Six weeks ago I decided I might show up for the Twin Cities Marathon. I hadn't run in two years. I hadn't trained legs in twelve weeks (as per my pull-ups experiment). It takes three months for any reasonable cardiorespiratory changes. It takes six months to turn over connective tissue. Thus, I knew I did not have enough time to train for it. You must rest as much as possible the week prior to something like this. So, realistically you cannot improve distance running ability in four weeks. I had just enough time to learn my current ability and how to use it to endure the effort without damage. And LEARN, did I ever!
I have no blisters, no toenail damage, no bruises, no excessive pain. I never got winded, out of energy, or "paid the price." I played with my kids the same afternoon I finished the marathon. I went up and down stairs without issue. I worked the next morning and all day. The reason why I was so unaffected comes down to several factors which I’ll cover below. Any beginner can use these to run any distance without hurting themselves. And any avid runner can use these to improve performance beyond anything they’ve previously done.
But first, let me give the history on WHY I did this. I used to think that running distance was somehow a mark of health or fitness. As a result, about twenty years ago, I developed a practice of running over sixty miles per week. Over time, however, I learned that it doesn’t really PRODUCE the results people want. Generally, repetitive motion amplifies people’s muscle imbalances, postural distortions, and orthopedic issues. Risk of injury goes up. Long term results are poor or dangerous. In fact, long bouts of stress and sympathetic nervous system activation are associated with increased risk of heart attack, stroke, and degeneration. With over fourteen years of professional experience in this domain, I can tell you confidently that more often than not “long cardio” makes people fatter and much less healthy.
Consequently, I developed a negative attitude toward running, unless it was sprinting. I have always respected people who do difficult things. I believe in the value of hard work. But from an exercise science perspective, there isn’t a strong case to be made for distance running.
Nonetheless, people really hold it in high esteem. They talk a lot about training to complete a 5k, 10k, half marathon and so on. I would usually retort, “why not just show up?” I genuinely didn’t understand training to complete something. In my mind, training was to improve health and fitness or to outdo oneself or to compete against others. Simply completing a distance, I felt, anyone could do. And in my repeated experience and vast study of physiology, I haven’t seen any evidence that running distance produces good body comp results or improved health markers. In response to my incredulity, many peers and members over the years asked me, “then why don’t you just show up?” Long story short: I did.
My negative attitude definitely softened. For many people it’s a totem of the difficulties they are facing in life. It represents an overcoming. It’s spiritual. I get that. I highly respect the struggle. And being in the marathon on Sunday, I experienced firsthand the incredible positivity and support that participants and spectators alike showcase. It’s legitimate. That, in and of itself, I would say is worthwhile enough that I can recommend the Twin Cities Marathon to anyone, even if you have to walk it. It is quite the event. The people and their energy will astound you.
Now, let’s get down to the takeaways. I only performed five long runs to figure out how not to break myself during the marathon. Those five runs plus the marathon, however, yielded a really substantive education. There’s so much information that I’m breaking this into at least three parts (how to move; how to pace; how to eat):
Part I - How To Move
I know a lot about biomechanics. I have done so many postural and movement assessments and gait analyses over the years. Even really great runners are a mess. No one extends at the hip. Even really great athletes have all kinds of misses in their posture and movement. Few of them can even hit neutral positions. There are many things to work on for people to improve mobility. This takes a lot of time to address, especially with regard to helping someone be a safe runner. Ensuring someone actually dorsiflexes the foot, doesn't drag it, and has stability and mobility at the ankle, activates glutes, and so on is a Herculean effort.
And then there are some people who just shouldn't be running now or perhaps ever, wherein their knee crosses the midline and is under the opposite side hip when their foot hits the ground. But a lot of these issues are far too involved to cover in a post so much as an in-person analysis.
That said, I heard an incredibly beautiful way to summarize some of the best directives on foot strike and proper run form: silence your foot. I have to credit Greg DeNunzio the Director of The Biomechanics Laboratory at Northwestern Health Sciences University for this little gem. It takes all of the various patterns on which one could focus and condenses it into a single practice. Just quiet your run.
Several things happen when you do this. The best thing that happens is you dramatically drop your risk of injury and joint irritation. By silencing your foot strike, you stop counting on locked joint positions. This offloads the beating of the joints on two fronts, both by distributing the force across more area of the tissue (instead of one specific spot) and lowering impact altogether. The downside is that it demands a lot more effort, since you don’t get to just rest on the skeleton anymore. It’ll slow you down in the beginning. However, I have to credit it with the fact that I had no worry about shin splints, IT band issues, low back irritation, knee pain, ankle issues, etc. All of these things were standard procedure for me when I was an avid runner. And keep in mind I weighed EIGHTY POUNDS less. With a much greater mass, and a far less-trained body, I ran farther and suffered no issues. I didn’t even get blisters, for crying out loud.
To practice (and again, I have to acknowledge Greg for this), do a plyometric squat. That is, just jump up and land. Take note of the volume upon impact. Try it again, but quieter. Try it again, but silent. Muscularly, it is much more difficult, isn’t it? When you go out to the treadmill or trail, practice. Get the footsteps as quiet as possible. It takes quite a bit of concentration to begin. Over time, however, it gets embedded in your patterns. It will save your joints. It will reduce irritation by A LOT.
Stay tuned for Part II and III…