Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Running and Being

The late Dr. George Sheehan wrote a little tome called Running and Being. In it, he details a simple philosophy of exercise. "Before we can be good humans," he writes, "we must first be good animals." I've always loved this. Dr. Sheehan was part of the running craze of the 1970's, and ran well into his own advancing age. Running was part of his identity, and it is a part of mine.

I started running during my sophomore year in high school. One spring I got up some nerve, joined the track team, bought a pair of shoes, and by May I was a runner. That was 1991, and I was sixteen years old. I ran a surprisingly brisk 2:02 in the 800m that year, and I was hooked. By my senior year I stretched out for a 4:31 mile and a 1:58 for the 800m.

High school running gave me some sense of balance and buoyancy, so I continued on into college. I ran three years at Lewis & Clark College, through my early 20's. By any account, my best years of running. I had a supportive coach, a great facility, and a light step. 3:59 in the 1500m, 1:56 in the 800m. These were great times, and I will always be proud of them.

Then my post collegiate twenties came along, and my running took a sharp dive. I wrecked a motorcycle, traveled the world, and generally stopped the workouts. I still felt like a runner, but I wasn't running much more than the occasional jog to blow off steam. Moving back to Portland in my later twenties, I found this sport again. I hadn't taken more than a few years away so getting back in shape was relatively easy. I found running friends that kept me motivated, and soon I was back to running for fitness and fun.

The point of this post is that running has been part of my identity for most of my adult life. I've never been particularly motivated, but I love a long run and I love to race. For the past ten years I have been running and racing regularly. I generally get into shape every spring and fall out of shape every winter. I run with the seasons, hating the hot sun and loving the cool rain. I rarely run more than twenty miles in a week. This seems like just enough to keep me healthy without causing any real injury.

And then BAM. Note my last post. This fall has been humbling and motivating. Somewhere in the aging process I began to rely more heavily on some of my bigger muscles at the expense of the smaller ones. I spent the last month doing physical therapy, massage, and stretching. And then yesterday I saw the running lady at my PT office and she did a running assessment. We took video of my stride and talked about my sloppy form. She showed me how my loping, bouncing stride is out of whack. How my footstrike is either too far forward or too far back. And that crossover? Forgetaboutit.

So what am I going to do? Here's the rub: I'm basically pain free. I'm jogging on the indoor track at my gym, and I can putz around on the treadmill, and I can ride the bike, but I DON'T TRUST IT. My injury in October was no fluke, and it happened almost without warning. I need to fix something about my basic stride if I want to keep at this - if I want to run into my own advancing age.

I am attempting to track my progress here on The Daddy Life. I want to transform my stride into what Alberto Salazar has called "the one best way." It may not be the fastest way, or the prettiest, and definitely not the easiest, but humans have been running efficiently for millenia. Anthropologists argue that running allowed us to hunt animals over long range, outperforming prey due to our ability to sweat instead of pant. So running really is built into our human identity. No wonder it feels so good.

I have just begun to take in the large body of literature about this ancient/modern theory of running. There is a whole barefoot movement out there just dying to get me out of my pronation control trainers. I think that's unnecessary, but there are some excellent training tools out there to build muscles, balance, and tone that will prevent my injury from October. First I'll detail the program put in place by my PT, Erika Lewis at the Providence Sports Clinic at Jeld-Wen Stadium. These guys work on the Portland Timbers, so they've got to know what they're doing, right?

Erika the PT gave me three simple changes to remember while I'm building toward my new stride. Three is a good number for me - I'd never remember four.

1) Tuck my pelvis under. Tighten the abs, tighten the butt, and sit over my hips instead of tilting forward. This takes some concentration, but it's not too bad on a flat surface.

2) Strike in the middle of the foot. No more toe prancing or heel striking. I can do both equally well, but mid-foot striking seems to keep me over the center of my body.

3) Slow it down, but increase the cadence. Instead of loping along on the treadmill, Erika had me speed up my rate of footstrike to about 166 per minute, but without changing my speed. This is hard work. It feels more like a running drill than a jog.

Currently I can keep up this new stride for about twenty minutes on the indoor track. I checked myself with my watch, and I can stay pretty close to the 166 strikes per minute pacing. I have to report that this feels awkward, and everything is starting to hurt a little as I find new and unused muscles to abuse. But I'm running and I'm building stability. I'm fascinated to see if I can really do this. I'll give it a try for the next month, and keep tabs on how it goes!

I'm not ready to give up my identity as a runner just yet!


  1. Glad to hear you can run again! I'm looking forward to more updates on your progress and what you learn about running stride, etc. The pain you were in sounded really similar to what I experienced and what is keeping me from going to back to running. Of course, I was never a runner like you were - I was a swimmer who tried out running in my college and post-college years to keep in shape. So I don't miss it as much. Just the trails and the chatting with friends. Keep up the posting!

  2. Hi E Ben, I'll be watching these posts with great interest. I took up running very late, at the end of college, but found I had a little knack for it. I ran pretty well for a few years, only to run into some tendonitis issues around my ankle. And so began my "lost decade". I suspect I was injured more than I was healthy during this time, as a litany of foot & ankle issues (along with a nasty bout with ITBS) kept me in pools or on bikes, ellipticals, etc. It was no fun.

    Finally I decided I needed to get away from heel-striking, and move to mid-foot strike. Improved health quickly ensued, but it seemed I was able only to manage my issues, rather than eliminate them. Over time I moved to more minimal shoes, and eventually to Vibrams (thank you Tom!). I chose this because I felt like it was the only way to make me run with proper form, even once I'm tired. I just can't relax and mash on my heals if there's no padding there.

    Over the last couple of years, as this minimization process has occurred, my running has been near my peak (not quite up to my 26yo form...), and really fun. I've been getting up to 30+ miles per week, at a pretty decent(sub-7) clip.

    Unfortunately, it's not all sunshine and roses. I did have a stress fracture in my 2nd metatarsal this spring, and just last week I got what I believe is the same injury in my other foot. I haven't yet decided if this means I really need shoes (albeit minimal ones), or if this is part of the process. Regardless, this is working far better for me than my old methods.

    The "100 Up" is interesting to me, I'll have to play with it, and follow how it goes for you. I think the Vibrams force me to run that way to some degree, but not entirely. Keep up the documenting, I'm anxious to see what you find.