Tag Archives: running myths

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!

My reflection on The Pose Method’s principles and processes.

The supermajority of runners—of people in general—are fond of saying that there is no one way to run. We accept that there are specific techniques for swimming, throwing a ball, swinging a golf club, doing a spin kick, squatting a barbell, and even for properly flipping a goddamn omelet. We accept that adhering to these techniques will make us better at the motion, and less likely to be injured.

(I’ll bet you a hundred bucks that you’ll get carpal tunnel if you flip an omelet wrong one time too many).

But this doesn’t apply to running. When it comes to running, everyone’s different.

Or so they say.

Dr. Nicholas Romanov, founder of The Pose Method, disagrees. After extensive study and experimentation, he identified the key similarities between everyone’s running style. In order for us to be able to run—to move forward consistently without falling—we have to alternate support: one leg remains on the ground, allowing the body to fall forward (instead of downward), while the other moves through the air to create new support under the body’s new location.

The biggest similarity between everyone’s form, whether we’re talking about a couch potato with a New Year’s resolution or about Usain Bolt, is this: at some moment in time, one foot will be supporting the body on the ground, while the other will be passing under the hip area (which is known in biomechanics as the general center of mass, or GCM).

This is what Dr. Romanov refers to as “pose.” How to achieve pose properly is the centerpiece of his method.

Consequently, the most important difference between that couch potato and Bolt—but not the only difference, of course—is that Bolt takes far greater advantage of the time spent in pose.

When we look at Usain Bolt’s running, we recreational runners and non-athletes get the sense that we are looking at genius. We may not be able to put our finger on this genius or break it down with precise words, but we recognize it as genius nevertheless.

But what we are really seeing in Bolt is a perfect running pose—a masterful, yet unconscious (and possibly unknowing) execution of the principles laid out by The Pose Method.

The Pose Method isn’t a “running style.” Dr. Romanov emphasizes this heavily—he didn’t “invent” the running pose any more than the squat and the snatch were invented. These weightlifting forms were discovered: the squat is the best way to lift weight on the shoulders, and the snatch is the best way to propel weight vertically from the ground. The running pose is also a discovery: it is the best way to harness the force of gravity to create horizontal displacement of the upright human body.

The method part of the name refers to a recipe built around the simplest, most efficient exercises that can help us replicate pose effectively and consistently across distance and time.

To truly understand The Pose Method, it’s critical to grasp the role that gravity plays in running. On the surface, it seems that gravity has little benefit beyond helping us return to the ground so that we can once again propel ourselves forward. Gravity is a downforce. We all know this. So how, then, can it help us move horizontally?

Because of the support phase, that is, the running pose itself. When one foot is on the ground, and we shift our center of gravity even slightly forward of that foot, we begin to fall. But we can look at it in a different way: falling forward is really a rotation, at least at first. When we run, the support foot acts as the vertex of an angle between our hips and the direction of gravity. When we’re perfectly upright, that angle is zero. As we shift our weight forward, that angle increases: our hips (along with the rest of our upper body) travel forward, while our support foot remains behind.

Effectively, we’ve converted the downward force of gravity into a rotational force. The greater the angle, the greater the force.

Of course, if we just keep increasing that angle without doing anything else, we’ll fall on our face. But we don’t—our body has all the necessary countermeasures in place: they’re called reflexes. In order to catch ourselves, we reach towards the ground with the other foot.

Ideally, that foot should land directly under the center of mass. This is the case, at least, in Usain Bolt’s running (and that of a few other luminaries, such as Galen Rupp). In most of us, the foot lands somewhere else.

If our foot lands in front of us, momentum has to carry our center of mass forward, until arrives on top of the foot. Only then can we begin to use gravity to advance. And if it takes too long for our heel to lift, we are not falling forward in the earnest—heel lift is a critical component of any athletic movement. That’s why it is so emphasized across sports.

To the degree that our foot lands ahead of us, we are wasting time. And to the degree that our heel delays from lifting, we are losing power.

In order to prevent each of these two issues, the swing leg (which is off the ground) must remain under the center of mass for the entire time that the weight of the body is supported by the other leg. While one forefoot is on the ground, the other foot must remain under the hips.

The array of injuries and problems with the running of most runners are caused by deviations from pose. When we see a master runner—when we recognize genius—we are unconsciously recognizing that these few conditions are being properly satisfied. All other nuances of form are by-products of these few facts.

Dr. Romanov likes to say that we all run in pose. Regardless of our race, creed, gender, or ethnicity, we’ve all gone through this position every step of every run we’ve ever run. What differs between runners is whether we achieve pose—and retain it—effectively.

Whether there is a proper way to run is not a question. Whether there is a way to find it is not a question. The only real question is whether we hold to old, absurd paradigms—that running is the only sport where there is no One Right Way—or whether we engage our time and efforts in mastering principles which have already been discovered and already been presented as the core teachings of The Pose Method of running.

Athletics’ dysfunctional marriage: can injury prevention be reconciled with performance training?

Show me a runner. You’re showing me someone who’s run through pain. Isn’t that true? When you’ve been in the middle of a long run and felt the beginnings of a shin splint, you’re finally in the club. But we can’t stop now! There’s miles to be logged. Our marathon training plan says 60 miles a week, and this long run is 17.

We’ve faced with having to ask the dreaded question: should I choose to continue this training, or should I choose to prevent the injury?

Continue reading Athletics’ dysfunctional marriage: can injury prevention be reconciled with performance training?

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.

A culture of injury

The endurance running hypothesis submits that humans evolved as desert persistence hunters—fast, long-distance running machines. Contemporary research has found no relationship between running and knee osteoarthritis. And the Tarahumara—the Mexican tribe of running people also known as rarámurihabitually run hundreds of miles per week while sustaining only a modicum of injuries. All of this raises the following question:

Why do we continue to insist that running is bad for the knees?

The most immediate answer is that, for a critical mass of westerners, running has actually created a variety of musculoskeletal and metabolic problems, enough so that it’s gotten a bad rap. However, especially in light of the above data, this doesn’t mean that running is bad. What it does mean is that we’re doing something fundamentally wrong.

Like most systemic problems, it has more than one source. Consider this: not only do we run in biomechanically disadvantageous ways, but we’ve done that for so long that the cultural consciousness has internalized this as the notion that running is somehow inherently injurious. Once this idea has been internalized, we lose any incentive, and any reason, to change incorrect patterns of motion. Because we’ve operated for so long under this conclusion, chronic injury and dysfunction becomes not only the standard, but also the norm.

However, it does more than that: chronic injury becomes the badge of the runner—a badge worn with pride. It is at this point that the culture of injury becomes fully cemented. If you aren’t injured, you’re not a “real” runner; you don’t share the burdens that we all share. You don’t go through the constant rite of passage that we all go through. You’re an anomaly, an exception. You’re special. Good for you.

With most runners, injury is the way of the world. Injury is a self-fulfilling prophecy that has everyone singing its virtues. If you aren’t injured yet, you keep training. It’s almost as if you look for injury. Why? Well, because if running is inherently injurious, if you’re not injured, you’re not doing it right. If you don’t have to constantly stretch and rehabilitate and ice and elevate, maybe it’s time to train a little harder.

So, what do we have here? A self-fulfilling prophecy, one which for the majority usually removes the possibility of running completely pain and injury free. The world in which we don’t have to RICE it up all the time, and foam roll our IT band isn’t one we’re used to considering.

Think that this world is a fantasy? Return to the evidence above. You’ll likely find that your skepticism is far more a function of the story we’ve been telling ourselves (and the socio-athletic system that’s emerged from it) than a function of the actual capabilities of your particular human body.

The first step to change this feedback loop is not, of course, to just go out and try to run like the rarámuri. That would be silly. Mere wishful thinking cannot ever replace good biomechanics and great training volume over the course of a lifetime, not to mention the benefits of being steeped in a culture of running. Most of us don’t have that, and never will.

But what we could do is to believe that it can somehow be different. We can believe that, given the evidence above, it makes sense to try and create the world in which we’re not plagued by injury, and beset by the notion that it is somehow an inevitability. Once we believe that, we can realize how antiquated the notion of “pushing through the pain” actually is.

If the plantar fascia begins to hurt, why not change something in our stride so that it stops? Change what? Go figure it out. But the injury is not inevitable. Only the notion of pushing through it—that useless phrase that our athletic culture has given us—makes it a certainty.

It’s not about training more—or less. It’s about training correctly.

One of the most prevalent problems in sports is that people consistently and continually train their compensation patterns. Practitioners and athletes put so much time and energy into their training, and quite often, they’re doing it wrong.

This is where the old saying “quality over quantity” hits full force.

There’s a lot of literature out there on the dangers of persevering though pain, and on the problems with leaving compensation patterns unresolved. Often, when we continue training despite the pain, we force our bodies into suboptimal patterns of muscle use. Because avoidance of pain is an extremely powerful impulse, those habits remain ingrained long after the pain has ceased.

Similarly, when we leave compensation patterns unresolved (and strengthen them by training), we’re developing our body, but along a suboptimal vector. Instead of training all of our body parts to interact with each other, we sideline a few of those parts, and leave them undeveloped and out of the game.

This is a bigger problem than it seems: one of the key tenets of systems thinking is that the whole is bigger than the sum of its parts. For example, let’s suppose that our imaginary athlete is compensating for weak gluteus maximus activity with an overactive quadratus lumborum (lower back muscle). Not only will their hip extension on the weak side be, well, weaker, but the overactive quadratus lumborum will likely be impinging on their ability to take full breaths.

Overuse one part, and you guarantee underusing another.

Because their breath is impinged, their aerobic system becomes resistant to training. Because their hip extension is reduced on one side, their maximum speed is much lower than it could be, and they lose their ability to exercise with maximal weight across their entire body.

Since these compensation patterns often go unnoticed, our imaginary athlete might tell another “I’m just a slow runner,” or “I’m injury-prone,” never knowing, never realizing, that their slowness (or their proneness to injury) is not due primarily because of some deficiency that is essential to their bodies, but largely because they’ve spent all of their training reinforcing existing compensation patterns.

In my opinion, the most important piece of advice that any runner—any athlete—can take is that athletic ability doesn’t have to do with lung power or muscle power, but with the synchronization between the lungs and the muscles. The body’s power isn’t simply a measure of how powerful individual systems are—it’s a measure of how well they work together.

Let’s give a quick example: throwing a baseball. Throwing a baseball isn’t about arm power. It’s about initiating the motion with one-leg hip extension against a solid object, and translating the resulting force across the torso, through the opposite arm, and into the ball. An athlete with a hugely powerful arm but weak hips (or strong hips that don’t work together with the torso and arm) won’t be able to throw nearly as well as someone who is strong and athletic but uses her body in a synchronized fashion (Mo’ne Davis comes to mind here). To put this claim in context, I doubt that miss Davis could win an arm-wrestling match with my father (who is massively strong even at 60), and yet there is no way that my dad could throw a ball half as fast as miss Davis could.


Back when Bruce Lee was still thrown around as an example of athletic excellence, I’d often hear people remark on the speed and power of his movements: “how is he that powerful, when he’s that skinny?” Even though Bruce lee had an extreme level of muscular power and definition, the sheer speed that he had was due to the fact that his body was extremely synchronized, and the mechanical energy generated by that muscle power could be effectively translated from one part of his body to the next.

bruce lee

All of the masters of athleticism share particular characteristics. It’s not enough to just have the genetics—that’ll merely make you good. It’s not enough to just put in the time—that’ll make you great. To be the very best, you need a special bit of knowledge, knowledge that often seems counterintuitive—how can power not be about muscle power?—and you need to apply that knowledge in training.

Take this quote from Bruce Lee:

“The less effort, the faster and more powerful you will be.”

Wait, what? Doesn’t effort mean that you’re training hard? Doesn’t effort mean that you’ll be exerting yourself more, and therefore moving faster and more powerfully? Sure—if power was about muscle power. But power is (and always was) about alignment. That’s why Lorena Ochoa’s golf swing is so powerful. That’s why well-employed Judo techniques let small women beat much larger men.

Lorena ochoa

Let’s think about this quote in biomechanical terms. In these terms, this quote serves as an inoculation against compensation patterns. Above all, compensation patterns are effortful. By seeking to do the same movement with decreasing effort, the athlete puts herself on a path where athletic development means eliminating compensation patterns, and finding the simplest, most parsimonious way to do things. This doesn’t mean using less muscles. It means using more, in order to shape the body in such a way that it allows the generated mechanical energy to travel in the straightest line possible.

Every athlete is different, and the solution to what “the straightest line possible” means will always be different for every athlete. But ultimately, that’s what training correctly really means, and that’s what separates the fast runner from the slow runner. Answering that question for ourselves is the key to athletic excellence.

Shifting the burden, recovery techniques, and systems thinking.

The mainstream of sports therapy and recovery is catching on to the idea that a lot of the most common techniques are actually shifting the burden systems.

Shifting the burden systems are systems that get created when there is a problem that has certain symptoms. Because it’s often easier or simpler to mitigate the symptoms than to address the fundamental solution that takes care of the problem, the symptoms get mitigated while the problem continues to grow (and becomes harder and harder to solve).

Icing, stretching, and using foam rollers are three great examples of shifting the burden systems. While icing can help reduce swelling, it often damages the surrounding tissue, causing even longer delays in recovery. Stretching, while helping muscle soreness, causes muscles and tendons to become elongated, breaking the patterns of structural tension in the body. Using foam rollers, as a recent article suggests, mitigates the pain caused by muscle imbalances (which allows the imbalance to grow until it becomes debilitating).

In other words, all of these systems share the same characteristics: they create “quick-fixes” that seem to solve the problem, while actually the problem continues to grow.

Systems thinking lets us take these three examples and find the underlying similarity between them. When a therapy, recovery, or growth solution seems to work extremely quickly, it is important to lead with the following question: “Am I looking at a shifting the burden system?” Most often, when something works extremely quickly, it is just the symptoms that are being resolved. The hidden problem keeps growing and growing, until damage to the system—the inevitable sports injury—“comes out of nowhere.”

As athletes, we all have to keep a lookout for shifting the burden systems. Did we get too tired, and shift the burden of pushing off from our gluteus maximus to our gastrocnemius and soleus (in our calves)? Did we get injured in our non-dominant leg abductors, and shift the burden of supporting the body to our dominant leg adductors?

These are all examples of compensation patterns. While they may work in the short-term, but ultimately hinder our ability to develop and perform athletically.

Furthermore, it’s important for us athletes to realize that once we have defined what a shifting the burden system is, we don’t have to study every new therapy, recovery, and exercise technique and impartially judging its merits.

For example, a recent article initially referenced by the Gait Guys suggested that a possible treatment for hip pain/reduced hip mobility would be to coach patients into pushing off with their gastrocnemius (calf) muscle. Thanks to systems thinking, we don’t need to look further than this short mention to know that this is a shifting the burden system. The main drivers of the body’s athletic expression are the hip muscles and the thigh muscles. They are the ones that should be pushing off, period (as the Gait Guys sensibly mention). Shifting the burden of pushoff from the hip muscles to the calf muscles will address the symptoms (hip pain) while reducing the need for the hip muscles to remain strong. The hip muscles will weaken over time, and their suceptibility for injury will increase. Classic shifting the burden system.

This is what systems thinking lets us do: extrapolate cleanly and freely from one system to the next. What works in one economy will work similarly in another, because they are the same kind of system. When we restrict the body’s inputs (by dieting), the body will respond like any other economy: it will shrink, beginning by cutting back on infrastructure. Just like economies respond to a policy of austerity by cutting back on public infrastructure, education, and health, the body starts cannibalizing bone and muscle, and starts winding down the functioning of non-essential organs.

Restricting inputs of energy (food, resources, money) does the same to every economy, no matter what economy you’re talking about.

We athletes should become well-versed in systems thinking, to develop a deeper and more intuitive understanding of the forces that shape our athletic expression, and athletic development.

The underlying similarities between seemingly different things should become obvious to us. Rather, it behooves us to look beyond superficial differences in everyday things to understand the underlying patterns and the systems beneath those patterns. That’s what this blog is for.

Running “correctly” will mean different things for different people—up to a point.

Next time you go see a marathon, go look at the elite runners—and then look at everyone else.

You’ll see that elite runners run like little toy soldiers: although they have different body types, their running forms are all nearly identical. The further back you get in the pack, the more “variety” of running strides you’ll see. In other words, across all humans, there is a specific recipe for speed.

Our bodies are all different. Some of us have big feet and short calves, others have long calves and really short arms. When a runner has really long legs but small feet, it becomes really easy for the knee joint to open and close: even though the feet are far away from the hinge (the knee joint), it doesn’t take a lot of power to move them because they don’t weigh very much.

In comparison, a runner with short legs and big feet might use the same amount of energy to open and close their knees. This short-legged runner is at a disadvantage, however: shorter legs means that they cover less ground with each gait cycle, meaning that more energy is expended across the same distance.

However, these differences don’t mean that different runners should use different stride types or different body positions. Achieving a “correct” stride will mean that for one runner, the parts of their body will be at certain angles relative to each other, while for another runner, those angles will be slightly different.

But our bodies all express strength in the same way.

For example, let’s suppose that somebody has a really short abdomen but a really long chest. This person may be inclined to hunch down to lift a heavy object, instead of bending their knees. For them, it may be simpler to stretch and contract the longest part of their upper body, their chest, instead of bending their knees, which is what they should do, mechanically speaking. In other words, this person has to work much harder to develop the muscles that hold their lower spine rigid (back extensors, illiopsoas), in order to safely be able to perform this maneuver. But despite these differences, the only mechanically feasible way to lift heavy objects is by bending from the knees.

Similarly, there is only one mechanically feasible way to run: by forming a smooth, unbroken arch from the base of the head to the ankle of the leg that’s pushing off the ground. This arch can only be formed when there is a very pronounced knee drive with the opposite leg (which means that the knee continues to be fully flexed at the end of the swing phase).

Because of individual differences such as those mentioned above, certain runners will have to work a lot harder than others at developing certain muscles, in order to create this continuous arch.

In my case, I have short legs, a short lateral arch (of the foot), and a long medial arch. Without going into the nitty-gritty details, this means that it is very easy for my foot to supinate too early in the running stride. Note that this does not mean that I am “a supinator”—or whatever. This means that my anterior compartment (hip abductors and hip flexors) has to be significantly more powerful than if I had longer legs and shorter feet, in order to maintain a midfoot strike while still using the entire foot tripod for pushoff.

My body has to work harder to keep my foot “more” pronated, and my leg “more” everted, throughout the  running stride, because the muscles that cause my foot to supinate are longer (and therefore get powerful more easily) than the muscles that cause my foot to pronate.

This means that the “untrained” version of my body (without a strong anterior compartment) wants to overstride. Why? Because in order to push off with the entire foot tripod, my body wants to start the contact phase when my foot is at its most pronated. In other words, because I supinate early, my body wants my foot to contact the ground early—and the easiest way to do that is by overstriding.

Furthermore, the only way for that untrained version of my body to midfoot-strike is by contracting the soleus muscle early in the contact phase. In order to go from the contact phase to the stance phase, my ankle has to dorsiflex. But because the soleus was already contracted, it has to work eccentrically in order to allow for this dorsiflexion. This form of midfoot striking put a huge eccentric load on the soleus, which means that my calves can get really really tight really fast if I don’t work heavily on strengthening my anterior compartment.

When I first started running for real, that’s exactly how the story went. My calves were chronically tight, and the answer to that was in developing my frontal compartment. Although different people may have to develop slightly different muscles (for example, someone may need a quadriceps muscle whose lateral head is relatively more powerful than the medial head), the answer for basically everyone who overstrides, or has posterior muscle tightness, is to strengthen the frontal compartment in some fashion.

My end goal was to create a particular structure—a structure which can hold a lot of tensile force, which is firm yet mobile, and which is correctly aligned relative to the force of gravity. As I mentioned above, that structure is a smooth, continuous arch from the base of the head to the ankle. Going about the process of creating that means something slightly different for me than it does for anybody else on the planet.

But nobody will be the most resilient (or fastest) version of themselves without first creating that arch.

The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.

One way or another, most of us have an unhealthy relationship with pain. Either we’re scared of it, or we try to overcome it. In both situations, pain is the enemy. But our relationship with pain doesn’t have to be of enmity. If we understand it, it can become a great asset in training and in life.

This especially goes for runners: we’ve become socially conditioned to believe that running is just painful. According to society, when you run, pain is gonna happen anyway, and because running “is injurious”—it’s just that way—well, there’s no point in listening to it, to what it’s telling us about our bodies, and figuring out how to modify our running accordingly. Because running is injurious, our body will break at some point, so we might as well just wait until something happens and then go see the physical therapist.

But pain itself can help us guard against injury. We just have to get to know what it’s telling us.

Continue reading The benefits of developing a healthy, dialectic relationship with pain.