[See our blog entry “Walk like a Warrior” for historical instances of the topic. Our focus here is the mechanics of the indigenous warrior strides and their uses in modern life.]
The human stride has its idiosyncrasies [in general to the species and in particular to the individual.] Modern/ “civilized” humans have developed a plantigrade stride, that is, planting heel first then rolling to the toe. It is surmised that both footwear and prepared surfaces [flat-ground everywhere] fostered this switch from ball-of-the-foot or flat-foot strides commonly used by those who develop strides on sand, gravel, rocks, trails and other natural terrain.
Our world is one of walking-surface regularity, even our elevated steps [stairs and terraced environments] have an engineered homogeneity to them. And this every-day-of-our-lives regularity has grooved a pattern in us.
We have come to be “step-expectant,” that is, to assume that our next foot placement will be quite similar, if not exactly alike, the prior step.
We have all experienced this step-expectancy when we have had the pleasure of “stumbling over nothing,” those occasions where we seemingly trip over our own feet and turn with an accusing look at the apparently flat ground behind us and marvel how such a fail could have occurred.
Chances are these stumbles have revealed very small changes in the planar surface where the concrete-worker or carpenter had a lapse or was working around an anomaly. The surface is still flat-ish, so to speak, but a minuscule difference and our life-long dependence on “Make everything exactly the same, please” reveals itself in these occasional missteps.
This confidence in “step-expectancy” has led to modern/ “civilized” man developing a quicker, more rushed stride, and to extend our stride. Because of our confidence in secure terrains we throw each leg forward and “fall” onto the heel with step-expectant confidence.
Years of plantigrade “expectations” whether in footwear or without have led to this being our adopted stride even in natural terrain, shod or not. That is, we bring this inculcated shod-trained and flat or modulated surfaces-trained stride to the natural world where different strides were the evolved norm for humanity.
It is surmised that many of the twists, sprains, and fractures experienced in outdoor activity are less about the treacherousness of the terrain itself than the engrained insistence on using the plantigrade stride and step-expectancy where it has no real survival value.
Plantigrade, Digitigrade & Sliding Steps
Digitigrade Stepping The most commonly used step we observe in indigenous peoples or normally un-shod populations is digitigrade, that is, allowing the ball-of-the-foot or the forefoot to make first contact with each step. This manner of walking naturally calls for shorter strides which translates to better balance as we no longer over-reach our steps and “fall” into each new foot placement.
Digitigrade strides also make for easy correction or retraction as each ball-of-the-foot or forefoot placement also acts as a “testing step.” Where plantigrade strides make an assumption that each step is safe we overreach and place the least facile/nimble portion of the foot [the calcaneus, aka the heel] upon the perhaps shaky surface.
Digitigrade placement places the far nimbler toes or forefoot first which “feels” if the next stone we have chosen to cross the stream is solid or shaky.
If the “testing step” provides “shaky” results, the shorter stride allows us to retract and correct our placement.
We will notice that digitigrade striding is just the sort we all naturally assume when faced with scenarios such as the aforementioned iffy stream crossing. We naturally recognize that some walking does require care. In stream crossings and other such instances, we will most resemble in our stride [and tracks] indigenous peoples in our stride length, imprint and weight distribution. [We will be less nimble, but at least on the right track, so to speak.]
But…after we pass the recognizable hazard we often return to a variation of our plantigrade stride, perhaps with some cheats towards digitigrade here and there, but for the most part we default to “civilized” where “civilized” is not called for and it is these plantigrade assumptions that often manifest as the turned ankle on the trail and other like mistakes of treating the natural world as a stride across carpet or your local box store.
Sliding Steps-In extremely precarious terrain, be it icy terrain, the slow movement across a mossy log over a stream and similar situations we see indigenous and “civilized” peoples alike move to a sliding step. A slow stride where the foot never quite loses contact with the precarious surface, but…
We still emphasize the digitigrade weight-placement in these scenarios which again shows the primacy of this movement.
One simply has to imagine walking across an icy pond or crossing the aforementioned mossy log and you can “feel” how you want to slide your way across as opposed to blithely placing that heel-to-toe walk you use in everyday life.
I offer a few self-tests/exercises to compare and contrast “civilized” plantigrade strides with natural indigenous digitigrade and sliding strides.
Exercises to “Find” Your Digitigrade and Sliding Strides
· Stand-up, right now. Find an open area indoors or out and go for a short walk as you normally would. But while doing so, attempt to pay attention to your stride. Not so much so that you consciously interfere with the natural mechanics of it, simply walk and observe your walking, that’s all.
· Now, remaining in the same open area, close your eyes and go for a walk. Chances are with eyes closed you naturally transformed your stride to a form of digitigrade. You will move increasingly to digitigrade when you expect to confront an object in your path. Often when approaching an expected obstacle, say a wall, you will modify to a form of sliding step.
· Blindfolded walking allows us to realize that when we remove “step-expectancy” from the equation we naturally move into remedial stride correction. Shorter steps, forefoot placement to test, “feeling” our steps instead of falling into them. We exhibit more care, and conversely more sureness of step with our eyes closed than in our day-to-day galumphing about.
· Place a 2X4 or 4X4 on the ground.
· Walk forward backward, make turns, side-step on it.
· Not a big challenge to most, but again, pay attention to stride. Chances are you opted for digitigrade and a sliding step here and there for the balanced task.
· Now, don a blindfold and repeat this 4X4 on the ground experiment.
· You will notice that the task is exponentially more difficult as we removed stride-expectancy. We still used digitigrade as plantigrade would be foolish and provide zero success here, and I wager you will find there will be more sliding steps than in the eyes-open version of the experiment.
· Chances are if you spend time with the blindfold balance you can improve your “feel” for the task inside a ¼ of an hour and you will notice that improvement almost exclusively comes from shorter strides, digitigrade placement, smooth slides, and losing stride-expectancy.
Exercise- Take it Outside
· Nature is not smooth. It does not provide us with knowns in uniform terrain. Each and every step can be a whole new ballgame. The problem is our years of “training” for stride-expectancy and plantigrade motion have degraded our “natural” stride.
· Even when we take the outdoors walk [in as varying terrain as our grit will permit] if we do not pay conscious attention, we will default to plantigrade falling-step galumphing anytime the trail appears to our eye somewhat like the corridor at the local mall. [Experienced hikers know of what I speak, you can hear the sound of expensive hiking boots on the ground on smooth sections of trail, a sound you will never hear from indigenous scouts, shepherds, hunters, porters on the exact same trail. Even Sherpas under heavy load are noted for providing less “noise” than the rich unladen Western tourists who paid for the “authentic” experience.]
To be clear, it is a lifetime of habituation we are addressing, and a few exercises will not correct stride. The exercises can highlight what is and what was and what could be. Diligent practice will spell the difference.
We will correct to digitigrade on obvious hazards but unless we are scrupulous, we will be mall-walkers in the woods as opposed to stealthy forest denizens striding with quiet, agile, confident steps.
[Excerpted from our upcoming work on Skulking: Indigenous Skills & Drills for Stealth, Movement, & Warfare for the Modern Warrior 120+ Drills & Tactics. For more Rough & Tumble history, Indigenous Ability hacks, and for pragmatic applications of old school tactics historically accurate and viciously verified see our RAW Subscription Service.]