Jan 22, 2011

part 3: winter 101

shelter island by skis 2011
Winter is upon us, and for those of us who love to workout outdoors, there are few days that we can manage it without a significant weather challenge. For me, my mountain bike hangs on the basement wall, new tires, new saddle, new bar-ends, ready for the next spring adventure. My sneakers tell another story. I am amazed, and proud that my shoe rack is comprised of 75% sneakers. This winter, inspired by my marathon running friend Jen, and a few of the athlete-patients who I am currently coaching, I committed to increase my running, from the paltry one 5-miler per week, to a minimum of three runs, hail, rain or snow. And mostly it has been snow. 
My Christmas trip home to Ireland was snow bound, barely making it into Shannon airport in freezing fog, spotting the white county beneath the plane’s belly, and getting flashbacks to my year working in Newfoundland. The normally verdant shore was white, the landing strip barely visible in the icy field, the road home described as “lethal” by the smiling car rental agent. (As in.."ah the roads are lethal outside of Limerick, but sure you'll be fine"..)
christmas day @ sliabh coillte and JFK arboretum

And fine we were..we ran, around the Hook lighthouse in a gale, around JFK arboretum and Sliabh Coillte on Christmas day in the snow, and ‘round the misty Lough Conn in the mud and freezing fog. 
bog trotting in the Nephins
We ran. As a group of four, laughing, pushing fartlek intervals on the hills, no GPS, no HRM, just hats, gloves and sneakers. I vowed to do more of this..

Arriving back to the US, I settled into the plan for the New Year:
·         Maintain GPA 3.90+ @ RMUoHP, complete didactic phase, prepare for dissertation!
·         Women’s’ ½ marathon central park April 3rd
·         PA 25k mountain run April 16th www.hikerun.com
·         Better ride MTB clinic May 16th VA www.betterride.com
·         Couple of 50mi single speed races in june + july
·         Transrockies 2011 August
·         2 weeks riding somewhere in USA with friends (late September / early October)
·         A bunch of fun stuff in-between…10k swims, surfing, sailing...
Amidst the plans, I have been able to enjoy hanging up the wheels, and lacing up the shoes. This past fortnight (2 weeks for the yanks..), we have had a fair dump of snow in Sag Harbor, with one of two snow days from work, and 4-5 inches of icy stuff remaining on the ground a week later. The runs in the past weeks have been mixed, from treadmill intervals, to tentative snowy runs with gaiters, and eventually regressing to cross-country skis and my new snowshoes.

While relaxing from the training schedule, I have been able put some thought into running technique, form analysis and performance improvement. As a competitive swimmer from childhood , longtime flautist and baroque recorder player, and physical therapist, I have an intuitive sense of “technique” and how much work needs to be done to appear fluid and effortless, whether in music, rehabilitation or competitive sport.Through many years of coaching and rehabilitation certifications, the methods may differ slightly, but the emphasis is the same..in order to get to Carnegie Hall / USAT nationals/USAC championships/personal best times/ improved motor control, you need to practice, practice, practice. While practice itself is valuable in any endeavor, practice of specific techniques improves performance. There are few athletes who will admit to “just doing it”, most spend many hours breaking down their form and analyzing it, re-visiting it, re-vamping it every day, week, and year. Running is no different. Use of 2D or 3D motion analysis** and pressure biofeedback is becoming increasingly common, and performance improvement no longer depends on more mileage, but more mileage that is thoughtful, smart and scientific.  The next few blog postings will integrate the new, the novel and the nutty, in the effort to boost running speed, efficiency and fun.

Cross-country skiing is one of the most challenging sporting efforts, with the ultimate in max VO2 consumption, and a rabid following in Europe / Canada and anywhere with consistent snow, it seems natural for multi-sport athletes and runners to be drawn to it. Having not grown up skiing, but being exposed to it on regular winter intervals, I have taken to it like a duck to water, or rather like a penguin to ice..I love the slither, the glide, the silence of the swish, swish, swish. Since I ski either trailing Dennis, or mostly alone, I can focus on the balance between the skis, the relative glide of one foot versus the other, the push off of one foot versus the other, the weight of pole planting on one side versus the other. I practice skiing without poles for 5 minute intervals, “listening” in the glide to what is happening in my feet.. The chronically injured right leg isn’t gliding as long as the left, the left pole plants harder than the right, the push off on the right is less powerful than the left.. 
Suddenly, many of the asymmetries of my running form become more apparent, without video, without biofeedback from force platforms, without coach input from the track. Listening becomes the analytical process, feeling becomes the high tech recording devices, thinking becomes the coach. I work on my push-off on the right, the right glide, I plant less on the left, swish, swish, swish.. more even, faster, less pain in my toes on that darned right foot. I plan to apply this to my long run this weekend…
The next day brings rain, the following 1-2” of snow and icy conditions. The woods are not ski-able, so I dig out my new snowshoes for a gallop. Having to knuckle down to review and finalize a paper for publication, I missed a 5k race in VT with Shari and Mary, but headed out around my local loop in my new gear. 12 minutes jog at about 10'-11’ / mile pace, I was reduced to a sweating, huffing mass, and had to reduce my run:walk intervals to 5:1. On an out-and-back trail, I was able to see my tiring right leg leave its track, not parallel to the partner, but poking it’s nose out to the right .. I corrected the poke, stride by stride, consciously bringing the foot in to a more parallel alignment and immediately reducing the stress on my mid-foot. Jeez. 65 sweaty mintes later, I got back to the trail-head, stripped down to base layer and tights, gloves, hat, jacket in a ball around my waist, bright, new shiny footprints in my motor cortex. 
Today’s 10 miler was deliberately slower than usual, on the cold, windy road, at trail pace, incorporating this mental footprint into my motor memory, increasing the push-off on my weaker side, normalizing my stride length, listening to the cadence of landing, balancing the forces of one side to the other, imprinting on my cortex this new pattern, step by step, practice, practice, practice. 
Key points: use the snow sports to review your running technique. Begin slowly, skiing and snowshoeing at a long-distance effort, slower than a tempo run, faster than a recovery run. 
Ditch the poles, the headphones and the training partners, and tune into the sound of your own efforts. Review the body from the top down..think about what you feel, maybe even review some chi-running techniques, which I have found to be especially helpful in reducing injury and increasing running enjoyment!
Head pitch: slight lean from the forehead, long neck in the back, shorter neck in the front.
Shoulders: relaxed but steady, limit the vertical heaving, try to imagine your elbows tracking fore-and-aft, limiting the lateral side-to-side motion that robs energy.
Hands: lightly squeezing air. Loose floppy hands lead to loose floppy elbows, which steal momentum from travelling forward, and convert it into jiggly wasteful motion. Tight fists initiate grasping reflexes which involve the whole arm, and chest wall, restricting breathing, limiting arm swing. 
Pelvis: strong and stable. Imagine the "bowl" of the pelvis being filled with precious liquid that you don't want to spill. Limit the vertical bouncing of the bowl, and think of smoothing out the transitions between strides. There is significant evidence that just doing this "smoothing" can reduce the vertical loading rate, which while it does not alter the ground reaction force, can reduce injury by reducing the speed of load application. 
Hips: with the spine leaning slightly forward, the pelvis will rotate as though on a vertical axis, the hips slightly reaching forward, then back with each leg stride. Lateral shift or tilting of the pelvis loses energy and efficiency, and is one of the largest contributors to hip, knee, ankle and foot pain.
Knees: pointing in the direction of travel. Seems like a simple instruction, but most of my orthopedic patients in the office have lost control over this basic mechanical demand. With the patella (kneecap) heading in the direction of travel, the lateral forces on the knee and ankle are reduced. No leaky energy. Between pelvis leveling and directional knee loading, most lower extremity and spine injuries will be avoided.
Feet: the end. The most important, and the most neglected in running. Line them up, under the knees, leading the way forward. Find the point where they can be loaded mid-foot with 50% or the weight through the big toe (50% thicker than the other toes for a reason!) and the rest evenly distributed through the forefoot through push-off. Simple pointers to begin with, I will expand on these in more detail during appointments at Runners Lab, at my office practice, and in future posts. 

Dec 30, 2010

Part 2: the bowl..

Part 2: the bowl..
With the first part in this multi-part series addressing the feet and their connection with the ground beneath us, the natural transition up the kinetic chain is to part two, the pelvic bowl.
The bony pelvic region sits just beneath the center of mass of the body, and through the skeletal configuration of hips, spine and sacro-iliac joints, has multi-planar motion. That is, it can rotate around a vertical axis (the spine), pivot over alternating leg axes (the hips), or nod to one side or other (pubic and sacro-iliac joints). It is the seat of our most important organs, the main site of our control in motion. With the body’s largest muscles directly and indirectly connected to the pelvis (Abdominals, Gluteals, Latissimus, Psoas, Hamstrings), it is perfectly situated for force generation, or energy dissipation; that is, if it is correctly positioned to facilitate these operations. If not, it can be the site of many woes common to runners, low back pain, hip pain, hamstring strain, groin strain.

If you can imagine the pelvis as a large bowl at the top of the legs (not unlike a mixing bowl, or a big salad bowl), then add in a lot of liquid to the bowl, so that the surface of the liquid comes to within an inch of the bowl’s rim. As you walk and run, the pelvis will rotate and tip in all directions, but there is an optimal amount of tip and rotation that allows efficient motion, not “spilling” anything from the pelvis. Tai Chi practitioners understand this concept well, moving in ways that minimize loss of “Chi” or energy from the pelvic bowl. Anyone who has watched any distance running event is familiar with the variations on this postural theme, but will notice that in the winning athletes, through the top athletic tier, the pelvic bowl is solid, steady and smooth in its passage through space. The stragglers, the limpers, the walkers in the last hour of the marathon have a very different configuration of their pelvic bowl, with many “spilling” their energy forward or laterally from the pelvic brim.

How efficient are you and your pelvis?
A simple exercise can determine your ability to stabilize your pelvic bowl, minimize your injury risk, and optimize your running efficiency.
Place your hands on the sides of your pelvis, below the narrow waist, where the body begins to widen and where most people determine their “hips” to be. With your thumbs towards the back edge of the bowl, and your index fingers wrapping forward along the front edges of the bowl, you have a firm grasp of your pelvic bowl. Stand with your feet slightly apart, knees straight with your hands wrapping around your pelvic bowl.
If you are in front of a mirror, you will notice that your belly button is vertical over the center of your base of support, the space between your two feet, and if you dropped an imaginary plumb-line from this belly button, it would fall to touch the floor, right between your feet. 
Now, shift your weight onto one leg, lifting one foot from the floor, balancing on one leg alone. What happened in the pelvis? Did you see that it tipped to one side, poking your outer thigh to the side? Did it sag as you balanced? Did it shift a lot, or a little? If you visualize the plumb-line again, does it pass through the ankle and foot? Or does it continue to hit the floor to the inside of your Big toe? Ideally, your pelvic bowl will only move a bit in this exercise, shifting slightly to the side, to allow the line of gravity to fall to the inside of the foot near the arch. 
If your pelvis tilts excessively, you are “spilling” energy from the trunk, running slower than you could potentially run, and increasing your injury risk. As you shift from two-legged standing to single limb stance, your shoulders should remain steady, parallel to the floor, and shift over the balancing foot without tipping or tilting. 
If they tend to droop to one side as you balance, you are losing your “Chi” as you go from single limb stance on one side to single limb stance. As this happens repeatedly in running, you are spilling energy from your core, and losing power transfer from your pelvis. Your legs than have to work harder, as do the muscles of your low back, contributing to wasted effort and increasing fatigue. Some simple exercises will assist in maintaining the pelvis level, optimizing power transfer, storing your Chi , and running faster, stronger, longer. 
Stay tuned for a simple but effective program for posture, balance and strength in running!

Dec 12, 2010

when the foot hits the ground..

The very tools that "ground" us deserve some respect, our connection to the world, feet are our antennae. Home to the largest cluster of pressure and motion sensors in the body, these appendages help us to find our way through the world. These "feelers" are the very things that assist us in our brain development, yet we running adults pay them little heed. As infants, their very contact with the ground assists in motor programming, developing and strengthening reflexes that assist us to stand, then walk and run successfully. Our flexible, sensitive feet sense the ground beneath us, adapting in shape to conform to undulations, pebbles, slippery rock. They help deliver information about ground conditions, assisting us to shock absorb and optimizing load transmission through our joints. As runners, our feet are often neglected, or maligned, as we clock the miles through trails or winding roads. Why would we squeeze these wonderful companions into shoes, lace them up without giving them a second thought? A bit of attention to your nether region will go a long way to having healthier feet, and even contribute to faster running!
Some exercise: Kick off your kicks, strip off your socks, and let the little piggies out. Rub the soles briskly for 30 seconds with your socks, pull each toe length ways along it's axis, and stretch them towards, then away from you. Circle the ankles, several times in both directions, first in the air, then while your toes are planted on the ground. Some joint lubrication, some stimulation of the sensory organs and time to "listen" to your footprint.
Standing on both feet, close your eyes. (not now, you'll never get this read!) Visualize the footprint that you are making on the ground. Are you heavy in the heels? Are you weighted more on the ball of the foot? Do you rest on one more than the other? 
If you were to paint your sole, then stand on white paper, can you see your clearly defined arch? Or is it sucking the floor like a squished plunger? Shift the weight to the right, then the left, forward then back. Does the weight move symmetrically? Are your toes gripping? Does your big toe take most of the weight? Or does your pinkie toe balance the load?  
Now shift onto one leg, again without opening your eyes. If you are unsteady, you can lightly touch your finger tips to the wall, but try to keep your "mind's eye" watching your footprint. What happens in the leg as you stand on this one limb? Do you tense your toes, your ankle muscles, even your shoulders? Change legs, switching feet and repeat the same observations. Now put both feet back on the floor and review your footprints. Are they more relaxed? More evenly weighted? Repeat this a few times until you can create evenly matched footprints in your mind's eye, in the sensory map of your body. Make a determined effort to relax the toes, the ankle muscles, the arches of the feet, the thighs, hips, shoulders and neck muscles. Breathe deeply in your belly, exhaling and letting go of tension in the toes, the shins, the hips. Practice these "looseners" and scanning techniques for a few minutes before you run, and see if you can bring the evenly weighted image to your warm up, and into your tempo, then back into your cool-down. The more you can create this even weighting, the more balanced you will be in your body, normalizing load distributions, optimizing shock attenuation, minimizing injury. Be conscious of your feet on a regular basis, and they will continue to teach you how to stand, how to walk, and yes, how to run! 
More to follow as we work our way up the kinetic chain..in the Runner's Lab.

Nov 5, 2010

run for sanity...

So here I am, smack in the middle of my PhD program and adding more to my list of  *things-to-do*..
The venue: World Pie in Bridgehampton:
The Characters:  the best, smartest physiologist and coach that I know (Jen Gatz), the best, most challenging intellectual podiatrist that I know (Dr. Langone), and myself..
The time: 7:30pm on a rainy Thursday evening, after a 12 hour day in the office, one long day including 17 patients, one lunchtime business meeting, one mid-day haircut and one chiropractic adjustment (cranky snowboard neck injury)
The plan being hatched: the RUNNER's LAB..
Our plan: to create the east end's only running analysis center, offering of the following services:

  • Video of running performance with Podiatric consultation
  • Biomechanics review and PT evaluation 
  • Exercise physiologist consultation 
  • Nutritional analysis
  • Coaching program
  • Therapeutic exercise prescription
  • Footwear recommendation
  • Referral to personal trainer for follow up
  • Evidence-based program for performance improvement and injury prevention
We talk, we eat, we eat, we talk.. we are all runners, athletes, so we eat a lot, washing it down with a healthy mix of beer, Cabernet Sauvignon and Pellegrino..We make notes, we three plan to meet again, not in thunder, lightning or in rain, but at the new "studio" in Southampton..I am so excited that I can hardly sleep, but look forward to my run in the morning, seeing treadmills, computers and video cameras in my mind's eye as the rain finally lulls me to sleep. 

The morning brings more of the same, darkness, rain and silence. Dennis is still away, so I roll downstairs, chug a hot espresso as I lace up my runners, and don the Petzl headlamp before heading out in the black drizzle. I hit the trails so familiar to me in daylight that I can almost see them without the light. Townline road, Powerlines, switchbacks. Two pairs of green eyes catch my beam and peer at me from the nearby bayberry bushes. I startle an 8 point buck and a young doe from their love nest on the side of the trail, and they saunter across my path, lazy and uncaring about strangers in the hormone heavy Autumn morning. All around the Farmstand loop and up the hills on Airport road, my brain is full of intake questionnaires, templates, LED's and sticky-dot marking systems, videos of exercises and prescriptive programs for home training, sneakers and stretching straps. 
These women are powerhouses: they are the green eyes that light up the pre-dawn in my brain. I run to settle my mind, to set my heart racing with effort so I can calm my spirits, as I launch into another project, another phase of friendship, another chapter in the journal. I can't wait..!