Monday, March 14, 2011

Running Restart: Where to Begin?

There are lots of people who have problems running, and those people can have lots of different problems.  Many will address problems one at a time, with the common result that something else then gets worse.  Others will try to fix everything all at once, and again make things worse.  Some will simply back off, and run only to their limit of suffering.  And finally there are those, like me, who try everything they can think of, fail, and then quit running completely, for decades in my case.

Even adding a coach to the process often fails to find improvement, since most are unable to afford the many hours of professional assistance needed to rebuild a stride.

Is there a better way?  Everything I've been learning about running, as applied to myself, and also by others whose knowledge and experience I respect, suggests there is at least one way for a person to 'start running all over again'.  I suggest the following process:

1. Do exercises and stretches to ensure the body has the strength and range of motion needed for running

2. Learn a new 'basic' stride that is designed to be safe, with minimal impact and physical stress.  It will not be fast or efficient, but it should be comfortable, and will promote muscle and skill development.  It may be no faster than jogging, and is simply intended to be a gateway stride to return to running.

3. Adjust the stride components individually and in combination to gradually evolve from the 'basic' stride to a more personal stride that provides greater efficiency and speed with no less comfort.

The key step is #2 above:  What is a safe 'basic' stride that everyone can learn and do?

If you look at runners, and read about running, you will see that not only is there no consensus on what constitutes the 'best' stride, you will also see that runners actually use a wide range of different strides.  Even a single runner will make use of different strides when running on a smooth level road versus running uphill or downhill, or on a trail or in the sand.  To keep things simple, let's just say that the 'best' stride is simply the stride that is best for you given the current conditions of your body, your equipment, and the terrain.

What should be the characteristics of a usable 'basic' running gait?  Let's focus on reducing complexity, and come up with a stride that will work 'well enough' on all terrain, and over a wide range of fatigue levels.  It should also not depend upon or require any particular kind of shoe, and it should also work well for those with a history of prior running difficulties and injuries.  The 'basic' stride should also provide as much protection as possible from all kinds of repetitive stress injury.

That last item is perhaps the most important:  You shouldn't get injured during the process of returning to running!  The first key to reducing repetitive stress is to reduce the impact of each step.  The primary way to reduce the impact of each step is to take smaller, shorter, steps.  While this will work fine for jogging (11 to 13 minutes per mile), running is done faster than an 11 minute per mile pace, which means we will need to make those shorter steps happen very quickly, which in turn requires a faster cadence or turnover or footfall or foot strike rate.

Note:  'Cadence' is measured in RPM, Revolutions per Minute, where a full revolution is from one foot strike until the same foot strikes again.  The turnover rate, AKA footfall or foot strike rate, counts each time either foot hits the ground, and so is measured in BPM, Beats per Minute.  So the cadence is half of the turnover/footfall/foot strike rate.  We may speak of a cadence of 90 RPM, or, equivalently, a turnover rate of 180 BPM.  This is important to remember, since most writing about running uses BPM, while most running equipment (such as the Garmin cadence sensor) uses RPM.

While it is relatively easy to shorten the stride length, it is harder to increase the cadence.  However, once a short fast gait is learned, it becomes an ideal platform not only for safely getting back into running itself, but it also becomes the platform from which more personally efficient strides can be developed.  If you want to become truly fast, you will need a high turnover rate, so learning how to run with a high cadence at the very beginning not only enables a minimum-impact 'basic' running stride, but it is also a critical skill for becoming a fast runner.

The basic stride has an important consequence:  It naturally encourages the runner to run vertically, with the load applied to the foot as it passes under the center of gravity.  Many runners have poor posture, running with their butt pushed out, or with their shoulders hunched, or are leaning way too far forward.  While the basic gait encourages a better running posture, it does not enforce it, so it is also important to think about 'running tall', with a straight, nearly vertical back, with the foot touching the ground close to the center of gravity, instead of too far out front.

Once the 'basic' stride is learned, the beginner runner will then be able to do a critical activity:  Buy a pair of running shoes!  It is simply not reasonable to expect to buy a usable pair of running shoes without running in them, which means you must be able to run in order to go shoe shopping.  While the primary advantage of the short and fast 'basic' gait is that it minimizes stress, a key secondary advantage is that it places few requirements on the running shoe.  I believe a person can perform the 'basic' gait in sneakers (Vans, Converse, etc.), or even without any shoes at all.  However, more comfortable shoes are always better, especially as running distance and speed increase.

I suspect many beginners will be content with learning the 'basic' stride, feeling no need to go any faster or risk any discomfort or injury.  Others may choose to 'tweak' their stride by experimenting with cadence, stride length, foot strike, arm swing, and other gait components.  I believe over time it is important to learn to be able to dynamically modify the stride, rather than have just one stride for all conditions. I also believe it will be difficult for many to use the basic stride at speeds faster than 8 minutes per mile.

For those who choose to develop 'better' personal strides, the 'basic' stride will always be available as a comfortable 'get-it-home' stride that will be faster than walking, but not much harder.  Useful when you go out for a fast 6 mile run, and suddenly realize you're done after 4 miles.

After learning the basic stride, I believe runners can then become able to train themselves, and take good advantage of coached workouts, books, and other running resources.  It seems to be a chicken-and-egg problem: Most books (and coaches) can help you run better, but I've found few that help to get you running in the first place!

Note:  You may have noticed that I didn't mention any particular foot strike as being a component of the 'basic' gait.  That was intentional.  When using a fast, short stride, the foot strike used makes very little difference!  The foot strike becomes more important mainly as speed and/or stride length increases:  When starting over with the 'basic' gait, it becomes one less thing to worry about.

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