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Running Well: Taking it seriously and focusing on form

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Running Well Program | LoHi Physical Therapy

Hold on, all you non-runners; I’m gonna nerd out for a bit.

The week after the Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon, I had my last appointment with my physical therapist (for now, anyway). He focused on working out kinks and tightness from the race and showed me some more good stretches I can use to get stronger and stay lose. And thus ended the phase of my training where I tried to fix what was broken and instead focused on keeping things from breaking.

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My physical therapist and one of his partners are both active marathon runners. And over ten years ago, after they’d been running for a while and dealing with injuries while not seeing any improvement in their times, they created the Running Well program. Part training for other physical therapists and part individual instruction for patients, the program focuses on building strength, flexibility and body awareness to improve your running form and efficiency. My first session was two weeks ago, and today I had my mid-term assessment.

So far, we’ve been focusing on establishing a foundation in my pelvis and lower body by becoming more aware of what correct posture feels like and how to activate the muscles in my hips to power my legs. At my first session, we videotaped before doing any exercises, and when we watched the tape I was able to see several common running form problems:

  • Overstride: My foot would land way out in front of my and I would strike the ground with my heel. Mentally, I could tell you this was wrong and bad. But I couldn’t get my body to not do it.
  • Body Position: When I run, I’m too upright. Instead of leaning into a “controlled fall,” I’m almost sitting back. Which means my legs are doing more work than they need to. It also causes my back to have an arch in it, which means my pelvis is behind instead of powering my movement. And that would explain back and neck pain I occasionally get after running.
  • Hip Drop: If you look at me from the back, my hips sway side to side as I run. They should move forward without moving up and down or to the sides.
  • Contact Time: I’m hardly “floating” at all when I run, which means my body is getting a lot more force inflicted upon it than if I can propel myself upward while I’m moving forward and minimize the time I spend in contact with the ground.

In the past two weeks, I’ve done a lot of awkward-feeling exercises to break my body of some bad learned habits. For example, standing up straight. “Straight” actually ends up being anything but straight; we throw our shoulders back and chin up, which causes a compensatory bend in our backs and rotates our hips down and back. And I have double-jointed knees, so I’m always fighting the urge to hyperextend my knees. Many of the exercises involved marching while maintaining my “new” straight posture, to learn what it felt to have my feet land underneath my weight. We progressed from marching in place, to marching slowly forward, to marching with a bounce, and finally running with a lean. I also had to practice keeping my body in a straight line while essentially falling over, to learn what my forward momentum should feel like when I run. Let’s go to the (picture of the) tape and see if it helped!

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Notice any differences? Here’s the things that jumped out at me:

  • Overstride: I’m closer to being under my body (and it doesn’t take many frames for my foot to move under my body), and I’m striking with my midfoot rather than my heel.
  • Body Position: In the first video, my back has an arch (so my butt sticks out a little) and my head is too high up. In today’s video, my torso is a straight line (simply looking down more was an easy fix).
  • Lean: I actually have one! In the second video, I’m definitely propelling myself forward more with my torso rather than my legs.

All that, after two weeks! And I probably didn’t practice nearly as much as I should have (I barely practiced at all). But become more aware of my body and what “correct” feels like made a huge difference.

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There were three measurements Karen took on the first day to assess me: the number of frames it took from the time my foot hit the ground to the time it was underneath me, the number of frames my foot spent on the ground while I propelled myself forward, and the the number of frames both feet were in the air between strikes. In my first video, those numbers were 8, 10, and 3. In two weeks, they improved to 5, 8, and 5. I’m getting my weight over my foot faster! I’m spending less time on the ground and more time in the air! Life is amazing!

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I still have some things to work on. My hip drop has improved, but I still have a shimmy to the side when my weight is completely over my foot. And to help with my alignment, I need to strengthen my core (and helping get rid of my mummy tummy couldn’t hurt).

Next week we focus more on my trunk and upper body – another big component of efficient running form is how your body is rotating and how your arms are moving as you run. I won’t have another video made until the six-week mark, when I finish the course, and based on how well the first two weeks have gone, I’m expecting the change in my form (and my times!) to be dramatic. Stayed tuned!

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