How to Run 50 Miles: Part IV – Proper Biomechanics

Read first: Part I, Part II, Part III

I had my running form analyzed last year to debug the cause of a nagging pain in my hip. This photo clearly shows a "hip sway" probably caused by weak glutes that comprises my hip, knee and foot movement. It also puts undue pressure on my lumbar spine. Not a good thing! I never would have known this was happening had I not had video analysis done. Obviously you should get this done by a professional, but you can also have a friend videotape you running on a treadmill and play it back in slow mo to see what is going on.

The third principle I adhere to is that bio-mechanical efficiency is absolutely key. You can fake it for shorter distances, but the longer you run (both in terms of distance and number of years) – your mechanics will either wear you out or build you up. Hopefully it is the later and not the former that happens! Small inefficiencies in form are greatly magnified over long distances.

Research shows that 2 out of 3 runners are injured at any given time. This is ridiculous. The injury may be a nagging thing like knee pain or a severe thing like a tibial stress fracture (I’ve had one!) that sidelines an athlete for months. I truly believe that we were born to run. Each and every one of us. Doesn’t matter if you are 7 feet tall or 4 feet tall. 300 pounds or 90 pounds. Humans were made to move long distances. It has been necessary for our survival and we’re finally tuned endurance machines. Somehow in the modern time we’ve  forgotten this birthright and been duped into thinking we can’t run far and need all kinds of fancy shoes and supports to be health. It isn’t true.

With the assertion that we were born to run, one would then assume that we should not see the majority of runners suffering from injuries. I know ultra marathoners that run 100+ mile weeks and seem to never get injured, they just get stronger with more training! I also know weekend warriors that are constantly injured and running with all kinds of knee braces, orthotic shoes and other sorts of crutches. Personally…I’ve suffered tons of injuries in my past 15+ years of running and racing (2 stress fractures, shin splints, hip pain, knee pain, etc.) despite not doing super high mileage and spending lots of time on soft running surfaces like trails. Why is this the case? It’s almost like some people are naturally gifted to run and others are not. This is a myth, as we are all gifted as runners.

There are some great articles written about biomechanical efficiency, and for any runner (weekend warrior to competitive athlete) they are worth the time to study. I’ve spend the past couple years re-learning how to run. It’s been a long road and taken effort, but I now enjoy running more than I ever have, and my nagging injuries are starting to heal and I’m feeling stronger than ever. In fact, after coming back to running after a year-long hiatus, I ran a marathon and two 50K trail ultra-marathons…with just a month gap between each event. Most people would think I am crazy to run distance events that close together….but  I recovered pretty quickly and never got injured, in fact I felt stronger with each race.

How did I start learning how to run? A few years ago I started running in Vibram FiveFingers a few times a week (just a mile or two) and walking around at work in Nike Free’s to strengthen my feet. I focused on landing more towards the middle of my foot and less on my heel. That was pretty much all the running I did, with most of my other exercise coming in the form of yoga and hiking. Just wearing more minimal shoes helped a lot.

Vibram FiveFinger "Sprint's"

After re-starting run training late last summer, I ditched my old training shoes that I used for most of my mileage in favor of Brook’s Green Silence shoes – that are ultra-light with a fairly low “drop” from heel to forefoot. I rotated using them with a pair of more built-up cushioned running shoes (Mizuno Waverider’s). I built up to the point where running 20+ miles on pavement in my Green Silence is no big deal! The low heel drop helped my feet to naturally land more towards my mid-foot and forefoot. From there…I progressed to track workouts and consistent awareness on landing light and keeping a higher stride cadence (as Barefoot Ted teaches!).

My advice for improving your biomechanics is to:

  1. Study: Read voraciously….spend time on youtube….read blogs…educate yourself. So many people have “seen the light” and rediscovered the joy of running over the past few years. A lot of the learning is posted online…spend some time on Bing and learn what works and what doesn’t…then do try for yourself! If you haven’t read the book “Born to Run“…do it and a lot of what I am talking about will make sense 🙂
  2. Diagnose: I had my form video-taped and analyzed by a sports doctor (as per the image above). This was incredibly useful! I learned that my hips were “swaying” from side to side, causing all sorts of issues with my knees and hips and feet, even through my foot strike itself was OK. The cause? A weak butt! The solution? Building a super strong ass with one-legged squats and kettlebell swings.
  3. Transition: Take your time to transition. It may be a year-long process. Start by alternating new shoes (if you decide to go the minimal route) with your regular running shoes until your feet get strong. Changing things too radically can cause injury. If you don’t practice yoga, I recommend 2-3 power yoga classes per week, it will greatly improve flexibility in your achilles tendon, hips and hamstrings. This will help you run more effectively.

Here are a two other resources that I’ve found super helpful:

How to Run: Running with Proper Biomechanics by Runblogger: Steve is one of the all-time fastest high school milers and takes a scientific approach to analyzing running mechanics. This post is a great read and you can continue reading his other posts to learn more tips about how to run well.

Pose TV: POSE is a method or learning functional movement. I’ve watched all these videos and they are incredibly helpful. In fact, the way Dr. Romanov teaches running technique is so simple, that within minutes of watching the videos I went out for a run and felt instantly faster. One of the best tips was not to focus too much on landing on your mid or fore-foot but instead focus on pulling your heel quickly up to your butt once it passes under your hips, while keeping your stride cadence high. I’m doing a POSE running clinic next week and will write up my experience then.

Happy running!

Running Clinic with Barefoot Ted from Born to Run

(L-R) Me, Barefoot Ted, Sean, Rashida, Oliver (pic shamelessly pirated from SeanDH.com!)

Had the chance to meet with “Barefoot Ted” (featured in the book Born to Run) for a fun clinic on natural running and a quick tour of his Luna Sandal factory. I’ve met Ted a few times in the past year and he is a great guy. I learned a lot in just an hour of listening to him, asking questions and going through some drills. I’ll distill down a few of the main things I learned, but highly recommend doing your own clinic if you are ever in the Seattle area.

We met in the Luna Sandal “factory”, which is really just  small room where he is making very traditional sandals, akin to the kind of footwear worn by native people for centuries in many locales. He gave a brief talk on his perspective on natural running, the problems we face in a society so fixated on measurement, tracking and “times” and totally out of touch with the natural rhythms of our bodies and the sheer joy of movement. I have no doubt that Ted could talk for days about running technique and history, he really does know a ton.

We then headed out to a nearby park for some drills. I was with a few friends: Sean, Oliver and Rashida. They all wore Vibram FiveFingers, but I just opted to go barefoot for the full effect! It was quite cold out and raining. We did drills for a short while to focus on three main things that Ted things focused on.

  1. Soft landing. We went back and forth along a flat and wide sidewalk, first walking and then slowly jogging; all the while careful to move without making a sound. This is tough to do! Ted’s feet were barely audible as he was landing so softly. Even in my bare feet I could hear a little thud with every landing. The focus was to land on the forefoot and then allow the mid-foot and then heel to lightly land.
  2. Quick turnover. Taking shorter and quicker steps was key. The goal was to have the feet land directly under the body, as opposed to reaching the foot forward beyond the hips and landing towards the heel of foot. Extending the foot too far forward causes a breaking action and excess stress in the knees and hips. It also eliminates the potential for efficient energy transfer from stride to stride. We did some drills of moving quickly with much shorter strides at faster cadence, all the while maintaining more of a fore to mid-foot landing.
  3. Balanced movement. Ted stressed that head position and core stability were super important. The most efficient method of running is to keep the head (which is heavy, at 10-12 pounds) stacked over the shoulders and the shoulders stacked over the hips. Running in this way it is easier to balance, and the feet have a role to play in this as well, with the big toe helping the body to balance. We did some drills walking along a curb and keeping our core slightly tense and moving forward using our core, with head stacked tall (not dropping forward!). Ted says that if you run properly and keep your core active, running will help you build a very strong core.

Next, we practiced jumping.

Humans were built to move in all kinds of ways, and jump and bound for all kinds of purposes. However, adults nowadays hardly ever jump! We practiced simply jumping up steps, focusing on landing without making a sound and with soft knees. The soft knees allow the body to absorb the movement vs  jarring to the body that happens with overly stiff knees and hips. Ted made the point that with proper and natural technique, running and jumping can actually make the body stronger (joints too!). The old thinking of running wearing down the body are only true if you have poor movement patterns.

Finally, we did an exercise where we ran softly up a circular staircase inside a watch-tower in the park. The tower was an echo chamber, making it easy to know if you were pounding the stairs in any way. Ted moved without making a single sound! I pounded more than I though (I had my shoes on for this exercise – Brooks Green Silence).

All in all, it was great fun to do this clinic. Ted is a fantastic guy and I highly recommend checking it out if you are in the neighborhood. I also got measured for some Luna Sandals 🙂 . Will be picking them up in a few weeks.

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I’m finally recovered from The North Face 50K. Did a ~22 mile run yesterday (I ran to and from the Barefoot Ted clinic with Sean! ~11 miles each way). Legs feel good, though knees and ankles are a little sore. A few more short to medium distance runs on tap for this week and then I’m going to take at least 2 weeks off.