, this really frightens me that we are losing any notion of our, our true capabilities as human beings, as technology comes more and more into our lives. And the, the more that the technology comes in and it comes in so early in a person’s process of becoming a runner that they never learn to gauge their own body. Our ancestors wouldn’t have survived if they didn’t have this ability in incredibly rich and resonant detail, and it is absolutely available to us. But I think more and more tech companies that have so much to gain from persuading of this make us feel like our only path forward to exceed the limitations that we experience and even to interact with our own bodies and to perform physically is mediated by technology.
And, um, it is a terrible theft. And so, um, every runner should be able to and happy to leave their watch at home. And see, I know that a lot of the best coaches feel the same way, you know, and you know, when I say that I know a lot of great coaches who feel the same way about runners dependence on sports watches, you know, I would just go on to say, you know, what those coaches say as well is that runners need to be able to run by feel, and it’s not that you can’t have the watch for confirmation or as a training tool. You know, that’s also useful, but if you are dependent upon that, if that’s the only dial on your dashboard and you can’t run by feel, you can’t judge your pace by sensation, then you are really hampered as an athlete. I also know that every runner has at least once in their life, in childhood or at some point, even in recent years or than just in a dream, uh, had the experience of feeling smooth and flowing and like they could just run forever and there is no technology now that will ever get you there. And so you have to step back and ask yourself, you know, first, What do, like, why am I running? What do I really want here? And this applies to the super shoes too. And I’m not saying you can’t use technology and it’s not even like fun, but if, if it’s central, if it determines your experience, why are you running? Like, does that really satisfy the goal? Or if you’re honest with yourself, is there a deeper reason that you’re running and is the, does the tech really get you there? Does the tech really give you that feeling of freedom and fluidity and rightness of being the human animal that you are?

SONIA: Yeah, so actually the only reason I stopped working with Jae was because I found out I was pregnant, uh, after those eight months. That was a good point actually, just to take time to recover properly. So I was running three times a week. Um, I didn’t do any gym. I did a lot of yoga, some of the Feldenkrais lessons I did as well, because obviously I did those eight months. I still have all the lessons so I can dip into those lessons as and well when I feel like it just to refresh my memory on things and refresh how things should feel, because I do have a tendency to get a very tight hip or lower back if I’m not doing any, any of the movement exercise like yoga or Feldenkrais, just to get things moving in a way that it should move.
So it was very much a bit of jogging, a bit of rolling around the floor, yoga, things like that. And then, um, I decided after Faith arrived that I would take a very slow approach to getting back to running. So I checked in with, um, a physiotherapist after four months just to check that everything was healing well, and I was good to go and start running again. And then when I started to get back running, I, I found that I was actually running pretty, pretty well. And I thought, or maybe I should have a go at racing. So I, it was about when Faith was about seven months old, I actually did my first 10k race. And I actually ran really well and won. And I was like, Okay. Right.
And, um, I actually raced the 10k a couple of days ago and I was 10 seconds off my official 10k PB that I ran in 2014. So I’m at the moment, things are very, I’m not sure, you know, I run once a day, um, six days a week. I do half the mileage that I used to do as a pro athlete. And I have a one year old to look after and I’m running probably just as well as I’ve ever run, even over the shorter distances. So I’m not sure where this is going. But I, do you know, one thing I’d love to do is to do a marathon. Because my last marathon was so awful, I don’t really want to walk away from marathon running as that is my last experience. So maybe I might enter a marathon and make my peace with it.
Cross that finish line fingers cross I make it, and okay, I’m done. That would be nice. But do you know what, I love running so much that even though I’m not a pro-athlete or whatever anymore, like I still love to get out and it’s still a huge part of my life. So I think, I think the key as well is that I definitely found my love for running again, working with Jae. And I think that really shows now that it’s something that I love to do and I’m actually running well from it. And I don’t, again, I don’t have that pressure to race, to hit splits. It’s just my time away from being a mom. And it’s, it’s actually being really good for me.

CHERIE: Ah, I just love that story. And I am so thankful to both Sonia and Jae for coming on the podcast and sharing their knowledge and their experiences. It was a complete pleasure to speak to both of them and have them on the podcast. And I’m really excited to see what Sonia does with her running, going forward, racing, being part of the running community, helping other runners. And you can join me in following Sonia. She has a very beautiful Instagram feed and her handle is Sonia Jay Samuels. And she also has a website, SoniaSamuels.com. And I was also very excited to have Jae on the show. I have been familiar with her work for quite some time. I’ve done many of her Feldenkrais audio lessons, and I have watched many of her YouTube videos. Uh, I was quite a fan of a series that she did at the beginning of the pandemic, this Stuck at Home series.
And she was creating videos pretty much every day. And there were tips on running form and they’re all very helpful. I, I really recommend those and, and you can learn more about Jae and all the that she does. She also has a blog on her website. You can find that at BalancedRunner.com and you can find the YouTube channel by just looking up The Balanced Runner.
And thank you for listening as always. We love sharing these stories, but we truly could not do it without you. And if you enjoyed this, please hit the subscribe button and please share the podcast with your friends. Uh, word of mouth is how we grow and I would love to have the podcast grow more. I really appreciate your efforts sharing and recommending the show to other people. And I also welcome you to visit our website StridesForwardPodcast.com and we are active on social media on Instagram and Twitter at StridesForward. It’s our handle in both places.
Also to know is that I do not make this show by myself. Cormac O’Regan does all the original music and he does sound design. And he does that from his studio in Cork, Ireland, April Marriner of Bonfire Collaborative does all the design work for the show, including the website, merch, logo, and all the social media, all the stuff that looks good, that is, the stuff from way back when, and that was me. And that’s why April is doing it now. And April comes to you from Truckee, California, and you can find BonfireCollaborative.com. And yes, I am Cherie Louise Turner, and I am coming to you from my closet in Somerville, Massachusetts. Thank you so much again for listening. And until next time we all wish you many healthy, joyful strides forward.

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