Psyche and Inflammation

There are times when we don’t react appropriately to other people. Either we misread the situation, or lack the skill to respond more tactfully. There is an element of judgement involved in our reactions, and that includes our reactions to injuries.

As with our reactions to other situations, the repair process is not always appropriate because it depends on our interpretation of the injury. One purpose of the natural movement development of a child is to more accurately understand/react to physical injury. This is mostly a kinesthetic skill, but it is empowering to have a basic intellectual understanding as well.


Phase I: A-specific reaction

Being calm is an effect of feeling safe. For that reason, most of the sights, sounds, and even sensations from your body are ignored because you have already determined that their threat level is low. The mechanism involves several filters in your brain which are more closed when one is calm. As you can see, the space between the black lines is small, and mild sounds like those of a clock, or the sensation from your skin against your clothes get absorbed by the brain before making their way to your awareness in the cortex. Only intense sounds or sensations will penetrate the filters.

A sudden jerk, the screeching sound of breaks, or any harsh stimulation suddenly penetrates into the cortex, initiating a strong sense of awareness, which we generally term arousal. During this time, one is physically very strong. Most alarms are false, and as soon as we determine that the harsh sound its harmless, whether we are right or wrong, the arousal passes, and there is no need to further recruit the immune system because injury is unlikely.
IMG_1126The purpose of the arousal is clearly to avoid serious injury, and keep you alive should serious injury occur.
Let’s assume for our purposes that an injury does occur in the foot only. At the moment we realize that the foot is hurt but there is no threat to our life, we move to Phase II in which the the protective reactions are contained to the injured area as opposed to the whole body.




Phase II: Specific Reaction

While an arousal is a stage of whole body protection due to a threat to the whole body, Phase II is a protective state of only the damaged part, in our scenario the foot. Before an injury in the foot crosses the filter into the cortex, it must first cross a similar filter in the portion of the spinal cord that corresponds to the foot. The same filter mechanism described below the cortex could be described in the corresponding region of the spinal cord.
IMG_1128The receptors in the foot detect the injury, inform the spinal cord, and make it more reactive in very much the same way the brain becomes more reactive after hearing a loud sound. Pro inflammatory chemicals are actually sent from the spinal cord to the injured tissues. The inflammation is simply a cleaning of the same damaged debris that alerted the signal for help. These chemicals actually stimulate the same pain fibers even more, so at this point your foot is hurting even if you don’t move; a necessary protective mechanism considering the vulnerability of the tissue at this stage of recovery.
If at any point during recover, if an event important enough occurs where you absolutely have to run, your brain will be able to block out the pain, but during this phase it would be very difficult. In the image, the blue line represents your ability to move the injured foot. The red line coming up to the brain represents pain, which competes, and in this case, overpowers the blue line.

During this phase, however, the tissue is so vulnerable it would be impossible to will yourself past it for very long. This forces you not to move or put weight on the foot while the damaged tissue is carried away. Once that happens, the chemical pain is no longer present, and the edge should come off the pain.


Phase III: Mesh Phase

Normally after a few days phase II is complete; the injury is clean, and new tissue is being laid there. As the new scar is being laid, the body compares information coming from the new scar with our movement to IMG_1134determine the appropriate volume of scar to produce.
Mesh Test Passed:
The spinal cord detects when normal tension is applied to the healing area without causing damage, and the caution meters in the spinal cord and brain decrease. If this type of sensation (#1) dominates what the spinal cord is receiving, it knows that more force can be handled, strength will increase (#1) , and the inflammation reflex described previously is inhibited (#2). Pain will diminish with time, and stage IV will begin.

Mesh Test Failed: When actual damage occurs to the young scar (#1 pain signal), the corresponding area of the spinal cord is more likely to transmit pain input to the brain (#2), activating the corresponding area in the cortex. At the exact moment the awareness occurs, the output from the brain (#3) no longer blocks the inflammation reflex, and the strength of release of pro inflammatory chemicals (#4) increases. The recovery process will begin again, IMG_1133this time with more scar based on a more defensive spinal core/brain.

Warning Pain: It is fairly obvious why anything threatening would be cause for alarm, while anything soothing would have the opposite effect. But thankfully any threat is dealt with before actual damage, which means your body has to have a way of sensing injury ahead of time. Understanding this warning system is probably the key to understanding the relationship between ones psyche and recovery from injury.
Our tissues, especially young scar, possess pain receptors which fire a little before actual damage takes place. Suppose you are lying on the couch and your four year old starts to jump on your outstretched arm. The defensive reactions will kick in very easily, even before he breaks your arm. On the other hand, suppose you are running on the beach. The same arm might be moving behind you even faster, but the defensive reactions are not activated. This is due to the repetitive nature of the movement and the lower arousal of the brain.
Another way to put it is as follows. When arousal is high, warning signals are interpreted by the spinal cord as threatening. When arousal is low, warning signals are interpreted as non threatening, and even stimulate endorphins which strongly block pain. The psyche largely determines whether or not to progress to stage IV or go back to stage I.


State IV: Memory Reset

Walking normally without pain indicates you have completed the goals of stage III. Your tissues are strong enough to walk, and your caution meter is adjusted accordingly. In order to complete the recovery process, the new tissues have to be able to withstand full force.

A degree of hypersensitivity persists even after graduating from stage III, precisely because it is not known yet if the tissues are able to withstand the force of running and jumping. A couple tests are performed to determine whether or not this hypersensitivity, which is really a bias towards self-protection, is justified.

IMG_1131The first test is the actual forceful movement, which is a forceful output (blue line) away from the cortex. The forceful output closes the filter, which will close further with each forceful movement unless a pain signal is received. Movement closes the filter, and nociception (tissue damage signal) opens it. If you pass the test you are on your way to wiping the pain memory.

But your tissues also have to withstand more mild forces for longer periods of time. Now let’s suppose you run or play soccer for an hour. A large volume of intense but non-injury input from your leg reaches the filter. But since the filter is closed due to passing the prior test, the brain knows it can ignore most of this information. In fact, after 15 minutes of ignoring the information, the brain finds it easier to drip endorphins down into the spinal cord, IMG_1130blocking all that input before it even comes up. These endorphins powerfully block pain memories, and their production continues for hours/days.

At this point, you have passed all the stress tests. There in no reason to restart the inflammation, or even have a sensitive spot where the injury was.


Fatigue is one of the most common complaints. Often it is assumed that the body is tired, but in most circumstances it has to do with a lack of excitability/alertness of the brain. By performing specific exercises designed by nature, the brain is strengthened and able to maintain even energy levels.

The brain operates at different intensities much like gears in a car. There is a time for first gear, and there is a time for fifth gear. A car operating in first gear for long periods of time will always crash. A car that only operates in fifth gear will never have any energy in the first place. The same is true for us. Those who favor first gear excessively inevitably experience a sudden dramatic crash, while those who operate mostly in fifth gear will exhibit a gradual decline in energy over time.

Natural development of movement has a very strong emphasis on controlling brain alertness or excitability. The ability to intentionally activate the brain is learned during belly crawling. During creeping on all fours a more precise control of alertness is developed. Later, the ability to generate more intense excitement is learned and expressed by the explosive nature of skipping.


The new environment for the newborn includes dangling limbs which feel sort of detached. It is like the first time using a joystick to play a video game. At first, moving the joystick didn’t seem to correspond with what was happening on the screen. Eventually though, I learned that if I push up, the car goes, and if I push down the car stops. Essentially, this describes crawling. The baby’s thinking brain, or cortex, is the joystick trying to control the limbs.


At around seven months, the child gets on all fours. This challenging position requires more than the on/off switch of the cortex, because in order to balance one has to be able to exert degrees of force. The child is literally learning to restrain and control the excited cortex. To play the video game, I would need to be able to go a little faster or a little slower, which would require the same control. This skill dominates running, since most of the time the effort is a gentle slowing of momentum of the legs, preparing for a reversal of direction. At the time that babies develop this dimming-switch, they express more tempered energy levels and moods, and the chemicals produced during this type of movement contribute to calmness and better sleep. It should be no surprise the calming effect normally occurring in those who perform the running drills associated with the midbrain.


Much later when the child practices skipping, their energy levels tend to occur with episodes of more intense excitement than what had been previously experienced. Going back to the video game analogy, if I want to be even better at the video game, I could learn to use a joystick with a quicker response. It would be harder to control, but would also give me a lot more potential. Skipping is sort of like when you flick something with your finger. One finger pushes against the thumb which stops to finger from moving. When the thumb releases the finger, there is sort of an explosion. The finger would represent the cortex, and the thumb represents the cerebellum, and this is developed by skipping. It is no wonder that those types of explosive exercises give people a bounce in their step.



All training is brain training, and brain training is always energy training. Heavy weight training, quickness training, and jumping intensely activates the brain, leading to intense alertness. Distance cycling is in many ways the exact opposite. It is about training the body to generate power without having to activate the brain. The superstar athletes many aspire to become have health and energy problems proportional to their achievements in their particular sport, a phenomenon I named “athletic autism” which is the subject of another blog. The problem is that as we favor a certain type of activity, we can become dependent on a certain degree of brain activation, essentially becoming stuck in a certain gear.

The good news is nature already seemed to have worked this out, and one of the primary expressions of normal development is good running. Natural running is a symphony of all of the different brain intensities. The key to achieving this state of balance is to train each of these major energy systems in proportion.

Slipping Through the Cracks

Our basic philosophy about running is that are a series of fundamental movements learned in the first ten years of life if circumstances are ideal. If those skills are weak, perfect running is impossible.

A determined adult will still pick up running in a diminished form, leading to injury and poor performance. Traditional coaching mostly focuses on training quantity, and sometimes emphasizes training quality. Unfortunately, they are only able to see the superficial effects of poor coordination, but not the deeper causes of poor running form.

As a result, most runners slip through the cracks; the deeper issues are never caught.

We believe nature reveals the deep issues in the process it uses to teach every person to run, starting from no ability at birth to great runners by age eight or so for those children lucky enough to be given good nutrition and good opportunity to move without interference by artificial devices.

Is Running Natural?


Running is a culmination of crawling, creeping, walking and skipping.    It’s hard to imagine how someone could think that running is not natural.

And No…

On the other hand, running is the culmination of crawling, creeping, walking, and skipping, but most adults are no longer able to perform these movements.  In other words, runners are giving running a bad name.  Running poorly, we would argue, is not really that good for you.

Is A Malfunctioning Body Healthy?

The inability to run exposes a glitch in your body.  An example would be poor hip or back mechanics.  Not running doesn’t mean your hip works just because the malfunction hasn’t been exposed in the form of pain yet.  The beauty of the natural process of learning to run is that smooth mechanics in the individual joints like the hip are learned simultaneously.


Crawling on the belly is vital response to some form of vital perception. The four-month old child’s perception is limited to noticing potential harm, like being too near a heater. The response is an increase in activation of the entire brain, resulting in flailing limbs propelling the child away from danger. A similar response to a threatening sound or moving object would occur.

Crawling in not a movement. Crawling is a specific brain pattern that also involves the entire body. During emergency, every aspect of the person is affected. The brain and muscles cells are sensitized, the circulation is shunted to the brain, the liver and stomach suspend function, the immune system shifts from long-term healing to immediate protection, the heart are breathing rates spike. Most of this you already know this from your experience.

Unfortunately, traditional education in physiology is usually about looking at one of these aspects in detail, being sure not to be distracted by unimportant things like context and experience. That is why I think educated people have a much harder time understanding how the body works. The individual parts make sense only in the context of the functional unit. Experts entertain the impossible task of trying to micromanage all these individual parts. Could you imagine how foolish it would be to try to improve someones poor digestion at the same time they have an exaggerated perception of danger? It is just as foolish to try to micromanage your running.

Crawling is a one of the elements of running. Practicing the crawling drills on the one hand makes me run faster and on the other hand make me breathe faster. There is an obvious improvement of running form from the crawling drills, but more significant is the fact that your entire physiology changes.

The typical 50 year old good distance runner or triathlete has trained vigilance right out of their brain. They run smoothly to conserve energy, but kids have a little more bounce in their run. There needs to be a degree of crawling physiology retained for you to be healthy. I believe that it is the removal of the crawl part of the brain from the distance athletes that will insure a premature peak in performance as well as health, and this applies especially to the higher performance endurance athlete.

So instead of thinking about the immune system and digestion, think in terms of the entire cluster of things associated with vigilance. Every person has a degree of vigilance, and that degree of vigilance or alertness obviously changes as one is sleeping, then awake, then running. Remember that the distance runner sees vigilance as an enemy in the same way a sprinter or football player sees vigilance as their training partner. The good endurance runner has spent a lot of time training vigilance right out of them.

Remember you already know that the entire body always reacts to your perception of emergency. You know that when you are extremely vigilant, like when you are afraid or nervous, you feel jittery, stomach ache, hyper, etc. Your basic level of awakeness is communicated to all the internal systems that depend on your perception to tell them how to behave.

You need a certain degree of vigilance which translates into defensiveness. Some people never complain, and let people walk over them. They have trained their vigilance right out of them. Other people are too defensive. You already know how either one ends up. Social skill involves the art of being gentle but sometimes having to be more direct.

Your heart has the same issues. It has to be ready to kick in if you were to be thrown in cold watter and have to make a tough swim. On the other hand, it has to be relaxed to push the blood for the long-haul. Within a race, you might have a hill and need the heart to be able to switch gears. Again, the skill is being able to switch gears. But for many good runners, they have trained the power gear not to work. What they don’t realize, is that they have trained the entire functional unit disproportionally and every aspect of their health will respond accordingly.

It should not be surprising that we can train the different functional units of our physiology. The natural training program is on display from birth. After spending several months on the belly, the child gets strong enough to function on the hands and knees, which trains another aspect of their physiology that complements crawling.