Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Running Form Study

A few weeks back I participated in a study at UNC Chapel Hill entitled "A Comparison of Lower Extremity Joint Work and Initial Loading Rates Among Four Different Running Styles". The study is attempting to compare the mechanics of running for the following styles:

  1. Traditional running shoe wearing heel striker
  2. Barefoot or minimalist runner
  3. A POSE runner
  4. A Chi runner
I personally fall into category number 2. 

The experience of participating in the study was very interesting. After arriving at the human movement lab at UNC Chapel Hill, I changed into some running clothes and met with Don Goss, the PhD candidate running the study. The next 30 minutes or so was spent attaching various reflective motion tags to my hips, knees, ankles and feet. Then I stepped onto a giant double belted treadmill surrounded by high speed sensors which would track the reflective motion sensors attached to my body. After an initial calibration we discovered that some of the Asics logos on my shirt were reflective and were being registered by the motion sensors. We used some tape to cover the few reflective patches of clothing on my running shirt, which were throwing off the motion sensors, and then the sensors successfully locked onto the true reflectors. 

Once successfully locked onto the sensors, Don actually removed about half of the sensors and allowed the software to interpolate between the remaining sensors. I ran on the treadmill at a comfortable pace (I think around 10 min/mile) for about 5 minutes, first with a foot on each belt, then both feet on the left belt, and finally both feet on the right belt. Don took several 3 second "samples" from the sensors. The motion sensors could capture several thousand frames per second, but Don indicated that this caused a serious data overload (processing the data took hours). So the motion sensors had been dialed down to capture only about 240 frames per second. The force plates in the treadmill captured 1200 samples per second.

All of this data was visually represented in various graphs and tables on the capture computer, but the cool part was the animation that was generated by the data. Here's a sample video of the running form data captured from my session:

From the video, it's fairly obvious that I'm a mid-foot striker. Which is good, because that's what I've been trying to become for the past year. There were some occasions where I had a very mild heel strike on my right foot, but the peak impact forces never varied much when that happened and were always approximately equal to two times my body weight.

Overall, this was a very cool experience and I recommend anyone who is in the North Carolina region to volunteer for the study if possible. Don still needs some dedicated Chi and POSE runners for the study, but he may also still be taking data for other styles. I've listed Don's contact information below if you are interested in participating.

PhD Candidate, Biomechanics
University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill 

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 6

My primary care physician
is right.
The Barefoot Running Cure
Metatarsalgia is evil. Just when you think it's gone, you step on something in just the right way to light the fires of irritation once again. After suffering through a couple of weeks of not running (by this point, I was a running endorphin addict), I decided to start walking again. My foot still hurt when I walked in a certain way, but it was at least bearable. Unfortunately, after a mile or so of walking, the pain would flare significantly. Based on the friendly advice of several folks on Barefoot Ted's Huaraches Google group, I decided to try taking off the Vibram Five Fingers and going fully barefoot for my walks.

And it was amazing! My foot didn't hurt at all. Apparently, I was doing something very different with shoes on my feet, even very minimalist shoes, like the VFFs. After a couple of weeks, I was walking 2 to 3 miles barefoot with no pain. So, about 4 weeks from the run which sidelined me, I decided to run again - for 100 yards.

Having a lot of setbacks during the previous 6 months had given me at least a small amount of perspective, so instead of being depressed about my planned 100 yard run, I was excited. And scared. Would the injury make a blazing return, ending my run in agony? Would I ever run again if that happened?

Magic Happens Here
I didn't really plan a specific 100 yard run. I just decided that on my next long barefoot walk, I would choose a smooth, straight stretch of sidewalk and just jog along a bit. So, after walking a half mile or so during my normal 3 mile barefoot walk, I broke into a quick, light-footed jog. AND NOTHING HURT! In fact, it was incredibly awesome. So good in fact, that I ended up jogging several times during my "walk", eventually running about half of the total distance.

I'm not a religious, or even a generally metaphysical sort of person, but something about running barefoot made a very deep, primal connection within my brain. It just felt "right". I think I had reawakened some feedback in my nervous system that had been dormant since my childhood, when I went barefoot nearly 6 months of the year. In fact, I felt very child-like when I ran barefoot. Very happy. But it was happiness with a certain nostalgic purity.

Learning To Run, Again
Over the course of the next few weeks, my barefoot running progressed quickly, and painlessly (unless you count blisters, which I don't). I discovered several serious flaws in my running form that were being hidden by the Vibram Five Fingers. The most serious, was related to my left foot, which was landing much too hard on the outside edge and forefoot area (the blisters proved this). But the human body is amazing, and the form flaws quickly resolved after only a handful of runs.

In short order, I was running 3 and 4 mile barefoot routes. Everything felt great. It wouldn't last.

Barefoot Running Nearly Destroys Me
On an ordinary day, during an easy run, I nearly ended my return to running for good. Not that my life was in danger or anything like that, but I had promised myself that I would stop running entirely if I injured myself again. The injuries simply weren't worth the reward of running.

Trotting along, I was in my normal semi-aware state of being. I didn't see the very small, very sharp rock that I was about to step on. It blended in with the rest of the rocks protruding from the chip-seal pavement of the sidewalk. I had become fairly confident with handling rough surfaces while running barefoot. I could relax my feet and legs enough to float over most rough, hard, paved surfaces without any problems. Maybe I was over confident. Maybe this rock hit in just the right spot. Maybe both. But whatever the case, when I stepped on that little rock, I saw stars. It's sharp little peak jammed directly into the same spot I had suffered with metatarsalgia the month before.

I stopped immediately. I had to stop. I couldn't even bear to walk. After sitting for 15 minutes or so, I was able to limp back to the locker room, but only very slowly. I was depressed about the injury, but more than that, I was scared. This felt bad - really bad.

Diagnosis - Metatarsalgia and Stress Fracture!
I made an appointment with an orthopedic doctor the next day. Usually, I wait to see if things will improve, but this time, when I could barely walk from my bed to the bathroom, I thought it would be wise to go immediately.

The doctor was only moderately amused by my long tale of injury and adventure, and sent me for an MRI the next day. A week later I saw the doctor to review the MRI results.

Classic bone bruise, with a bone surface
 stress fracture. And yes, this is an
actual picture from my MRI results.
The metatarsalgia was sort of expected. Actually, I expected that I had broken my second metatarsal. It hurt that bad. But it turns out that my second metatarsal was simply irritated again. The true surprise was that I had a stress fracture on my first metatarsal. I didn't feel this one at all! The doc said that wasn't out of the ordinary, but that eventually, if I kept running, I would most certainly feel it.

Prescription - 6 weeks of no running.

Result - I quit!

"The horror... the horror...." Yeah, I know,
I'm mixing movie references. Just enjoy
the ride...
Fear and Loathing in VFFs
As Doctor Gonzo said "I hate to say this, but I think this place is getting to me. I think I'm getting the Fear."

I had it for sure. The Fear. Fear of being injured again. Fear of doing some real long term damage. Fear of never running again.

So, I quit. I went to the gym and worked out and rode the stationary bike and tried not to think about running.

I was successful for about 1 week. I'm not a quitter, never have been.

Besides, I couldn't stop here. This was bat country...

A Permanent Stay in the Half Way House
Since I had decided that I would continue this adventure, I spent the next few weeks attempting to find a solution to both my fear and my injuries. The solution to both arrived in the form of a shoe - the Mizuno Wave Universe 3.

Once again, I credit Barefoot Ted's Huaraches Google group for turning me on to this shoe. Four weeks out from my MRI, I tied on the MWU3's for the first time and went for a very short run. No pain! And the shoes felt great! MWU3s are nearly flat and one of the lightest shoes made (about half the weight of my VFFs). But there is enough padding in the sole to prevent even the sharpest of rocks from re-injuring my damaged foot. I felt safe.

Using a combination of safe barefoot running on the track to maintain my gentle form, and MWU3's out in the "wild", I was able to successfully ramp up my running in mid September. This happened very quickly and without any real drama. By late October, I successfully ran my first race - The American Tobacco Trail 10 Miler. The rest, is history.

I continue to use this approach to this day, although my shoe of choice has changed a few times. I now have a road shoe and a trail shoe which I swap around on occasion depending on how I feel. However, the key to everything is the barefoot running. Without that I could never maintain my form (yes, I've tried, and no, it didn't work).

Since my stress fracture in August of 2010, I've run without any transition related injuries. Without any serious long term injuries at all really. Yes, on occasion I over do it (like in most of my races) and end up with a sore calf, a sore hip, or some other sort of ailment, but overall, I'm running very well these days. For me anyway...

Happy running, everyone! And have a safe journey!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 5

Magical Five Fingers Recursion (yes, I'm a geek)
Vibram Five Finger Are Not Magic!
After a couple of months of uneventful and enjoyable increases in running mileage, I was a full fledged believer in the minimalist running philosophy of "less is more". I was running long miles with no knee pain and truly enjoying running in a way that I never had in my younger years. Appreciation of the experience and the of moment are one of the gifts of old(er) age, and I try to leverage that gift at all times. However, as with most deeply held beliefs, evidence can be a bummer.

In the middle of a 7 mile run in late May, floating along oblivious to any possible dangers, I stepped on something while wearing my VFFs. And it hurt.

Let me re-emphasize that - it hurt! After cursing furiously for a few seconds, I hobbled to a halt and backtracked a few steps to see what I had stepped on. Lying near the joint of the sidewalk, was a large rusty lag bolt. I picked it up and furiously flung it into the woods nearby. I limped the last 3 miles to the end of the run with my forefoot stinging very badly.

Dramatic recreation of my VFF battling
and losing against a large lag bolt.
The next day the ball of my foot was extremely sore behind my second toe where I had jammed the bolt into my foot. So, I decided to take a whole extra day off before my next run. I patted myself on the back, thinking that I was actually learning to back off when injured, rather than pushing ahead into larger problems. Two days later, I went out for a 5 miler. My foot was only slightly sore, so I thought the run would go fine. Less than a mile into the run, I had to stop. The pain in my forefoot was excruciating. Every step felt as if something was stabbing into the ball of my foot. And Thor with his hammer and acid covered ice pick was no where to be seen, so this time I couldn't blame the gods.

The only elliptical machine
I will ever ride again...
Riding the Elliptical Machine Through the Land of Metatarsalgia
"Metatarsalgia" said Doctor Google. Another condition that I had never known before my return to running had now entered my consciousness. According to Doctor Google, the recommended recovery was rest, anti-inflammatories, and possibly a steroid shot to reduce the irritation. Since I am nearly allergic to ibuprofen and have had my lifetime quota of cortisone shots, I decided to rest for a few weeks. Of course to me, resting simply meant not running. So it was that I found myself once again on that neuron decimating contraption known as the elliptical machine.

Having previously forsworn riding the elliptical machine, finding myself on it once again was sad, to say the least. I've learned over the years that admitting ignorance is not nearly as bad as admitting self deception, so I convinced myself that this was a "necessary" although unexpected part of my recovery. And I will never admit that this was self deception...

However, my self-deceiving, ignorant reasoning wasn't enough to make the elliptical machine anything less than absolute torture. So, one week into my recovery, I abandoned the gym forever. I would rather rot than have to mount that mental torture device again.

There are several books out about
barefoot running, but this is the
one I have and recommend.
Barefoot Running Cures Stupidity, Almost
Having turned to Doctor Google for other reasons, I revisited him in hopes of finding something, anything, that might help me through the seemingly never ending series of transition traps that I kept blundering into. I found Barefoot Ted's mailing list on Google for the first time. Looking over the posts to the list, I finally felt like I wasn't alone in the transition wilderness. Lots of other people had been through the transition, and many of them had experienced the same issues as me.

After lots of reading, and a few posts to the group asking questions, I decided to reset my running once again, this time using barefoot running as a means of controlling both my distance and my form (blisters are a good teacher).

And it worked! Mostly...

Final installment - How barefoot running saved me, and nearly destroyed me...

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Long and Winding Road - My Transition to Minimalist Running, Part 4

The Phoenix
After injuring my achilles through sheer stubborn, stupidity, I spent the next month kicking myself. I had to do some serious stretching to be able to kick myself, but I had nothing better to do since I couldn't run, so I worked hard at it. Once I was able to pull off the elusive double kick to my own arse, I stopped kicking myself. I now have a black belt in self abuse.

Having mastered the art of kicking myself, I once again spent too many boring hours on the elliptical machine in the gym, since this seemed to be the only serious aerobic activity that didn't bother my achilles injury.

I now hated the elliptical machine even more than the treadmill and vowed that if I ever recovered enough to run, I would never set foot on one again. I should stop making vows since I'm as good at keeping them as I am at keeping New Year's resolutions...

Horrific boredom aside, things did slowly get better. My calf and achilles felt better after a few weeks of stretching and elliptical workouts, so I decided to slowly return to running again.

Run To Success!
I'm lucky to have not one, but two neighbors who are physical therapists. Both of them recommended the "run to success" method to return to running. The concept is actually very simple.

  • Start slow and short and add 10% to your distance each session. 
  • If anything feels even slightly off during the run in the area of the injury, immediately stop. The next session, back down 10%. 
  • Repeat.
I'm a simple guy, so this simple set of rules was perfect for me. 

And they worked! Within a month, I was back to 3 mile runs, with no pain. 

Injury Free Running, At Last!
If you've read all of the posts in this series, you are probably expecting something bad to happen about now. Something epic. Perhaps something involving mythical beasts, or rich, earthy cursing. 

Trust me, so was I. 

But happily, and boringly (that doesn't sound like a real word?!), nothing bad happened again during the next 2 months. I ran farther, and faster in my Vibram Five Fingers with no real drama. By the end of May, I was regularly running 3, 5, and 7 miles during my lunch hours on Monday, Wednesday and Friday.

3/5/7 doesn't sound like a big deal, but for me, this was a monumental achievement. Even when I was regularly running in my 20's (nearly 20 years ago), my weekly runs were usually something like 3/3/4. Granted, I was speedier then (sub 20 minute 5K on occasion), but I never ran the kind of pain free free miles, that I was now regularly achieving in my 40's. 

This was simply stunning to me, especially considering how extremely unfit I was just prior to my return to running, and the totally trashed condition of my left knee, even with the very good rebuild of surgery number 5.

I became nearly evangelical in my praise of Vibram Five Fingers and minimalist running in general. I would tell anyone who would listen about VFFs and the miracle of minimalist running. I was a pain in the arse. 

I don't put any stock in the idea of Karma, but I do like the phrase, "Karma's a bitch". So, don't call it a comeback...