All posts by running in systems

Gravity: The dilemma of the “slow runner.”

Some of us just want to run slowly. We don’t really want to get fast—we just don’t care.

That’s okay. We’re all entitled to our own ways of running. But while we do that, we should recognize that there are some ways of running that observe the realities of the world (and some that don’t). Someone I met once said:

All models are wrong, and some are useful.

That goes for any and all of our ideas, including our body’s idea of what is the best way to run. No idea will ever be able to exactly model the world. But some are more useful than others—and the useful ones are useful because they account for such realities with a certain success.

We must stand in observation of the reality that, when we run, the most important force we will interact with is The Force of Gravity. The quality of our interactions with gravity will determine whether we become injured or not (among other things, like speed).

In systems thinking terms, we move and live within a particular physical system. Inside of that system, there are certain constant and variable forces which the body must be capable of interacting with. If it isn’t (yet) capable of interacting with those forces, and we push it to do so, we will compromise its integrity.

In that system, if we push off the ground, we will accelerate back to it at a rate of 9.78m/s² (32ft/s²). Which means two very important things: first, that the longer we are suspended in the air, the more we will accelerate. Second, in order to maintain bodily integrity, our muscles (but also our bones and connective tissue) must be strong enough to resist the stresses incurred by interacting with that magic number.

What this amounts to in athletic terms is that body must have (1) very strong muscles, capable of responding explosively in sustained activity, and (2), the ability to maintain the center of mass (the torso) relatively stable throughout the run. In other words, it must have the ability to make the torso rise and fall as little as possible. 

How does the body achieve this mechanically?

By moving the legs faster, i.e. increasing the stride rate (to somewhere around 180 steps per minute). If we can make our feet strike the ground 20 milliseconds (.02 seconds) faster than before, that would be .02 seconds less that we’d be accelerating towards the ground. Stronger and more powerful muscles (to move our legs faster) mean that we’re accelerating less towards the ground. But here’s the kicker:

It also means that they are more capable of withstanding the stress placed on them by gravity.

But wait: there’s more!

As Owen Anderson writes in Running Science, if we could make a 20 millisecond (ms) improvement between footfalls, that would constitute a time improvement of 756 seconds across the duration of a marathon—in other words, an improvement of 12 minutes and 36 seconds! As Anderson himself writes:

[That is] an almost infinitesimal change and therefore one that most runners can easily make.

In the interest of beating this point into the ground (pun intended), that’s 12 minutes and 36 seconds we’re not accelerating towards the ground. And remember the thing about acceleration: the first 20 milliseconds and the last 20 are not created equal.

If we’re running at 150 steps per minute, we might be in the air for 60% of the gait cycle. Doing the calculations for you, we’re accelerating towards the ground for 116 ms.

At the end of the first 20 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at a speed of .09 m/s second (.29 f/s).

At the end of the 116 ms of acceleration, we’d be going at .056 m/s, or 1.64 f/s.

But if we make a 20 ms improvement from 116 (in other words, 96), our maximum falling speed would be of 0.47 m/s, or 1.54 f/s.

Let’s reiterate: A 20 ms improvement from 116 ms means that the runner is going a tenth of a foot per second slower upon hitting the ground, and it’s only that way because of muscles that are stronger.

If take the time and energy to make our bodies more capable of interacting with gravity, we will inevitably end up being the faster version of ourselves.

Let’s internalize this, because it really does constitute the minimum passing grade of the “entry exam” for a runner:

Being strong enough to interact with gravity is the minimum power requirement for a human runner.

Although elite runners have muscles that are much more powerful than necessary to deal with the requisite 9.8 m/s², that number is where the laws of physics and the Earth’s mass have set the bar for human runners. That is our system. Those are its requirements. Let’s stand in observation of that fact.

There are two good ways that I know of, that can get us to meet those requirements. The first is by jumping rope as I’ve described, and the second one is an exercise in this video by Dr. Mark Cucuzella (at 6:09).

(By all means, look at the entire video—it’s very engaging and informative).

Now, go talk to gravity until you’ve gotten to know it like an old friend.

UPDATE: You can find a couple of good discussions on stride rate and running speed here and here.

Tight leg adductors: a common problem, its possible source, and some tips on how to address it.

Over on Facebook, R.B. asked me:

Recently, I’ve been unable to go running for more than 15 minutes without experiencing discomfort in my right knee (my dominant side). Even jumping causes some minor pain. It cracks a lot when I flex and extend it; so does the left side but not nearly as much as the right. From my preliminary research on the matter, I think I have “runner’s knee.” It may have to do with how hard I was training for a while (2x a day, running, weights, parkour, etc.) and then suddenly stopped the intensity for a couple of months this summer when I went to Brazil. Now that I’m jumping back into it, it’s been surprisingly difficult to find the right balance. Anyway, I guess my question is–do you have any suggestions (ie. exercises, readings, whatever) so I can get back to running while minimizing the likelihood of injury? I would greatly appreciate it

Before we begin, a standard disclaimer: I am NOT a physical therapist. I happen to know a lot about the body and I’ve solved this particular problem for myself and others. R.B., I would suggest that you consult a clinician, and take my advice with a grain of salt. That said, let’s go at it:

R.B was referring to a cracking on the inside of her dominant leg. This is most likely a malfunction of one of the muscles that connect the inside of the hip to the inside of the tibia on a spot called the pes anserinus, or “goose foot.”

Note that this is happening on her dominant side.

Let’s think systemically about this: Why is this happening? What problem is the body trying to solve?

Because the dominant leg is the one that supports the most weight, the body wants to bring it further in towards the center of gravity, i.e. towards the midline of the body. Imagine that you are supporting a wooden beam on two columns, but one is strong and one is weak. You’re going to want to put the strong column closer to the center, to support more weight. That’s exactly what the body is doing here:

It’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg because the non-dominant leg is too weak.

This is an example of a systems thinking concept: Shifting the Burden.  (In this case, the burden of supporting the body in an upright position is shifted from both legs onto the dominant leg). 

In order to manage that added burden, the body overuses the adductor muscles of the dominant leg, (which pull the leg towards the midline). And because the dominant leg doesn’t come out much (because it has to stay in to support the weight of the body), the abductor muscles, which pull the leg out, get very little work.

So, what happens is that you get adductor muscles which are too tight, and abductor muscles that are too weak.

Now, there are two answers to this question, and BOTH are important. The first answer is global: the system is developing a strategy of how to perform the function that R.B. is asking of it, and it’s putting too much weight on the dominant leg in order to perform that function. These kinds of sub-optimal strategies are what my favorite biomechanics bloggers, The Gait Guys, call a “compensation pattern.” As they like to say:

What you see in someone’s gait is not their problem, but rather their strategic compensation around the problem”

Let me reiterate that R.B.’s dominant leg had tight adductors because her non-dominant leg was carrying too little of her entire weight. In other words, the problem is that her non-dominant leg—particularly, the extensors and abductors on her non-dominant leg—are probably not strong enough. (In other words, the same analysis that we did within the same leg can be tentatively extrapolated to the entire body): If a set of muscles on one leg are too tight, the opposite set of muscles on the other leg will be too weak.
The second answer is local: It has to do with the adductors of the dominant leg. I’m going to post a video about how to train the adductors for this kind of problem in a few days, so for now let’s talk about ways in which we can solve the likely global (systemic) problem.

In order to see the most likely systemic problem, we have to cut across the whole body: if the muscles on the front outside of the dominant leg (abductors) are too weak, it is likely that the muscles on the rear outside of the non-dominant leg (primarily the extensors but also probably the abductors) are also too weak. Let me be clear that these are just the most likely culprits. It’s impossible to know specifically without looking at your particular case. The job of the muscles I mentioned is to hold up the leg—the very task that the non-dominant leg wasn’t doing well the first place.

R.B., I can’t give you a specific exercise for your non-dominant leg. That would be irresponsible on my part. But I can give you a general one:

The Gait guys have a cool abductor\extensor exercise that I think would be useful in your case (for your non-dominant leg). Here’s the link to the video.

What you could also do is this: during the same period (say 2-4 weeks) you are training the abductors of your dominant leg, also jump rope for a few minutes in the way I suggest. However, since you want to strengthen the extensors/abductors on your non-dominant leg, I would suggest that you emphasize jumping on your non-dominant foot. By that I mean that if you jump rope (with both feet) for a total of 6 minutes, jump 30 times on your non-dominant foot every minute.

You DON’T want your muscles to get too tired while doing this; you just want to get the non-dominant leg used to the motion of carrying your body alone.

Especiallyyou want the extensors/abductor muscles of your non-dominant leg to develop along with the abductors of your dominant leg. 

You should ensure that the relative strength of both relevant muscle groups stays constant, or you’ll create another compensation pattern.

Also the reason you want to jump rope during this period is to ensure that the strength is being incorporated into a motion pattern. It doesn’t matter how strong any of your muscle groups are if your body doesn’t know that they should be used as part of the holistic motion pattern. Getting them this motion pattern will allow you to eventually succeed on this task.

The best way to get the most bang for your buck out of this would be to jump rope after the training session for your dominant-side extensors/abductors. That way, they’ll be activated and slightly tired when you jump rope, so your body will be able to incorporate them into the motion much more easily.

Please put your questions in the comments; I’ll address them there.

Thanks for reading!

UPDATE: If something about running is difficult for you, or it’s difficult to get started running, there’s a comment thread going here.

Jumping rope to achieve good, basic running form

Difficulty: Beginner

Most running injuries come from mechanical stresses placed on the body by its own mass accelerating towards the ground thanks to the force of gravity. A simple way to reduce those mechanical stresses is to increase the body’s capability of interacting with that acceleration. And how do you train that?

Jumping rope (correctly). This exercise offers a pretty neat progression for people who want to move from heel-striking towards midfoot-striking, and for beginner runners who are trying to develop their bodies to reduce the likelihood of being hurt.


To increase coordination, interaction with gravity, proper running from, and tissue density to resist the mechanical stresses of running. Also, it teaches you to use more muscles to perform the same function, lessening the individual strain on each.

Components of proper form:

  • Flex your knees as your feet hit the ground.
  • Extend your legs as your feet leave the ground.
  • Let your back (especially your lower back) contract with every jump, and relax with every landing
  • Let your feet point on their own.
  • Use your thighs and butt to push off, not your calfs.
  • Swing the rope forward using your wrists, not your shoulders.
  • Look forward.

Basic progression:

  1. Increase single-under speed until you aren’t breathing hard any more.
  2. Train double-unders until you can do 20 continuously without stopping.

I’ll link a video describing these concepts at some point.

“Shifting the burden” in running.

Shifting the burden is a systems thinking notion that refers to a tendency to shift responsibility for the functioning of the system onto external factors. Take crutches as an example. When we use crutches, we shift the burden of keeping us in balance away from our inner ear, the calculations of our cerebellum (located at the base of the brain), and the resulting activity of the muscles that work to keep us upright. They no longer need to bear the burden of balance. Now the burden is on the crutches.

For now, let’s put aside the fact that some people need to use crutches to move around in the world. Instead, lets focus on what would happen if a fully able-bodied person begins to use crutches: they would begin to lose the back strength necessary to balance their own bodies.

There are many examples of this phenomenon. Most of us are aware that astronauts experience bone and muscle deterioration while in space, to such an extent that it becomes vital for them to maintain a rigorous exercise routine during missions. A much less extreme example of this is when we put our arm in a cast to heal a broken bone: after two months of immobility, that arm will be much thinner and weaker than the other.

In both cases, the burden of support was shifted away from the muscles and bones, and they grew correspondingly weaker.

“Shifting the burden” is relevant to running because as a society, we have largely shifted the burden of developing speed away from the body and onto the sports drinks and shoe industry.

But that industry helps a lot of people get started! There would be many people that wouldn’t be able to run marathons if not for big-heeled running shoes and energy gels!

That’s the problem. Big-heeled running shoes is a quick-fix. Imagine how much longer it would take to go through the trouble of making a comprehensive mechanical assesment of the body, and taking the time to develop all the correct muscular systems. Just put motion-control shoes on someone, and you can get them running now!

Let me share a little nugget of wisdom from The Fifth Discipline, one of the most important works of Systems Thinking. Peter Senge writes:

“An underlying problem generates symptoms that demand attention. But the underlying problem is difficult for people to address, either because it is obscure or costly to confront. So people “shift the burden” of their problems to other solutions—well-intentioned, easy solutions which seem extremely efficient. Unfortunately, the easier “solutions” only ameliorate the symptoms; they leave the underlying problem unaltered. The underlying problem grows worse, unnoticed because the symptoms apparently clear up, and the system loses whatever abilities it had to solve the underlying problem.”

Fixing the body’s biomechanics and making sure everything is in tip-top shape and ready to run a 5k or a marathon is both obscure and costly to confront (in time, energy, and vision, if not money). Once the underlying problem of shifting the burden (say, to running shoes with a big heel) has grown bad enough, we experience a breakdown in the system’s capabilities: injury.

“Shifting the burden” occurs all over, and not just in physical systems: people shift the burden of interacting socially away from their abilities and from managing their anxiety onto alcohol, for example. You add a little bit of alcohol, and the tongue loosens. But begin to depend on it too much, and eventually it’ll begin to negatively affect your social interactions—making the very problem that you were trying to solve grow even worse.

This discussion illustrates the reason why I use systems thinking to develop my training routines. As long as the thing that we’re trying to develop is some kind of system, the principle of “shifting the burden” will hold. In other words, it doesn’t matter what kind of system we’re talking about. If the burden of its performance gets shifted onto another system, it will become dependent on that other system.

By coming to the conversation armed with systems thinking, we can neatly sidestep the discussions of whether soft shoes are better than minimalist shoes (or whatever). If what we’re doing is an example of shifting the burden, the system is going to head towards dependency and an eventual inability to perform. It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about the economic system, the psychological system, or the musculoskeletal system. No matter what the doctor tells you:

“Any long-term solution must strengthen the ability of the system to shoulder its own burdens” – Donella Meadows, Thinking in Systems: A primer.

It’s a sad story for those maximalists pushing their Hoka Ones like happy candy: soft shoes with big heels are an excellent example of shifting the burden. For example, it has been argued that heeled shoes allow the leg to strike the body ahead of the center of mass (i.e. the torso). This shifts the burden of increasing the length of the stride away from the quads and the glutes on the pushoff (rear) leg and away from the flexors on the swing (front) leg.

Because now the stride can be longer despite weaker muscles, running will now incurring massive stress damage to the body. (For a longer discussion on this point, see this post.

We don’t have wait for the debate between minimalists and maximalists to settle in order to decide whether shoes with a big heel-toe drop is good for us or not. That’s not the point. All we have to ask is: are we shifting the burden of [blank] away from [blank]?

In future posts, I’ll write extensively about many of the ways in which we shift the burden, and how to shift it back to our biomechanics and physiology. For now, we can begin that general process by thinking about a quote from Bruce Lee:

“It’s not the daily increase but the daily decrease. Hack away at the unessential.”

This isn’t just a cute tidbit of wisdom. As I’ve discussed before, the ways in which we think about things affect our biomechanics. The reason Bruce Lee’s speed and power was unequaled was probably because of the unequaled discipline and creativity with which he maintained an evolving understanding of such philosophical statements.

Like Bruce Lee, find those systems we shift the burden towards. Through trial and error, lets hack away at them.

The problem with the “foot-strike”

Proponents of minimalist and barefoot running often suggest that we should run by striking the ground with the ball of our foot (forefoot-striking). Most expert coaches these days try to get their athletes midfoot-striking (at the level of the arch). And minimalists and experts agree that both forefoot- and midfoot-striking are better than heel-strking (where the heel hits the ground before the rest of the foot).

This post isn’t about any of that.

It’s about the problem of thinking that when our foot lands on the ground, our foot must “strike.”

Why is this important? Because most common source of running injuries is undue mechanical stress. In running, we can’t get around some stress: every time that we step and the body is lifted off the ground, gravity accelerates it back to the ground. But exactly how we do that—whether we do it in a way that’s amenable to the body or not—will influence whether we become injured or not. And if we think that the action of accelerating towards the ground is supposed to be “a strike,” then our subconscious is liable to make our footfalls increasingly aggressive. They’ll tend to evoke all the things that we associate with “striking:” disruption, damage, and violent displacement.

“But we can’t damage the ground!” You might say.

My argument would end there, if it were not for Newton’s Third Law of motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.

All the force that we put into the ground also travels into our body. And you could say: “Yeah, but we just call it striking. It doesn’t really affect our footfalls.”

If only that were the case. The brain happens to be an associative machine. Our knowledge quite literally grows by linking concepts with other concepts, and these links powerfully influence our actions. Their repercussions extend at least to the physical and social systems we navigate. As the saying goes: neurons that fire together, wire together. Neurolinguistic Programming—the idea that we can affect the ways in which we do things by thinking of them differently—is based on these scientific findings. So is most of the advertising industry, which tries to make us associate eating McDonalds with being an Olympian, and Coca-Cola with happiness.

It logically follows that if we associate footfalls with the act of striking, we’ll inevitably put greater stresses into our body than if we associated footfalls with something less violent.

That, by the way, is not a new idea. It’s all over, but rarely seen in Western culture. I believe that we care too much about combat, too much about shock-and-awe, and supremacy—ideas I don’t feel I have to justify further, given our long-standing colonial tendencies—to accommodate it easily. One example of this idea is a Tarahumara saying (which has also been attributed to the Navajo and the Apache, just to name two of many): “The fastest runner leaves no tracks.”

Other examples crop up in many, many of the cultures that have a firsthand appreciation of the biosphere (as opposed to a firsthand appreciation of a constructed world, in which the biosphere is referred to as “the wilderness” or “the outdoors”). Many of these cultures teach their youth to walk “like a leopard” or “like a tiger“—very softly, that is. To many of these cultures, there was practicality in stealth.

The point isn’t to impress upon you the alleged wisdom of the Other. I mean to make the point that the core defining values of a society, and the attitudes from which we gain social capital, will have effects all over—including in our biomechanics.

The social systems in which we live are quite capable of affecting the way in which we run, whether we’d like them or not. This assertion should not be construed to mean that we can’t have softer biomechanics if we live in these “shock-and-awe” societies. We just have to pierce through the veil of the everyday and become aware of something we used to be blind to. Basically, we have to understand what paradigms we’re coming from. We internalize the idea that our culture comes with lots of baggage, some of which may be conducive to better running and better training, and some of which may not. Having internalized this idea, we have the power to make new associations: maybe a footfall doesn’t have to be a “strike.”

I think about it in terms of “receiving” the ground. When I run, I don’t strike the ground. I don’t want my body stiff as all those forces go into it, thank you very much. I receive the ground with my foot and move it behind me, like in judo. I offer no resistance to it, like in aikido. Then, as my center of gravity moves forwards, I express myself again. With practice and mindfulness, our footfalls, our action of reception and expression, can become faster and increasingly more powerful.

Suggested Reading:

Corbett, Jim. Jungle lore. Oxford University Press, 1953.

Lee, Bruce. The art of expressing the human body. Vol. 4. Tuttle Publishing, 1998.

McDougall, Christopher. Born to Run: A hidden tribe, superathletes, and the greatest race the world has never seen. Random House LLC, 2011.

Powell, M. Norman, and Ingwe Powell. Ingwe. Kendall/Hunt, 1995.

Pulvermüller, Friedemann. “Brain mechanisms linking language and action.”Nature Reviews Neuroscience 6.7 (2005): 576-582.

Running and inquiry: A few thoughts and neuroses.

Running shouldn’t be understood as an activity that’s only for the lucky, crazy, or indestructible few.

There’s a growing body of evidence, fueled by the likes of great scientists like Daniel Lieberman and Tim Noakes (among others), which suggests that running is much more than a popular pastime, or a good opportunity for a multi-billion dollar industry.

According to them, we aren’t just great runners compared to the rest of the animal world. We stand on two legs, have big butts, a big brain and a capacity to plan into the future because we evolved on the run. (I’m making it sound like this idea is still being seriously contested; you should see my Intro Biology professors at Reed offhandedly mention this like it’s old news, as a side note during some random lecture).

But I like to reference people and use conditionals because it gives me deniability.

In that spirit, if it is the case that we are great runners, why do we think of running as “hard,” as “a pain-fest,” and as “pounding the ground” (or whatever)?

See, the thing about me is that nowadays I take this growing body of evidence as evidence that we evolved to be runners. (At first I didn’t. Not for real). By this, I mean that for all accounts, running should feel kinda similar to how an unnamed German test pilot described the sensation of flying the first jet fighter, the Messerschmitt me 262. He said it felt “like angels pushing.”

For most of us, running doesn’t feel like that. And let’s get real: for those people who have severe neuromechanical problems and certain disabilities, there are mountains to be moved, which none of us can move alone, before running can feel like that. It is our collective responsibility to cooperate to move those mountains, and create opportunities, so that whoever wants to partake in this human activity can do so.

In my case, running didn’t feel like angels at first.

I started really running about a year and a half before I read Born to Run. After I read it, my usual 4-mile runs abruptly increased in distance by 350 percent. Bad idea. My shin splints got so bad that it would take two miles of running before my battered shins went numb.

It took me two years and four injuries to internalize the fact that the problem with my shins wasn’t whether I “was” or “wasn’t” a runner in some abstract sense. Try reading Lieberman’s paper: it’s a bit dense, like most academic papers, but the evidence is solid. We’re runners. Period. Which led me to realize:

It’s not whether we can run. The question is why it’s working for some and not others.

The truth is that I’ve never been surrounded by a culture of running like the Tarahumara. I’ve never had the biomechanical opportunities which are available to a less urban person. But although I’ll never have innate, timeless wisdom (if there is such a thing), there are opportunities available to me and you: all the knowledge about physiology, biomechanics, psychology and society that we have accrued. All of it at our fingertips.

As runners, we bring to the starting line whatever hand we were dealt: a life of running. A culture of athletics. Great genetics.  The cumulative knowledge of western science is not an insignificant hand.  Problem is, most of us, (myself included) don’t even look at our cards before we toe the line.

We can’t shed a tear over which genetics we “got” (whatever that means). Epigenetics is a thing. There’s plenty of hidden code we can pull out of our chromosomes, if we train under the weight of more knowledge.

That said, let’s go find some giants and stand on their shoulders.

The nice thing is that these days we have giants aplenty, a few clicks away.

I’ve done a little bit of clicking, and I’ve begun to ask the “why” question for my own personal situation. I’d say i opened a can of worms, but it’s more like a can of many-headed hydras. Questions only beget more questions.

The short story is that running isn’t the problem. It’s everything else. It’s whether I think of myself as a slow runner or a fast runner. A forefoot-striker or a heel-striker. Whether I like to have a light breakfast, a heavy one, or no breakfast at all. But most importantly, why i do, or don’t. Because behind that “why” lies another variable, which was affecting me (my physical, mental, emotional, or spiritual health) and without my knowing, influencing the consistency and power of my athletic expression. Not knowing what lies behind the “why”—or not caring—is the problem.

There are so many variables that we interact with on a daily basis, and all of these affect our energy level, our posture, whether our energy use is predominantly anaerobic. Maybe we’ve been told that we’re bad runners and therefore we run shyly, putting ourselves at a mechanical disadvantage in relation to gravity. Maybe it’s something else. We can take inventory of those maybes. We can learn what other maybes lie behind, and change them.

In the interest of developing speed, power, and endurance, and to develop faster, I like to use concepts from Systems Thinking (of which Donella Meadows and Peter Senge are luminaries) to try to understand the biological, psychological and social systems which we are parts of. I want to outsmart these systems. I want to get their tricks, their purpose, and their inner workings. I want to use them to my advantage and quicken the process of building a hell of a running machine. Maybe you want that for yourself too.

In a nutshell, that’s what I’ll explore here.