Here was my simple answer: I forgot how to run.
You might respond, "Ha, you're so funny, Ian. Running is so easy. We've done it since we were two years old. So elemental, so natural. You can't possibly forget how to do it."
On many occasions, in recent years, I've had fellow runners comment on my running form and how "unique" it is. They could tell it was me running towards them from miles away. It is kind of cool to think that I have "character" when I run, but in actuality it is a sign of worsening issues with my form and stride. My running is slowly deteriorating...what was once natural in high school, college and my early ultrarunning years has slowly evaporated. So what happens when running becomes unnatural? Here's my tale of running form woes and what I've uncovered as I've searched for an answer.
Top three reasons that may explain why your running form could use some guidance:
- The "Can't Teach Old Dogs New Tricks" Syndrome: You're new to running. You've never run before, except to outrun that dog down the street. You strap on those shoes and you hit the road, well, running. I think the natural tendency for someone whose never done much running before is to cover ground in, literally, leaps and bounds. Over-striding gives the sensation of covering ground quickly. This may work initially but soon create a false sense of proper form soon causing running related injuries (knee issues, IT band problems, shin, ankle and calf pain and hamstring strain).
- The "Love Your Sport to Death" Syndrome: You run all the time and can't get enough of it. Nothing will stop you and no one can question your dedication. You never miss a day. Running is so important that you run through injuries and fatigue. In doing so, you compensate. Tired muscles shut down and other muscles, not intended to do the bulk of the work, take over leading to overuse issues and eventually neuro-muscluar failure. Your brain can no longer tell these "shut off" muscles how to work properly. You are now an inefficient shuffler. I fall into this category.
- The "Blame It on Your Parents" Syndrome: You may have shorter bones in one leg than the other. You might struggle with asthma, diabetes or some other prohibitive condition which makes running a tough challenge.
Signs to look for that indicate that you may have form issues:
- A heavy, noisy footfall. Can be heard either as one or both feet hit the ground.
- Sore, tight hamstring insertions or glute/piriformis pain. Pain may manifest when sitting for prolonged periods of time (like when driving).
- Heel or plantar soreness & pain.
- Incessant, nagging injuries that won't heal.
- Running is always a fatiguing endeavor and struggle no matter the length of run.
If you fit into one of the three "syndromes" or exhibit several of the signs listed above chances are you already run with poor form or are vulnerable to demonstrating poor form in the near future. So what can you do?
From my personal experience, here are, in order, tangible actions you can do to help demystify the running form conundrum:
1) Eliminate all other possible factors besides the pure act of running that can lead to form degradation. As Galifianakis confidently stated recently "You better check yourself before you wreck yourself." Are you sleeping enough, eating properly or are there daily stressors that you can eliminate from your life? Might a blood test be in order to test for proper hormone, iron and vitamin levels?
2) Begin a strengthening and core routine: Here's a good start here at Strength Running: Elite Core and Dynamic Warm-up or for a more interactive, descriptive approach you can order one of McMillan Running's: Runner's Core DVD's.
3) Begin a stretching routine: The best place to start is with the Wharton's active isolated stretching routine. Two sources for this routine can be found here under the article Loosen Up at Runners World or here under Active Isolated Stretching at Running Times.
4) If these above options don't help or provide quick enough results in your form recovery and/or discovery it's time to seek outside help. On the advice of a good friend I traveled to southern California to get a professional running analysis. Keep in mind that this is much different (and more pricy) than what you have done in a speciality running shoe store when testing shoes. Enter physical therapist Jeff Waldberg from OrthoPro Physical Therapy. The video below was taken by Jeff. His commentary explains my multitude of issues and what I can be conscious of while out on my next run. This session was very valuable to me by allowing me to visualize my form issues.
Running Gait Analysis (Ian Torrence) from Ian Torrence on Vimeo.
Here are few other things that have helped me along during my recovery.
- First, stop the madness! A good break from running might do the mind and body good. Take a couple of weeks off completely from running. If being idle drives you insane explore your cross-training options and begin your new stretching and strengthening routines as explained above.
- Focus on 180-190 foot strikes per minute while running. This is not easy if you're not used to it. Plan on discovering a few new sore spots. The transition takes time. Focus on landing with your mid-foot under your knee and firing your glute as you make impact with the ground. This will help those of us that over-stride. You can go a step further by downloading a metronome to your ipod and setting it to the appropriate pace.
- Keep the terrain simple and flat to begin. Dancing over rocks, roots, mud and cruising hilly terrain will only force you back into bad habits. Learn the form, then advance slowly.
So the good news in all of this is that, yes, you can teach old dogs new tricks, you can still love your sport to death and, even with some genetic flaws, we can always enjoy our running. It just may take some work on your part to isolate the problems, pursue the right avenues of help and do that little extra to keep things working in fine order.
Your Moment of Zen
Zoroaster displays proper form.