Tag Archives: biomechanics

Verticality, Part I: Basics of uphill trail running

“Verticality” is a term I’ve heard loosely thrown around in rock climbing and mountaineering circles. It means, well, just about exactly what you’d expect it to: sometimes it describes the sheerness (a.k.a. the slope) of a rock face, and sometimes it describes the skill of being able to interact with that face.

I use “verticality” in the second sense, to think about trailrunning.

I’m currently training for the McDonald Forest 50K trail run here in Oregon, which has a ridiculous amount of elevation change—for a road runner like me. My challenge, then, is to learn how to interact with the variables that make the typical trail different from the typical road. These are:

  • Slope (Uphill vs. Downhill).
  • Variability (rugged terrain, rocks, roots, mud, etc.)

In other words, I’m not training “endurance” or “power” for this trail race. I can’t really expand them significantly when so little time is left before the event. But what I can develop, of course, is verticality.

Particularly in trail races, I think that a person’s ability to interact with the many variables present in trailrunning is a much bigger determinant for success than, say, power. While power is still very important, our ability to interact with the trail determines whether we get to use it or not.

Essentially, the added variables in play means that the skilled runner—the runner whose body understands those variables and knows how to use them—will see their physiological advantage magnified over the runner who doesn’t. (I use the term “advantage” because skilled runners also tend to be both more physiologically powerful and more experienced in different slopes and terrains than unskilled runners, because they usually have spent more time running).

Trailrunning is an immense can of worm, so I’ll discuss each part in a separate post. In this one, I’ll deal solely with uphill running.

The typical runner facilitates uphill running by bending forward at the waist much like one does during acceleration.

This seems like a pretty good idea on the surface: by leaning forward, you are able to cruise up the hill faster without working harder. But there’s a trade-off: you compromise the stacking of your ankle, hip, shoulder, and head. Specifically, this means that you put a lot of strain on your lower back, similar to the strain a person experiences when they bend from the waist to pick up a heavy object.

When you compound this across thousands of steps, and the lower back becomes significantly tired, the hamstrings have to step in to provide hip stability (say). Without going into the details, this essentially creates a snowball effect that increases the difficulty of running, and therefore the likelihood of injury.

In a popular video, ultrarunning god Scott Jurek explains how one of the key features of correct uphill running is to keep your hips in neutral position, or correctly stacked over your shoulders. This might lead us to say that the key is to lean forward “from the ankle,” like many suggest. That’s somewhat true, but doesn’t really describe the best strategy for running uphill.

Looking at elite ultrarunners like Kilian Jornet (2:35) and Dakota Jones (1:15), we can see that their strategy for climbing steep slopes is by pulling their foot from the ground and back under their hips very quickly. An easy way to observe the effect of this pulling action is by seeing just how much they raise their thigh. Even though they’re covering comparatively little horizontal distance, their foot has to come up quickly enough that their thigh gets almost parallel with the horizon before their foot lands on the ground.

UPDATE: The raising of the thigh—also known as “thigh spread,” is just an obvious marker. For running to be effective, the focus must be on pulling the foot from the ground back under their hips. While this is fodder for another article, let me just say that one of the reasons runners should focus on the foot and not the thigh is because if we control the movement of the foot, we also control the movement of the calf and thigh (but if we control the movement of the thigh, we do not necessarily control the movement of the foot or calf).

kilian dakota

Instead of “powering up” the trail, skilled runners “fall up” the trail in the very same way that during a lunge someone falls further forward by increasing the flexion of their swing leg. (A lunge, of course, doesn’t have the same “pulling” action as running—the foot of the swing leg moves ahead of the center of gravity, instead of staying under it.) But the point is that in both movements, the degree of flexion of the swing leg determines the amount of distance covered.

While the hip extension of the back (stance) leg is greater in a deeper lunge or a higher step, a greater flexion of the swing leg is actually what accomplishes this. (In running, this means “pulling” the foot; in the lunge this means reaching forward). As far as the back leg is concerned, the difference between a shallow lunge and a deep lunge is not in ankle or knee extension—both shallow and deep, the stance leg knee is in near-full extension and the ankle is close to neutral. As far as the stance leg is concerned, the difference is in the degree of hip extension.

Lunge - fall

Like for the lunge, in uphill running it’s not the prerogative of the back hip to extend as much as it wants, whenever it wants. If the front leg remains relatively more extended during the stride, it’s impossible to (1) open up the compass, or to (2) lean forward “from the ankle” as I discussed above: the slope gets in the way. But if (3) the swing foot is pulled faster from the ground, it can cover a larger distance.

Uphill - Fall

A simpler way to say this is that hip extension of the stance leg occurs in function of flexion of the swing leg.

The key to uphill running, then, is (a) to lean forward only insofar joint stacking isn’t compromised, (b) to pull the foot up faster, and (c) to maintain stride rate, as Dr. Nicholas Romanov (founder of the Pose Method) points out in an excellent video. (Maintaining stride rate is a result of a quick and efficient pull).

Of course, this brings an additional level to the discussion: pulling the foot faster means that the runner has to be that much more powerful, or at least have that much more of a conditioned pull than someone who runs on more moderate slopes.

But if the degree of pull of the swing foot gets to determine how much hip extension of the stance leg you get, this means that the rule for uphill running also applies to regular running. The faster person on level ground will also be the faster person on the uphill.

One final point: the slope doesn’t lend importance to the pull. It magnifies it. (Put another way, the same rules apply to a slope of .003 percent than to a slope of 15. The magnitude of the slope determines how apparent they are.) The greater the slope, the more powerful a pull you need to be able to move continuously, smoothly, and successfully up it.

This has dire implications for the runner who has trained under the paradigm that “pushing”with the stance leg is the primary form of propulsion: insofar as this is the case, the degree of effort it takes to run uphill will be that much greater. The greater the slope, the faster the pulling runner will pull ahead* of the pushing runner.

(What does the pulling runner have to do to win an argument about running physics? Find a hill.)

*Pun intended.

PS. Here’s a great article that discusses several pulling drills!

PPS. Here’s another great video by Dr. Romanov discussing foot-strengthening exercises for uphill running!

Strategizing Stress, Part 1

Training, like life, is a messy business.

I say this because lately I’ve been working with two excellent models of athletic training, Pose Method and MAF. Writing about them is the easy part. Applying them is more difficult. I recently ran across a very interesting case of a Pose/MAF enthusiast who wants to develop an aerobic base according to MAF principles, but has to sacrifice the correct form (a.k.a. running Pose) to do so.

(And ends up getting plantar fasciitis in the process.)

However, just because you get plantar fasciitis when you run at an aerobic intensity—which for most people means “running slowly” (OK, very slowly)—does NOT mean that you get to skip building an aerobic base. Building an aerobic base is important. And to ensure any sort of long-term well-being (particularly as an athlete), it’s necessary. One of the key functions of the aerobic system is to buffer and absorb the stresses induced by high-intensity activity.

In order to develop a good aerobic base, it’s important to stay at a low intensity. According to the MAF Method, the point at which you get the most bang for your buck out of aerobic base building is just under the MAF Heart rate (what researchers refer to as the “aerobic threshold”).

But a certain amount of energy is necessary to maintain good running form. If the aerobic system can’t provide enough energy, then your body has to work harder (increasing the intensity) and recruit the anaerobic system to provide the rest. When the aerobic system becomes relegated to its auxiliary function—processing the by-products of anaerobic exercise (lactate and hydrogen ions)—it will begin to break down. Two strategies help protect its health:

  • Allowing it to rest between periods of high-intensity activity.
  • Creating opportunities for it to be the main provider of energy for exercise.

So, when someone has to forgo the period of low-intensity training that we typically term “aerobic base training,” it becomes very important to strategize the stresses of exercise. On the metabolic side, running slow isn’t worth the plantar fasciitis it’ll create (in this case). And on the biomechanic side, we have to be careful that the stresses of running at a higher intensity don’t exceed what an untrained aerobic base can handle.

A safe way to do this is by taking a hybrid approach:

Combine 2-3 days a week of relatively easy Pose training (running+drills) with 2-3 days a week of walking, jumping rope 5 days a week anywhere from 5-15 minutes. While this isn’t really aerobic base training, it is still a way to develop (or at least maintain) aerobic fitness while taking steps to remain injury-free. While the Pose training is “higher intensity,” there are two options for how to manage it correctly:

  • Keep sessions short (read: fatigue-free) and high-intensity (threshold pace and above).
  • Do longer (also fatigue-free) sessions below the anaerobic threshold.

In regards to aerobic training: even if you walk quickly, you’re unlikely to come close to your MAF HR. However, you’ll still be able to develop aerobically at a slower pace. A better option, if you have the means, is to go doing moderate hiking with your heart rate monitor, which should put your heart rate a little bit closer to MAF, for the most part. I myself happen to have trails 5 minutes away from my doorstep (downtown!), but that isn’t the case for most of us.

Jumping rope will get your heart rate closer to MAF than walking. Another benefit is that it helps you train one of the key components of running: the Pose. The Pose is that snapshot of the running gait where one foot is on the ground, the other is passing under the hips, and the body is in a slightly S-shaped stance.

By jumping rope—or even better, (a) jumping rope while alternating feet or (b) doing simple Pose drills in the process—it’s possible (for a lot of us) to train the running Pose without going over the MAF HR. (Remember: trying to maintain the running Pose was the initial reason for exceeding MAF.) But after having practiced the running pose under the MAF HR, it’ll take comparatively less aerobic base training to be able to produce the running Pose at the desired, low-intensity heart rate.

How long will it take to develop an aerobic base that’s good enough to maintain a running Pose throughout a run? It really depends on the person: their metabolic and biomechanical starting point, lifestyle, and devotion to their pursuit of athleticism.


Shoulder (T-Spine) training for runners: Completely overlooked, and absolutely necessary.

The benefits of lower-body training have always been obvious for runners. For the past few years, we’ve seen that the ill-defined and ill-understood “core” has come into its own as a legitimate focus of attention for runners who want to better their athletic situation.

The shoulders are just as important as the core—and yet almost completely neglected.

Most of us who are a little bit studied in the science of running know that arm swing is largely passive—a way for the body to contralaterally balance the movement of the legs. So why should we even worry about the shoulders?

We should care because of how they are connected to the body and how they affect the areas around them. The shoulder region is also known as the “T-Spine”—the T-shaped structure created by the backbone, the shoulder blades, and the collarbone (and of course, the hugely complex array of muscles, tendons, and ligaments that contribute to its function).

If any one of the muscles implicated in T-spine function is impaired, functionality of the entire structure goes down the drain.


Developing T-Spine functionality is important not only because the shoulders and arms are part of the body (and are needed for running well) but because in that immediate vicinity is the ribcage—and the ribcage houses the lungs and the heart, which are the main facilitators of the aerobic system (a.k.a. the distance runner’s main engine).

Bad T-spine function isn’t isolated to runners—it’s one of the biggest motor problems in the general population. In this sedentary world, our brains never had to understand how to use this complex (yet astonishingly elegant) interface between the arms and the torso.

Think about what happens when someone has bad general stability (they are “klutzy”), and their stability is challenged by walking on a balance beam or a raised log: they tense up and are unable to complete the task—or alternately, grossly underperform relative to someone with better motor control.

The same thing happens to the T-spine, particularly in a dynamic, repetitive-impact sport such as running. (Imagine, if you will, the same log or balance beam shaking repeatedly).

When faced with this kind of challenge, any impairment in function causes the T-Spine to seize up and refuse to move.The arms stop being able to swing freely. The “natural” arc that the arms would follow passively (if there was total freedom of movement) gets altered. Because the arm swing directly counterbalances the movement of the legs, either the legs move differently to match the different arm-swing, or the movement of the body stops being in sync with the forces traveling through it.

As is the case with Mr. Shutterstock here.

These are the building blocks for a running injury. (But it gets worse).

Since the shoulder blades sit on top of the ribcage (and the rest of the T-spine mechanism is literally all around it), the ability of the ribcage to expand and contract is immediately impaired. The diaphragm must work harder to make the lungs expand. Less oxygen permeates the body (with more effort), resulting is less aerobic development. In the long-term, improvement stagnates.

A mechanical problem can have far-reaching consequences: it can (indirectly) impair the body’s ability to utilize energy.

Or it can force a hopeful distance runner to think that they “aren’t made for endurance.”

The problem becomes exacerbated for broader-shouldered runners (like me) who lose upper-body mass due to the natural emphasis running places on the lower body system. These runners have comparatively more bone mass up top, which means that they need comparatively more muscle mass in order to keep that heavier structure mobile and stable.

When the T-Spine is neglected, muscle strength may drop to the point that it takes a lot more effort to keep this structure stable. Adding distance (or increasing power) may cause the weakened structure to seize up.

A seeming conflict of interest arises here: stockier runners have an increased need to lose weight to improve running economy. Keeping the muscle mass necessary to stabilize the T-Spine may mean that they won’t be as fast, at least in the short term.

The thing is, it’ll open up oceans of future potential. Usually, the main bottleneck for the development of a distance runner isn’t their weight. As Gray Cook said in a recent interview on T-Nation, “Technique is always the bottleneck of limitation.” This is true even when applied to something as basic as T-spine mobility. If the body—or a part of it—can’t move right, that athlete is never going to fulfill their potential.

T-Spine function is not the only problem plaguing runners. But how many runners may be plateauing because of this—and don’t know it?

UPDATE: While we can’t pinpoint the origin of Mr. Shutterstock’s problem from a picture—the problem may originate in the pelvis, for example—it is plainly evident that the shoulders, arms, and the entire T-Spine isn’t moving correctly.

UPDATE 10/22/15: Matt Whitehead from Oregon Exercise Therapy shared an excellent article about many of the specific postural imbalances associated with T-Spine dysfunction. He makes a great point about the “dos” and “don’ts” for correcting these kinds of problems: “[Nike athlete Mary Cain’s] coach can drill her over and over about swinging her arms straight forward and back, but it just won’t happen until her upper body posture is improved.”

Training for training: why we need to get our bodies ready to run.

 The question I hear possibly the most often (about running or otherwise) is this: “I want to start running. How do I begin?”

I have to admit, I often answer this question a bit defensively, almost pre-empting any further questions or comments by saying “whoa, slow down.” Almost invariably, I find, people want to be runners tomorrow—immediately, that is. And for the majority of people who ask me this question, who stopped due to injury—a torn ACL, shin stress fractures, chronic plantar fasciitis—the answer isn’t what they’d like to hear:

 Slowly. Very slowly. Considerations aside, a 5k in a year. A marathon, in ten.

For most, there’s a lot of ground to be covered, a lot of the body’s infrastructure to be built (or rebuilt), before we can legitimately consider that this body is prepared to run: we’d like to believe that all the complex movements that we make every single day—brushing our teeth, getting up from a chair, typing on a computer—are really as simple as they seem to us.

The truth is that they aren’t. Using a single hand in a skilled task takes an enormous amount of the brain’s computing power, to synchronize all the muscles just so. The brain must find a way, then, to counterbalance the movements of the hand with fine-grained activity in the postural muscles in the trunk and hips. If this is done incorrectly, we fall over.

(Likely, this is a major contributor to falls taken by senior citizens: an aging brain is not as capable at navigating these immensely complex tasks as it once was, and once, every ten thousand steps or so, something gives).

When we run, we’re doing the same: we’re using the body for a staggeringly complex task, one which demands that we maintain balance, and all of this occurring when there are enormous forces at play. Although we humans sometimes fancy ourselves weak and delicate beings, our bodies are powerful athletic machines, whose power is tempered by a superior cortex (in the brain) which micromanages our every move to a degree we cannot begin to fathom. And we exert all of our athletic power against the force of gravity, which brings us crashing to the ground at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared.

We have to prepare our bodies for that, in a way that observes the enormity of the task. To do anything else is folly.

Any successful training program will have to put first things first. For runners, this means the ability to get the entire body, but most importantly the hip, knee, and ankle regions (this includes the foot and lower back) to effectively engage with the force of gravity. (Lower-body plyometrics, but especially jumping rope, do exactly this). Once you do that, the rest of the body’s mechanics basically fall into place. And after that happens, dramatic gains in ability will begin to happen as a matter of course: it is now possible to sustain heavy endurance and speed training, with reasonable confidence that injury will not occur in the regular course of training.

From this discussion, I draw the following principle: in order to become proficient at any athletic enterprise, we first need to prepare our bodies to engage in training.

 You may think that I’m splitting hairs—that training is training, and that’s all there is to it—but I think there is an important distinction to be made here: namely, that any athletic pursuit has at least one overt and at least one covert component.

What do I mean by this?

Take, for example, the case of classical martial arts, say boxing. In order to develop our boxing ability, we need to develop speed, power, footwork, and reaction time. These are all overt components. But there is an objective to all this speed and power: to bring our fists into contact with an adversary’s body.

This is where the covert component comes in: We have to develop the integrity of the bone, muscle, tendon, and fascia in our hands and arms, which translate all of the force we generate into the body of our opponent. Our upper extremities have to be ready for that.

Now notice I didn’t write “strength.” I used a more technical term: “integrity.”

Boxing, like running, is a chaotic enterprise. This means that every step we take is a little different than the last: either the ground is different, or a part of our body is getting more tired, (or, in the case of boxing, our hands are coming into contact with unexpectedly uneven and hard surfaces on our opponent’s body, or our heavy bag).

It is not only important that the muscles in our hand be strong, but also that they be capable of adapting and re-adapting to these changing conditions, and to the massive (and changing) forces that occur. If we look at this problem overtly, and say “we need strength,” we may end up solidifying our forearms (or our calves), and turning them into hard, resistant structures.

But like the parable of the oak and the willow shows us, a term like “strength” cannot be easily defined when the objective is performance. In this parable, an oak and a willow are subjected to hurricane winds. The oak takes the burnt of it: it stands strong, immovable, as the winds pick up and pick up. In this wind, the willow has already begun to bend.

As the winds become inexorably stronger, the willow bends further, but the oak, which does not budge, begins to creak and creak until it is torn out by the roots.

The oak was strong because it was solid. The willow was strong because it was interactive. This should cause us to reminisce in a well-known saying:

“Be water, my friend.”

-Bruce Lee.

Like the willow, and Bruce Lee’s metaphor, our strength ultimately resides in the capability of our bodies to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and the forces that surround us.

If we runners make our bodies hard and resistant—or neglect any preparation at all—we’ll find ourselves in a position where we’ll only be able to train our speed, our endurance, or say, our VO2MAX, up until our body gives (which it will).

But if, instead, we train our body’s interactivity, we’ll become increasingly capable to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and with the forces that surround us.

Ultimately, integrity doesn’t just mean the integrity of our bodies in an of themselves, but the integration of our bodies within a system: when we box, our bodies and minds form a system with the heavy bag and all of its dynamics. When we run, our bodies form a system with the changing terrain.

Once our bodies are integrated with the relevant systems and forces at a basic level—once they are ready to engage in trainingwe can begin to increase the magnitude of the demands on the system: as boxers, we can begin to increase the speed and power of contact, and as runners we can begin to genuinely extend our endurance, increase our speed, and maximize the level of effort we put into our runs.

Tendinopathy, musculoskeletal characteristics, systemic strategies, and running.

I came across a very interesting research article titled Running Biomechanics: Shorter Heels, Better Economy. Evidence is presented that running economy is determined by supposedly immutable factors in the athlete’s musculoskeletal structure, such as the moment arm of the achilles tendon, which refers to the distance between the achilles tendon and the ankle joint, which serves as the fulcrum of rotation. The evidence presented suggests that greater running economy—the amount of energy stored in the tendons, to be used in the next step—correlates with a shorter moment arm far more strongly than with other factors such as  lower leg volume or VO2 (a given rate of oxygen consumption). This has serious implications for the advice given to runners on how to improve their running economy.


The authors conclude that 56% of the variation in running economy between runners could be predicted by the moment arm of the achilles tendon. This is interesting, considering that other studies suggest that there are 20-30% differences in running economy even among elite athletes. The study, which selected highly-trained, competitive male runners as participants, corroborates these findings.

This body of data suggests that, by and large, training does not affect running economy, when running economy is a function of the body’s skeletal configuration. What does this mean? That when it is up to the physical characteristics of someone’s bone structure, changes to running economy cannot be easily made. Because the achilles tendon moment arm (which corresponds to the distance between the ankle joint and the heel bone) is fixed in adults, the abovementioned 56% in variation is also fixed.

However, factors that aren’t skeletal could affect running economy—factors such as poor muscle coordination and imbalance. For example, one of the most common problems in amateur runners is stiffness of the soleus and gastrocnemius (calf) muscles. Often, this contributes to excessive plantarflexion (pointing of the foot) and premature heel rise during the late stage of the stance phase of gait. (Heel rise should occur during pushoff phase).

dosiflexion_plantar_flexion (1)

By raising the heel, the achilles tendon moment arm increases, allowing the gastrocnemius to exert more force against the ground. However, as the above-referenced article would suggest, this means that comparatively less energy would be stored in the achilles tendon. Other research on achilles tendinopathy corroborates this, with findings that those who suffer from the condition often have a reduced activation of the tibialis anterior muscle. By and large, those who suffer from achilles tendinopathy will point the foot to decrease loading of the tendon.

It is likely that pointing the foot as a result of achilles tendinopathy is a two-pronged strategy: both the reduction in tendon loading and the increase in achilles moment arm contribute to maintaining a functioning system. In light of the abovementioned research, this increase in moment arm means that force exerted into the ground is achieved through active muscle contractions of the soleus and gastrocnemius, rather than passive energy storage in the achilles tendon. By offsetting the production of power from the tendon to the muscle, the limb can remain useful in a suboptimal state.

This means that there is no single way to improve running performance. In fact, unless you have severely impaired biomechanics—which, granted, is more than commonplace in modern runners—there is nothing much you can do about your running economy. But unless you already use your body perfectly, there is no point in worrying about a large achilles moment arm. And if you already do use your body perfectly, there is no point in worrying about it either: you’ll simply end up developing other faculties, such as the aerobic engine, as your body seeks to achieve greater speed and endurance.

In Running Science, Owen Anderson compares Steve Prefontaine and Frank Shorter, writing that even though both athletes had very similar times in the 10,000 meter race, Prefontaine had a markedly higher VO2max (maximum volume of oxygen consumption per minute) than Shorter.   Anderson’s analysis is that Shorter had superior biomechanics, while Prefontaine had to develop greater aerobic capacity. However, in light of the presented evidence (and a cursory glance over both athletes’ physiology and body type), it is likely that Shorter had musculoskeletal advantages over Prefontaine, such as a reduced achilles tendon moment arm.

Steve Prefontaine
                   Steve Prefontaine

Concretely, this means that faulty biomechanics aside, certain runners will benefit more from particular kinds of training than others. For example, a runner with a huge achilles tendon moment arm may benefit more from weightlifting and muscle power exercises, particularly those that develop the tibialis anterior, allowing for ankle stabilization during the landing phase at greater ankle dorsiflexion than runners with a smaller achilles tendon moment arm: as mentioned above, dorsiflexing the foot reduces the achilles moment arm and increases loading (which is why those with achilles tendinopathy avoid it).

Runners who have to increase dorsiflexion to a greater extent for a given running economy will still be relying on more muscle power than those who don’t, at least in some fashion: the moment arm of the tibialis anterior (which dorsiflexes the foot) increases throughout dorsiflexion. In other words, this will offset the need for muscle power from the rear muscles to the front muscles, at least in the calf region.

It’s likely that the same biomechanic advice—advice on how to develop running economy—won’t be equally useful for two different runners. Although running economy will be largely a function of achilles tendon moment arm, running speed, endurance, and overall performance is not. Runners should study their bodies (or get studied by an expert) to see what kinds of training will help them develop their race performance.

Keep in mind that running economy is not the same thing as running performance. Prefontaine and Shorter’s comparison should tell you that. However, certain people have attributes that favor specific skillsets. Some people have great muscle power, others have great economy. Lately, running trends have been focusing too much on the energy-return properties of the body—so much so that runners are either alienated or forget that the body has other properties. The body is always more complex than the latest trend says so. And even if the latest trend does not validate the attributes that we should develop to make us better runners, it doesn’t mean those attributes aren’t there, or are somehow less important. The human body is an extremely complex machine, capable of achieving great performance through many different avenues. With a bit of study, we can figure out what those are.

An internet encounter with static stretching.

Yesterday, while I was browsing Facebook, I happened to click on a link that advertised the 30 best premium WordPress themes. Curious, I started to browse through the list, and I came upon one that I was curious about: “spartan,” which has a nice internet-mag style layout.

As I looked at the live preview—nothing fancy; just catchy headlines, stock images and lipsum text—I scrolled down and saw that one of the example articles had a headline that read: “Don’t forget to stretch after your workout!”

Continue reading An internet encounter with static stretching.

The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

Static stretching is one of the most entrenched exercise habits in the western hemisphere, especially for runners. It doesn’t do any favors to our running economy, our injury rates, our long-term development of power—and yet it endures.

You would think this means that we have an unabashed cultural acceptance of stretching, but that isn’t so. No matter how positively we speak of stretching, or how much we proselytize its benefits, the language that we use to describe it (and its effects) continue to carry hints that it isn’t—and will never be—a real solution.

Continue reading The language of “static stretching:” How to identify systemic archetypes using linguistic clues.

The biomechanics of running backwards.

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.

Continue reading The biomechanics of running backwards.

How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

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.

Continue reading How philosophy powers athletic achievement: a personal anecdote.

Running Backwards: a training idea for runners with lateral knee pain.

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.

Continue reading Running Backwards: a training idea for runners with lateral knee pain.