If it doesn’t work…

Give up?

I hope that sounds absurd, but that seems to be the approach some people take when it comes to running and related injuries. For a variety of problems, the first attempt at a solution is often to add more of something, likely cushion or pronation support. Then, if that doesn’t work, maybe there’s another step of more of the same, possible even augmenting the shoes with additional orthotic food beds.

It’s not uncommon for this progression to get to a point where either the patient gives up and stops running, or at least is advised to do so. They decide or are told something to the effect of “maybe your body just isn’t intended to run.”

That’s when you know it’s time to find a different doctor, physical therapist, shoe store or coach. If the other side of the progression isn’t at least tried, less support, less cushion, less ramp angle, etc., then how can one possibly know? Not everything has been tried. Sounds to me like looking only one way before crossing the street.

Making any change in your running routine should be undertaken carefully and slowly, ideally with the support of a good coach and/or a medical professional. But that goes for a change in either direction, toward more shoe or less. It’s still a change that will alter how the body uses it’s muscles and joints and there is risk of injury.

This is more or less my story, and it’s one I’ve heard from more than a few people I’ve talked to recently. Really extreme minimalist running certainly isn’t for everyone, but isn’t it clear that running in beefy motion control shoes with huge ramp angles and extra orthotics is just as far outside the norm?

I’m not a minimalist runner and don’t really aspire to be. I use minimal shoes as my walk around every day shoes and occasionally run short distances or drills in them. Today however, I went a little crazy. I needed a moderate to long run but knew it wasn’t going to be a fast day. So to challenge myself a little beyond what I’d done before, I ran in a pair of really minimalist running sandals.

It was only 8 miles at a relatively slow pace, but it was really fun and eye opening. For a guy who thinks about running a lot and actively tries to improve it, running in sandals was still hard. More importantly, it felt better than any 8 mile run I can remember from my days of thick, heavy motion control shoes.

If you’re trying something and it doesn’t work, try something else, not just more of the same.

Luna Sandals

Too cold for running sandals? Just add toe socks!

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Getting Started on 2012

Wow. Is it really 2012? Last time I posted here it was November and it was the first week of training for the new Ironman season. Yup, now I’m into week 8.

A lot has happened since the last post. I did some training, not as much as I’d hoped to, but I’ve managed to make some of it count. Testing is showing nice gains in power numbers on the bike, and swim times are dropping. Running has been pretty stable and for now I’m fine with that.

But outside of training there’s been a lot going on as well. Three holidays, the kids’ winter break, some work craziness. After working hard to finish up a project and look for a new one, I ended up leaving the company where I’ve worked for the past 10.5 years. Last Friday I left and began about three weeks of time off before my new job starts. I hope to make the best of that across the board: family time, training time, and taking care of some projects around the house.

So far, so good for 2012. The family went skiing on New Years Day. Any year that begins with a ski day has to be good, right? Last Saturday I did my first race of the year, the Western Washington Fat Ass 25k at Tiger Mountain. It was brutally hard. My watch registered nearly 4500′ of elevation gain, but I think it measured a little high. The last three miles to the finish line descended 2200′ from the West Tiger summit all the way to the highway. My quads are still sore from that pounding. I haven’t seen the results yet, but I’m pretty sure I finished in the top ten.

There’s a lot to be excited about this year. Elsa is about to turn 4 and we’ve survived another child at age 3. Reid is a couple of months shy of 7 and is turning into such a neat kiddo. I’m looking forward to lots of adventures with both of them. For the next few weeks, we just need some more snow time. I’ll start the new job on January 30th and with it comes 6 weeks of orientation in California. The family will be missed, but I’ll use the time to train really hard as well.

May will be here in no time!

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Week 1: Testing and Testy

Bike on the trainer

The TT bike had likely found a home for most of the winter.

Yes, this is week 1 of training, but it’s been a light one. The focus of the week has not been anything as exciting as volume or intensity. Instead, it’s been testing. Where exactly am I fitness-wise? I know where I wish I was, and where I’d like to be on either May 5th or June 24th, but where am I now? Only with that information can I plot a course to be in a stronger place on race day.

To that end, the key workouts this week have been fitness tests, not endurance or strength related. There was no goal this week of a number of hours of training, or some other metric. It was only to put forth a best effort in each discipline. With some numbers recorded in the log, it’s time to train.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have plans for serious hours or intensity this week. Putting in that effort requires, well, free time, and intensity requires sleep for recovery. Both of those have been in short supply.

This week, the kids have been rather testy. Halloween didn’t help. In our experience, this is a cycle that the kids sometimes get caught in. It’s a classic chicken and egg problem: the kids don’t eat well, so they don’t sleep well, so they don’t have the patience to eat the next day. Or maybe it starts with lack of sleep. It’s a tough one to break out of, but that’s turned out to be the real goal for this week: break out of the current cycle of insanity. Halloween didn’t help this week, but right now we just have to make it stop.

Next week will be the first REAL week of training: workouts where I have something to accomplish. It makes this weekend’s task all the more important.

Yesterday Bree Wee rocked Ironman Florida, leading through the swim and bike before finally getting passed on the run to finish 6th. I’ve recently discovered her blog and I love her enthusiasm for training, her sport, and for her little one. Craig Alexander won the Ironman World Championship last month. Andy Potts has been doing well on the long distance circuit for a while. These three are my inspiration right now. It’s proof that it is possible to be a parent and an athlete.

I’ll never win a world championship, but my goal is the same as these three: have fun doing my best for my kids and also on race day.

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2012 Starts Early

I’ve nearly completely off since min-August, doing no formal since then, just playing. In some ways I’ve really been off most of the year. Job hunting got in the way of early season training, and then with no serious races on the schedule after early June, I played a lot this summer and played hard. Sometimes I went fast and it was a lot of fun.

Tomorrow morning I’m shifting gears and beginning to train for 2012 events. Specifically, that means Ironman St George and Ironman Coeur d’Alene. Anything after that is, well, not officially scheduled right now and won’t be until June 25th.

My goal next year is simple: I’m going to race an Ironman. Yes, I’ve done two before. They were tons of fun, but I wasn’t really racing either one. The first one started as a race but after some mistakes the focus changed mid-day to just finishing. The second one had only one goal, not to end the day any more injured than I already was at the beginning. The goal was accomplished, but I didn’t finish the race. In 2012, I want to test myself and see what I can do.

I know what I have to do to get there and it’s very simple: get strong on the bike. I’m coming into this training cycle with a huge amount of running base and solid speed. In order to race an Ironman, I need to deliver myself to the start of the marathon relatively quickly, but more important is to get there ready to start the real race. I’ll need to build power and endurance to spare on the bike, so it’s there ready to run.

This is a fantastic position to be in. In some respects, it couldn’t be better. Becoming a good swimmer or runner is hard. I’m a good enough swimmer, and a very good runner. Becoming a good cyclist is easier than either of these and better yet, I’ve been strong on the bike before.

But it’s also going to be hard. Getting strong on the bike is going to take some focused effort. There will be high intensity days and lots of long sessions in the saddle. But the kicker is that I’m starting this training cycle just as the weather is getting bad. There will be many hours spent on the indoor trainers this winter. It will be a test of dedication and patience.

A couple of weeks ago, as I was contemplating and planning the next few months, I read this blog post from Troy Jacobson. It was right in line with my thinking, and the reinforcement of the message came at the right time. I’m going to need to make the most of every training session. That doesn’t mean every session is hard, it means the key sessions are hard and everything else is about recovering to allow the affects of training to actually happen, then prepare for the next one.

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Shoe Changes

Little by little, shoe companies are coming around to the idea that form is important and that the design of the shoes themselves can help or hinder good form. Look at the range of offerings from nearly all of the major running shoe companies recently and you’ll see a trend toward having at least a couple of models with a more level profile. Brooks just released their Pure Project, reportedly with 4mm of drop between the heels and forefoot, and that’s just the latest. Look at the lineup from Merrell, Saucony, or Nike and you’ll see the same thing. Then of course there are a few who make their whole business around a more level design. Newton Running and Inov-8 both make primarily shoes with low drop and some others like Altra, VivoBarefoot, and the FiveFingers line are essentially level.

This is fantastic for all of us, no matter what we’re currently running in. Competition is good and all runners stand to benefit!

In the mean time, however, anyone making the switch to lower drop shoes is risking injury. Try this: Place a book on the ground, maybe 10-15mm thick. Now stand barefoot with your heels on the book and your feet extending over the edge and onto the floor. For most people, this will feel pretty normal because most shoes out there today, running shoes or otherwise, have about this much drop. After standing there a minute or two, step down to stand barefoot, flat on the floor. Feel that stretch a little? If your shoes were level, that’s what they’d feel like to your calves.

If you didn’t notice a difference, make it even more extreme. Stand with your heels on the floor and the ball of your foot on the book. Nearly anyone is going to start feeling the stretch at this point. The smaller the angle between your foot and your leg, the greater the stretch.

If you’re used to running in shoes with a significant drop and make a change without deliberately adapting, that extra stretch on every step will build up and could easily result in injury, from minor things like pulled muscles or tendon sprains, to more severe problems like tendonitis. I do think it’s worth the effort, but it’s not to be taken lightly.

Personally, I’ve been lucky. Very lucky. I started working on improving my running form in early 2007, but by fall of 2009, even though I’d made some positive form changes, I was still running in high drop shoes. My first pair of relatively level shoes measured at 3mm of drop, quite flat. I thought I had decent form at the time and maybe I did. But after running a slow paced 5k around my neighborhood, my calves were so overstretched I could barely walk for three days. I was in solid marathon shape at the time, so this was a short run at a pace much slower than normal. My muscles didn’t feel over worked, they felt over stretched. I didn’t really understand why at the time, but now the simple geometry seems obvious. Thankfully I didn’t injure myself, but I did then develop a program to ease myself into the shoes over a period of months.

Since then I’ve done nearly all of my running in shoes with about 3mm of drop, right up until the last couple of weeks. I’m now experimenting with zero drop shoes from a variety of companies, and despite the relatively small difference between my regular shoes and these I can’t do more than about 4 miles in the level ones before I start to really feel the stretch. Once again, I’m looking at a transition and have to proceed with caution.

From where I sit, I’m quite excited about the increase in variety of running shoes that will support good form. More models in stores means that more people will find one that fits well and hopefully make some positive change. I do fear that people will jump in because it’s trendy without considering what it actually means for their body. Essentially no one can make a sudden switch like this without consequences.

What would be really bad is to have a horde of people buy the shoes, get injured and draw the wrong conclusions. It’s not the shoes, it’s the sudden change.

Edit 27 Oct 2011: I finally found the site I saw once that listed heel and toe stack heights for the shoes they sell. It’s Running Warehouse. Know what you’re buying and transition with intention and care!

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180 to Run Smooth

It’s not my intention to write a book on this blog about proper running form. I wouldn’t be the right person to do so and there are already some out there that are quite good. My goal is simply to bring some attention to the importance of running form outside the sometimes cult-like barefoot and minimalist running movements in popular culture. In my mind it’s not about shoes or lack thereof, it’s about running well and having fun doing it.

I’m going to finish this short series of posts with one suggestion that will help many runners, perhaps even most I’ve observed at events of all distances. If these runners simply increased their cadence, the number of foot steps taken in a minute, their form would immediately improve. Don’t go faster, turn over faster. In fact to get started they should run slower, but take more steps to get there.

Back in my first post on this topic, Running Role Models, I described how my own path toward better running started with attempts to minimize vertical motion and stop heel striking. It turns out that these are among the side effects of a slow cadence. Fix the cadence and these problems will likely disappear or at least be drastically reduced.

Why is this? Let’s take each of these issues in turn. To see how cadence affects vertical motion, try this demonstration. Stand upright with good posture in a ready position, feet shoulder width apart. Now take a series of small hops in place. Notice how on each landing, your legs bend to absorb the impact, lowering your center of mass. Then on each hop, you have push back and in fact spring up. On every cycle, your body is moving inches both up and down from your starting position.

Now do the same thing, but very quickly, close to three hops per second. Any difference? In stead of compressing down, you’re probably springing back up completely compressing. The hops get smaller on the up side too.

If you’re still not convinced, take your shoes off. I bet you were wearing shoes that first time, right? Do this again, barefoot on a hard surface. Notice how you land on the balls of your feet, your heels then come down, tap the ground and immediately rebound. At that rapid cadence, the amplitude of your hops is much smaller. You’re springing off of your feet and ankles, not jumping with your legs. “Spring” turns out to be almost the perfect word, but that’s another topic entirely.

The reason this helps reduce heel striking is also pretty simple. If you’re moving your legs that quickly, there just isn’t time for you to swing your leg way out in front to heel strike. There isn’t time for much extra motion, be it pathological or simply inefficient. You probably can strike your heels at three steps per second, but it’s going to be difficult and it won’t be natural.

Much like a car’s engine, humans run most efficiently at a relatively high cycle speed, RPM for the car and foot cadence for the runner. Below that number the cycle is shaky, but as the speed approaches optimal, things smooth out. The three hops (or steps) per second from the hopping experiment turns out to be just about perfect. Humans run best at a cadence of 180.

Bonus: I’d already planned and mostly written this post and look what came up on Running Form Friday, but a post from Danny Abshire on cadence. Check it out!

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Running Well

If I’m going to write about running technique, or at least try to convince people that it’s worth thinking about at every level of the sport, it’s worth a moment to define exactly what the objectives are. We all run for different reasons, and our ultimate goals are generally wrapped up in that. Some people run for fun, others for fitness, and still others for the purpose of going fast. It seems obvious that really fast people need to look for an extra competitive edge anywhere they can so technique must come into play, but what does it matter to everyone else?

Stop for a moment, though, and shift perspective. Let’s compare running to something outside of endurance sports. What does typing have in common with running? Both involve highly repetitive motion, sometimes performed nearly daily over long periods of time, and possibly for long sessions.

Typing is particularly interesting because it doesn’t involve any great stress. For any single action, one finger moves, one key is struck. But what happens if one types for a long period of time with poor form? Carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, etc. Each of the thousands and possibly millions of key presses does little damage, so little that it’s not noticable incrementally, but the cumulative damage takes its toll. Sound a little like running?

Typing is like running in another way too. There are businesses with products intended to help prevent typing injuries. Just do a search for ergonomic keyboard. Many of these are designed to allow the wrists to align naturally, others encourage a nice rounded curve of the fingers.

What differentiates these keyboards from running shoes is that most of these products are designed to encourage good form. Think about most running shoes on the market and how they’re marketed and sold. Instead of shoes encouraging runners to avoid heel striking, most have a heel built up with cushioning to lessen the perceived impact. Instead of pushing runners toward a form that minimizes unnatural pronation, most running shoes add structural support to essentially disallow pronation. Rather than encourage good form, most running shoes attempt to provide workarounds for poor running form.

Many people define “running well” against some arbitrary standard of race performance or training miles per week. I’d like to define it as running the way your body was meant to function, thereby avoiding cumulative damage and minimizing chances of injury. This idea is catching on, and I hope to see more and more runners practicing good form at all paces, slow to fast!

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