The New Running 101

The New Running 101
 

“Do you hear that?” asks Pasquale Manocchia, his face contorting into an ugly wince. It’s as if he’s just heard fingernails screeching across a chalkboard. We’re seated in his office high above a 14,000-squarefoot gym called La Palestra—what the ancient Greeks and Romans called gymnasiums—where my attention strays between the pair of Chinese brass knuckles with one-inch spikes sitting on his desk and other rare fitness artifacts scattered across the glass-encased room: old wooden dumbbells, some fencing gear, Indian clubs, a pair of ancient hiking boots. The gym is located in an old ballroom of the former Hotel des Artistes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the office has views of the people working out below us between Roman columns.

I give Manocchia a blank stare. All I hear is music and the faint thump thump thump of someone running, out of sight, on a treadmill. “No one should ever be striking the ground that hard,” says Manocchia, shaking his head. “There’s no question that more people are running than ever before, and more people are getting injured than ever before.”

While that may strike you as a touch dramatic, it’s actually not: In fact, each year, up to 80% of America’s 53 million runners get injured. That’s more than 42 million injured runners last year, which is an even more staggering number when you consider that the figure doesn’t include athletes who get hurt from running while playing other sports. And by injuries, we’re talking about everything from broken bones to insidious, slow-forming conditions like runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, and stress fractures—the kind of painful stuff that drives runners mad and sends them screaming for the bike saddle in warmer months.

And these aren’t just hardcore dudes who crank out Tough Mudders and Warrior Dashes, either. We’re talking about weekend joggers, too. For the record: Last year, roughly 20 million people participated in road races, and adventure-race participation is up 211% over the last five years. It all begs the question: What are so many people doing so wrong?

For starters, conventional wisdom says that running isn’t something that requires coaching, and that the best way to improve as a runner is to simply run more. And we’re continually recommended any number of remedies for common ailments—usually in the form of a new pair of specialized shoes.

Manocchia emphatically disagrees. The gym owner, a former college hockey player who roomed with JFK Jr. at Brown University, is a disciple of Nicholas Romanov, Ph.D., a career coach for the Russian Olympic team whose unique thoughts about running, long overlooked on the margins of the sport, are finally going mainstream. In short: They firmly believe that running is a practiced skill, not a natural motion. And though some people are born with a talent for running, most are not. Which means that if you haven’t suffered through rigorous coaching on your technique, it’s likely you’re going about it all wrong.

It turns out that I fit squarely in that camp. Manocchia walks me down to the gym floor and puts me through a series of exercises. First, he instructs me to “move.” So I take a step forward, and before I make it two feet he says, “Stop! Did you see what you just did?” Huh? “Move again,” he says. I lift my leg. “Stop! Did you see that?” I draw a blank, and he explains that each time I take a step, I’m bracing my forward leg like a brake. To me I’m just walking, but to Manocchia my gait looks like a beat-up Oldsmobile clunking down the road. He says that I’m sending excessive force up the leg with each step, which will eventually lead to any number of long-term injuries.

He then asks me to write down five adjectives to describe how I feel about running. I explain that I like running while playing tennis but I hate running for running’s sake.

“Just write down the words,” he says. I scribble down “boring,” “redundant,” “jarring,” “unfun,” and “useless.”

“Now write down five words you associate with an elite runner blasting through the park,” he says.

I write down “grace,” “efficiency,” “stamina,” “relaxed,” and “fast.”

Manocchia points at my two lists: “It’s about getting from there to there.”

Yeah, this isn’t going to be so easy after all.

 

Last August, what was supposed to be a small event, the first-ever International Calgary Running Symposium, turned into the greatest gathering of running physiologists under one roof that science has ever seen.

More than 200 of the world’s top experts from both the academic and the commercial side of the running industry, including Romanov, descended on the University of Calgary to celebrate the career of a beloved running biomechanist, Benno Nigg, Ph.D., the head of the university’s Human Performance Lab. As the symposium described it, “Dr. Nigg’s research concentrates on human locomotion with its main emphasis on mobility and longevity.” In other words: preventing running injuries. The conclusion from such an unprecedented gathering?

“Nothing we’ve done over the last 40 years has done anything to reduce injuries,” says Sandro Nigg, the honoree’s son, who helped organize the event and is an accomplished biomechanist himself. All the research and scientific applications in recent memory—motion-control shoes, “air” cushioning, orthotics, those wildly popular “barefoot shoes” that have taken the running industry by storm since Christopher McDougall’s blockbuster book Born to Run—are all a wash. “Forty years of effort by doctors, coaches, athletes has come to nothing,” Romanov says. (For the record: The new wisdom says the best shoes are the most comfortable ones; and if you’re conditioned for it, go minimal.) But the most important takeaway from the event, according to the younger Nigg, is that “we’re all now ready to use our resources to look at [individual] technique and training” as a way to keep runners healthy.

Which is why Romanov is finally getting his due. While teaching biomechanics and training the track team at a Russian university in the 1970s, he developed a model for teaching running known as the Pose Method, which didn’t catch on for years. In fact, when Romanov walked into Manocchia’s gym 20 years ago after emigrating from Russia, Manocchia thought his ideas were so radical that he brushed him off. But not for long.

“After a while I just had to suck it up,” Manocchia says. “He was right. He had the science. This is how force is actualized, and it’s the same for every runner.” Running, according to Romanov, isn’t a series of jumps or pushes off the ground—it’s an act of continual falling. To run correctly, we need to first fall forward—then we must catch ourselves. Then we fall again, and so forth. In that sense, proper running is a lot like skiing: a series of controlled falls back and forth down the mountain. It’s the same with other athletic movements, too. To return a serve in tennis, a player must first fall in the proper direction, Romanov says. Even Bruce Lee’s famous one-inch punch is about maximizing the leverage of gravity. “This stuff goes all the way back to da Vinci,” Manocchia adds.

And if any of this sounds familiar, perhaps that’s because Romanov’s teachings have also become popular in the world of CrossFit, where some of its most popular trainers have begun using the Pose Method along with their strength and conditioning workouts.

“Like any runner logging miles, I was broken,” says Brian MacKenzie, an ultra-distance runner who found Romanov in 2002. “I’d trained for a triathlon, but I developed plantar fasciitis and IT band syndrome. I saw Romanov for a weekend, and I’m pain free.”

In 2007, MacKenzie met the physical therapist Kelly Starrett, one of the biggest names in CrossFit, at a seminar in San Francisco. “When I met Kelly, he hated running,” MacKenzie says. “I taught him how to run, and he was like, ‘Whoa!’” Together, the two worked on expanding not only Romanov’s Pose Method but also the Russian coach’s Olympic strength and conditioning program with a CrossFit stamp. Today, “CrossFit Endurance” emphasizes running shorter distances at higher intensity to develop better form. (For his part, Romanov says, “I was very happy to see the CrossFit community embrace Pose.”) And both MacKenzie and Starrett recently released books that have sat atop of the running best-seller lists. MacKenzie’s title, Unbreakable Runner, is a how-to for beginner and elite athletes alike, while Starrett’s book, Ready to Run, attacks mobility issues that face all athletes who do a lot of running.

They’re not the only big names preaching proper form. Dean Karnazes, 52, is one of the most famous runners in the world. In 2006, when the ultramarathoner trained to run 50 marathons in 50 states in 50 consecutive days, he did what he considers a precursor to MacKenzie and Starrett’s running workouts.

When he wasn’t running, he’d lift so heavy that he could only knock off five reps per set. Then he’d lift light with hundreds of reps. Finally, he’d do LSD—long slow distance running. “I don’t subscribe to the notion of any single running motion,” Karnazes says, “but it’s funny—when I ran the 50 marathons, I naturally fell into the Pose Method. My body started to become as efficient as possible.”

According to Romanov, there are three basic phases to the Pose Method that every runner needs to master to find his proper form: first, “the pose;” second, “the fall;” and finally, “the pull.”

Everyone who runs goes through the Pose, which is simply a moment of balance on the supporting foot. In motion, from the side, it looks like a figure four. Next, the runner falls forward. And finally, he pulls the supporting leg off the floor. Every runner makes these three motions. Some do them efficiently, but most don’t. There’s an ocean between the two extremes, says Romanov.

To land on the efficient side of the spectrum, Romanov advises maintaining perfect posture that keeps the shoulders, hips, and ankles in alignment. Runners should then free-fall forward by moving their hips over the balls of their feet. The knees should always be bent, and the body weight should always be on the balls of the feet, which ideally are pointed straight forward. As soon as you fall, you pick up your support leg. Don’t fixate on landing, he says. Instead, focus your mind on pulling up your support leg.

Sound easy? Think again. Imagine learning to shoot a basketball or swing a golf club for the first time. To learn correctly, you need to be trained for muscle memory: The coach prods you to loosen up your back: “Stand up straight! Push your butt out a little more! Look forward! Elbows in!” Chances are you’ve been nudged with this kind of teaching before, and all of a sudden—whether it’s a free throw or a 300-yard drive—you’re suddenly in a groove and everything feels great. When you walk away, you realize that you probably can’t repeat what you just did, and you don’t understand why everything started clicking in the first place.

At La Palestra, I experience this firsthand. Manocchia asks me to stand in place and jump. I start bouncing up and down. Again, from the look on his face, it’s clear that I’m doing something wrong. He claims my feet and ankles are traveling like a suspension bridge in an earthquake. He walks me over to the wall and instructs me to put one hand against the wall and brace the rest of my body. He pulls my index finger back and lets it go. It snaps back against the wall like a rubber band. “That’s what your ligaments and tendons are built to do,” he says. “They work like a spring when you let them do their job.”

Manocchia then puts me through a series of jumps. He tells me to settle down my knees and ankles and to stop tensing my torso. Instantly my cadence spikes, nearly doubling. More important, the motion feels effortless. Finally, Manocchia coaches me through the transition from jumping in place to running. “Just fall forward,” he says, as I start a slow jog. “Focus on pulling your supporting leg up.” In just a few minutes my form feels transformed. I’m using less muscle, my cadence is incredibly rapid, and the running feels effortless. I can’t exactly pinpoint what it is I’m doing right, but it feels more like gliding than the lumbering I usually force myself through on runs. My head stays level, which Manocchia tells me is a good thing.

“Imagine what we could do with you over the course of months or years,” says Manocchia, who notes that speed isn’t determined by strength and dexterity, but how fast we allow ourselves to fall forward. Once you feel that load distributed evenly across the joints as nature intended, it’s easy to understand why a handful of major European insurance companies now accept Pose clinics as preventive medicine.

“Pose was developed because of necessity,” Romanov says. “Good driving skills will save your life, and the same is true of running. Moving correctly is the base of a healthy life. It means your joints, tendons, ligaments, muscles, and insides are moving the way they should be.

To paraphrase Aristotle: Movement is life, and life is movement.