Friday, December 10, 2010

Train Wreck!

Why does an 8 minute mile feel like a 6 minute mile?  Why does it hurt to run downhill?  Why do my feet slap so?  Why do I feel lopsided and feel as if only one leg has all the driving power?  Why is my right heel so sore all the time?  Why is running just no fun anymore?

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:

  1. 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).
  2. 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.
  3. 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.


John Price said...

Very informative Ian.

Forgetting for a moment you haven't been able to teach Zoroaster much and he's a new dog, does the foot striking cadence apply when going uphill? Same question with landing on flat on the front foot. What about going down hill?

The problem with some of these solutions is how to apply them to the real world of trails versus running on a treadmill.

Wonderful post my friend,


Ian said...

The goal is to keep the cadence the same at all times. Proven most efficient by the best runners in the world no matter the size, shape or age.

In real life I think you'll find it difficult to keep the cadence on rough terrain, hence my comment about that. Learn on flat and even terrain. Muscle memory is an amazing thing.

Steep uphill running will slow your cadence, but concentrate on the quick turnover and short steps. When downhill running, speed up the cadence keeping that forefoot under that knee and popping with the glute. Be as light on your feet as possible.

When you learned how to drive a clutch you didn't take your truck up steep 2060 did you? Nah, you learned how out on flat, boring Siskiyou Ave. But now with the practice behind you, you can drive a clutch in the Watershed or any other mountainous area. Again, gotta learn it before you apply it.

Ever seen this video:

Look at this dude run on rocky Bend trails. He's got the cadence down!

Hope this helped?


Jana said...

Great post. Makes a lot of sense to this old dog.

Thanks for the links to the useful resources. The stretch/don't stretch debate is pretty crazy making. I like what Wharton had to say about it.

Sounds like you're on your way to remembering how to run again!

Brian said...

I have been trying to figure out my problems lately and you nailed it! I look forward to applying this soon. See you on the trails...or bar.

Anonymous said...

Hey, that's me.
Nice article Ian. I hope you're finding some good answers and you're running healthy again.
You're right on with the cadence issue. Most people are much slower than 180 and this simple change can help runner run more efficiently and injury free. I say it's simple but changing your cadence takes a lot of practice and diligence.

Max King

mr trail safety said...

Hi Ian:

As always, lots of good info here! I thought that people recognized your style from your fab wraparound specs. And pecs. But I digress, more on that, later.

Now...all here who claim to be "old", are hereby reminded that I am older than all the rest of you put together. Yes, Jana, that means you. I watched you vanish up Mt Baldy in August, after you complained that you were "old and out of shape". But obviously weren't, and are being coached by a guy with wraparound glasses. Maybe I should also!

Seriously though. Running mechanics is central to the art and science of running. If you were blessed as I was with flat feet, and can "run" with the kind help of orthotics, that will be a different story than somebody with reasonable arches.

I have a heavy footfall. Some of that is my current low-conditioning, and riding a bike 120mpw is not enough. Perhaps I never got to the point in stretching where it made a difference, so I didn't bother too much with it.

Lung capacity and VO2, anyone? If you live in a city, have had a mold infection, any other serious illness, take 15% right off the top.

Back in the last century, with middling talent and ferocious effort, coached by the iconic Jim O'Brien, I managed to pull a buckle out from the slavering jaws of AC and Leadville. Let me lapse into a coma for a second thinking about it.

Finally—there are injured runners, and wounded runners. Sometimes they merge into one. A wounded runner is an injured runner nourished by casual social encouragements, conversational conventions, and myopic cultic group-think. Their job is to figure out how to completely rethink their life.

Yr occasional SoCal Lifestyle Correspondent,
Mr Trail Safety

Caleb Schiff said...

Nice post Ian. Sounds like you are coming out of it well.
Another recommendation from me:
Go to Italy for a month and do nothing but ride your bike, eat food, and drink wine.
Its been slow readjusting to the running after all the cycling, but I feel very refreshed now after only 2.5 weeks of running back at altitude here in Flag.

The Trail Jogger said...

The suggestions in the gait analysis by Jeff Waldberg look a lot like the ChiRunning method. Have you studied that method? Has it worked for you?

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Ian-- great to see you taking steps not to become an old shuffler too soon. I was just thinking I needed to do the same thing-- thanks for the good advice. I'm finding that trail running on tough hills all the time is really slowing me down-- I have to force myself onto the roads a few times a week so I don't lose my turnover completely. Cadence! Cadence!
Maybe see you at Pemberton?
Cheers, SusannahB

TD said...

I can empathize way too well with your post. Question. Glute pain, tight hammies due do weak hammies? thanks.

Michael M said...

Really enjoyed... thanks much. I think I am teetering in ol' issue number two range as well...

Fitz said...

Thanks for including me in your post! :)

BrotherRunner said...

That is really funny you posted this. I am going through something very similar. Planning a trip to
here: to sort of some issues. If you check out my recent entry in my blog I explain at least what i THINK is going on with me. Appreciate your writing and perspective. Your one of the blogs I read on a regular basis for both information but also inspiration. Thanks! _Jess

ewlake said...

I tired to find a more general contact link, Ian, but was unable. I just finished reading your ultra training article for the Jan/Feb issue of RunningTimes. Just great. I'm planning to do my fourth trail 50mi in 2011, but have learned over the last 15 yrs that my body does best on four days of running, two days of cross training (mountain biking), and a day of rest. How would you alter the two sample training plans in your article? Thanks!

Ian said...

@ ewlake: I can be contacted at Thanks!