Burning Runner: Fixing My Form To Avoid Injury

Runners perform various drills at a technique clinic hosted by ultrarunner Brian MacKenzie last weekend in San Francisco.

I recall the quote from Frank Shorter’s book, “Olympic Gold: A Runner’s Life and Times”:

“So there I was at the end of 1979; atrophy in the left leg, ‘hot spots’ up and down the body, a possible stress fracture in the back, and more. And not willing to let some very fine physicians help me. Of course, that didn’t stop me from running the Honolulu Marathon. The same personality—independent, introverted, single-minded, self-reliant, self-confident, distrusting—that enabled me to excel as an athlete in full health hindered me when I became an athlete in pain.”

So maybe there was some of that. What I’ve liked about talking with MacKenzie on this is that he’s been down the same road—severe illotibial band problems highlighting the standard list that qualifies someone as a broken down runner. Yet he was able to overhaul himself into an ultrarunner capable of good results in 100-mile trail races. I was ready to listen.

My girlfriend is a trail runner too, and has studied the Pose Method. When looking at a picture of me running in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon this past October she pointed at my foot—it was pure heel strike. I couldn’t believe it—I thought I was a mid-foot runner. MacKenzie has looked at my running and has shown me how I’m only using small muscles, like hip flexors, to propel myself down the road, and reaching out with my foot strike, putting some of the huge stress on my knees that caused my breakdown in November.

Since my visit with Starrett in mid-December—when I limped into CrossFit San Francisco and haven’t limped since–I began devoting myself to his daily mobility routine (http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com). I’ve been discovering a system of weaknesses in my body that are obviously the result of not thinking of running in holistic terms. Last Tuesday I spent some time with C.J. Martin of Crossfit Invictus in San Diego. He performed a few simple tests in the gym to get an idea of where my previous running injuries have landed me. Just simple strength and range of motion tests. The difference between my right and left sides is shocking, and in one of the exercises, one that had me simply lift my arm using a muscle in the mid-back, I could barely pump out 10 reps. Some of the exercises MacKenzie has had me perform have served up some real ugliness in the facts of how pathetically weak I am in the core muscle groups. But even the cautious bit of work he’s had me do has yielded benefits I can feel just standing up. With very careful attention to proper technique he’s had me perform weighted squats, deadlifts and good morning exercises—-and I haven’t felt the slightest bit of pain in my knee in doing them.

Two times a week, under MacKenzie’s guidance, I’m doing Pose running drills and short intervals. I’ve had several moments where I feel what he and Romanov are talking about when they describe using the hamstrings in a very compact, high-turnover fashion of a running stride. As MacKenzie told me up front, the transition from being a broken-down runner into his Crossfit Endurance running program can be a painful process and requires humility and patience. But I’ve seen his running technique—very brisk, light, fluid and powerful looking. Contrasting this image with the picture of my fully extended leg, knee locked and heel striking the pavement like an axe, I’ve committed myself to this process.

The one thing I didn’t expect was how much I’d enjoy letting go of what I used to do and taking on the challenge of a whole new approach. I’m having fun.

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T.J. Murphy is the Editorial Director of Competitor Magazine. A 2:38 marathoner and five-time Ironman finisher, he is the former editorial director of Triathlete Magazine and Inside Triathlon. His writing has also appeared in Outside Magazine and Runner’s World.

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