Running Economy

In his recent post “Running Economy: Overrated and Misunderstood” (Running_Economy.pdf), Steve Magness, exercise scientist and newest addition to the Nike Oregon Project team, bemoans the “sad state of a lot of physiology research out there”  which has streamlined exceptional running performance into a neatly tied package of  running economy (RE), maximal ventilatory intake (VO2max) and lactate metabolism threshold (LT). To him, these physiological markers are informative yet underwhelming. “There are no easy variables that can tell us how good of a runner you are or can be.” Really? So, what methods can we use to predict and evaluate running performance? How then, do we address the most cogent underlying question of What makes a great distance runner?

Magness attempts to answer this question by explaining that although “it would make sense that the ‘better’ ones running form, the more efficient” that person is, someone like Alberto Salazar (who had poor mechanics) was efficient based on the current scientific nomenclature. The problem, he states, is that RE is a complex variable, and that there are “three types of efficiencies that govern how [economical] a runner is in a whole body sense” – mechanical, physiological and neural. According to Magness, “some parts of you will be very efficient while others won’t.” In this way, RE “reflects the sum of all those parts.”

There is some truth to what Magness says. In “Web of Life”, Fritjof Capra reveals that in the systems thinking view, “the essential properties of an organism, or living system, are the properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. [These properties] arise from the interactions and relationships among the parts.” By defining RE as the relationship between several types of efficiencies, Magness owns some understanding of the the parts contributing to the whole. However, states Capra, “the belief that in every complex system the behavior of the whole can be understood entirely from the properties of its part” is the central idea of the reductionist approach of modern movement science. So Magness is just as guilty as the scientists he criticizes – by reducing RE to smaller parts and missing the point that the properties (of efficiency in this case) are destroyed “when the system is dissociated, either physically or theoretically, into isolated elements.”

It was biologist Joseph Woodger in Biological Principles, 1936 (cited by Capra), among others, who emphasized that “the key characteristics of the organization of living organisms was its hierarchical nature.” In other words, there are multileveled systems within systems. In humans, every step we take displays the connectedness between balance and falling, support and motion, thought and action. Economical running form relates to our ability to interact with our gravitational environment.  Our bodies are already attuned to the slightest fluctuations. All we need to improve is a better sense of our “loss” of bodyweight when falling forward during the gait cycle.

It’s not about the body becoming more efficient “at sending the neural signals from the brain to the muscles,” as Magness argues. The brain does not determine “what muscle fiber to fire to do a certain movement.” Muscles have pre-determined functions as agonists/antagonists. It’s not our job to tell them what to do. This is handled by the precise, dense network of interactions that criss-crosses anatomical, physiological, psychological, emotional and biomechanics barriers. We are still discovering how to predict and define the potential of human performance. Capra summarizes that “all scientific concepts and theories are limited and approximate.” Science can never provide any complete and definitive understanding.”

Ask The Trainer





For the past year or so, I’ve been working closely with my friend and colleague Dr. Lee Cohen ( Dr. Cohen is the podiatric consultant for the Philadelphia Eagles, 76ers, Wings and a host of collegiate and high school teams. I met him through the usual “know somebody” network, and he was gracious enough to let me sit-in on his patient consultations. By hanging around once a week, I was able to increase my knowledge of postural structure, foot mechanics and gait analysis – and improve my diagnosis and corrections of running-related injuries. Collaborating with Dr. Cohen, however, took some time to cultivate. Solving structural issues by alignment alone had been a successful approach for him, though there seemed to remain 15-20% of his patients (mostly involved with athletic activity) that continued to suffer problems. I was stubborn in my insistence that there needed to be another side to the treatment protocol for his patients and athletes: help them move better. Ironically, it wasn’t until Dr. Cohen and I taped a video together that he was “sold” on my ability to provide an alternative method to refining stride mechanics. He heard me run! Or actually, he didn’t hear me run. Surprised by the quiet lightness of my stride, Dr. Cohen then understood how my knowledge could augment his practice. Ever since, we’ve been tackling many issues in tandem. Now, I’m a permanent fixture at his various offices and on his website.

Each week, I answer one of the many questions proposed by his patients. Below are the first three installments. For future updates, please click on the “Patient Education” link and find the Ask The Trainer section.


I am a runner with flat feet and I suffer regularly from overuse injuries to my foot, ankle, and knee, what is my problem and how can I run without pain?

A common cause of chronic pain and overuse injury of this type is a mechanical problem called over pronation of the foot. Normal pronation occurs when the foot rolls inward and the arch of the foot flattens. In a runner with flat feet or other issues the foot will often hyper-pronate, or roll too far inwards. This will throw off the balance of the foot and leg and can cause shin splints, runner’s knee, bunions, tarsal tunnel syndrome and more. Often the pain can be avoided with motion control running shoes and custom insoles, but many experts maintain that while this method gets rid of the pain, poor mechanics still inhibit the runner’s full potential. To fix this problem many athletes turn to elite running coaches and movement specialists. At Tracy Peal Speed, we advocate a cutting edge running technique called the Pose method. The Pose method is proven to reduce shock on the knee as well as preventing injury. These results are achieved by keeping the body well positioned over its general center of mass so as to work with gravity rather than against it. To learn more please contact us.

What are some pros and cons of barefoot running and how can I learnmore about the technique?
It seems reasonable that shoes, especially running shoes, would represent the most technologically advanced approach to enhancing human locomotion mechanics – but this is not the case. Barefoot running enthusiasts point out that shoes alter natural foot placement, moving impact from the forefoot and balls of the feet to the heel by adding cushioning and mechanical support. In their opinion, this causes the small muscles of the foot and leg to become underdeveloped through disuse. Advocates of barefoot running also suggest that this method can help strengthen these muscles to increase performance and prevent injury.
While barefoot running may improve health, combining performance, efficiency and injury prevention involves more complexity than simply removing ones shoes and running. For this reason a competent running coach or movement specialist should assist and advise any athlete who is interested in barefoot running. For an introduction to barefoot running and a sample drill check out this video.

How should a long distance runner approach rehabilitation of a knee injury so as to return to training as quickly as possible?
It is important to remember that with any injury, especially a knee injury, the injured part of the body is far from the only area affected. Muscles that have been unused during the rehabilitative process may have weakened, so it’s imperative to minimize effort and stress on the knee when returning to running. Jumping back into training without the proper attention can lead to an overuse issue or a recurrence of the previous injury. For this reason we emphasize Gait Retraining, in addition to normal strengthening and flexibility routines. This approach is essential to providing the proprioceptive feedback an athlete needs to stride efficiently, regain strength and return balance to the leg.


Are You Fit?

Well are you? And if so, how do you know? America has long had a fascination with fitness and the customary qualities associated with a “fit lifestyle”: health, vigor, youth. Thinking Jack LaLane (may he rest in peace) through Tony Horton will conjure up images of physical fitness culture that has progressed from simple bodyweight calisthenics to a kitchen-sink mentality combining such diverse elements as yoga and high-intensity jumping drills. If you’re a couch potato, how do you get started? If you’re already running 5 miles per day and lifting weights, how do you know you’re doing the right thing? And if you’re injured, what do you do now?

I recently conducted some informal research (at Barnes and Noble, no less), looking for answers to the questions posed. The bookstore seemed the logical place to find expert information on the subject of health and fitness. A mere five minutes in the store, led me to the following book and magazine titles (I took photos just to make sure I was accurate): The 4-Hour Body, The Primal Blueprint, Healing Spices, The Men’s Health Big Book Of Food, Bold & Healthy Flavors, Sonoma Diet, The G Free Diet, Lose Up To 10lbs in 2 Weeks, From Belly Fat to Belly Flat, Abs Diet, Eat to Live, Power Juicing, 101 Muscle-Building Workouts & Nutrition Plans, Sexy Forever, The Flex Diet, The Metabolism Miracle, Eating For Life, The Paleo Diet, Cinch!, Change Your Brain/Change Your Body, Body By Design, The Life You Want, The Happy Herbivore, Crazy Sexy Diet, The Lean Belly Prescription, Bring It!, Now Eat This, How Not To Look Old, Get Energy!, 101 Workouts, The Daily dozen, The New Evolution DietWhole Living, Natural, Health, Life Extension, Diet & Exercise, Yoga, Yoga for Fitness, WeightWatchers, Self, Shape, Fitness, body Fit, Health & fitness, Oxygen, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, Fitness Rx, Women’s Fitness, Women’s Health, Experience Life, Pilates Style & The Well-Being Journal. Upstairs there were another eight cases of diet, exercise and women’s health-related books, ad nauseum. Not to mention, the amount of titles about running, endurance running, track & field and triathlon training.

With such a plethora of information, where does one begin? On one hand, we embrace the easy fixes – the trendy solutions to our fitness desires and overweight woes, and on the other, celebrate the extreme success stories of endurance and athletic feats that eludes the majority of us. You may get up from the couch and start walking, finding yourself three months later in a local 5k race. You may look at the scale and venture to dream about completing a marathon or triathlon. Whatever your aspirations, there are some common-sense guidelines to follow.

1. Get a medical check-up – Before starting any fitness regime, you should (if you haven’t exercised in awhile) make sure you are physically fit enough to get physically fit. If you have a history of problems (from cardiovascular to musculoskeletal) have a professional doctor or chiropractor sign-off on you starting to exercise.

2. Find professional help – Although many of us have some background with working-out, it’s always best to elicit the help of a coach or trainer. Checking qualifications and/or testimonials is a must. Your goals will be more achievable if you have a specific course of action, and the chance for injury or poor results is lessened with the proper help.

3. Be realistic about your goals – You may want to climb Mt. Everest, but understand that there’s a progression that should be followed. When I’m dealing with athletes, there is a sequence of knowledge, understanding, awareness, perception and practice that must be adhered to. As they say, you have to crawl before you walk, walk before you run.

4. Eat better – With all of the diet and nutrition books on the market, there is an obvious concern for what what eat. In the same way that exercise programs are based on general principles with individual applications, so too is your nutrition plan. Again, a metabolic evaluation can provide insight into what your body is lacking and help you make intelligent food choices. You’ll never go wrong with organic choices, smaller more evenly distributed meals and an avoidance of processed foodstuffs.

If you want to eschew all of this advice and do-it-youself, I have one suggestion which is based on our most basic evolutionary need: move. And all movement begins with knowing yourself, feeling your own bodyweight in motion, freeing your mind from restrictions. The effect will be a youthful energy that imbues your life. In the end, you’ll hopefully have less days of inactivity. Although, as one woman advised me in the bookstore, “When it’s too much, I just go home and have a cookie.”

Ritzenhein UNPLUGGED

Dathan Ritzenhein is considered the “future of American distance running.” His career, earmarked for greatness, has followed an inconsistent trajectory. Having won championships and setting records in distances from 3,000 meters to the 1/2 marathon (for a complete bio and race results history click on the following link:, Ritzenhein has fought innumerous injuries while dedicating himself to becoming the world’s best marathoner. Frustrated by a ninth-place finish in the 2008 London Marathon (and plagued by calf pains), he left his coach of five years, Brad Hudson, and joined Alberto Salazar and the Nike Project in Oregon. (Salazar, now with cross-country coach Jerry Schumacher, is employed by Nike to oversee and coach a coterie of elite runners including Ritzenheim, Kara Goucher, Matt Tegenkamp,  Amy Yoder Begley and Alan Webb).

Ritzenhein has been most susceptible to stress reactions and fractures of his metatarsals. These issues have led to inconsistencies in his training and racing. I can remember a blurb in ESPN the Magazine (2008) describing the G-Trainer antigravity treadmill he used to accumulate “130 miles per week during his rehab.” Supposedly, an elite racer’s running form is an individual thing. Writes Jennifer Kahn, in the New Yorker piece The Perfect Stride: Can Alberto Salazar Straighten Out American Distance Running?, “Many top distance runners have idiosyncratic form, and adjusting even a minor detail of a racer’s alignment can trigger a cascade of changes: subtle shifts in knee or foot position that can make a runner vulnerable to injury.” Consequently, when Salazar “tinkered” with Ritzenhein’s form, more than one eyebrow was raised. Salazar, winner of the Boston Marathon and three-time winner of the New York equivalent, was known for an inelegant stride and, plagued by the injury bug himself, forced to retire in his prime. He first addressed Ritzenhein’s “near horizontal arm carriage”, emphasizing the fists being held higher up, in what he termed the “nipple to nipple” position. “According to Salazar, this strained the forearm, and thus, through a long chain of physiological connections, the leg muscles,” Kahn commented. After a great start under Salazar’s watchful eye (an American record in the 5,000m in Zurich and a blistering 3rd place finish in Birmingham, England for the World Half-Marathon Championships), Ritzenhein again fell prey to injuries that curtailed his 2010 NYC Marathon preparation. Here, he finished a disappointing 8th overall in a time (2:13:33), his slowest in years. Strained tendons in his left ankle caused him to pull out of the recent Bupa Great Edinburg XC Race. His preparation now is for the 2011 Virgin London Marathon.

Salazar has argued that for Ritzenhein to compete for the top echelon, he would need a more radical overhaul of his running form. “To compete against the best you’ve got to fix this…But there’s a risk. We may injure you.” Such absurd comments are what perpetuates this myth that there is no correct running technique. Whatever you have is God-given, argues Kip Keino, Kenyan Olympic champion. Clearly, the plethora of injuries in Ritzenhein career have pointed to some sort of biomechanical malfunction. Salazar has noted (in a Q & A piece in Runner’s World July 7, 2010) that “Gordon Valiant – the head of biomechanics for Nike – did an evaluation of Dathan and was able to find some things that are unique to Dathan with the way he runs and strikes the foot. With that (study completed), we now have some modified inserts. I wouldn’t call them orthotics – just an insert into the shoe where he has an abnormal amount of force near his third metatarsal. It seems to have alleviated his symptoms completely and we’ve retested him in the lab and shown those forces have been lessened tremendously.” In the same article, Ritzenhein admits that he “was definitely more of a heel-striker” and is “getting to his mid-foot more…”

It amazes me, when looking at the photo stills of Ritzenhein running, that Salazar, Valiant, Lance Walker (Michael Johnson’s Director of Performance) and even Ritzenhein himself (!) fail to grasp the concept of movement. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, all movement is a result of a pivoting from a fixed point. We reference this as falling. We are propelled in running by falling forward from the axis of ball of foot when it’s connected to the ground. During this brief period of support, the Center of Mass (COM) of our bodies is allowed rotate via the vector resultant of gravitational torque. Gravity is essentially pulling us toward the earth. To avoid a complete plunge – and redirect ourselves horizontally – we must change our foot support in a timely manner. Any delay in this process (support-fall-pull-support), induces more stress on our joints and connective structures. Instead of a uniquely orchestrated confluence of gravity, ground reaction force, friction, muscle elasticity and contraction, an inefficient runner must use more effort and absorb more impact. The position of the initial footstrike is decisive for determining the stride efficiency.

From the first image of Ritzenhein (S1, moving left to right), you can see that his left foot is landing ahead of his COM. This causes the bent “K” posture you see in S1: head and chest forward, hips back (Salazar has been critical of the cant of Ritzenhein’s pelvis). It’s not until S3 that Ritzenhein achieves the falling stance (Pose Method) – prior to that he’s just “catching” his body up to the point of ground support on his left foot. Now here’s the moment of choice: Ritzenhein can either allow forward momentum to continue or he can interrupt it. He doesn’t and his body drifts vertically. In S4 you can see that he’s making the common mistake of “toeing-off,” trying to propel himself through the multi-joint extension of his ankle, knee and hips. It is misunderstood that the toe-off is necessary to create propulsive force (“sprinter’s slap” as Salazar has interpreted). Obviously, with Ritzenhein’s bodyweight ahead of the pivot point of his left foot (S3), the push-off phase in S4 redundant. Subsequently, this makes his right leg extend, right foot dorsiflex and oversupinate and left leg recover late (S5-S6). He remains a heel-striker.

The domino effect from improperly landing is rehashed over 26,000 steps in a marathon. What’s not understood in Ritzenhein’s circle of influence can be summed up by a quote I have of Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s:

Nature doesn’t care about fitness or high performance. We are equal facing gravity. It is about how much gravity we want to consume, both in time and space.  This is what develops our body and mind. Injuries occur from losing the fight with gravity.

Dathan, if you’re reading, give me a shout.

The Biomechanics of Snow Shoveling

My wife calls me Shovel King. Honestly, it has little to do with my proficiency for moving snow; rather, due to some obscure psychological drive, I’ve actually started shoveling our walkways and driveway. It’s not that I didn’t shovel before. It’s just that I was the supreme procrastinator, usually waiting for everyone else to be out there before dragging myself into the cold. I could blame my reticence on an abhorrence to domestic chores, especially outside ones (cut the what?). I rationalized that I didn’t need to shovel since we both drove 4-wheeled drive cars. I dunno? Perhaps it was last year’s heavy snowfall that awakened my inner-shoveler. Or that my father’s sacrosanct shoveling was imparted into my DNA. Regardless, I’ve been out there diligently this winter, braced for more. Kind of like the Forest Gump character – I just got up and started shoveling.

According to Susan Spinasanta, Senior Medical Editor for SpineUniverse (“Tips for Back Pain: Digging Your Way Through Winter”), “many people suffer from muscle fatigue, low back strain, vertebral disc damage, and even spinal fractures during the winter season.”  Each year, an estimated 1,200 deaths are due to heart attacks brought on by snow shoveling. People who have high blood pressure, high cholesterol or smoke are at greater risk. We’ve all heard the cautionary advice regarding the inherent risks associated with snow shoveling. Does this made us better prepared to battle the elements?

Snow shoveling is exercise. Those people contraindicated for physical exertion should take precaution. The rest of us, it is suggested, should warm-up, stretch and consume fluids frequently while shoveling. We are told to take frequent breaks. In Popular Mechanics’ “16 Cardinal Rules for snow Shoveling,” writer Roy Berendsohn discusses proper clothing (“loose-fitting layers”), proper snow removal (“move the snow from the center of the rectangle to the nearest edge”) and teaming up with neighbors to “get the job done quicker.” These are all harmless, innocouous recommendations. From a straight physiological perspective, these guidelines are typically given to anyone performing an aerobic-based exercise routine. In many ways, snow shoveling places a greater demand on the body than 45 minutes of cardio in the gym. Why? Because the during the act of shoveling, states Staurt McGill (professor of Spine Biomechanics at Waterloo University) shovelers “bend over to pick up the snow and then twist to dispose of the snow.”

“Biomechanics dictates that the further the load is away from its axis (fulcrum), the heavier it will feel and this will necessitate that a muscle will need to produce grater amounts of force (torque) to move the load,” explains McGill. Snow shoveling represents a Class 3 lever system, meaning that the axis of rotation (fulcrum) is at the opposite end of the lever arm from the resistance (snow), with the applied force (muscles effort) situated between them. Because this type of lever requires higher force production than is capable in this circumstance, injury potential is high. The resistance of the snow is effectively greater than the arms can overcome. The result is the misuse of the lumbar muscles of the back. To decrease the mechanical disadvantage, McGill suggests keeping the snow closer to your body and bending “your knees and push[ing] your hips back so you can maintain a neutral spine.” Berendsohn agrees that you must use your legs as you move from a “squat position to an upright position,” plus, keeping a hand close to the shovel blade and “not to twist as you throw the snow.”

Leverage aside (note the many ergonimically-correct shovels available), I’m sure someone has determined the muscles involved in picking up and moving a shovel of snow and devised a program specific to strengthen those groups. This is one idea. However, let’s look at it another way. Anything that I hold is essentially a part of my overall (body)weight. The snow is attached to the shovel, the shovel attached to the handle, the handle attached to my hands and my hands are attached to me. By moving me, I am essentially moving the snow that I’m holding. To think of the snow as a heavy object I’m holding carries too much psychological and emotional apprehension (this feel heavy). When you hold a shovelful of snow, your muscles will tense enough to support you and the snow. From there, it’s then a matter of moving you (and therefore the snow) to remove the snow. In between shovels, you should maintain a relaxed, knees slightly- bent posture, with your weight situated on the balls of your feet. Slipping is always a concern. By having your weight on your forefoot, you improve your balance and proprioception of movement. Unstable footing loses the support needed for force production. Use lighter loads, more frequently. Try tipping the shovel blade down to dispose of the snow – allowing gravity to intervene. I sometimes utilized the “pushing the snow” method by allowing my weight to be “held” by the shovel. At the proper blade angle, the snow becomes a poor support for your bodyweight, allowing you to pile up small drifts along the asphalt with little effort.

Call of Duty

Like most Americans, I take much for granted. The air I breathe. My right to speak my mind. Freedom. Yesterday I had an opportunity to work with Air Force servicemen and servicewomen at McGuire AFB. My goal was to introduce them to the concepts of “efficient, injury-free running.” I was somewhat apprehensive prior to arriving at McGuire, not sure what to expect and unsure of their expectations. I was scheduled to do two 2-hour sessions, one at 9am and the other at 2pm. Like most situations, I had a game plan yet was prepared to adjust on-the-fly if necessary. The clinics were arranged by 87th Air Base Wing MSgt Jason Harrison, an Arkansas native, who had contacted me with hopes of finding an answer to his chronic shin splints.

Fortunately, it was a beautiful day – 73 degrees, breezy and brightly sunny. Both sessions went well, much more relaxed than I had anticipated. The early morning group included MSgt Harrison and 87th ABW Communications Squadron Commander and triathlete Major Heather Blackwell (the 87th AWB is one of the five “wings” on McGuire and is responsible for USAF installation support via logistics, deployment, contracting and protection). On the asphalt “block” I instructed, demonstrated and cajoled them through a battery of exercises, working through the proper foot strike, body posture and muscle actions necessary to run more fluidly. The post-video analysis proved that they were much more aware of their running form. The second group was larger. I exhorted them as they ran with their arms above their heads and in-front of their bodies. By the end, they too had a better grasp of the principles and structure I had communicated.

Between the sessions, MSgt Harrison took me to lunch and gave me a tour of the base. McGuire AFB is actually a “super” joint base, combining with the US Army installation Fort Dix and Lakehurst, the Naval Air Engineering Station. Driving through each base, I was awed by its enormity – and the complex organization necessary for daily and crisis operations. The hierarchy of communication, responsibility and action needed is mind-boggling. I was reminded of human movement, which requires the same dense network of interrelationships to work dynamically. We take for granted the interdependent chain of gravity/body mass/support/bodyweight/muscle effort that defines motion. When this “finely calibrated cycle of support” (Romanov, 2008) and energy transformation is interrupted, we experience deterioration in our quality of life. The fragility of our existence can be felt on so many levels.

During the second session, Major Blackwell awarded me a Commander’s Coin for Excellence. I was very appreciative and humbled by the gift. I held it understanding, that in some small way, by helping those who serve and protect us, that I become entwined in the fabric of life. Ut Unum Vincere.

LAB RAT: A Tale In Two Parts

ACT 1: I’ve heard a lot about biomechanist Irene Davis and the Running Injury Clinic at the University of Delaware. Dr. Davis’ “research is aimed at understanding the relationship between the lower extremity structure, mechanics and injury.” I recently learned that Davis and her students were soliciting barefoot/minimalist runners to participate in a footstrike study the lab was now conducting. Intrigued, I contacted the lab and scheduled my appointment. There, I met PhD candidate Allison Altman, who had me fill-out a release form before outfitting me with a myriad of motion sensors on my hips, lower torso, knees, ankles and feet. Afterwards, she explained the test guidelines: after a brief warm-up, I was to run 5 minutes in my current running style (forefoot), then 5 minutes on the midfoot before 5 more minutes while heel-striking. Finally, Allison would watch me run in my bare feet for a final 5 minute interval.

Donning a pair of retro Nike Air Pegasus (because of their neutrality, she told me), I ran my initial 5 minutes hyper-focused on my forefoot landing: the rigid, over-cushioned awkward-fitting shoe inhibiting my ability to feel the ball of my foot. The next five proved even more challenging as I attempted to locate my midfoot (an anomaly I’ve argued against in a previous blog). Allison tried to quell my confusion, explaining the midfoot as a neutral landing of my whole foot. A simultaneous crash landing, I joked. She did a good job coaching me through it, cuing me whenever my forefoot began to sneak ahead of my heel. After another rest break, it was time for the 5 minutes of heel-striking. Ironic how I was now emulating that despicable heel-toe pattern I’ve fought against for so long. In retrospect, though, I’m glad I had an opportunity to step back into heel-striking mode. Feeling totally uncomfortable, despite Allison’s urges to “pull my toes up more,” my stride floundered, quads tightened, hip flexors strained as I continued to reach forward. With each irregular step, I never wished so emphatically for my feet to be free. I found it difficult to comprehend why anyone would run this way, forgetting that without my present knowledge, I would be that same person. Needless to say, my final barefoot period was nirvana, as I rhythmically pulled my feet from the conveyor belt. There was an immediacy to every step I took – something that science fails to translate.

ACT 2: I received a frantic voicemail from my friend, Sally Higgins, a PT and newbie Pose Coach. Sally sounded so incredulous as she described what she had heard the night before at a free lecture given by Dr. Irene Davis. As the story goes, Dr. Davis answered Sally’s inquiry as to Davis’ thoughts about Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s Pose Method and its application to minimalist running, by stating “how bad his [Romanov’s] science is.” She further added that it none other than Chris McDougall (Born To Run) who had “changed her mind” about the possibility of landing on the forefoot…How strange, considering that McDougall, a writer, backed into being the poster-boy for the barefoot running craze, while acknowledging to not being an authority on running mechanics. Not surprisingly, McDougall had gone to Romanov in Florida to correct his form, and even had sessions with Romanov-devotee, the Brit Lee Saxby. For Davis to so abruptly dismiss and denigrate the Pose model, while backhandedly endorsing the minimalist/forefoot ideology, is ultimately irresponsible. Again, this points towards science taking a reductionist approach to observing a complex topic (Even Altman had argued, in a phone conversation prior to our meeting, that the lab was concerned with “biomechanics, not efficiency”). Unfortunately, behind this facade of inconclusive data and a dearth of common sense, scientists like Davis are able to mold the public perception of running technique. A week later, Higgins heard McDougall (to his credit) denounce Davis’ “science” and supported the tremendous benefit of the Pose Method towards efficient, pain-free running. With all of the information available to us, do we really need someone who champions “the technological advancements [in running shoes] over the last 30 years” to tell us how to run?

I CAN’T TAKE IT ANYMORE!: 8 Myths About Running Injuries

These are the moments when I’m glad to have an internet voice (read: blog). Without this outlet, I would be sitting at home, contemplating some grisly response to all of the tweets regarding “Running Injuries.” My frustration has reached new heights, seeing more and more articles/posts advocating the surefire way to lessen the pain of running. With each new piece of peer-reviewed university research and advice pouring out of the mouths of esteemed doctors, scientists and therapists, one would assume that the war against running-related injuries would have already been won. The problems (despite better shoes, better training and better rehabilitation) continue to plague us. Like most things in life, the answers are right in front of our faces, but our eyes are closed. Listed are my 8 pet peeves regarding running and injury prevention. Hopefully, I can dispel some of these myths, once and for all, and help  you become more aware of the truth.

1. Stretching prevents injuries – Late last week, a NYT article suggested that stretching had no more effect on reducing injuries than not stretching. In essence, a true statement. Proper running form doesn’t require flexibility (look how many people run and can’t touch their toes!), however, being more flexible will always augment your freedom of movement. Any restricted part of your body will inevitably become a problem area, due to a lack of mobility and the consequence of compensation. Your subconscious will always “favor” this area, affecting the fluidity of your running. That being said, I do believe in a warm-up (like jumping rope) that prepares the body for running. It’s always a good idea to “check” your flexibility as well: making sure that your joints are free from restriction and safe to proceed with activity. Arguing over static vs. dynamic flexibility greatly misses the point.

2. Running on softer surfaces – Although this sounds very logical, the surface only matters with respect to your running inefficiency. Pound the ground and the ground will pound you back. Very simple. Studies have shown that you can decrease impact with an improved stride that focuses on a forefoot strike landing underneath your body’s center of mass. Remember, movement occurs predominately from gravitational propulsion which allows our bodies to fall with less muscle effort. We need to learn how to use gravity as our ally.

3. Find the right shoe – Once again, the “correct” shoe relates to your “style” of running. All of the common causes for correction (most notably over-pronation) are coming from errors in form. When your foot lands ahead of your body, reaching for the ground, there exists an opportunity for the foot to excessively move and adjust (think of the trouble kids get into afterschool before their parents get home). It’s too much time wasted, especially for the heel-striker who must land, flatten, roll then release. In any movement, time on support is precious. A shoe can only mask these mistakes, conceding running economy for “what feels right.”

4. Running is natural – Running is no more “natural” than skating, golfing or swimming. Actually, I do believe that it is natural for man (as a bipedal animal) to run and run very long distances. Our early history would suggest man running on grassy plains and dirt trails, chasing and running from prey in barefeet. The overcivilization of our species – the development of roads and the wearing of shoes – probably had much to do with our current circumstances. I’m constantly reminding people of how babies first begin to walk: hold on, release, lose balance, staccato short steps then hold on to something else. At our earliest age, movement is realized as falling.

5. Mid-foot striking – With a reborn interest in running mechanics (see Pose Method of Running), I’ve been hearing a lot about mid-foot striking. What is the mid-foot? The mid-foot is the arch, and I dare anyone to actually land there. I realize that much of this has to do with ego (“Oh, you run on your heels? Well, I land on my mid-foot!”). It’s been explained as a simultaneous landing of the whole foot – which would be a flat-foot landing. Any frame-by-frame analysis would reveal a forefoot or heel-first landing.

6. Muscle imbalances – Having strong muscles is never a detriment, but never a guarantee either. Most speed coaches are proponents of athletes having really strong muscles. Therapists want runners to have stronger cores. In my experience, most runners and athletes lack the necessary hip and hamstring strength to run effectively (longer and faster). But, this is found out AFTER I’ve made corrections in their technique. Running better means falling farther. The hips represent the integrity of your kinetic chain, and your hamstrings the muscles most responsible for lifting your foot from the ground. The human body is a perfect design, properly balanced for the myriad of tasks it can perform. Who says every muscle needs to be on par with every other? Perhaps these imbalances are actually necessary for proper functioning?

7. Reduce mileage – I think by now, you can guess my answer. I will say, that there is way too much emphasis on mileage, endurance and conditioning. The results speak for themselves – up to 85% of runners suffer injuries. Too many bad miles, will leave the body overtrained and hurt. Yet, run with great efficiency and the sky’s your limit. I will agree that even in the best circumstances, there should be variation in anyone’s routine, changing tempos and distances to challenge your perception and skill.

8. Cross-Training – Another one of the “band-aids” used to fix injuries and keep the athlete in-shape. Instead of being a solution, cross-training (cardiovascular-wise) opens up another can of worms. Many athletes suffer additional problems associated with the ill-conceived mechanics of most cardio machines, while other activities, like cycling and swimming, are mistaken as just non-impact options for the laid-up runner. Trying to take away gravity isn’t the answer. Without gravity, we wouldn’t exist. In a very real sense, we need gravity (its support, its security) for our survival.

Does Stretching Before Running Prevent Injuries

Around the water cooler of “twitterdom” this week, opinions were flying about about the New York Times article “Phys Ed: Does Stretching Before Running Prevent Injuries?” by Gretchen Reynolds in the Well blog of the Health section ( So many people were retweeting this article, I felt compelled to see what all the fuss was about. My interest was piqued after the opening line teaser: “Should you stretch before you run?”

Without going into the whole story, a study was published (on the USA Track & Field website) comparing two groups, one where all of the subjects stretched before they ran and the other which didn’t. After a three month period the results were conclusive – “[stretching]neither prevented nor induced injury when compared with not stretching before running.” These results seem to headbutt common sense on two levels: first, we’ve always been taught to stretch before exercising and second, if stretching doesn’t work, what does?

In the article, Ross Tucker, a South African physiologist, argues that there’s a “reflex” that prevents us from over-stretching and that “static stretching” (held stretching positions like touching your toes) for your warm-up activates this self-protection response inhibiting normal function of our muscles. Dr. Tucker now advocates the “dynamic stretching” used for most elite athletes – more akin to exercises used to “increase your joints’ range of motion via constant movement.” The idea behind dynamic stretching is that the inhibitory reflex of static stretching isn’t invoked and that the brain is more involved in the process improving “proprioception and control, as well as…flexibility.”

The results of this study should come as no surprise. There has always been too much emphasis placed on our muscles. Muscles are essentially “pulling and relaxing” tissues (Romanov, 2010). They are there to serve the movement of our joints as a consequence of our bodyweight interaction with our environment. Since running begins and is sustained by the body involuntarily falling forward, the function of our muscles is to help us get to this falling position more timely. How flexible your muscles are is not the issue.

At the heart of being flexible is the idea of losing inhibition. We are governed by our fears. The reflex that Dr. Tucker mentions does protect us from harm, but it also holds us back. Sometimes, though, those fears are whisked away and we are capable of superhuman feats (the amplified example of being able to pick up a car to save a friend trapped underneath). So, think of flexibility as freedom – freedom of movement which starts with your joints, tendons and ligaments. As you become more free, you will gain more awareness, balance, strength and precision in your mobility. And begin to spend your warm-up prepping yourself for movement, checking your system for readiness and focusing your thoughts.

The Movement Master

If you’ve followed my tweets or Facebook status updates, you already know I’ve made my annual pilgrimage to Miami to see my teacher, friend, colleague, sensei Dr. Nicholas Romanov. As usual, my trip to see Dr. R was fulfilling, as I eagerly gobbled up every proselytizing nugget of information he shared. This time, there was an undeniable wisdom to his words, a deeper acknowledgement of our interdependence on gravity to move, and more importantly, to sustain the youthful vigor all of us cherish. “Life is movement and movement is life”, he emphasized.

In his lectures with me, Nicholas dissected the essence of movement: support – action – support. Because of gravitational pull, our body mass has “weight” and this weight is discernable by the pressure we feel (think, the load we feel on our feet when we stand). Pressure automatically engages our muscular system, preparing us for the specific coordination of actions required to release our bodyweight and immediately return to the next point of support. The most efficient means of releasing our weight is by falling.

This means that the pillars of sports performance (speed, agility, quickness, endurance, stength) are linked to how far and fast you will fall and the skills necessary to do so.  According to Nicholas, the key is your ability to understand and apply these concepts to your movement. Through your psycho-emotional network of sensing, perceiving, desiring and thoughts-processing, each of us possesses the ability to improve our performance exponentially.

Although my stay at the Romanov’s home was brief, Nicholas was always the gracious host, generous with both his time and insights. As he drove me to the airport for my return flight to Philly, he reflected on our conversations. “Who was that, actor, very famous, died young?” he asked. “Uh, James Dean?” I guessed. “Yes, right,” he said before poignantly summing up life’s seemingly endless complexities.  “I love this quote from him: ‘Live life like you will die tomorrow, do as if you will live forever’.”