Not long ago I wrote a post about the benefits of running backwards. This post is a follow-up, discussing the biomechanical and structural reasons that running backwards addresses so many of the typical muscular imbalances that lead to back and knee pain.
It is my firm belief that mere training tips don’t constitute real answers. As with all forms of training, running backwards only does what it does because of how it develops certain mechanical systems and components. It is important to know what those components are or how they are developed, in case we’ve discovered a new and amazing way to “beat” the mechanical requirements of a technique running backwards—therefore precluding ourselves from reaping the benefits of our training.
Problems at the knee can be addressed by looking at the hip or even beyond, because the knee, like any other part of the body, doesn’t exist in isolation. When we push against the ground, the same amount of mechanical energy (the reaction of our action, according to Newton’s Third Law) flows into our body.
That’s why it’s a requirement for all of us, regardless of race, creed, or nationality, to lead with our hips as we throw a punch. Kinetic energy travels through the knee in a straight line, and if a lower or upper muscle doesn’t pull correctly to align the knee with this vector, we will experience knee pain.
“Sometimes I feel so weighed down by the need to hit times. Even before the warm up I can feel myself getting nervous about managing a pace. Really, though that pace is totally arbitrary. What really matters is running the right effort, having fun and seeing how the workout fits into the bigger picture of training.”
The human body is an economic system. If only we treated it that way. The ways in which the magazines and the latest trends compel us to go about exercise and physical development just don’t observe this reality.
Because the body functions like an economy, the surest way to achieve any goal is creating the conditions for growth in that direction. This is why I speak in terms of liquid assets: assets which can be sold very quickly and without losing market value in the process. Increasing the liquidity of our body’s relevant nutrients—fats and carbohydrates, to name two—is the very first step towards entering a cycle of investment to drive the body’s economy in the direction we want—even when “growth” corresponds to growing in the direction of a lower body mass.
Even when we’re talking about running for the sole purpose of being skinny, constraining calories just won’t cut it. By forcing the body to implement austerity measures (through dieting), we destroy its ability to grow in any direction. Even though we’ll achieve skinniness in the short-term, doing so will compromise the body’s ability to maintain it. In systems-speak, this is a classic example of Shifting the Burden.
Earlier this week, I attended the Sustainable Brands: New Metrics conference hosted by MIT Sloan in Boston, Massachusetts. It was a privilege to observe and participate in an event where business leaders have come together to act on climate change and other systemic risks. At New Metrics, the hot topic was, well, metrics: the cutting-edge of what we can measure statistically and probabilistically, with the goal of applying it not to measure climate change per se, but to the impact that leading businesses are achieving, in taking us towards a sustainable future.
One of the core philosophies of this conference is that brands—the web of ideas that surround a particular product of service—already have a great amount of influence in shaping society. Brands can become the leaders for creating the kind of society (and culture of social responsibility) that will drive a sustainable future. Businesses and corporations are increasingly beginning to realize that there is no future but a sustainable future. New Metrics (and Sustainable Brands) offers the platform for intellectual, social and corporate leaders to organize around the idea that sustainability and social responsibility must form the core, rather than the fringe, of how brands address society’s present and future needs.
Earlier this summer I ran the HTC race in Oregon, a well-known, hundred-plus mile relay. I was part of an excellent and enthusiastic Reed College team. I was given the more . . . motivating, if you will, leg of the race. It consisted of a set of three stretches—legs 5, 17, and 24—totaling about 21 miles. The last stretch included an 850-ft hill. I engage with running as a form of expression, and not a form of propulsion. Nowhere does the contrast between expression and propulsion become more stark than when a single group of people—each and every person with their own metaphors, mental models, and training histories—run together up a hill in heat that closes in on the double digits.
As was the case on that particular hill.
Now, I’m not the fastest runner out there. And, I gotta say: should precedent and probability have the final say, I’ll never be. But over the years, I have developed my running to be quite effortless—and therefore, quite fast. I like to run without effort, and fully engaged, like a well-oiled machine where every tiny part is playing its part in exactly the right way, all the pistons moving in perfect synchrony, all of the forces which course through my body coursing through it in exactly the right vectors. This is a story about what effortlessness means, what it does for you, and what it feels like. But more importantly I share what are, in my opinion, the most basic ideas of how to replicate it it.
The exercise of running backwards helps the runner fix quite a few of the most common biomechanical problems, such as lateral knee pain, certain kinds of lower back pain, and plantar fasciitis. It does this by correcting the location of your center of gravity (CoG).
The CoG is importantly related to the body’s “mechanical solution,” the algorithm of muscle contractions that maintains the body erect and stable throughout the course of activity. Because the CoG is defined as the place where there are no forces acting on the body, any shifts or changes in the muscle firings that the body interacts with mechanical energy—any change in the mechanical solution—will necessarily alter the location of the center of gravity.
Strengthening a muscle that was previously too weak to be used in strenuous exercise will change the body’s mechanical solution: for any particular action, employing more muscles instead of less facilitates the body’s movement through space, since the brain is better able to correct for a center of gravity that moves due to change of direction, change of speed, or variable terrain.
Most of us know that when we run (or just walk around), our weight should be on our hips. This allows us to move faster and more powerfully, and to prevent injury. It’s also often said that the hips are the “center of gravity.”
All this is completely true. But what does “center of gravity” mean, anyway?
The “center of gravity” is the point in a body around which the resultant torque (or “resultant force“) due to gravity and other sources of mechanical energy vanishes. In other words, all of the forces that are generated by the body, as well as their interactions with the earth’s gravitational field, all get canceled out at the center of gravity.
The resultant force. This isn’t a commonly used term, but it’s one whose implications we should understand if we want to become safe, effective runners.