Category Archives: technique

Form Work (or Running Fewer Miles and Why It’s Okay)

I’ve been working on form. Really my “coach” has been working with me on it, berating, spluttering, uncompromising, head shaking, but always ready to start again next time. There in the park, every day. When the form work intensifies, I tend to feel that long runs are not really in the cards. There are a lot of drills, and though the routes are generally short, the intensity is high. The impact of drills will sneak up on you. Something’s got to give. I’m in my late forties, and wary of getting injured. Not being able to run? That would be torture. I can do a long run, but it compromises the intensity of my group runs. So the miles have dropped off. I’d been running about 30 miles a week, and that generally feels good for me. Last few weeks: Just under 20 miles.

In the past, I’ve really struggled with this. Because I want miles. The body drinks them up. There’s nothing quite like that groove of running a little more mileage than you’re used to. The legs start to feel a little heavy, but strong. But I’ve had an intuition that the form work is coming along nicely (“his knees were releasing today!”), and so I just let the miles go for the moment. I’ve got no immediate race (there’s a half in May 2014). And I’m pretty sure if I clean up my form, I’ll get some “free speed.” Recent easy runs seem to confirm this. When I focus on form, even in an offhand way, the pace picks up.

Today I arrived in the park, my first day this week. Six-thirty a.m. No polar vortex, but it is chilly. The runner nearest to me in age and speed has a scab healing around his knee and is walking his dog today. The two fast runners are no show. So two other runners and myself are given marching orders. Essentially two steep hikes, one right past Bee Rock and then another up a sheer hill along a service ladder. Blood is pounding in my head by the end. Then a winding downhill, essentially for recovery and loosening up before the training.

Coach and one of the other runners meet me below one of the main water tanks that dot the park. They both make an unusual comment, “Hey, you look pretty good.” Coach adds, “of course you knew I was going to be watching you.” Coach is a curmudgeon, but I take the compliment. One thing about this group: They will never tell you you’re doing great out of kindness or politeness or some notion of being encouraging. Coach has me run down a steep bank off the main trail, a place we call Piney Slope, and has me run two short, very steep sprints. I imagine this is to activate the muscles or nervous system or something, but I don’t ask a lot of questions. The last thing I need to do is overthink it. I’ve been observing this guy for a year and have concluded he really understands body mechanics, among other things. So I trust.

I make back up to the main trail with some nods of approval. Next he has me run some short downhill sprints. A couple things he wants me to attend to. The right foot is always an issue. Coach and one of the other runners reckon it points out at about 1 o’clock position. I venture a guess of 12:30, shot down. “No way is it 12:30.” Before it was at 2 o’clock position. The other thing is holding the chest and neck high, neck straight. (I was having the hardest time with this until a couple weeks ago when one of the runners gave me a physical prompt, she held my jaw and pressed my forehead back. Something clicked.) And pushing the hips through. And as much as anything else, getting a nice forward lean. I can’t really explain mechanics very clearly. I am kinesthetically challenged. We do a few of short sprints. Coach will sometimes ask me to stop after the first few steps, “No!” You’re doing blah blah. Try this. Let’s try again.

Next, we do a series of short races, about 15 seconds each. We are still focusing on form here, but it’s more an integration of what we’re working on – a race is a race. At this point it’s just me and another runner who’s a little slower. To compensate, coach puts her way out in front. She’s about 10 or 15 meters ahead. Just by feel, I can see that it’s going to be a struggle to catch her, but within reach. For the first few I catch her, and he keeps increasing the head start. He’s happy with what he sees today. “You got up to about 6 steps per second. If we can just get you to relax your back and lift – you should be able to get to 7-8 steps, easy.” I don’t catch her on the last couple. By the third to last race I’m shot, and my arms are doing weird things. “You’re doing that dead bird thing again. You must be tired.” Then we walk for a bit and the talk turns to cooking (certain topics are standard recovery cues — or that the workout’s over, it’s never clear which. Another common topic is football. That usually means the workout is done.)

I don’t catch the other runner for the last race either. But after the workout coach says my knees were really coming up quite high and forward, unusual for me and something we’ve been working toward. The posture was good, erect. Hips coming through. For some moments today I had a good lean forward and imagined I might even resemble an athlete. This is very gratifying as previously my form was very jogger-ish. I’m simply not someone that ever thought of myself as an athlete.

“That was some pretty good running.”

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A Small Triumph

I feel that I am at some kind of turning point in my running. I am very excited, yet I am full of dread. I am accruing very few miles, but my workouts have increased in intensity (largely due to my running group). I am carrying a raft of injuries (left ring finger, left groin, right middle toe, right hamstring, right shoulder), yet I’ve never been stronger. It could be that the turning point involves my body just exploding in some kind of incandescent flowering of middle-aged hubris, defeated. Or it could be that I get stronger, faster. Part of the fun is that I’m just unsure. But my intuition is that if I stick with it, I’m moving in the right direction.

Today, for instance, was curious. Fully expecting a nice, rigorous hike with hill pushes up onto the high ridge, the backbone of the park, with a long loping return — instead, we head over to what my group calls “piney slope.” This is a couple of loose, dusty, rocky trails, covered in pine needles. From top to bottom, the elevation gain is probably 200 feet. I feel resentful. This is going to be hard work. (The hiking and pushes though also hard, heart-pounding work, are less technical, and you can get more into the flow of running.) It is going to involve 15-second relaxed sprints to warm up. There is already some talk of body mechanics — “you want to spend some energy raising your upper body, from T12 up [coach is very anatomy oriented], so that your hips can release. You want to unload your hips.” The 15s will be followed by form drills on the way to the main event, and then downhill racing and then some sprints on the flat. I do not feel up to it. When a hawk alights on a nearby telephone pole, I am fascinated. But the drills come. Single leg hopping uphill. 10 at a time. Then switch legs. Then bounding. More bounding. Then the deliberate hike to piney slope.

There, the uphill workout include one coach* has us doing recently, to increase upper body strength. We run on hands and feet, punching our fists into the pine needles (and pinecones, and rocks), putting as much weight as possible from the upper body to the hands, it lasts about 10 seconds. The other sprints, too, last about 10 seconds. These involve various form cues and ad hoc races: Keep your right foot pointed forward! Pump your arms quickly, don’t try to long-arm it! Your first footfall should be here, the second here! See what his feet are doing? Don’t do that! How much of a lead can I give him so you’ll have trouble catching him? Coach is, in my opinion, great with this stuff.

My performance on the hill sprinting today was not very good. The week after straining my left inguinal tendon, I was tentative, uncommitted to all-out effort. Coach thinks I worry too much about “injuries” and coddle myself. This is true. But his passion sometimes, I believe, crosses over into the irrationally exuberant. Yesterday, for one of the first times ever, I saw a glimmer of concern. He might have overdone it last week. We had done speed sessions both days. And he was goading us. “I don’t think Magnus will *ever* catch you from that far out.” Right toward the end of Sunday’s workout I strained something. An adductor? No. “It’s the inguinal tendon at the insertion point. Don’t run for 3 days.”

Since he never says things like this, I listened.

“It’s a sprinter’s injury.”
“Does that mean he was running fast?”
“No, it means he was running wrong.”
This week he was more toned down. “Can you run 15s?”

Today, the downhill races were frankly, bad. Never super confident on the downhill, I was tentative and lame. Paired with another injured runner we coasted in to finish like we were headed to hospital. I regained a little momentum during the last few sprints, on the flat.

Occasionally, at the end of one of these workouts we go to a set of stairs. If you know Griffith Park, these stairs, which lead up to the area of the Old Zoo, appear to be made of old railroad ties. Big blocks of lumber. We hop these stairs, a few at a time. When I first came, hopping three at a time was a challenge. A few months ago, I was surprised to find I could, even once, hop four. Today I hopped four, without much trouble. Previously, I viewed hopping five of these steps as something out of my realm. I’ve watched a couple younger, very athletic guys hop five steps. I don’t really consider myself as particularly athletic. I viewed these guys as a different breed, fast-twitch type athletes (which, actually, I’m pretty they are). One of them, for instance, loves the 800 meters. He has explosive power. I’m never going to run the 800 meters. It would be silly. Coach stops me. “I think you can do five.” I shake my head. Five? It took a few times. Coach prodded a little. “Ye have little faith.” I did it. It was a little sloppy, but clearly it was more about confidence than technique. Five has become the new four.

Whatever my limitations, at 47, today I feel like I’ve (almost radically) expanded my belief in what I can do. That’s a surprising and good feeling. Who cares about piney slope.

*deserves a post

Back in the Park

I took an unusual break from my running group last week — no workouts in the park. And I wasn’t out of town. I’ll admit that not growing up with athletics, nor serving in the military, the trash talking had gotten to me. Today reminded my why I love the group so much. It was a full cast of characters. We had our man from Ghana. Our man from West Hollywood. Our peeps from East L.A. The septuagenarians. Three little kids under 4. All told, 14 people, I think. And the Los Angeles “June gloom” is just perfect for training. Griffith Park was just there to be exploited.

Our group, four runners and a fifth to call the times, headed up what they call “Nature Trail” for some steep climbing — a typical heart pounding warm up. Then we ran our sets of 45 second sprints. I know sprints is not the right word, because they were not flat out running. But nor were they strides. Intervals? Repeats? I don’t know the right term. We did 4 sets of 3 x 45 sec repeats, with 45 second passive recoveries, and 90 seconds between sets.

  1. 46 sec @ 5:22 min/mile (that’s 3:19 min/km)
  2. 38 sec @ 5:26 min/mile
  3. 45 sec @ 5:19 min/mile
  4. 47 sec @ 5:08 min/mile
  5. 52 sec @ 5:12 min/mile
  6. 49 sec @ 5:21 min/mile
  7. 45 sec @ 5:10 min/mile
  8. 46 sec @ 5:14 min/mile
  9. 47 sec @ 5:14 min/mile
  10. 45 sec @ 5:06 min/mile
  11. 47 sec @ 5:55 min/mile (reached our mark, stopped)

That’s where we take our water break at, appropriately, the big water tank known simply as 113. Then there’s a winding downhill where we caught up with coach. He had us do a couple of steep uphill sprints at the place we call “Piney Slope.” At that point it was obvious I was having an “on” day, coach noting: “I was wrong Erika, he has some lead in his pencil!” After that we did some downhill sprints. Coach had some proprioceptive cues, had me imagine I was getting ready to ski downhill, actually used the word “manubrium” (I had to look it up — the upper part of the sternum) which cracked me up. I got some good speed there, too. Then we finished up with some shorter sprints. One of them felt really good.

  1. 19 seconds at 4:07 min/mile pace (that’s 2:33 min/km)
  2. 22 seconds at 4:52 min/mile pace

After some walking and full recovery there were a couple of 15 second sprints toward the end of the downhill. Coach was giving me grief about fiddling with my watch, so I didn’t get the last couple. (Truth is, coach is 70, and though very smart, just doesn’t get the Garmin at all. And the Kinvaras, it’s hard for him to even look at them.) I did well on the first one, and just crapped out on the last one, but it was a terrific workout overall. Really good stuff.

So glad I was able to do this, and move away from that crazy molasses-like 10:00 min/mile 10 miler the other day (which did have the benefit of hills). Variety! Consistency!

 

 

The Seventh Thing

I had listed 6 things I’m thinking about leading up to my next race, the Santa Barbara Wine Country Half Marathon. But there is a seventh thing.

7. Specificity, particularly regarding the topic of running surface. Specificity is the idea that you should train for your race by duplicating, as much as possible, the conditions you will face on race day. It’s a broad topic, and arguably includes much of training (pacing, distance, even time of day or temperature). And specificity should increase as training progresses. Your workouts should be becoming more specific to the task at hand. (The idea is beautifully articulated in Brad Hudson and Matt Fitzgerald’s book, Run Faster, highly recommended.)

Since my race is mostly if not entirely on asphalt, and I tend to be religiously dedicated to avoiding running on asphalt and concrete (more on this, below), I feel that it only makes sense for me to run on some asphalt, at least toward the end of training. Indeed, with that in mind, most of my long runs have been on asphalt in the last month, and some of my tempos.

Another argument for doing some running on asphalt (among other things) is to obtain a muscle tension appropriate to your race. I’ve only heard about this idea from one source, a very interesting Steve Magness article, published here in Running Times. The idea is that proper muscle tension has as much an impact on racing as other important factors such as pacing, nutrition, tapering, etc. Moreover, muscle tension can be tuned up or down according to the needs of the race — shorter races, as you might guess, requiring higher muscle tension, and longer races, less so. According to Magness, muscle tension can be increased by sprinting, strength training, faster-paced intervals and ice baths, (to name 4 of 8 methods he lists in the article.) Magness includes a list of activities to increase and decrease muscle tension as well as a few workouts, it’s worth a look — check it out.

For a half marathon, I’m not going to need a lot of muscle tension, but I want to make sure not to get flat on too much long running, do a little speedwork, and do it on asphalt.

I think most runners will recognize, in the diligent avoidance of hard surfaces, a desire avoid wear and tear to the body. I had pretty much accepted as fact, nay, gospel, that hard surfaces, such as asphalt and especially concrete, take a toll on the runner’s body, especially over a period of years. (The Kenyans, supposedly avoid running on roads at all costs — clearly they have other, perfectly adequate, methods of adjusting their muscle tension.) And, naturally, wanting to preserve my ability to run as long into life as possible, I avoid these ghastly surfaces. And so I was very interested to read in Alex Hutchinson’s Which Comes First, Cardio or Weights? some research that calls into question this idea.

Without going into too much detail, the studies suggest that the body is able to somehow compensate with the differing impacts of running on these surfaces, and when force detection plates were placed in the shoes of runners, the difference of the forces detected on the different surfaces were minimal or quite modest. This is one of those counter-intuitive results that one marvels in — but I’m left a little perplexed. I don’t doubt that the body isn’t able to reduce the difference in these forces, but at what cost? That is to say, aren’t the muscles, bones, tendons, ligaments undergoing some extra effort to reduce the impact forces? So perhaps the cost is no longer a direct result of the impact forces involved, but the efforts deployed to lesson those forces?

Research will probably continue to tease out the complexities of this issue. In the end it may not matter too much one way in the other for practical purposes — it still makes perfect sense to train for your race by duplicating as many conditions as closely as possible, including the surface. And maybe I’ll be just a little less religious about running on dirt trails.

[Since writing this post, I was referred to a cool blog that just so happened to have a post, “Why You Should Run On Soft Surfaces.” Worth a read.]

Strengthening the Hip Flexors

It’s hard to describe what proper running form should look like and include, and beyond that there’s a fair amount of disagreement. (I found some great sites that address some of these questions.) It appears there are a few key elements, having the foot land (more or less) under the body, not ahead of it. If the foot is landing ahead of the body, then you’re putting on the brakes the whole time, which is both inefficient and stressful.

And then there’s the mystery of the hips. The motion of the hips, I have on good authority, is critical to form. Perhaps you are already convinced of this. Maybe not. Here’s an excerpt from The Science of Sport blog, the authors, Ross Tucker, PhD, and Jonathan Dugas, PhD, published a book entitled The Runner’s Body in 2009. This taken from one of their excellent posts on running technique:

The hips are, as described by the Pose website, one of the more important parts to consider. This is where Pose theory is particularly strong. Ideally, the hips should be as far forward as possible (within reason) because the hips are more or less where the centre of mass is. As we described the other day, if you land well in front of your centre of mass, you decelerate. That’s one reason why when you run downhill, you feel like you are jarring much more. If you want to speed up on a downhill, you know what to do – simply lean forward. Not at the shoulders, but by getting your whole body tilted forward just a little. That means getting your hips in front. In otherwords, all runners know that when running down hill, they can control speed by moving their hips. Slowing down involves “sitting back”, or dropping the hips slightly.

Applying the same principle to running every where else, if you can just learn the habit of keeping your hips “high” then you will always be in this position. In otherwords, don’t “sit” and run at the same time – get your centre of mass up and forward, if you can. This is not easy, it requires quite strong core muscles, and so that’s why runners often benefit from some Pilates or gym training in this area. But the take home message is the same – get the hips up and lean forward if you want speed.

One of the biggest mistakes made by runners is to lean forwards at the shoulders. The problem if you do this is that you hips actually go backwards! This means that by putting the shoulders forwards, you even less likely to be in a position to harness gravity to go forward. This is most noticeable on uphills, where the temptation is to lean forward, hunched over. Not only does this hinder breathing, but it actually destroys your efficiency. Rather concentrate on leaning from the ankles, so that your hips are forward. It sometimes even helps to pull your shoulders back, as though you are standing in the upright, soldier ‘at attention’ position.

If one accepts this, how can one strengthen the hips, or improve mobility of said anatomical item?

Well, for one, you could check out the video of this little warm-up sequence, the Myrtl routine, posted by one Coach Jay, an ex-runner that “coaches several elites in Colorado”. The whole things looks to take about 6 minutes. It looks like a good warm up.

Besides, who could resist doing a few clams, donkey whips, or fire hydrants?

Some Time at 7:00 min/mile Pace

Today’s run: 

I wanted to spend some time at 7:00 min/mile pace. Don’t ask me what that pace represents as I’m not sure. Steady state? Threshold? 5k race pace? Probably somewhere between 5k and 10k pace. I’m not sure about my paces at the moment. Though I did get some time in at pace, much of the time I was focussed on form — keeping the hips forward, posture up, shoulders relaxed, etc.

1:19       9.21 miles     8:36 min/mile

First, the warm-up:

min/mile (pace) splits     8:36   8:33   8:31 (.5 mile)

The rough goal was to run the pace about half a mile at a time, with some kind of slow recovery. The first couple recoveries were just two minutes, but I was having trouble finding the right pace so I switched to 4 minute recoveries (roughly the time it took to run the half mile at that pace). It was still tricky to find that pace — not a sprint, but still quite fast for me.

7.51 (.54 mile)   9:34 (.26 mile)   7:22 (.51 mile)   9:27 (.23 mile)   7:06 (.52 mile)   9:41 (.44 mile)

7:03 (.5 mile)   9:54 (.45 mile)   7:02 (.51 mile)   9:49 (.47 mile)   7:34 (.35 mile)

I knew I was cooked at this point and switched to cool down.

9:48 (1 mile)   9:09 (.92 mile)

In the end, I suppose the “some time at” ended up being about 4 x .5 mile @ 7:00 min/mile pace. Given that’s hardly a blow out, I think I’ll still attempt some quarters tomorrow — but I’ll be doing them on dirt rather than on the tarmac, and my goals will be modest, given today’s workout.

Jazz Hands

A very technical workout today. Coach asked me and one of the faster runners to accompany him, while the rest of the crew headed on the usual route. He took some pains to focus on the motion of the hip bringing the knee forward in something like a springing motion. Think of the hip being a whip handle. (I can’t explain what he was doing, but I began to get a feel for it, and apparently executed the concepts.)

Then there were a series of gradual uphill sprints. Then something almost like a slow motion crawling exercise, again focusing on the motion of the foot relative to the knee, through pine needles. Then some uphill sprints.

“What do you think, Kent, was that hipster or just limp dick?”

Then focus on pushing the hips forward and relaxing the shoulders while running downhill, keeping a falling motion. After initial “jazz hands” and “somewhere over the rainbow” verdicts, I managed to fall into a nice rhythm where I could feel the difference and the hands were tamed.

The whole thing was less than 2 miles of running, but very instructive. I got some positive feedback along with the abuse and the observation that “I’m learning very quickly that Magnus* does best when he doesn’t think about what he’s doing.”

*And of course, he did not actually say Magnus.