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Sunday, September 30, 2007

Marathon World Record - 2:04.26 to Haile Gebrselassie!

If there was any doubt remaining, Haile Gebrselassie confirmed that he is indeed the greatest current distance runner, probably the greatest in history, by breaking the 4 year old marathon world record in Berlin!

His time? 2:04.26, which eclipses the old record of his rival Paul Tergat (2:04.55) by 29 seconds.

Some notable splits from the 'race' (for want of a better word - it was more of a "paced time-trial" for Geb and a race for the others!) include a first 10km split of 29:25, which was too fast, projecting a 2:04.07 finishing time! They then slowed down over the next 10km, eventually reaching halfway in 62:29, which projects a finish time of 2:04.58. More worrying was that the pace had dropped by almost a minute, and so something drastic had to happen in the second half to reverse this trend, and it did...

At this stage, it was touch and go, because in his world record of 2003, Paul Tergat ran an astonishingly fast second half - sub 62 minutes! And so Gebrselassie was running from the 'ghost' of Tergat as he pressed on over the second half. The pace-makers survived up to 30km, before leaving Gebrselassie alone for the final 12km in his quest to crack the world record which he had threatened often before today.

It was during this period, from 30km to about 35km that it seemed the chances for a record had gone. Gebrselassie just did not look like he had it to press on, though reports from the IAAF suggest that his fastest kilometer was between 30 and 31km. Won't argue with that, though it was during this period that Gebrselassie seemed to either to easing off and relaxing, or he was struggling, as the ghost of Tergat effectively narrowed the gap on him. At 30km, he was 28 seconds ahead of Tergat's split, a gap which narrowed over the next few kilometers. But once he reached 35km, he found an extra gear and then reeled off a sequence of five 1km splits in well under 3 minutes each.

This may have been a deliberate tactic, for last year, Gebrselassie cracked over the final 5km, and lost over a minute on Tergat's record time. He said after the race that his hard efforts between 30 and 35 km had cost him the record, and today, he clearly held back during that period. But once he hit 35 km, he shifted up and found a tempo that even Tergat would have struggled to hold onto in his world record. With 5km to go (I had his unofficial split at 37.2km as 1:50:10 - anyone's guess whether the TV odometer is accurate!), he needed to run the final 5km in 14:44. He ran it in 14:16! The second half of the race was run in 61:57! Those splits (unofficial for now - TV times only) will be dissected over the next few days.

And with that, Gebrselassie finally got the marathon right. It is harsh to say that, but he himself admitted in a press conference that he felt his previous marathons were not yet perfect.

The truth is, neither was this one - too fast in the first 10km, dropped off a little in the middle and then found something incredible at the end. It does suggest there is more to come, because we do know that even pace is the way to run these races. And then there was the lack of competition over the last 30 minutes of the race, so Gebrselassie may yet see his dream of 2:03-something realised.

We'll bring you more detailed splits and analysis over the course of the next few days!


Click here for detailed splits from the WR at this follow up article!

Saturday, September 29, 2007

Drugs in sport - could it possibly be bigger than we thought?

In a companion post to this article, we discussed three MAJOR doping stories of the last week, and how we seem apathetic to them. First, Floyd Landis was stripped of his 2006 Tour title, then Michael Rasmussen returned a "non-negative" result during the 2007 Tour, and then perhaps the biggest sports drug bust in history went down in the USA. Yet it seems to be business as usual. In this post, we take a closer look at this huge drug bust, named Operation Raw Deal, and what it means for doping control in sport.

Operation Raw Deal exposed - a summary of the bust

Operation Raw Deal, a campaign run by the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA), is the story that should be sending shivers down our spines. Just look at the numbers again:

  • 124 arrests
  • 56 labs shut down across 27 states
  • $6.5million worth of steriods
  • 240 kg (530 lbs) of raw steroid powder!
Most of the raids took place in "quiet, suburban neighbourhoods, with reports of DEA agents "knocking down doors in suburban cul-de-sacs and pushing their way into basements and kitchens". According to this report from ESPN:

"The owners weren't exactly secretive. One Long Island man had 800,000 doses of raw steroid powder stacked in plain view in his garage, right next to his shiny new Corvette; nearby, a locker housed empty vials and printed address labels for thousands of clients throughout the country. An electrician who was running another lab, in New Jersey, had stashed 40,000 doses in his basement, along with the tub and centrifuge he used to turn the powder into street-ready drugs. In a third raid, on a Midwestern home, the living room floor was so thick with steroid powder that agents left footprints behind."
This is absolutely extra-ordinary, and has far reaching implications for doping control in sport, because it is a symptom of a much, much bigger problem and illustrates just how easy it might be to get away with the manufacture and distribution of drugs.

Tracing doping to its source - all roads seem to lead to China

What should be most concerning about this is the ease with which the products are obtained and manufactured. For a frightening illustration of how easy it is to obtain steroids and Human Growth Hormone, check out this story, also from ESPN.

The journalist goes over to China, attending a "Convention on Pharmaceutical Ingredients". Armed with nothing more than a 'shopping list' of ingredients (all banned), he meets many people who are only too willing to offer him steroids and growth hormone for the right price. Apparently, you can buy 1kg of testosterone for the bargain price of $266! That becomes 10,000 single doses, which can be sold at $12.50, according to the article. Do the math on that one - buy at $266, and sell for $125,000! I wonder how many Corvettes one could afford from a year of dealing in that kind of industry!

As for getting the drugs from China into the USA (or any other country, for that matter), that's no problem. A quote from the article: "Asked if shipping to the U.S. is a problem, she replies, "Is Federal Express okay? We do it for our other American clients."" All they do is change the name on the labels...growth hormone is called "watermelon extract" in one such story!

Of course, it's illegal for the Chinese to sell steroids in this way, but when your salary in China is only $230 per month, a kilogram of testosterone here and there does not go unnoticed, or unsold! Human growth hormone is even more lucrative...world wide sales are reported at $600 million, of which $480 million are said to originate in China!

Implications of Operation Raw Deal - do drug tests even mean anything today?

If an electrician, a suburban white-collar worker, can set up a laboratory and a distribution network for steroids, imagine what is possible with some management and financial backing.

Truth is, you don't have to imagine anything. Because in 2003, stories began to emerge of a massive underground steroid operation which was to become known as the BALCO affair. To cut a long story short, Victor Conte, a small-time supplement dealer for many years, enlisted the help of an organic chemist, Patrick Arnold, and set about creating products that would have the same effect as steroids but would be undetectable. The result? "The Clear", which is the name given to tetrahydrogestrinone (THG), an undetectable steroid developed by Arnold, and used by athletes including Dwain Chambers, Kelli White and Barry Bonds. Had it not been for a coaching rivalry and a secret tip-off that led to the discovery and development of a test for THG, athletes would still be using it today.

This story illustrates what a relatively 'small-time' businessman, with the right connections and the right "vision" can achieve. What Operation Raw Deal shows us is that this phenomenon - underground labs, creation of undetectable steroids - is more common that we thought. Even a suburban white collar worker now has this "vision" in his grasp.

It would be naive to think that Victor Conte and Patrick Arnold are the only people capable of creating a drug that evades detection. Operation Raw Deal shut down 56 underground steroid labs - any one of these labs could have achieved the same thing! Imagine 56 labs all producing undetectable steroids - that adds up to a minimum of 56 UNDETECTABLE STEROIDS on the US market alone, from suburban homes. Now add China, the professional supplement industry, and the rest of the world - sport will never be the same.

"There will be 100 drugs that are undetectable by the Beijing Olympic Games"

This quote (I forget who it was who said it, it may have been at a conference I attended) could easily be dismissed as hyperbole. But Operation Raw Deal makes us sit up and take notice. The same article from ESPN makes mention of a "sting" operation set up to see whether drugs could be obtained that were undetectable. The findings are frightening. Having set up a supplement company, the journalist orders products that are sold to him on the premise that they work and are undetectable. Sure enough, he has them shipped to his address from a company based in the USA, and has them tested for the 11 known classes of steroids. The result - negative.

He then consults with Don Catlin, a renowned expert in the fight against doping. Here, a different picture, because Catlin's deeper analysis showed very definite evidence of anabolic steroids in the sample. In Catlin's own words:
"This wasn't done by someone with a high school degree," Catlin concluded. "Whoever made it knew what he was doing." An industry source to whom the label was shown went even further: "No one is making this stuff in the U.S. The only place you can get it is China."
Suddenly, 100 undetectable drugs is not impossible. There are already three of four - even blood doping, if done properly, would be counted in this group. But one should shudder at the thought of hundreds, if not thousands of labs across the USA, China and the rest of the world, all working at designing drugs that cannot be detected. And then sticking a label on them to say they are "watermelon extract", sending them to the rest of the world, where they find their way to athletes of all levels, who rest comfortably, knowing they will not get caught because the testers and administrators are blind men chasing them in the dark.

The next time an athlete stands up and says "I have never tested postive", you have to wonder - is he innocent, or is he just gloating about the fact that he's full of steroids, but you'll never find out?


Drugs in sport - our apathy reveals the state of the sport

Two days ago, we interrupted our series on running technique to bring you news of a massive steroid bust, named "Raw Deal". Incredibly, this story barely reached South Africa, and certainly didn't make the impact that it should have, given the numbers, and the possible implications of this operation. Of course, it may yet do so, if WADA gets hold of the names of some high-profile athletes who have "benefited" from the 11.4 million doses of steroids that were confiscated!

Other doping news - just "by the way"

This is not the only doping related article to hit the headlines in the past week or two. In other news, Michael Rasmussen, of "You can trust me" fame, returned what is bizarrely called a "non-negative" test at that Tour de France. According to news reports, the Dane, who was kicked off the Tour by his Rabobank team for failing to inform them of his location leading up to the Tour, had traces of a substance called "Dynepo" in his urine. This chemical is similar to EPO, but under current WADA rules, a "positive" test can only be declared if the EPO is obtained chemically. Since Dynepo is made from human cells, WADA feel the risk of a false positive is too great, so they call it "non-negative" instead.

And then in another cycling-related story, the never-ending case of Floyd Landis ('winner' of the 2006 Tour de France) finally came to an end (at least, a chapter did), when an American arbitration panel ruled that he should forefeit the 2006 Tour title. A three man panel voted 2-1 against Landis, following what was an exhaustive court case which centred on numerous errors made by the French lab that tested the samples. The panel decided that these errors were not sufficient to undermine the positive result, and issued a two-year ban which makes Landis the first Tour winner to be stripped of his title. Landis still has other options - he can now approach the Court of Arbitration for sport in Switzerland, and was reported to be weighing his options. His statement after the verdict was announced suggests there may be more to come: "This ruling is a blow to athletes and cyclists everywhere". Those are not words of a man who seems willing to accept a ban. Whatever happens, let's hope it's not another 15 months before we have an answer.

Our apathy - an indication of the times

What is most worrying about these two stories is our lack of reaction to them. "Just another doping story", when in fact it's the first time in 105 years that a Tour winner has been disposed. It doesn't help that it takes them 15 months to deliver a verdict. As for Rasmussen, at the time, his axing was huge news in the world of cycling, but it was soon forgotten and then replaced by allegations over the involvement of the eventual race winner, Alberto Contador, in just another doping scandal. There seems no end to it, but it's sad day when our reaction to such stories is one of apathy.

In our companion post, we look at Operation Raw Deal, which should make us stand up and take notice. We will discuss what this means for sport and drug testing procedures.

Friday, September 28, 2007

Running techniques - the same as Medical Products?

This post is an addendum to the previous post and is based on a comment left in response to that post, and some discussions I had with others.

It suddenly occurred to me that what the running techniques are doing is the SAME THING as is done in the medical industry. For example, let's compare an anti-inflammatory tablet, prescribed for the relief of pain and inflammation, with the running techniques.

How is an anti-inflammatory similar to running technique products?

Both will make promises. An anti-inflammatory promises pain relief, return to normal function and perhaps will allow you to perform normal daily activities that otherwise might be impossible. Pose and Chi Running make the promise that you will run faster, more efficiently and be less prone to injury.

Another similarity is that both have recommendations for use, either direct or implied. In the case of your anti-inflammatory, it says take two tablets, twice a day, with meals. Pose or Chi might suggest a reduction in training and they recommend strategies to overcome ankle and calf pain. This is a secondary recommendation. And it was pointed out to me by Anonymous, is something I never really denied, and I steadfastly stand by my assertion that the techniques keep this in the fineprint, when in fact it should be disclosed at the outset.

Then a third similarity is side-effects. What the anti-inflammatories will say is that excessive use may cause kidney problems, stomach discomfort and possible ulcers, and there is a small risk of cardiovascular complications. The running techniques? Well, that's where things get interesting. Depending on who you ask, they'll tell you that there are no side-effects, provided you do the technique correctly (and this is your obligation). Those who are less sure might suggest that the use of the running technique may result in calf and ankle problems. Granted, they will say this. But it's not disclosed on 'purchase', whereas the medical industry requires that the side effects be established before the product is even on the shelf.

So by the time you take your anti-inflammatory and pop it, you can be sure that what you are taking has been tested in laboratories, in animals and in humans. They have done extensive testing to know:
a) Does it work?
b) How much do you need to ensure that it works?
c) Are there side effects and when do they occur?

But there is ONE difference - and it's key

Is this the same as Pose and Chi? Answer - no. Firstly, NOT A SINGLE longitudinal study has been done to examine the efficacy of either. One study on Pose, and that produced results that have been used for marketing purposes, but could just as easily have gone the other way - imagine the following tagline: "Research suggests that this technique will increase your risk of ankle injury!" Doesn't quite have the same ring to it! But that's what happened, and so what was then done was a campaign to educate and inform potential 'customers' of this risk. That's the 'education' that is claimed.

Related to this is that no one has yet accurately established the dosage of a running technique. So we'll hear that you should "reduce" your training, practice the drills etc. We've already described the problems with that one - is it a viable and realistic proposition to "sell" a product that requires this from runners? I don't believe so. But more than this, there's no set criteria for how it gets implemented - it's every man and women for themselves, and if the technique doesn't work, well, that's just too bad.

So perhaps the better comparison to make is between running techniques and weight loss supplements. You buy a weight loss supplement and it promises "Lose 5kg in 2 weeks!", or "Toned and lean, guaranteed!". So you buy the supplement and nothing happens. No weight loss. If you complain, you learn that it's never the manufacturer's fault, it's YOURS because you failed to notice the fineprint that says you need to exercise 6 times a week and follow a restricted diet! That's irrelevant because you buy the product to do its job. You don't buy the weight loss supplement that promises: "Guaranteed weight loss IF you train 6 times a week and eat less food". That's the problem - liability rests with the customer and there are no guarantees. Just like with a running technique that is taught to a 'mass market'.

So what we have is a "comparison" which I make for illustrative purposes only. But really, we are hearing claims made about a product that is not proven to work, not proven to safe in the long term and yet is still prescribed as a 'treatment' for injury prevention. That's not a product that stands up to stringent standards.

And let me re-iterate that I actually think that the principles behind Pose and Chi are sound. In fact, I'd go so far as to say that in many aspects, Pose and Chi do the best job of explaing certain biomechanical principles that I've seen. Conceptually, they are fantastic. But the issue here is whether the wholesale teaching of running technique is BETTER THAN the simply applying the same principles on a case by case basis. That's the real issue, let's not confuse that with marketing smokescreens and mirrors...Does the teaching of a running technique over the course of a weekend or through a DVD or book do a better job on running technique than simply making changes from one individual to the next? The answer has to be no...

Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken the world marathon record - 2:04:26.
Check out the splits and race analysis here.

Running technique Part IV: Running technique 101 - some simple changes

In our previous posts, we've moved from asking whether the way we run "naturally" might be incorrect, to discussing that there is such a thing as sound running technique, but that this technique is not necessarily the same for everyone, to looking (in yesterday's post) at the scientific evidence behind the Pose theory in particular

The fineprint of learning a new running technique

In that post, we looked at how intensive training with the Pose method was able to alter certain running biomechanics, resulting in reduced loading on the knee, but increased loading on the ankle. The principle behind "wholesale" changes to running technique was questioned, because it seems as though there is fine print that the athlete is not necessarily guaranteed to be injury free or faster, as the techniques promise. The success of the training seems to depend entirely on the ability of the athlete to learn the technique properly, which means there is little liability on the teachers of the technique - "If it works, great. If not, don't call us, it's not our fault you can't run!"

And yesterday, I received a very interesting comment suggesting that if the atheltes in that study (20 of them) had been forced to train like novices for a short period, they might have avoided injury. In other words, having learned a new technique, they should have gone right back to the beginning and run like beginners - low mileage, mix walking and running etc - instead of running normally. And this is quite true, I'm sure it would work. But the 'requirement' to do this is precisely the problem with the teaching of technique. Does anyone else wonder how a runner of 20 years, who is running 50 miles a week, could be expected to go back to running 10miles a week simply to run a different technique!

So the fine print to these running techniques, both Pose and Chi, should now read:

Learn how to run faster and injury free...but....

  • There's no guarantee you'll leave a course or read our materials having learned the technique properly
  • If you don't, it's not our fault
  • There also a better than 50% chance you'll pick up a calf or Achilles injury on the way, and that's because you haven't learned the technique
  • We suggest you spend about 8 weeks learning how to run again. But don't worry, once you've learned, you will be faster and injury free!

    But there was still some excellent theoretical support for both methods

    Having said this, let me emphasize that the issue is not with the concept, or the principles, because they are actually very good, for both Pose and Chi running. The theory for Pose, as explained on the website, is actually the best explanation for good running technique that I have read, it's well worth looking at. The problem is with the delivery, the implementation. Because holding courses and selling books and DVDs to change a person's running style simply creates problems, as Jonathan wrote yesterday and as we discussed.

    Yet many people swear by the technique and would never go back. Of course, some of these are marketing stories, hyped up for your 'benefit'. But some are true - there is little doubt that Pose and Chi have both changed runners' careers for the better, in some instances. But they've done the opposite too, and that's the issue.

    But what we want to do today is investigate how you might benefit from the series we've run. We've pretty much said not to worry about trying to make wholesale changes to running technique. But what is your option then? We've also said that there are small changes you can make, subtle things that can be learned. You've read from people how they practiced and trained and eventually became better runners as a result of what they figured out. And that's what this post is all about.

    Running technique 101 - a whirlwind tour of optimal running technique

    This is where we depart from fact (not that we've ever been entrenched in it, to be honest - there are simply too few facts on this topic to do that!) and into an area many will see as opinion. However, as much as possible, I'll try to stick to those things that can be argued with some physics or biomechanical basis. Feel free to comment

    The head and shoulders - the source of relaxation

    The head and shoulders tell the body what "mood" to be in. Tension often originates in the head, face and shoulders and simply consciously relaxing here can have the effect on the rest of the body. Whenever athletes "tie" up or get tense, the first place you see it is in the neck and shoulders, and the corollary to this is that the head and shoulders much be very relaxed when running. There are, as with most things, exceptions to this 'rule'. Paula Radcliffe comes to mind as someone who looks as though she is scanning the airspace above her for attacking mosquitoes, yet she runs a 2:15 marathon! I would suggest that her excessive head movement, which many have suggested is a detrimental factor, is in fact a SOURCE of relaxation. That is, movement doesn't imply tension. So the key is to relax. Start with the mouth, jaw, neck and shoulders. Many athletes, particularly as novices, suffer from cramp and pain in the shoulders - that's nothing more than tension. Drop your arms, don't hunch the shoulders and just let the arms hang loosely, and that goes away.

    The arms - the jockey

    The arms are the "jockey" to the body and legs, the "horse". In long distance running, the arms obviously play a far lesser role than in the sprinter, where the arm provides a counter-balance to the torque and forces being applied to the trunk by the legs as they swing through. This is still the role during running, but it's far less critical. Perhaps the two biggest factors to think of here are fatigue and tension. Fatigue is a problem with the arms, especially in shorter, higher intensity running. This is something that can only really be trained, no shortcuts! Tension is more of an immediately redeemable one, and if the arms become tense, it once again 'filters' to the rest of the body. The hands in particular are important - clenched fists, tight, rigid wrists are all signs of tension, so try to consciously relax these areas.

    The actual position of the arms is up for debate. Generally, one would say that an elbow angle between 80 and 100 degrees is 'natural', but there is range around this - think of the Chinese athlete Wang who runs like a soldier with virtually straight arms. This may not be the most effective way, but I have little doubt that if she tried anything else, it would be unsuccessful. But the key is to just relax and let the arms hang in what you feel is a natural position.

    Hips - the centre of mass, and the source of your "fall"

    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.

    The knees

    "Drive your knees forward! Come on, pick em up!" That's a cry I heard almost every day while still running track at school, for it is the universal cry of coaches who want their athletes to speed up. The problem is, as we discussed the other day, it's actually counter-productive, for two reasons.

    One, the athlete then tends to overemphasize stride length because they are instructed to do so. This means they work even harder on contracting the quads to drive the knee forward. Consider that this is usually done towards the end of a race, when the athlete is tired and so doesn't have the luxury of energy to waste and you see how this 'drive' is probably only causing more problems later on. The athlete would be better advised to focus on maintaining a high turnover and rather saving energy on the drive.

    Second, and perhaps more important, the athlete tends to overstride. The problem here is the same as before with the hips - if you 'reach' for the landing, your foot goes way out in front of you and lands way in front of the centre of mass. That causes braking and deceleration, which then means you have to work even harder to speed up or maintain a speed. So the instruction to lift the knees is probably not a good one. My advice to runners, then is rather think about lifting your feet off the ground, and forget about driving the knee. This is another thing that the Pose technique advocates, and it's certainly correct in principle. From an application point of view, it's important not to 'overload' the mind with all sorts of instructions, but for this one, the simple concept of pulling your foot up underneath you is easy to do and makes a difference.

    The feet - most important of all

    Finally, perhaps the most important thing of all - don't worry about how your foot is landing! The moment you start becoming pre-occupied with whether you are landing on the heel, the midfoot or forefoot, you're in trouble. That's a recipe for injury, because your mental concern about landing causes you to be tense on landing, and a tense muscle is not able to cope with the repetitive strain it needs to. Also, you change the loading patterns. For example, we've spoken about landing on the forefoot, and the injuries it can cause. most often, this was happening because runners were consciously placing their feet in plantar flexion (pointing toes out) before they landed. As a result, they landed on the forefoot, but the poor calf muscle was bearing the brunt of the body weight.

    So what should you do? First of all, remember that the landing of the foot depends on the position of the foot under the body. If you 'reach' for the landing, then you will land more on the heel (unless you plantar flex, which is a BAD idea!), whereas if you allow your foot to land under the body, then you land midfoot. That's all you need to know, the rest is details. So don't worry about it.

    The final point in this regard is that 75% of elite athletes are heel strikers, according to the latest study from Japan. I referred to this study the other day, but what was found was that 75% of runners in a 21km race, running at 3min/km, were heel strikers. Of course, one could always argue that if they were fore-foot strikers, they'd run even faster, but the point is that there is no apparent association between WHERE you land and how fast you are. So forget about landing - gravity will handle that for you!

    Final conclusion

    It's been an extremely stimulating and challenging series of posts, I'm sure you'll agree (especially if you have managed to read them!). I do apologize for the length of the posts, I wish I could make them shorter, but I guess faced with the choice of presenting half the information and keeping more reader's attention, and getting all the information out and losing some people, I'm going for option 2. So it's really important to get the details out. What I think I will do is a final post tomorrow, just wrapping up this series on running technique, and hopefully summarizing it quite dramatically. But thank you for reading, for your comments and interests!

    See you tomorrow for the "executive summary!"


  • Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken the world marathon record - 2:04:26! Check out the splits and post race analysis here!

  • Thursday, September 27, 2007

    A personal experience with Pose

    This has been a fantastic series and has generated many comments and much debate. We suspect this is because when you talk about something as close to people as their running, it is bound to strike a nerve! Running is a personal experience, and most of you probably run because of the vast benefits it brings you on a physical, personal, mental, and even spiritual level.

    Having presented the scientific basis and principles of Pose and Chi running, and having weighed in on the pros and cons of teaching running technique, this post will approach this issue from only a practical and personal level to try to explain the implications of changing technique.

    In the prior post Ross mentioned the mental cost of changing running technique, and also evaluated the injury aspect of running Pose. I volunteered to be a subject in the training study because at that time I was suffering from a soleus injury and was right in the middle of a peak training period for a November marathon. I was desperate to start running again. I learned the Pose style, and the best thing was that I was able to run pain free as the reduced impact eased the strain on my soleus muscle. I carried on, and a month later did a five km race in a time similar to pre-Pose. Therefore I figured I was not running any slower than before, and that with Pose I was at least able to maintain my prior running speeds.

    I ramped up my training in my last month and ran the marathon with Pose. While I was aiming for something close to 2:40, I finished with a 2:52 and given that I missed my window of peak training load with the injury, I was happy with the performance result. However I was not happy with the patello-femoral pain syndrome I picked up in my right knee!

    Did running Pose cause the injury? It is hard to say conclusively, but I had completed several marathons in similar times without any injuries. In addition, that was the first time I experienced that injury. Our hypothesis was that during normal gait the quadriceps muscles that help stabilize the patella become well trained in doing that, primarily because of the nature of running and how it loads the knee joint (see the previous post about eccentric loading of the knee and how it is reduced in Pose). In my 2.5 months of running with Pose, we think that I suffered some atrophy in those muscles, leading to a lesser ability to stabilize the patella. After 30 odd km and a considerable amount of fatigue during the marathon, I suspect that I fell out of Pose to some extent. . .and the quadriceps could not do their job and the result was the irritation on the patella.

    After considerable rehab over a few months, I was back running Pose again, but then suffered from the psychological effects mentioned by another runner quoted in the last post:
    • "Since learning Pose, I can't relax and run anymore. I'm trying to just run naturally, but the training drills we did are still too fresh in my mind (this was 3 months afterwards, by the way). I try to switch off and just run, but it's too difficult. I can't seem to go back to how I used to run, but I'm not sure I'm doing Pose correctly either. It makes my running very difficult, I wish I could just switch off, forget what I was told and run, like I used to, for pleasure"
    I tried to maintain Pose, but the mental cost was exhausting. Even when I stopped "trying" and just relaxed, I felt like I was doing Pose, and I quickly found myself in the same situation as the runner above---wishing I could just "switch off" and forget all that I was taught. Eventually I got my old and normal style back, although subsequently I have converted over to cycling as a primary sport.

    So is Pose (or Chi) a good thing? As mentioned, applying it wholesale to the running masses likely will create more problems than solutions. Given a runner who has been diagnosed with a "bad gait," and perhaps experiences repeated injuries, I would go so far as to say that only after that runner has exhausted all other options should he or she even begin to think about a different technique. By this I mean that the runner should first get a proper training program that is sufficiently progressive so that he/she has ample time to adapt to the stresses of running. If repeated injuries still ensue, an alternative style of running might be an option. However, at the same time, perhaps an alternative activity should also be considered, as there are many other ways to stay active and keep your mind, body, and soul healthy and happy.

    Massive Steroid Operation Uncovered

    We interrupt this regularly scheduled series of posts on running technique for this breaking news...

    Last week the Drug Enforcement Administration of the USA wrapped up a series of raids on drug labs in a number of states. The numbers? Over 800,000 doses of steroids were confiscated from one home in New York. There were other seizures in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and in the midwest.

    WADA currently is seeking information from the agents so that they can cross check any names in the investigation against the names of current athletes, and it appears that the federal agents are more than willing to cooperate with the anti-doping agency on this.

    After the four days of raids, the operation, called "Raw Deal," shut down 26 labs and arrested over 50 individuals. The raids were the final push in a larger probe that in total made 124 arrests, closed 56 labs in 27 states, and seized $6.5 million and 240 kg of raw steroid powder.

    Anyone out there still think that the drug problem in sports is under control. . .? This should be a reminder that performance-enhancing drugs are big business, and as long as there is this much money to be made from them, more labs just like the ones busted last week will start popping up again. Having said that, however, these raids and this operation demonstrate that the federal government here in the USA is allocating significant time and resources to this problem.

    You can read the full details here on the ESPN website.

    And now we return you to our regularly scheduled post. . . .

    Running technique Part III: The Scientific evidence for running technique

    Today is Part III of our series on Running Technique. The two key questions we are looking at addressing are :

    1. Is there an "optimal" running technique? I think we are probably all in agreement that there is, the tricky part is defining optimal...
    2. Is this "optimal" technique the same for everyone? In other words, should we all be running the same way?
    3. Can running technique be taught, or is it learned? This is perhaps THE key question, because if technique is learned,then it stands to reason that everyone might learn their own technique and run differently. On the other hand, if technique is to be taught as a complete "entity" (as suggested by running techniques like Pose and Chi), then it suggests that what we do naturally might be incorrect, and we need a technique makeover.
    4. When running technique is taught, how should it be done? There are two schools of thought on this one. The first is to teach it wholly, effectively relearning HOW to run. This is the mass market approach, and is done in courses where Pose and Chi (and probably others) are taught. Participants get taught the theory and then instructed in how to run. The second school of thought suggests that the principles, rather than the PRODUCT, are important. That means that running technique can be taught by observing each runner on an individual basis, and then applying what are known to be sound and correct principles to modifying that technique. I hope that the distinction between this approach and 'generic, one size fits all' training are obvious.

    In previous posts, then, we've looked at the concept that what we do naturally might be incorrect, we discussed the philosophy or running as a learned or taught skill, and we looked at the biomechanical principles of Pose (and to a lesser extent, Chi).

    In today's post, we look at some of the scientific evidence for the teaching of technique. We're dealing predominantly with question 4 from above as we move through this evidence. We're looking at the question, then, of whether it's possible to change the running technique, and what the implications and outcomes of this change are. Some evidence is anecdotal, some is 'hard(er)' science.

    The Pose study - evidence that it changes technique

    I guess the starting point to answer this question is to ask whether the teaching of Pose is actually able to change the technique to begin with? For example, there are millions of products that make claims, but they don't work because they don't even produce the change they claim to - imagine a hair colourant that leaves your hair the same colour as before! So the first question to ask is whether a supervised course in Pose running (or Chi, for that matter - it just hasn't been researched, to the best of my knowledge) is able to produce MEASURABLE changes in technique?

    First point here is to define those changes. What are we looking at when we say that running technique is changed? Running technique, as I'm sure you can appreciate, is a pretty complex thing - arms, hips, shoulders, head position, movement of feet, landing patterns, swing phase, support phase, you name it - there are so many ways to look at technique that just "looking" at a runner doesn't allow you to know what is different. You might sense that there is a difference, but you can't know what it is, unless you objectively measure it.

    To do this, you need some specialized equipment. And luckily, we had that here in Cape Town in 2002, when the Pose study was done. The background to that study was that Nicholas Romanov contacted Professor Tim Noakes and discussed the possibility of coming to Cape Town to perform a research trial. Tim agreed, and to cut a long story short, Romanov and two colleagues flew out to Cape Town to work with some of the researchers on this study.

    The study - the only research on the technique so far

    The study consisted of twenty runner volunteers (Jonathan and I were both part of this group), who were trained by Romanov and his team for a week. We began with theory lessons of how we should run, and this followed by a pretty intensive week of practical training. We're talking two sessions a day, lasting an hour each, under the supervision of three coaches, with substantial individual attention for all the volunteers. We did drills, got taught how to run, and how not to run. The first point worth making is that this situation is vastly different from that which occurs when a Pose or Chi course is run. Normally, there may be upwards of twenty athletes per coach (often way more than this). We had perhaps 3 athletes per coach.

    In terms of measurements, every volunteer had his/her running biomechanics assessed running one of three ways - the first was "heel-toe", the second was "mid-foot" and the third was Running Pose. This assessement, called clincial gait analysis, measures a number of different factors, called kinematic and kinetic. Briefly, you look at things like stride rate, stride length, joint angles on landing and at different parts of the stride (kinematics), and then also at forces in the different joints (kinetics).

    So that allows the research to establish whether the runners had different biomechanics as a result of learning the technique.

    The findings

    Sure enough, the gait analysis showed the following changes had taken place after training (compared to before, and natural running in each case):

    1. Stride lengths were shorter, and stride rates were higher - this is consistent with what Pose theory predicts, as we discussed yesterday.
    2. The vertical oscillations of the sacrum and left heel marker were reduced (this means there was less up and down movement of both the hips and the feet)
    3. Pose running had a lower loading rate of the vertical impact force than the BEFORE training running styles. This was explained because during Pose running, the knee flexed more in Pose than in heel-toe and midfoot running. Basically, during Pose, you land on a slightly more bent knee and it lowers the rate of loading.
    4. The knee power absorption and eccentric work were significant lower in Pose than in either heel-toe or midfoot running
    5. There was a higher power absorption and eccentric work at the ankle in Pose compared with heel-toe and midfoot running
    So those were the key findings. This is not a biomechanics lesson, but it's worth looking at some of them in more detail. Let's have a look at the implications of these findings very briefly:

    The implications of this study

    It is possible to change running technique. One week of intensive Pose training was able to change a great deal of biomechanical variables in this group of runners. The stride length, stride rate, knee joint angles and rate of loading were all different. So you can 'teach an old dog new tricks'

    The most important findings are Number 4 and Number 5 in the list above. They are worth looking at in much more detail.

    Firstly, let's deal with Number 4. What this is saying is that when running Pose, the "eccentric work of the knee" is lower than compared to heel-striking and mid-foot running (somewhat misleading terms - let's just compare to BEFORE training). What does this mean? Well, there is some evidence the knee injuries are associated with higher eccentric work in the knee. This means that in runners who have a high eccentric loading, there may be increased risk of injury. Therefore, the conclusion made is that Pose will reduce the risk of knee injury. In fact, if you go to the Pose website, you will see this claim in the top left hand corner! That's marketing for you!

    So this was the very exciting finding, and Romanov and the team were incredibly happy with it. They felt they were vindicated and had proved the benefit of Pose. And to a certain extent, they had. One small problem though...that eccentric loading doesn't just disappear, it goes somewhere else...

    Does Pose increase the risk of ankle injuries?

    Where does it go? Well, look at Finding number 5 in the list above. You'll see that the study also found that the ankle eccentric work was higher in Pose than with heel running! So that means that what has been taken away from the knee has been transferred to the ankle! The work done on the knee (the definition of eccentric work, by the way) is lower, but the work done on the ankle is higher! Using the same logic, this would mean increased risk of injury in the ankle and calf muscle. Does the evidence support this?

    What the published study didn't tell you...what happened next?

    That's where the published research ends. This research study was published in the journal MSSE, you can read the abstract here. But what the published study fails to report is what happened next...

    Because what happened next was never going to be published in a scientific journal by the advocates for the technique, and would certainly not be reported on the website alongside the claim of reduced work on the knee! For what happened is that of the twenty runners who were trained, more than half broke down with calf muscle injury, Achilles tendon strains and other injuries of the feet! Let me elaborate...

    We (UCT scientists, who by now included me, as I'd been brought onboard to instruct the technique) realised that this higher eccentric work in the ankle was something to keep an eye on. So Romanov and the team flew back to Miami, but taught me the basic theories behind the Pose technique, so that we could use it as a tool to do further research if we needed to.

    What we decided to do was evaluate all the runners in a 'follow up' study about 2 weeks later. So we left the 20 volunteers for one weeks, so that they could go off and run and get used to running Pose, and then we called them up again and re-assessed their techniques and gave them further training for TWO WEEKS. At this stage, my role was to identify and continue to diagnose any potential problems with technique. We split the group of 20 into two parts. 10 were the "control" group, who received no further assistance or advice. The other 10 were the "follow up" group, who I saw twice a week and gave further advice to. We then measured everyone in the biomechanics lab at the end of the third week.

    Calf problems - more common than they should be

    What we found should be of concern. Everyone managed to maintain the same running technique - that was a good thing, because it meant that even two weeks later, everyone was still running Pose, whether or not they'd received further coaching.

    The problem was that nine out of the 10 athetes who had been left alone broke down with Achilles and calf muscle problems in those three weeks after Romanov left. The ten I worked with had similar problem, but only 5 of them complained of injuries to the calf. No one had knee problems, but suddenly, we had 14 runners on our hands who had calf muscle injuries or ankle problems, despite never experiencing this before! Does Pose running then cause ankle injuries?

    One might at this stage be tempted to say that this happens because left unsupervised, the runners adopt a bad technique and stop running Pose. If they were still running the technique properly, they would not develop this problem. That may indeed be true, but I would give three responses to that suggestion:

    First, this calf muscle/Achilles problem did not only start happening AFTER Romanov left - it was, in fact, already happening while we were being instructed. Many of the 20 volunteers complained of severe stiffness and burning in the calves when they ran, and pain in the Achilles after a day of running. This pain was not yet full-blown injury, but it did suggest some was on the way.

    Second, the group of 10 runners who did receive follow up training and supervision (from me) were still running Pose. Of course, I'm not the founder of the method and so probably should not have too much confidence in my coaching ability! But the biomechanics suggested that they were still doing the technique correctly - the biomechanics was the same as it was when Romanov was supervising (which made me feel a little better, I must confess!)

    The biggest problem of all - selling a product that works only because you 'make' it work

    Third, and perhaps most important, it doesn't matter whether it was because they ran incorrectly, the point is that they DID. What good is a technique if it gets taught and then is 'forgotten' or unlearned in only two weeks? Remember, these 20 people received the very best training they could - two sessions a day, individual attention, for a solid week. Yet somehow, they still manage to make errors and land up injured! Imagine if they were simply attending a weekend workshop or course, where they are one of a hundred people! What chance would they have then? This is a MASSIVE problem with the techniques (and Chi is included here) - how can you sell a product that is only going to work while the seller is on-hand to advise?

    If I may use an analogy. Imagine you buy a television set, with the prospect of high definition images, revolutionary sound quality, 6 trillion colours etc. You get home and it doesn't work. It's black and white, at best. So you call the guy who sold it to you at the store and he says that it works in the store, the problem must be with you...How is that satisfactory? But he comes out to your premises, does some tuning and adjustments and gets it to work. As soon as he leaves, it flunks out on you again and you can't, for the life of you, get it to work the way he did. You call him back, and he says "It worked for me, it's not my problem. And no, you can't have your money back...!"

    Crazy example, but I would suggest that this is what is happening with these techniques, both Pose and Chi. I have dealt with Pose, only because that's where the data is. But the anecdotes and reports are the same for Chi. They are making promises (run faster, run injury free) and then teaching a technique (the product) with this promise. You part with your money, but it doesn't work. In fact, it makes you even worse. But there is no accountability, because they can always suggest that YOU are in fact the one to blame. That is not fair, but the science suggests that this is what happens...That is my biggest problem with the mass coaching of a technique.

    The anecdotes support this. It was been reported, for example, that whenever a workshop is held in a city, the orthopedic specialists know that they should anticipate an influx of people with calf and ankle problems about a week or two later! So for every positive story you hear (there are some, make no mistake, some people get it right and it works), there are those of disappointment and injury as a result of a 'generic' running technique.

    The final factor - the mental cost of running a new way

    So far, we've looked purely at the physical and biomechanical changes. But what of the mental changes? Imagine you are 40 years old, been running for 20 years and suddenly you learn a new technique. Suddenly, running is a mental exercise, your 5-mile jog becomes 45 minutes of focus and concentration: Am I landing right, how are my hips, am I pulling enough, I mustn't land on the heel etc. That's a guaranteed way to ruin a run, for MOST people. I received the following email from one of the 20 runners we tested (excerpt only):
    Since learning Pose, I can't relax and run anymore. I'm trying to just run naturally, but the training drills we did are still too fresh in my mind (this was 3 months afterwards, by the way). I try to switch off and just run, but it's too difficult. I can't seem to go back to how I used to run, but I'm not sure I'm doing Pose correctly either. It makes my running very difficult, I wish I could just switch off, forget what I was told and run, like I used to, for pleasure"
    This gentleman was incredibly frustrated, he'd been shown "the new, better way", but it created a burden for him that he didn't want. I'm not sure what he runs these days, but I suspect he has probably returned to his old technique. This story illustrates one possible risk of running a new technique - can you make wholesale changes to technique without overloading a runner's mental capacity? I don't think so, which is why the subtle change theory is the way to go, in my opinion.

    But there is still some merit to the techniques

    Having written that, let me now say that I still believe that the fundamental principles on which both are based are CORRECT (I don't think there's a difference between them, to be honest). That means that whatever it is that Pose is teaching, I believe is true - the centre of mass, the pulling of the foot, the balance and fall (all described yesterday). It's all sound. But to try to apply this to a mass audience only creates more problems than it solves. And for that reason, I would strongly suggest for anyone to avoid this kind of "mass customization". Running technique is a one-on-one thing, case by case. Remember, as I wrote yesterday, technique is first learned, then refined and the subtle changes are made.

    We will look at these subtle changes in tomorrow's post, the last of our series. Once again, thank you for reading, I realise these are heavy and long posts, but I hope they stimulate thought and debate.

    Bye for now!

    Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken Paul Tergat's world record for the marathon - 2:04:26. Check out the split times and post-race analysis here!

    Wednesday, September 26, 2007

    Running technique Part II: Biomechanics of running and Pose

    Today is Part 2 of our series looking at running technique. So far, it's been an extremely interesting and challenging series to write, and we've received some really interesting stories and comments from readers. That's something we're very grateful for, and many of those comments are incorporated into the posts you'll read over the next few days.

    What is probably a bit confusing is that because this series is being done one post, one day at a time, I've not yet really put out there my own explicit position on this, and so many times, we receive comments which I agree 100% with, but which haven't been expressed openly in the posts (yet!). So I thought that perhaps I should come out and give my position on running technique, rather than sitting on the fence until all the evidence is discussed, and then in the next three posts, we'll look at some of that evidence (and opinions - this is a blog after all, not a scientific journal!) which has led me to this position.

    Is "natural" running technique optimal? Can it be improved? And should it be taught?

    My opinion is that good running technique is:

    • First learned naturally, then;
    • Refined through practice, and then;
    • Subtle changes can be taught through instruction on a case by case basis.

    When I write that running is a 'natural' activity, bear in mind that "natural" does not mean "optimal". So while everyone can run, not everyone runs WELL. The key question is whether one can (or should) be instructed in a technique. That is, after all, what both Pose and Chi claim to do. My position is that the instruction of a generic, "one size fits all" running technique is likely to create more problems than it fixes (as we'll see in tomorrow's post). But that does NOT necessarily mean that there are not principles and concepts from those running techniques that are sound.

    So we have received some very interesting emails, including one that the Kenyans run the best, probably because they have to run barefoot, and the biomechanics of barefoot running and quite different to those when running in shoes. Also, people have written of their experiences in learning a better running technique through repetition and practice. These interesting and correct stories illustrate two points:

    1. Running technique can be improved vastly by training. Just as a tennis player has to hit many balls and a golfer spends hours on the range, so too, running properly requires practice.

    2. Running technique does not have to be "taught". Rather it is learned through practice, circumstances and then implementation.

    Of course, there is a chance that people will learn or develop bad habits. And this is where the instruction and application of certain technical drills can make a difference. An informed coach, a knowledgeable observer, or even an intuitive runner can adapt and modify technique, so that it conforms with a better theoretical model for running. I believe there is a better way to run, but that is NOT the same thing as saying there is ONLY ONE WAY TO RUN. We are all different, every case is different, and so the idea that one running technique (be it Pose or Chi or Kenyan style) is the way to go seems over-simplified. Instead, treat each case on its merits, knowing that small changes can produce noticeable results. But it's not the same change every time.

    And so that's my position. What we'll do next, is look in a bit more detail at the theory behind the running techniques. I will focus on Pose, because I'm far more familiar with it. But everything will be taken from the respective websites, so that I'm not misquoted anything. That way, it's more objective. So let's have a look at just what Pose is?

    The biomechanical basis for Pose running

    The Pose running method is named after the characteristic "running pose" which is described as "optimal". From the website:

    "The Running Pose is a whole body pose, which vertically aligns shoulders, hips and ankles with the support leg, while standing on the ball of the foot. This creates an S-like shape of the body. The runner then changes the pose from one leg to the other by falling forward and allowing gravity to do the work. The support foot is pulled from the ground to allow the body to fall forward, while the other foot drops down freely, in a change of support.

    So effectively, the idea behind Pose is two fold:

    1. You create forward movement by positioning the body in such a way that you FALL forward - using gravity to create movement, and

    2. You move the legs through PULLING, rather than the more common thought of DRIVING the knee forward and swinging the knee forward.

    Again, from the website: "This simple sequence of movements: the fall and the pull, while staying in the pose, is the essence of running technique."

    So that is it in a nutshell. I'm selling it short, of course, because there is more to it than just this. But basically, what the technique says is:

    • Lean forward, not with the shoulders but from the ankles. You have to keep the body in a straight line from the ankles, to the knees, to the hips to the shoulders. Imagine a telephone pole falling over - it doesn't bend and then fall, it falls from the ground - the ankles. Imagine you're a tree being blown by the wind - you 'fall' from the ground contact point, not by bending at the hips and dipping your shoulders.
    • With your hips (which is where your centre of mass is) in front of your contact point with the ground (your feet), you are in a position to fall. That's where gravity acts on the body - we don't need to worry about getting into the physics of the x-component and so on of gravity.
    • All that is left now is to leave the ground - you do this by pulling the foot up off the ground and allowing gravity to return the other foot to the ground. You've then changed the point of support, and the running movement is then just a sequence of changes of support.

    If you consider the alternative, the classically thought of (or expressed verbally by a lot of coaches, anyway) method is to drive the knee forward when you want to find some extra speed. They should "pump the arms, high knees!" because this is what is accepted as the method to find some more speed. So you push, rather than pull. The problem is (and what we need to consider) is whether this is actually done, or is it something that coaches shout out at athletes because that's what they SEE? In other words, is the instruction consistent with reality?

    So which is right? What does 'common-sense' biomechanics say?

    We now need to evaluate the merits of the arguments. As I said earlier, I do believe that the biomechanics of some aspects of these techniques (more on Chi in a moment) are sound, and the implementation of the technique is another story altogether, but let's look briefly at the biomechanics.

    The fall and using gravity - taught or acquired?

    According to the Pose website, Leonardo da Vinci once wrote that “Motion is created by the destruction of balance…” That means that if we wish to move forward, from a standing position, we have to remove the balance from the system (us). That can be done in many different ways. You can be pushed from behind, you can push off something, you can create force with the muscles to move forward (that is, jump), or, as the Pose method suggests, you can let gravity act on the system. This is done by leaning forward, until the force of gravity is sufficient to want to cause us to fall forward. That then, is the starting point for running.

    The tricky bit is that once we're running, it's very difficult to see the system's balance. Movement, being dynamic, means that at any moment, balance (and forces) are changing all the time. Think of yourself sitting in a car - you're perfectly balanced while it moves, but if you suddenly slam on the brakes, you get shot forward, completely out of balance. Enter inertia, which is a big part of running. It makes sense that we would want to minimize the need for inertia to propel us forward! Instead, if we can remain in a constant state of motion through the force of gravity, it would theoretically provide an advantage.

    So the logic is sound - it would make sense for an efficient runner to aim to keep their centre of mass as far forward as possible. The alternative is to lean backwards when running - that clearly doesn't make sense, and so leaning forward does.

    Right now, you might be thinking "Hang on, that's obvious, how is that revolutionary and a new running technique?" To which my answer would be "Exactly, good point" Therein lies one of the first discussion points - is this lean something that should be taught, or is it done naturally? Is it revolutionary, or simply the packaging of good ideas, done anyway, into a new product? Think of when you run downhill - you tend to lean backwards because if you didn't, you'd fall face first down the mountain! That illustrates that we KNOW how to position our bodies in space. Not everyone gets this right, though. I've seen many runners who do have an excessive lean back, or they have a hunch in the shoulders that is also inefficient. These people are great candidates for some advice, a little change that will make the difference for that runner. It's up for debate though!

    The landing - what do we do with our legs and feet?

    The second issue with Pose is the landing. This is actually the most controversial issue and also the most misunderstood. The perception that has been created (willingly or not) is that Pose is forefoot running. If you read the description on the site, you'll notice the complete absence of reference to the forefoot. So I'm not entirely sure where this perception comes from. I suspect that it's a shortcut to explaining the technique, a way to instruct and inform people, but it's become the focus instead. People have written in and emailed talking about forefoot running, which is a little different compared to Pose and Chi. But to be honest, neither has done a great deal to overcome this perception, which has caused some problems, as we'll discuss tomorrow.

    But returning to the technique, what happens is that if you are now leaning far enough forward, and then you pull your foot up underneath you, your NATURAL landing will be underneath your body as well. Try for a second to visualize what that looks like - a person stands, pulls their foot off the ground and then it lands again with the centre of mass having moved forward. The foot will land underneath the centre of mass. If you jump up and down in one spot, your landing point is below the centre of mass, and you land on the balls of your feet. It's almost impossible not to. But it's not the objective, it just happens. So that's where the perception comes from.

    Speaking from a biomechanical point of view, it does make sense that the point of landing should be as close to the body as possible. If you land way in front of your body, then you effectively brake yourself. Think of a long jumper - they extend their legs in front of them for extra distance, and promptly come to a complete stop. So good running means you have to keep that distance between your landing point and your centre of mass as small as possible. Nothing false about that one, biomechanically speaking. Running is not a connected sequence of jumps, in otherwords - it should be fluid and linear, and that means as little pushing off and as little braking as possible.

    The problem comes when you start to think about how the foot lands. It's probably impossible to run with a landing directly beneath your centre of mass. That would require you to be leaning so far forward, you'd probably be able to to touch the ground with your hand! So the limit to balance also limits the ability to get that landing directly underneath the hips (or wherever the centre of mass is). Also, if you chop your stride too much, then you start to compromise on the benefit of having longer legs - you effectively shorten your "reach". There is probably an optimal point on the 'curve' where you are both pulling up and extending your leg out. That remains to be measured though.

    One thing that is certain is that the 'pendulum' style of running, which would suggest that you should try as much as possible to 'reach' out in front of you to lengthen your stride is bad. All that does is brake your natural movement every time you land. It's like running downhill and leaning far back - you will know that feeling of jarring every time you land.

    What does the evidence suggest? If the Pose method is true, then one would expect that faster runners, who have apparently developed better running technique, would tend to be more mid-foot or fore-foot strikers, because they would be adopting the principles above. But studies actually show the OPPOSITE - in one study, 75% of elite runners (running at 3min/km in a 21km race) landed on the HEEL! That seems to suggest that heel striking is not necessarily bad. The 25% who were mid- or forefoot strikers were not necessarily the fastest runners, so it's not a case of run on your heels if you are slow and let the fast guys land forefoot!

    So now we have a conundrum - the elite guys don't run like they're supposed to! Is it possible to run efficiently when landing on the heel? Not according to Pose or Chi, yet the best runners do - even Gebrselassie and Tergat, if you ever watch them land. When they sprint, they're on the ball of the foot, but not during the marathon. So that's an inconsistency, which we'll look at more tomorrow...

    The implication of this is that perhaps this pre-occupation with how the foot lands is not good. Maybe it doesn't matter? There are far more serious implications of this forced forefoot landing though, which we'll look at tomorrow, but I firmly believe that the best is to let the foot land in a relaxed manner.

    The problem is that as soon as you teach a runner the Pose (or Chi) method, you put an idea in their head that they must land midfoot or forefoot. Do you think it's easy for a runner to relax the foot, when all they think about is landing on a certain part of it? And that's the biggest problem with implementation - getting it right. Because getting it wrong has some pretty serious consequences. Read tomorrow for that post.

    Pose and barefoot running - same biomechanics?

    We received an interesting comment on the Kenyans, and the fact that they have the perfect running technique because they grow up running barefoot. I tend to agree, but would make the point, and this was something Nicholas Romanov (founder of Pose) used to say a lot, is that "not all Kenyans run Pose". Setting aside the fact that Kenyans have probably never heard of "Pose" and therefore couldn't run it (unless by accident!), it's an illustration of the fact that optimal running technique is very difficult to pin down. It also, very importantly, illustrates that there are athletes out there who run 'optimally', completely without any instruction. The question we should be asking is whether these runners are finding what works best for them, in which case, maybe those NOT running Pose have done the same? Why would some people stumble on a technique that is "optimal" and not others? Both are running 150km a week, pressurized to perform, doing the same training, with the same upbringing to the sport. Interesting concept...

    How does Pose differ from Chi?

    This is one that I'm probably not perfectly positioned to answer, relying only on what is available through the internet and the odd report I've read or discussion. But briefly, what the creators of Chi Running will say is that Pose differs from Chi substantially (they would have to say this, because otherwise they're selling the same thing!).

    But rather than speculate, here is the answer, straight from the 'pen' of the founder of the Chi method, when asked about the difference between Pose and Chi. This was kindly sent to me by one of the readers, Clyde:

    "ChiRunning and Pose share the same focus of leaning to engage the pull of gravity for propulsion. That is about the only similarity I can see.

    "With the Pose Method, Dr. Romanov has runners land on their forefoot, while ChiRunning has runners land on their mid-foot. Landing on your forefoot requires your entire body to be momentarily supported by your calf, which, for long-distance runners, is more than that muscle was designed to do.

    The Pose Method uses the leg more. With ChiRunning, we have the runners relax their lower legs as much as possible at all times in order to reduce work to the lower legs (which is one of the main areas where running injuries occur). We have runners lengthen their stride and increase their lean to run faster, versus picking up the speed of their stride. If your cadence picks up, as I think the Pose Method advises, it takes more leg muscle to turn your legs over faster. That's OK if you're a sprinter, and your race is over in 10 seconds. But ChiRunning teaches long-distance runners to rely more on your lean than your legs, and ultimately, it saves your legs."

    So that's it in a nutshell. One point worth making is that Pose doesn't necessarily have runners landing on the forefoot, as discussed. It's happened, as I mentioned, perhaps because that's how it's been taught or explained. So it's true in that regard. But the second paragraph does pretty much say the same thing as Pose. In the Pose method, the cadence is increased because the legs have to keep up with the "fall" of the body, which, as I read it, is exactly the same as the method for Chi. So that's not actually a difference. I suspect that what is going on here, from both sides, is that they are trying to differentiate themselves by finding differences. Unfortunately, the only losers in this 'battle' are the consumers, or the runners who can't figure out what is different between them!

    The other difference is the "holistic" positioning of Chi - it's name comes from the Tai Chi, and so there's a great deal more to it than simply running. I'm all for this, but to evaluate it scientifically is another kettle of fish altogether. Apart from those differences, I struggle to see the two techniques as being different - I think it's the same concept packaged under a different name. I'm sure advocates of both techniques will disagree, but it's hard to find key differences that are meaningful.

    My feeling is that both techniques are taking sound biomechanics (which we've looked at and discussed) and packaging them in such a way that they become viable products. There are without doubt benefits to both, because as I've said, every runner can probably find areas to improve their running style or technique. But the real issue is whether we should be focusing on the principle, or the product? Because a pre-occupation with the product means that we are teaching people "how to run" and making radical changes to techniques that have existed for many years. If you are runner, having run one way for 20 years, you can imagine that changing EVERYTHING is really difficult. This practical limitation is one of the key reasons I'd advocate making subtle, smaller changes on a case by case basis, rather than courses. That said, there is little doubt that SOME people find success in these methods. Whether it's the product, or the principle that has created that success, is also debatble. Perhaps the same result was achievable through an educated eye giving small tips? The point is, the techniques are being taught in structured courses, to mass audiences, over weekends or afternoons. And that's the concept we need to evaluate!

    One such course was held here in Cape Town, used for research purposes, and it generated some fascinating data, the only data on the techniques that I'm aware of. And because the athletes were monitored closely, we also have longer term outcomes for all of them. And that is the key here - does teaching the method actually make a better, more efficient, less injury-prone runner? Can runners be "taught" an entirely new method for running? Make no mistake, I firmly believe that runners can have their running technique improved - little changes here and there. But to apply a generic method in a coaching course, that's the acid test.

    And in tomorrow's post, we'll look at what evidence there is that this works, and what the implications are for this technique training. Apologies for the long post today, but as one can see, there's a great deal to get through, and even this was only scratching the surface!


    Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken the world marathon record - 2:04:26.
    Check out the splits and race analysis here.

    Tuesday, September 25, 2007

    Running technique Part I: The philosophy of how we run

    Yesterday, we began a series of posts looking at running technique. We’ve received questions, comments and some of your insights on the post already. All this serves to confirm is that we’re approaching a relevant and easily discussed topic. It could well border on controversial, and I’ve no doubt that some of what I write will be arguable, and probably criticized. That’s fine, we’ve never been averse to some controversy, shying away from it is not our game. So we move ahead and hope that the series will provide for good, objective discussion, which is after all our goal from this site. All we ask is that people weigh things up and acknowledge that we can’t cover EVERYTHING.

    So looking ahead, this is a vast topic, and we can never do it justice. We can’t, for example, explain exactly what Pose and Chi are about, all we can do is make reference to their sites and touch on the broader concepts. So what we’ll do is break this topic into perhaps four parts, to make it easier to read and digest. These four parts will examine the following topics:

    Part I – What do the techniques promise? Do we run ‘incorrectly’ without these techniques? Is “natural” incorrect? A philosophical debate on the merits of natural vs taught.

    Part II – The biomechanical basis for good running technique. What does Pose actually say? What is Pose running? (sorry for the bias, it’s just easier to discuss based on my knowledge – the last thing I wish to do is speculate out of turn)

    Part III – What scientific evidence exists to support or refute these theories? We evaluate the evidence for and against Pose. Basically, this post asks “Does Pose (and Chi) work?”

    Part IV – Practical recommendations for good running. Should you try to relearn how to run? What do you do with this overload of information.

    Part I – the promises, implications and a philosophical debate on running technique

    Today, in Part I, I’ll look at the promises or guarantees made by the two major running techniques, Pose Method and Chi Running. As I wrote yesterday, I’m far more familiar with the Pose Method, and there is scientific research on Pose that can be used to argue from (none on Chi that I know of, and anecdotes don’t constitute scientific evidence), so the emphasis is certainly on that that technique. I’ll look at the Chi method in less detail, but the problem there is that because there’s a lack of hard evidence, it becomes a “he said, she said” type of debate, neither party having sufficient data or information to argue a point conclusively. So that’s something I’d like to steer clear of – controversy is great, but it must be objective, so that’s the priority. To begin with, we look at the promises made by the techniques…

    The fundamental principle of Pose and Chi Running

    Now would be a good time to introduce what these two running techniques claim. The following paragraphs are taken word for word from the respective websites of Pose Running Method and the Chi Running Method.

    Pose Method

    The Running Pose is a whole body pose, which vertically aligns shoulders, hips and ankles with the support leg, while standing on the ball of the foot. This creates an S-like shape of the body. The runner then changes the pose from one leg to the other by falling forward and allowing gravity to do the work. The support foot is pulled from the ground to allow the body to fall forward, while the other foot drops down freely, in a change of support.

    This creates forward movement, with the least cost (energy use), and the least effort. The end result is faster race times, freer running and no more injuries!

    Chi Running method

    There are countless books, courses, and classes on how to improve your golf swing, your tennis game, and your cycling technique, but none teaching how to run properly. The ChiRunning program fills this void by teaching people bio-mechanically correct running form that is in line with the laws of physics and with the ancient principles of movement found in T'ai Chi. ChiRunning technique is based on the same principles and orientation as Yoga, Pilates, and T'ai Chi: working with core muscles; integrating mind and body; and focused on overall and long term performance and well-being.

    Whether you're an injured runner, a beginner runner, a marathon runner, a triathlete, or someone who runs to stay fit, ChiRunning has helped thousands improve their technique, reduce injury and achieve personal goals. ChiRunning helps reduce and eliminate: shin splints, IT band syndrome, hamstring injury, plantar faciitus, hip problems and the most famous running injury of all: knee injury.

    Reading between the lines – do we run incorrectly?

    We will look at the theory behind the techniques (especially Pose) in tomorrow’s post, but looking back over these claims, the implied message is that we run incorrectly. In other words, something has happened to the way we perform an activity that we usually do without thinking that has increased our risk of injury and made us slower. As soon as the creators of these techniques claim “Run better” or “run with lower chance of injury”, they imply that we are currently at fault. This is a pretty important concept to consider…

    Is it possible that we all just get it wrong?

    The concept that we might run ‘incorrectly’ is not too radical when you compare running to other sports activities – no one picks up a tennis racquet and just happens to learn the perfect forehand – it requires coaching, or we learn bad habits and technique. But from a philosophical point of view, we tend to think of running a bit differently. Running is such an automatic activity – we progress to running from crawling and then walking, and we thus tend to think of it as innate. Whether we learn this ability incorrectly (or non-optimally is perhaps a better word), is key to the whole argument, hence this somewhat philosophical post! (Tomorrow will have more ‘facts’ and scientific discussion on the techniques, for those who are into that! Promise.)

    If you look at the Pose website, they actually address this very question in a lengthy explanation – Do we know how to run? The argument put forward here is that certain tasks, like swimming technique and hammer throw, require a pretty defined and narrow technique, whereas running has classically been “each to his own.” The biggest argument is that even though there are subtle differences and deviations in how we do any task (Tiger Woods swings the golf club differently from Jim Furyk, for example), but the essentials are the same.

    However, when it comes to running, we accept that ‘natural’ is best. As quoted from the Pose site: “So, no matter how you run, it’s ok. If you try to apply this “logic” to any other human activity such as swimming, tennis, dancing, driving a car and so on, it would sound totally strange, but not so for running…” This is the running paradox.

    This is quite a compelling argument. It’s made even more compelling by the fact that injury rates have stayed the same despite improved coaching, medical care, and better running shoes, as we discussed yesterday.

    The confounder - not all runners are created equal

    The problem with the second argument in particular is that there are several confounding variables (there are always confounders!) that would explain why this is the case. For one thing, the typical runner of today is not the same as the runner of 30 years ago – 30 years ago, runners were ‘born to run’. They were small, lightweight, probably had very similar biomechanics (in terms of anthropometrical measurements, leg lengths, skeletal structure etc.). Today, anyone can run (and does!), from the 50kg elite superstar ala 30 years ago to the 100kg weekend warrior. That’s the beauty of our sport. But it does contribute an explanation to why people get injured – you take a new runner, who doesn’t have the same physical condition or biomechanical traits as the elite, and even the tiniest error in training will cause injury, no matter how they run.

    If you consider hypothetical numbers, you would see that 20 years ago, perhaps 1 million people were running, and 500 000 got injured (hypothetical, remember?). Today, 10 million people are running and 5 million get injured. One way to interpret that is to say that we must run incorrectly because the prevalence of injury is the same (50%) despite better shoes and knowledge. This is what the Pose and Chi creators do. The alternative is to say that today, 4.5million more people are running without injury than did 20 years ago! Sure, 4.5 million people are injured, but given that they’re not the most naturally gifted runners, it’s pretty impressive to have the SAME injury prevalence! In this case, the SAME actually represents a pretty good improvement. For example, if we could keep air pollution levels the same even though there are 1 million new cars a day on the road, that would be progress! This confounder is never really addressed properly.

    The evolution of running technique – is running the same as a tennis swing?

    But returning to the first issue, that perhaps running should be taught as a ‘skill’ just as hammer throw, swimming, golf etc are, we have a more philosophical debate. You don’t, for example, have to teach a child how to walk. They just do it, learning from trial and error how to distribute their balance. They fall backwards, they overbalance, they stand in place, but eventually, get it right. You don’t teach riding a bike – all you do is facilitate the opportunity and the person falls over often until eventually they figure out how to distribute body weight correctly! Once it’s learned, it’s natural. Critics will at this point be saying “Where do you draw the line between what is learned naturally and what is taught technically?” And that is the million dollar question.

    But one can’t argue that we have this perception that running comes naturally. That perception is what Pose and Chi challenge. But if the Pose and Chi methods are correct and we run ‘incorrectly’ to cause injury, one might wonder, rightly, why we don’t automatically run in the most efficient way possible? That would agree with the ‘evolution’ theory of running technique – we naturally slip into our most comfortable, effective and efficient stride. In that regard, running is different to tennis – no one ever compromised his survival because he couldn’t play a topspin forehand! But if you ran badly, got stress fractures or Runner’s knee, it would have been serious. Remember that humans used to run to survive – either towards the food or away from becoming it! So running was critical to survival – in fact, some of the best scientific papers on running in recent years have come from anthropologists and sports scientists in the USA looking at how humans are adapted to run – the skeleton, the tendons, thermoregulation etc (that would actually make a pretty good sequence of posts!). The point is that running is not an arbitrary skill like swinging a golf club or hitting a forehand down the line in tennis. It’s something that we progress to as children, and to suggest that we default into incorrect is the big issue here.

    My personal opinion is that if there was a way to run faster and with fewer injuries that WAS GUARANTEED TO WORK IN ALL PEOPLE (very important – it’s a ‘disclaimer’ of sorts, as you’ll see in the next few days’ posts) then it would be discovered by default. It’s difficult to fathom that millions of people, with different body shapes and sizes and leg lengths and centres of gravity and joint angles could fit into ONE SINGLE PATTERN or technique. Rather, the passage of time would filter out any flaws for each person. But that said, the Pose technique (and Chi running) do make some pretty good fundamental arguments, and are based on what is sound biomechanics. Pose especially has some really interesting and elegant arguments for why it is a good technique. The trick is to distinguish whether they are novel concepts, or simply common sense dressed up 'in the Emperor's clothes' as a marketing tool.

    And having wet your appetite for that, I’ll leave it for today, and say read again tomorrow, where I’ll investigate what Pose is, what it means to run Pose, and evaluate the biomechanical principles behind it.


    Breaking news: Haile Gebrselassie has just broken the world marathon record - 2:04:26!
    Check out the splits and race analysis here.