Friday, December 4, 2009

Pain-Free Running, Part V

I promise not to mention either Mr. Bean or Pee-wee Herman in this post. Oops. Let's talk about arm swinging.

Is there a useful limit to arm swinging? A useful minimum? Should my arms be more bent, or more straight? It turns out, there is lots of discussion online about arm swinging. While everyone had an opinion, and some differed significantly, unlike the foot strike discussions, there was very little religious warfare. Bottom line, the arms should feel like they are doing work, and not just swinging passively.

I thought about what my arms did when hiking with poles, or alpine (cross-country) skiing. Sometimes I'm using my arms to push along with my legs (uphill and downhill), and other times my arms swing more freely to provide smoothness and stability (fast, flat conditions). Running shared all of those situations. How can/should my arms support my run?

I next did a series of test runs on a fairly flat road, varying only the swing of my arms, holding my elbows at 90 degrees while keeping my stride and cadence constant. It immediately became clear that if I wanted to use a heel-push and a short stride with a high cadence, I would have to swing my arms hard to smooth things out. And I had to swing them fast. The next runs explored how big an arc, and where the arc was centered (elbows more up in front, or more up in back).

I really wish I had started with the arms instead of the feet. Really. I clearly remember the first run I had when all the pieces started coming together. My arms were swinging like I was a Rock'em-Sock'em Robot. I tried swinging my arms as hard as I could, and found I was literally lifting myself off the ground, amplifying my heel-push, which made it much easier to run without a toe-push. A forceful arm swing could nicely balance the removal of the toe-push!

My level stride came together. Soon I had run 1 flat mile several times, with no foot or joint pain! This was really a magical moment, so I didn't look at how long it took to do each of those 1 mile runs. Success mattered far more than speed!

Next, I added very small hills. I'm pumping my arms hard on my flat run, and the first tiny hill approaches. Like hiking, I let my stride get shorter. But now my arms were swinging too much, so I had to shorten the swing as well, while still keeping the cadence the same. But going up hill needed more force, and my arms were doing less! So I dropped my hands slightly to add more inertia to each swing of my arms.

And I felt like I flew up that hill! It was the easiest uphill run I could ever recall. When I got to the top, I brought my elbows back to 90 degrees, increased my arm swing, lengthened my stride, and resumed my flat run. All at the same cadence. I felt like I had gears!

The mild downhill came next. Back in my earlier days, downhill running always gave me shin splints, and I never learned how to avoid them. It seemed clear that if lowering the hands helped uphill, raising them should help downhill. And I flew downhill. The best part? No sign of shin splints! I never tried to slow down (though I may have). I maintained cadence, and used my arms to adjust for the terrain.

I wish I could describe how I felt coming off that run. It was as if I had been touched by the Hand of God, and my crippled run was miraculously healed! Sure, I knew the work it took, but that's how it felt right then.

I did several more 1 mile runs over the coming weeks, and gradually increased my distance. I soon found that it was almost impossible for me to hold a 90 cadence past the first mile, but a slight drop to 85 worked fine. The best part was that I was soon covering 2 miles in under 20 minutes. I had gone from having no running at all, to having a sub-10:00 mile!

Of course, the next thing I did was go looking for another miracle: Sure, I could run on the flats, and uphill and downhill, but how fast could this new pace go?

One problem: When I'm already swinging my arms at an 85 cadence, with no easy way to increase it, what do I do to go faster? Clearly, I'd have to lengthen my stride. But wouldn't that change everything? Would the hard heel strike return? How would my arms compensate? Was I going to have to start all over again?

How to go faster? Well, there was that mysterious saying I had encountered earlier: "To run faster, lean forward!" So I leaned forward. And I went faster!

But what was really going on here? What changed? How did I do that?

Surprisingly, my arms already knew what to do, and they did it. When I leaned forward, my elbows moved back, maintaining my center of balance, but letting it shift forward just enough to match my slightly longer stride.

It turns out, this had happened to me before! When going uphill, I had leaned forward and my elbows had gone back. But I was so focused on the bend of my elbows and the shorter uphill stride, that I hadn't noticed that my elbows had changed were they were going!

That's about where I am today. I'm still doing my 2 mile run twice a week, though I've been adding in occasional longer runs: I did a 5 mile run 2 weeks ago, pain-free! My first in over 16 years.

I forgot to tell you how fast I went in my speed tests: My PR for my 2 mile run is 16 minutes flat. That's an 8:00 mile! However, my normal 2 mile run is consistently around 17 minutes, and is never slower than 18 minutes.

I can't believe it. Sixteen years ago I was running at a 7:30 pace with bad pain. Now, at age 53, I'm running at an 8:30 pace pain-free. Lose the pain, add 16 years, lose only a minute.

I'm OK with that. Because it means I'll be doing my first Olympic distance race next year, and a half-IM doesn't look impossible for the year after.

Yeah, I'm really, really, really OK with that.

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