Monday, January 25, 2016

The Hobbyists Guide to Injury-Free Running: Totally Non-Scientific Observations

Injury-free running: the runner's Holy Grail, our white whale.

Is there such a thing? Maybe. It depends on what you consider 'running'.

In its basic form, running is just moving faster than a walk while not having both feet on the ground at the same time. At its most complex, running can be broken down into a staggering number of sub-disciplines; there were 19 running events in the last summer Olympics alone, and no one person is better at all of them than anyone else. The variables are endless.

Hence, herein, running is two things: running fast & running far.

Running fast is an entirely different activity than running far; it requires a different mindset, benefits from a different form, recruits different muscle fibers, burns different fuel... the differences go on and on, but perhaps most importantly: very few run fast and far well.

If I run fast (fast for me), it's in an attempt to run far better. Running fast doesn't drive me. I mean, I feel good after pushing myself--the dopamine response is there--but I don't get off on external competition--and I'm not sure if that's because I'm just not objectively fast, or if there's some other underlying character trait that feeds that.

To me, running far is just running efficiently, but for a long time. Therein lies running's biggest physical differentiator between running fast and running far: efficiency. To run fast, you sacrifice efficiency for power and speed. To run far, you sacrifice power and speed for efficiency.

I have no experience running fast (I've never broken a 19-minute 5k). In that same light, the longer I run, the more I realize that I have little idea how to run far (my subjective notion of 'far' keeps expanding). There's a Communist Daughter song with this line, "The more I learn, the less I know," Communist Daughter, City Love. Similar quotes go back to Einstein, even Socrates, and I doubt even he was the first--but the line is perfect. It's exactly how I feel about most things, but especially running. Every 3-year-old can run--it's the simplest of activities--but very few people truly do it well.

Maybe running is one of those things that shouldn't be understood; like everything else, it either works or it doesn't. It's as if it lies on the boundary of science and art: some float effortlessly with beauty and grace, while others seem to be constantly fighting upstream.

As it becomes more and more apparent how insanely average at this I am, there's only one thing I seem to do well: I run a decent amount of mileage with surprisingly few aches and pains. (*Except for winter races, where I undoubtedly hurt myself hiking in the soft snow with the 35-lb sled behind me. See, e.g., my coming out of Tuscobia injured the past two years. In contrast, with running, I've been pretty good.)

My take: The two biggest factors in running far injury-free are form & attitude.


As humans, we're each a little different, but not that different. From the form perspective, aside from minor variations in people's skeletal makeup, we can each focus on a few general keys: alignment, cadence, and stride.

Most running problems start at either the top (hips) or the bottom (feet/ankles). Alignment is key.

Level hips

If you've ever had knee pain and been to a physical therapist (PT), odds are they've mentioned something about glute strength. Really, it's just that you're dropping the hip over your non-loaded leg. If you're having trouble grasping what that means, stand up, pick up one foot, and relax your hips and settle down into your planted foot. Your belt line likely just took a big dip towards the floor over the foot you just picked up.

When you drop your opposite hip, to stay upright, one or both of the following happen: your weight shifts over your load-bearing foot, drawing your hip outside, putting strain on your IT band; and/or your load-bearing knee buckles inside, making your patella track incorrectly. If the first occurs, hello IT-band pain; if the second, hello pattelofemoral pain syndrome ("runner's knee"). If you're really lucky, you'll get both.

Now, pick up one foot, but engage your glute to keep your hips level (keep your belt line even). That's what is supposed to happen during your stride: Level hips.

This isn't the only cause of IT-band pain or runner's knee, but it's one of the most likely culprits.

Also make sure you keep your hips square, front-to-back. Unless you're really trying to milk your hips for speed (a running fast issue), reach with your knees, not your hips.

*tl;dr: Keep your hips square and level. Don't settle down into your planted foot. Keep your loaded glute active, and belt-line even.

Active arches, neutral ankles

Whereas your hips can screw up your form from the top, your feet and ankles can just as easily screw up your form from the bottom.

Now, I'm a forefoot striker, so this next part is easy for me. If you have a substantial heel-strike (think 10 degrees or above), this may be more difficult, but not impossible. Now, I'm not a doctor, and I've only ever had my one set of feet and ankles to think about and play around with, so, as with everything else in this article, keep in mind that I could be wrong. There are people with high arches, low arches, no arches, those that pronate, some that suppinate, etc., and there's a ton of physiological reasons for all of these--but, if you keep things square at the top, then, at the bottom, we're just down to your ankles. If you keep everything relatively square, we're going to be in good shape.

This next part is trickier.

There is such a thing as a neutral ankle position.

Stand up, shoes off, feet flat on the ground and pointing straight ahead. To engage your arches, lift your toes up, while keeping the rest of your forefeet and heels firmly on the ground. Keeping your toes lifted, imagine three points of contact with the ground for each foot: inside forefoot, outside forefoot, and heel. With each foot, equalize the weight, left-to-right between your inside and outside forefoot, and front-to-back between your forefoot and heel. That's the neutral ankle position. Now, without moving your ankles or shifting your weight, put your toes down.

Now, and this is fun: Relax. When I relax from this position, my arches collapse down, and my ankles drop to the inside. If I run like this, the collapse of my arches and drop in my ankles buckle my knees in, making my patella track incorrectly and increasing the strain on my IT band. What do I do to make sure that doesn't happen? Don't relax. Ever. Find that neutral ankle position, equalize the weight inside-out on each foot for each footstrike, and never let that ankle relax. Just like you can't let your glutes relax and drop your hips, you can't let your arches relax and drop your ankle. Keep your feet coiled, and, at least while under load, always resisting. Never settle or relax into the ground.

This is one of the two big problems (the other is overstriding) with a prominent heel-strike; it's difficult to keep your ankle aligned with only one point of contact on the ground. Your ankle could be rolling in or out, making everything else track incorrectly. With a forefoot or whole-foot strike, you can feel the weight on your forefeet and equalize it left-to-right.

Often, to make sure my ankles are in the right position, I'll lift my toes, landing forefeet only (before my heels comes down) to better feel the weight distribution on each foot, giving myself an opportunity to recalibrate on the move.

*tl;dr: Equalize the weight on your feet, when loaded, left-to-right.


Running fast is simply a combination of cadence and stride length.

In 1984, famed running coach Jack Daniels studied the cadence of all '94 Olympic runners at distance 800m and longer, finding all but one had a cadence between 180-200 steps per minute.

Turns out, our tendons and ligaments store a lot of energy, and to get maximal response of that stored energy, in relation to running, you need to keep a high cadence. This is best visualized by the simple act of running in place. Step too quickly or too slowly, and too much of the work is done by the muscles, which fatigue over time. Somewhere between too quickly and too slowly, though, there's a sweet spot that feels easier than anything else. Find it. That's your cadence--that place where you get the most return from the stored energy in your tendons and ligaments.

But if all Olympic athletes at 800m+ have roughly the same cadence, why don't they all run the same speed? Turns out, that 180 steps per minute model breaks under 800m. At top speed, Ussain Bolt has a cadence of 264, whereas Tyson Gay, just slightly slower, has a cadence of 288! The break likely lies at anaerobic/aerobic threshold.

The main variable with speed, though, is stride length, which is nearly a direct result of the amount of force that you push into the ground, which is fantastic and necessary to run fast. Ussain Bolt has an average stride length over 8 feet over 100m, with a max over 9.2 feet! The problem, though, is that a long stride length is entirely impractical for running far. The muscles just can't continue to support a large stride length over longer distances.

But here's the thing: Whereas running fast requires a combination of cadence and stride length, running far requires efficiency, and the key to efficiency is maximizing return of the energy stored in the tendons and ligaments, while keeping muscle output (e.g., stride length) under the anaerobic threshold.

If you can't keep your cadence up at 180 beats per minute, just keep it as high as you reasonably can. It's one of the things Karl Meltzer keys off; keeping his cadence up. Aim for a Red Hot Chili Peppers, Can't Stop cadence.

The other beautiful thing about a high cadence is that it helps keep everything healthy. Generally speaking, unless you're bounding, the slower your cadence, the longer your feet are on the ground--but more importantly, the longer you're supporting your body weight through its range of motion. If your form is perfect and exactly in line, this isn't so much a problem, but if even one thing is slightly off, the longer your feet are on the ground, the more time that imperfection is under load, through a greater range of motion, and unnecessarily stressing some part of your running anatomy, typically your ankles, knees, or hips.

To minimize ground contact time, aside from keeping your cadence up, land as close under your center-of-mass as possible, and, like above, don't settle into your planted foot. Push into the ground with your glutes, feet coiled, then get that foot off the ground. If you want to go faster, push harder into the ground, but keep in mind, at a certain point, the harder you push, the more quickly those muscles will fatigue, and the less far you can ultimately go.

If you have troubles keeping a high cadence, it's likely you're feet aren't getting very high off the ground, you're reaching out too far in front of you, or *gasp!* both; which brings us to two more related point: foot strike & picking your damn feet up off the ground.

*tl;dr: Keep a high cadence. Aim for the Red Hot Chili Peppers, Can't Stop.

Foot strike

I know there's been a gazillion dollars spent advertising minimalist footwear, barefoot running, yada yada yada... but I'm convinced that it all comes down to this: I don't care if you're a fore-foot, mid-foot, or heel striker; I care that you're not overstriding, and that everything is aligned. I just simply think this is easier to do with a fore-foot or mid-foot strike.

There's research that says it's impossible to bring your foot down under your center mass. Try to do it anyway and you'll be in good shape. Your running motion should take place beneath and behind you, and not out in front of you, with the sole exception that you should have a slight forward lean from the ankles (not the waist), and you should lead with your knees (not your feet). The simple fact is that if you're bounding, or if your feet land too far in front of you, there's a huge amount of energy lost in absorbing that impact that's NOT returned into your stride. Your ligaments and tendons load behind you when stretched/extended, and not in front of you, absorbing impact.

The closer your impact to your center mass, the more of a fore- or mid-foot strike you'll have. Also, it's important to note, that a fore-foot strike does not mean that you run only on your toes, but that you first land at the front of your foot before the rest of it comes down. It's simply not efficient to be on your toes the whole time, and your downhill running will be insanely bad.

*tl;dr: Don't overstride.

Heel kick

A lot of slow runners never take their feet off the ground. This is a problem for a bunch of reasons. First, they're swinging a longer lever, requiring more work to bring their leg forward, placing a lot of stress on their hip flexors, and making it more difficult to have a high cadence. Second, the less their feet come off the ground, the more likely they are to overstride, and with a substantial heel-strike.

This is especially harmful when it comes to trail running, as well, as the more you tend to shuffle, the more you'll catch your toe on rocks, roots, or uneven terrain.

Simply put, swing a shorter lever, carry a high heel as your leg comes forward. The harder you explode into the ground underneath you, with a slight forward lean, the more your heel will naturally recoil, as your hamstring recoils. The higher your heels, the less work it takes to bring your leg forward, and the better you'll be on difficult/uneven terrain.

Heal, then change something

If you develop a running injury--related to form or mileage--once healed, don't just go back to doing the same thing that got you injured in the first place. Change something, preferably one thing at a time, and see how it goes, but keep in mind that form changes take time, and the more fatigued you are, the more your form is likely to suffer, leading to injury. THAT's why you're supposed to slowly build up mileage--not because you can't go out and run a 120-mile week, but because you're likely to break down if you do.

If your knee/hip/ankle/foot hurts, wait until it doesn't hurt anymore, change something, then make sure you don't run farther than you can maintain "good" form. I'm skeptical of anyone that advocates body-weight exercises to fix your running form. You take 1,000 to 1,500 steps per mile while running, depending on your stride length. What are 3 sets of 20 single-leg squats really going to do for you? When you're too fatigued to keep good form on a training run, stop. Walk home. I'm serious. If your form goes to hell, you're just going to hurt yourself. If you find it still hurting, change something else. Trial and error. You'll get there.

*tl;dr: If it hurts, stop, change something, then try again, gradually.


One characteristic I've noticed of people with staying power in the "running far" game is that the competition is often internal. I'm not striving to be better than you; I want to be a better me. I want to find where my boundaries lie, then push past them. That said, this type of person (myself included) also has a tendency to go farther than they should go. Just make sure you're doing it for the right reasons.

Take days off. If you don't want to run, don't run. This is supposed to be fun, after all--this isn't a punishment, something you have to do to right some other wrong. This is a hobby. If you're not smiling, what's the point?

When racing, if it hurts to walk, and it hurts to run, run. When training, if it hurts, stop. Something's wrong, and doing the same thing you've been doing and expecting it not to happen again is madness. Heal, rest, change something, then try again.

Being healthy and enjoying what you do is better than being trained. Don't ever let this sport single handedly define you, because when it will be taken from you--and it will be taken from us all--is completely out of your control.

At the end of the day, what the hell do I know? I'm not a doctor. If it feels good, do that. If it hurts, wait until it doesn't hurt anymore, change something, then try again.

And remember to have fun.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Decompressing Tuscobia

I've been writing an injury-free running post for a while--it's a bit long, kind of an essay on running, actually. I don't know if it's good or bad that I didn't finish and post it before Tuscobia, seeing I've left that race injured two years in a row.

Gotta fix that.

Tuscobia is a wonderful event, put on by wonderful people, Chris and Helen Scotch and a slew of selfless, passionate volunteers.

I'm not a sailor, but winter ultra events remind me of sailing. There's a minimum complexity--if perfect weather and conditions, they're summer events with added gear. At best, it's a long, slow haul across the ocean. The perfect race is one of few waves and constant, steady progress. But like the unimaginable power of the ocean, weather and trail conditions can take what was a peaceful journey and turn it into madness.
"A ship is safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for." ― William G.T. Shedd
Like walking a slackline, high above a canyon floor--it's that slim path of safety so close to danger on each side that draws people to it. It's climbing, one missed hold away from falling. It's about controlling what you can, and giving in to what you cannot.

I didn't know I was a thrill seeker.

Though my safety net is a bit safer than others--a sleeping bag and a spot device.

The race

The race started off well-enough, except that I accidentally found myself in front. I didn't even put on a headlamp until just a minute before we took off, and I hadn't planned on turning it on unless I needed something from my sled, yet somehow my 16-minute pace was leading. There was a few inches of new, wet, unbroken snow on the trail as we left Rice Lake, and it started snowing more as we headed north to the Tuscobia trail. I expected some idiot to run by at some point, but alas, I was the biggest idiot for the first 5 miles, breaking trail, until it got light.

When Scott Hoberg and I made quick stops a bit onto the Tuscobia trail, Carla Goulart and Kevin Alldredge scooted by for a second. They tried to sled the first hill, but didn't slide far, and Scott and I pulled ahead, Scott breaking trail for the next spell. At some point, Grant Maughan, from Australia, and Carla went ahead, running a bit. Scott followed, keeping them in sight. Even Kevin went ahead as I stayed at my 16-minute pace. Then, as the trail got hilly before Birchwood (mile 18), I kept pace past Kevin and Carla, before stopping at the first gas station for the bathroom and liquid.

I came back out to see Kevin and Carla just ahead, then Scott and Grant, who must have stopped at the second gas station. Still nobody in sight behind us. I made my way past Kevin, Carla, and Grant, and caught up to Scott. We had wonderful conversation, taking turns breaking trail. Grant stayed with us as Carla and Kevin fell off. Around mile 36, Scott stopped to check his feet, and Grant started running a bit. Scott went after him, and that's the last I saw him until mile 74.5. Grant eventually pulled out of sight, but he was at Ojibwe (mile 47) when I got there, and I left just after him.

I told Alicia, at Ojibwe, that I wanted to go quick, because I didn't want my right leg to tighten up--a sign of things to come. The night was uneventful, and lonely. The weather was good, and the trail ok. I was following Grant and Scott's steps, but was alone most of the night. My pace started to drop around mile 60--a combination of the pain in my right leg and sleepiness. The lone remaining 150 skier, Dan Powers from Alaska, caught me not too much afterwards, and I had new tracks to follow.

As the miles went on, the pain kept building in my right leg behind my knee. I wasn't able to fully extend it, or use my right calf or hamstring, but I could still push with my glute at a decent pace, so I kept on. A similar pain developed last year, though later in the race, and I was able to finish. I figured as long as I was able to keep my pace up, I'd be fine.

Soon, a single light started at me in the darkness, and Scott was on me. We talked briefly. He'd picked up the pace when he took off before Ojibwe, and hadn't slowed. At mile 74.5, he was 11 miles and a 45-minute break ahead of me. Amazing.

I got to the turnaround at Park Falls, mile 80, at 8:30am, 25.5 hours into the race. Dan, the 150 skier, and Grant, the Aussie, were sleeping. I fixed my feet, grabbed some warm water, and put my feet up for a few minutes. I took off again, just after Grant, but the right leg was slowing me a lot.

And that's about it.

I got back out on the trail and struggled to maintain a decent pace. It was ok, right away, especially as I passed the other 150-mile runners headed to the turn-around, and it wasn't long before the 75-mile bikers, skiers, and runners started by.

I had to put my parka on early because I couldn't keep my hands warm, then the wind picked up after dark, and the temps kept dropping. I told myself, "I can do this," a billion times, and I believed it, for a while, but the pain kept building, and I kept slowing down. Every few steps, my leg would move in a way it shouldn't, and the pain would blur my vision. I was tired, but the pain was exhausting.

At this point, around mile 103, I'd been moving at a paltry 27-minute pace the 23 or so miles since Park Falls, and I kept slowing. Doing the math, I'd be fine with even a 30-minute pace to the finish, but I couldn't fathom 26 more hours of wincing, vision-blurring pain. I came to a road crossing and checked my phone. No service. I kept going.

Logan Polfuss caught up, and I wasn't alone anymore. It was nice. We chatted a bit about the race, and life, and a few slow miles went by, but I was quickly losing the will to go on. We were 105 miles in, some 9 miles out from Ojibwe, and 4 miles from Winter, but I was done. The next road crossing came up, and I hit my non-emergency "come get me" button on my Spot device, tossed my sleeping pad out in the snow, pulled out my bag, and laid down. Logan joined me.

It was glorious.

Alicia and Kerry came and picked us up 3 hours later, and we crashed at a hotel in Winter.

By the time I woke up, Scott Hoberg had finished, and we made it to Rice Lake the next day in time to see Grant, the Aussie, finish. John Taylor and Thomas Keene, from Tennessee, each hung on to finish. 4 of 23 finished. The rest of us swung and missed, but that's ok, too.

Next time.