Wednesday, December 27, 2017

The Quest for Cadence:How improving my running form elevated my passion for running and life

“Your foot is slapping!” my running partner stated as we maneuvered our way along the sidewalks of the suburban neighborhoods near my home on a 5 mile run. To which I replied, “actually my foot is clapping and I’m giving you a standing ovation.” I used humor to disguise my concern but in my mind I was curious. She may not have the same caliber running resume as I do but she is smart and very much tuned in to the sights and sounds of her surroundings, more so than anyone I’ve ever met. I knew I occasionally slapped, but since I had become acclimated to it I thought nothing of it.  I have been a runner since high school and have accumulated a very respectable resume. Now at the age of 50 I am still running strong. Surely my stride must be fine I thought. Or was it?

Just how much slapping was I doing? I found out a couple of weeks later.  Not long ago I purchased a video camera with some cool features that appeal to my inner geek, one of them being slow motion video. I looked at my alleged foot slapping as an opportunity to use my new toy and do a self-analysis of form.  Several takes were done but one was really all it took.  It was all so very clear. My left foot was striking appropriately (on the mid and forefoot), but my right foot was going rogue. The heel was hitting the ground first, albeit lightly, but it was just enough to cause the forefoot to slap when it hit the ground. I had to face facts. I was, “gulp”, a heel striker. This had to change!

As both a coach and a runner I have devoted myself over the years to becoming educated on the principles of good running. So, I knew what I had to do, this was a job for the dreaded “D” word. That’s right, I had to do drills.  Most runners just want to run, putting one foot in front of the other letting their feet fall where they may. The idea of improving form and becoming more efficient sounds appealing, but because doing drills detracts (at least initially) from the joy of running on auto-pilot, not all runners are willing to do them.

Running is a natural movement, but the highly cushioned shoes we have today enable our feet to strike the ground in an unnatural manner, leading to an inefficient stride. If we stride inefficiently it’s less noticeable because the shoes hide much of the impact the body is experiencing. If this happens regularly the repetition of inefficiency leads to inefficiency becoming the norm.

Modern living also takes its toll. Things such as daily car driving, frequent use of computers, and excessive staring at smart phones can promote muscle imbalances. Muscle imbalances alter the natural movement of the body as stronger muscles work to overcompensate for the weaker ones. In a nutshell, we move more awkwardly. Not long ago this point was amplified to me while I was running on a local school track. While doing intervals I had to momentarily pull off to the far outside lane as dozens of middle school students came out to run 800 meters as part of their PE class. I couldn’t help but notice how, having not yet been exposed to several decades of modern living; each and every student completed both laps with absolutely perfect form.

Just as repetition of inefficiency leads to inefficiency as the norm, repetitions of efficient running motion ultimately leads to efficiency becoming the standard.  Drills may not be fun but they are effective at providing frequent and consistent exposure to the desired skills. In the case of running, they enable steady forward progress towards efficient movement patterns becoming effortless.

After coming to grips with the fact that drills were a necessary part of the prescription for efficient running, I had to decide which ones were worthy of my attention. I have learned many in my coaching and running career. In my 17 years as a coach I’ve learned that if the athlete has too many fundamentals to focus on at one time it can lead to feelings of frustration from feeling overwhelmed. This definitely doesn’t enable the right mindset for learning. I decide to practice what I preach and hand pick what I feel are the most beneficial drills for my situation.  I decided on these, which I acquired from various sources;

Keep stride frequency at 170-180 strides per minute: This is widely considered to be the most efficient zone to be in, with 180 being considered optimum.* That being said, we each have our own form intricacies that can cause a bit of deviation from this number. As long as the stride frequency is no lower than 170 it is generally considered to be at an effective rate. This is because if your stride frequency is below 170 it’s highly likely you are over-striding, resulting in heel striking.

To keep track of my stride frequency I chose to utilize a technique I learned in the classic book Daniels Running Formula by the legendary Jack Daniels, PhD. This technique involves counting every right foot strike for one minute and then doubling that number. By this method, if your foot strike count is within the range of 85-90 you are within that ideal zone. I do this periodically throughout my run, adjusting my stride accordingly based on the outcome. Over time these incremental focuses on stride rate will train the body to naturally and effortlessly run at the desired rate.

Run like you’re stepping on hot coals:  The reasoning behind having a high stride per minute count (or stride frequency) is that the feet are in contact with the ground for less time due to a quicker turnover. This leads to less stress on the body with the added bonuses of reduced likelihood of injury and a delayed onset of fatigue. In order to accomplish this high stride frequency it is helpful to think of the ground underneath you as being covered in hot coals.  In order to avoid being burned, you’ve got to stride quickly and lightly.

 Keeps the hips pressed all the way forward: The most common issue I’ve encountered in runners is excessive forward leaning at the waist. While a forward lean is necessary in order to use gravity to your advantage and not require as much power from the legs, the lean should come from the ankles. When doing so a straight line should be formed from the ankles to the shoulders. To get into this proper forward lean position a valuable technique is, when beginning your run keep a straight body and fall forward from your ankles. I obtained this information from the book Chi Running by Danny Dreyer (a great read which I highly recommend).

Once you begin your run the next trick is to maintain this forward lean position. This is where the hip position comes into play. The hip position emphasis is something I acquired from watching Without Limits, a classic sports movie about the legendary Steve Prefontaine (Pre). In the film, Bill Bowerman, Pre’s coach at the University of Oregon (played by Donald Sutherland) instructed Pre to press his hips all the way forward (albeit with an R-rated description) after watching Pre run with the aforementioned lean at the waist. After watching the movie I applied this technique to my own training and found it to be highly effective. I was definitely going to keep this one in the mix. If it was good enough for Pre it was good enough for me.

When first learning of the ideal stride frequency I of course had to count mine. I consistently came up with 170, but sometimes as low as 168. Yikes!  Okay, not bad really.  I was happy that on average I was at least in the zone, but I wasn’t going to rest on my laurels. I wanted to see if I could improve, so I kept at it, periodically working in some drills while on medium to long runs. Unfortunately, my efforts didn’t occur frequently enough to promote significant improvement.

Now that I was a bona fide foot slapper though, I was on a mission to eradicate the slap and run with utmost efficiency. During each run I would randomly and regularly practice a different drill. Press the hips forward for this minute, focus on stride count for that one. Then I would pretend the road suddenly turned into a bed of hot coals. I had no choice. I had to move efficiently across them. 

Little by little the pieces of the running form puzzle came together.  I hit 172 strides per minute. I took shorter, quicker steps bringing my stride frequency up to 176. At one point I even hit perfection with 180.  Woohoo!!  “Now I’m cooking with gas” I thought to myself, remembering the saying I often heard as a child when things were going right.

This 180 stride frequency proved to be elusive, disappearing as quickly as it arrived. But I had experienced the feeling of running at the perfect frequency. My body knew what it had to do to get there, making it more likely to return. Even though I have yet to make 180 my standard, no longer am I stuck at 170. My efforts have elevated me to an average of 174, but I’m not stopping there. I will continue my pursuit of excellence. 

My experiences with working on form emphasized to me how amazing of a sensation it is to experience improved skills. It’s so easy to think something is “good enough” and not try to reach the next level. As a result we miss out on the feelings of jubilation that go along with skill enhancement. My more efficient form has elevated my passion for running to a new level. Not only am I enjoying running more (something I never imagined was possible because I already love it tremendously) but all indications thus far point to me being faster as well. This passion has spilled over into my life as a whole as I contemplate what else I can accomplish. I can’t wait to find out!

I encourage everyone to never stop working on improving, in running or any other aspect of life. Do not deny yourself the joy and empowering feelings that accompany your accomplishments. You never know what hidden talents you may uncover. Keep your mind open to absorbing information from all sources and people: a tip you automatically dismiss could have been a life changer.

* Some elite runners cadence actually goes higher than 180. In the Nike Breaking 2 project, for example, Eliud Kipchoge's cadence ranged from 180-185 strides per minute.

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