Troubleshooting My Biomechanics of Running 101

23 04 2013

HK International Diamond Mile: Race Report & Form Analysis

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These days, I’ve become increasingly fascinated by the biomechanics of running.

Tempo runs and hard intervals give me endurance and speed; squats, pushups and plyometrics give me strength and power. But underlying it all is the biomechanics of running movement. If cardiovascular endurance is the engine, and muscular strength the horsepower, then biomechanics is the car frame. And I want structural integrity: a sturdy, high quality car frame, Ferrari standard – not some beat up pick up truck.

Last Sunday’s race, the HK International Diamond Mile, was held smack-bang in the middle of Central. With its sharp hairpin bends and gradients to navigate, it did not make for a fast course. I ran the two laps, 1609m in total, in a not-so-respectable 5:39, placing first in the Women’s Junior category. The race was later televised in full. Here, for the first time, was my chance to scrutinize my running form. (Watch from 7:00 onwards)

Running form: what’s the big deal?

I believe running form can make or break a runner.

Take Alberto Salazar, for example. He’s a former marathon runner and now coaches, amongst other athletes, Mo Farah and Galen Rupp. At the age of 21, Salazar won the first marathon he entered, the New York City marathon in 1980. He would win it again in 1981, and again in 1982.

And then things started to fall apart. At the 1983 Rotterdam marathon, he pulled a muscle in his groin. Patellar tendinitis came next, followed by a torn hamstring. It was the beginning of the end. As Jennifer Kahn wrote for the New Yorker:

Looking back, Salazar blames his form for his decline. “The way I ran, it wasn’t sustainable,” he said. “The attitude at the time was: if you were gifted with perfect form, great. If you weren’t, you were just kind of stuck.” While a runner with an awkward stride might win a few races, Salazar argues now, he’s ultimately doomed to break down: “The knee injury, the hamstring injury—in hindsight, these were the things that killed me.”

Thoughts on technique and form

Arm Swing

This is a problem I’ve been trying to fix for a while now: excessive lateral arm-swinging – a total waste of energy because I want to propel myself forwards, not left and right. Take a look at these freeze frames.

Arm1

My left arm is coming right across my body. Ugh.

One way Salazar describes the arm swing is going “nipple to nipple“, meaning that your left fist should be in front of your left nipple, and your right first in front of your left nipple. The blue line above shows where my fist would line up with my nipple. As can be seen, I’ve over-swung to the centre, as marked with the red line.

Arm2

My arms are swinging laterally in front of me, creating this triangle that would not be there if I were swinging backwards and forwards.

Toe Off: Hip Separation

For me, this is not so much of a problem as an area for improvement. My back kick looks strong enough from the video, but my knee drive needs a bit more work.

Ideally, I’d have a knee drive as strong as this runner below.

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Right now, though, my knee isn’t coming quite high enough.

ToeOff2

Blue line: where I’d like my leg to be.

The freeze frame below, from the video Changing Stride, explains hip separation at the point of “toe off” nicely.

On the left you have Dathan Ritzenhein, an American long distance runner whose running form Alberto Salazar drastically overhauled. On the right is Kenenisa Bekele, an Ethiopian runner with the 5000m and 10,000m Olympic and world records under his belt.

Ritzenhein’s angle of hip separation, on the left, in blue, is smaller than that of Bekele’s on the right. You want a greater degree of hip separation because it increases the length of your stride so that you can cover more ground with each step.

ToeOff

Here’s an absolutely b-e-a-u-tiful example of hip separation.

Mo Farah leads Cam Levins (left) and Galen Rupp (centre) in training Photograph: Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

Wrap Up

There’s so much to be said about the biomechanics of running form. I have very little knowledge in this area – all the information above was gleaned from YouTube, articles and Googling around – but I’m enthralled. My hope is that approaching running in a comprehensive way – clocking miles, running hard intervals, stretching, building strength and power, and paying attention to the details – I’ll become the best runner I can be.





I Want To Be A Supple Leopard

7 04 2013

I Want To Be…A Supple Leopard. 
Credit: I Want To Be by Tony Ross, published by HarperCollins

What is a Supple Leopard, you ask?

To be a Supple Leopard is to have speed, power,  endurance and strength – but in such a way that athletic performance is optimised and human performance maximised without the pains of injuries and stiffness. It is to go faster, higher and farther, maintaining one’s body and harnessing one’s genetic potential, as Kelly Starrett explains about his book.

But before I say more about my dreams of being a furry, flexible feline, here’s a little report of my racing at Round 2 of the Xtep Hong Kong Athletics League.

Race Report

1500m

I had two events lined up today: the 1500m in the morning, then the 3000m steeplechase in the afternoon, five hours later.

What I was aiming for was to break that pesky little 5’00 barrier. That means running 3.75 times around the track at a pace of 1’20 per 400m lap. Not exceedingly fast, but as a distance runner who for a long while neglected speed work, it was a challenge.

Last July, I ran the 1500m in 5’09. In February, I got tantalisingly close but lost it in my head on the last lap, coming in at 5’02’60.

Today, I finally broke the five-minute barrier: 4’58″67. WOOHOO!

*Cue the Happy Mary Dance, to be made up on the spot* 

I still have a long way to go and I want to keep shaving off the seconds. How?

Build speed.

But how to build speed? My plan of action will be multi-pronged, much like my flexibility program. On top of more speed work on the track, I will try to look at the neuromuscular training, plyometrics, increasing strength, and the biomechanics of sprinters. More on all this in a later post. For now, two links that have piqued my interest of late:

What Distance Runners Can Learn From Sprinters, by Caitlin Chock from Running Times. 

Speed Development by Jay Johnson, also from Running Times. 

 

In between my two events…

 

I jogged to cool down. I headed home to stretch out.

A quick lunch followed: congee with a poached egg in tomato sauce, a bit of bread and a nice cold glass of red date tea.

Then I lay down, put my legs up and tried to take a cat nap, but my zzz’s were slow to come. Before I knew it, I was up putting some finishing touches on a birthday cake for my coach, and before long, it was time to head out to the track again…

From experience, I need at least 3-5 hours to digest a proper meal. It also needs to be low in fibre. There must be no dairy products – not even a single nibble. And so for lunch I stuck to easily digestible food: a poached egg in half a can of tomatoes, plain white rice congee and bread with a bit of apricot jam, washed down with red date tea. All to be eaten slowly too, in small portions. 

 

3000m steeplechase 

The steeplechase – would I be able to run a personal best and break my own Hong Kong junior record? I was feeling fresh and the 1500m hadn’t left me drained. Training had gone well, I’d been practicing my hurdling and was feeling confident. All I had to do now was run the seven and a half laps and negotiate the 35 barriers.

I didn’t quite make the record in the end. I clocked a 11’36″85, more than seven seconds off my record of 11’29″11.

While I didn’t break my record, I did set a different record of my own: hurdling all the barriers (bar the water jumps)! I’d never, ever hurdled the steeplechase barriers before, opting instead to step on them. It was very much a psychological thing: I always pictured myself ramming my trail leg on the wooden beam (ouchies), or scraping my shin all along the edge of the barrier (even more ouchies). Well, today I hurdled all the barriers and my legs felt fine. So now I know I’m capable of hurdling throughout the 3000m, and if I can fix up my run-up to the hurdles, eliminating the energy- and time-wasting stumbles and falters, I should have a few more seconds to shave off yet.

Here’s a video of me practicing my hurdling, three days before the race. In the coming weeks, I’ll be looking to deconstruct the steeplechase, analysing the techniques and biomechanics of the hurdling movement. More on that in a later post.

 

What I need to work on between now and the next race: 

Speed, strength, skill and suppleness. Keep up with the stamina.

Be a supple leopard. Meow. Roar!





Eggs-quisite! Egg Recipes

28 03 2013

5730-Chicken_Or_The_Egg

Which came first, the chicken or the egg?

Apparently, they’ve finally cracked it (ha!): it’s the egg.

But that’s beside the point.

For me, eggs beat chickens, most of the time – in the culinary sense, anyway. They’re easy to whip up. Cheap. Versatile. Nutritious. And did I mention delicious?

In one humble little egg, you will find: a lot of high quality protein, all 9 essential amino acids, choline to keep your brain happy, lutein and zeaxanthin for healthy eyes and selenium, which is to prevent cancer, though the jury is still out on that one.

Eggs really are a smart fuel, as Mark over at Mark’s Daily Apple explains.

Microwave poached egg on toast.

Microwave poached egg on toast.

 

Here are some of my favourite egg recipes. What are yours? Please do share!

Super Easy 1 Minute Poached Egg (Crack an egg into a bowl. Add 1/3 cup of water. Microwave on HIGH for 60-70 seconds. Done.)

Egg-in-a-Hole (Cut a hole out of your slice of bread. Lightly butter it. Slap it buttered-side down on the skillet. Place a little butter in the hole. Wait for it to sizzle. Crack in egg. Cook for about 60-90 seconds. Flip. Wait. Dig in!)

Chinese Style Steamed Eggs

Chinese Steamed Egg Pudding

Lunch on a recent day: pasta with fried eggs.

Lunch on a recent day: pasta with fried eggs.

Spaghetti with Fried Eggs (a.k.a. poor man’s spaghetti)

Egg and Tomato Stir-Fry

Egg and Bitter Gourd Stir-Fry

The super versatile poached egg makes its appearance everywhere! Here, eggplant and tomato sauce pasta, topped with the almighty microwave poached egg.

Egg and Char Siu Pork Stir-Fry (Slice up char siu. Cut up some scallions. Beat up some eggs. Heat up oil in skillet. Tip in scallions and cook for a while. Then tip in char siu. Now pour in your eggs. Swirl. Serve!)

Bacon and Egg Stuffed Eggplant

Super Easy Microwave Oats Muffin 

 

Bonus: How to Scramble Eggs Inside Their Shell 





The Quest for Flexibility

25 03 2013

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Here are two linear equations.

Flexibility + Range of Motion = Running Economy

Running Economy + Cardiovascular & Muscular Fitness = Faster Times

Some people can effortlessly slide into splits, then twist and contort their bodies into all kinds of bizarre looking positions. Others find it hard to even touch their toes. And yet we are all made of the same stuff: muscles, tendons, bones, ligaments, fluids.

My question is not why, but how: how can we maximise the full potential of our bodies to achieve greater flexibility and range of motion, with which comes higher running economy and consequently, faster times?

MY SCENARIO

I am a runner, clocking 80-100K per week.

My flexibility leaves much to be desired. I often wake up with very tight hips. My shoulders have a poor range of motion due to stiffness: they often swing side-to-side when I run, a complete waste of energy because I want to be propelling myself forward, not sideways.

I have been building yoga into my training program, practicing it at least twice a week, but have felt no significant improvements in my flexibility or mobility. The return on investment (return = greater running economy; investment = time) has been low.

There has to be a better way.

MY APPROACH

I don’t believe in the single Magic Bullet. Our bodies are complex organisms with an infinite number of variables. To get our bodies to respond, we need to talk to it in its language: the multi-pronged language of diversity.

My approach is therefore a diverse and varied one, and my flexibility program includes all of the following:

  • Old school stretching
  • Yoga
  • Active Isolated Stretching (AIS)
  • Foam roller
  • Ballistic stretching…Martial Arts included!
  • Massage
  • Cross training
  • Posture
  • and the almighty REST and RECOVERY

OLD SCHOOL STRETCHING

Old school static stretching

Old school static stretching

The oh-so-prevalent static stretches. We’ve probably all seen one of these diagrams at some point in our athletic lives. Easy, quick and simple to perform – but not the most efficient way to build flexibility, particularly if used in isolation.

YOGA

warrior1-2-3

Warriors One, Two and Three – great for leg strength.

Yoga definitely helps to develop flexibility – no doubt about it. It hasn’t, however, achieved for me enough improvement in flexibility to significantly boost my running efficiency. The problem, I think, is that a lot of yoga postures are static. This poses two problems. One, you can easily overexert and overstretch yourself. Two, some postures are too hard to perform and you end up getting stiffer by forcing hard to get into the posture.

half-moon-pose

Half Moon Pose. Good for balance, and you really need to work your ankle. After my ankle sprain, I found this pose to be a great rehabilitative exercise.

On the upside, yoga does give quite a well-rounded approach in itself. I personally love the Half-Moon Pose – it’s great for balance and leg strength, particularly around the ankle. The Warrior Poses really work the legs. The Frog Pose is great for stiff hips (primarily the adductors), and although it may look a little awkward, I actually sometimes sit in the pose with a good book and just let the stretch sink in…

Oh, and the Sun Salutation combines strength, cardio and flexibility all into one.

Sun Salutation Pose Sequence

But still, yoga alone has not been enough for me.

ACTIVE ISOLATED STRETCHING (AIS)

I love Active Isolated Stretching. In a nutshell: ever done a whole load of stretching, only to feel tighter the next day? I have. Want to know why? Because a lot of our muscles work in antagonistic pairs – while one contracts, the other relaxes. So you could be stretching one muscle, but at the same time, contracting – and hence, tightening – another. With AIS, each stretch lasts no longer than two seconds, and taps into reciprocal antagonistic muscle contraction to activate and isolate muscles, so that the opposing tension that inevitably comes with static stretching is altogether avoided.

Here’s a good introductory video to AIS.

And here are some links to various AIS exercises that you can try.

Shoulder elevation stretch

Rotator cuff stretch & strengthening

Hip adductor and groin stretch

Hip flexor stretch

Opening the hamstrings

Back relief

FOAM ROLLER

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Over at Runner’s World, the humble foam roller is deemed “(almost) Magical” – and I would agree. Think of the foam roller as a DIY sports massage, without the hefty price tag. They can stretch out muscles and tendons, but more importantly, help to get rid of pesky muscle knots that can accrue from extensive use. Foam rolling also increases blood flow and circulation, speeding up recovery. Read more about it here.

BALLISTIC STRETCHING

What does a ball do? Bounce.

So what is ballistic stretching? Well, you bounce a little to get a limb into an extended range of motion, over and above what it would ordinarily have been able to achieve statically. Think bouncing up and down to touch your toes.

I used to do a bit of kungfu, and that included a lot of ballistic stretching. Front kicks. Side kicks. Sweeps. My range of motion improved, but often I would feel stiff afterwards because I had overstretched.

Here I am, a couple of years back, practicing a few kicks. Notice all the ballistic movements involved.

There are dangers, of course, most prominently the risk of jerking too sharply and straining – or worse, tearing – something.

MASSAGE

After a hard workout or a race, my teammates like to massage each other. One of us would lie down, while the other, taking on the role as a masseur, carefully steps onto our hamstrings, glutes and back. The masseur may use their ankles to press down and add pressure, or shake their legs to give a vibrating motion, and really flushing out the stiff soreness out of our muscles. It feels really, really good.

Of course, this is a pretty delicate procedure. Experience and care is required. But with a bit of practice, buddying up and getting a massage from a teammate is not a bad idea at all.

CROSS TRAINING

Body_planes-1We runners run forwards. We are pretty uni-directional. We stay on one plane.

But, as you can see from the diagram on the left, we are anatomically designed to move in three planes: the sagittal, coronal and transverse.

What we want to do is make sure that no plane is neglected. If underused, muscles largely responsible for the neglected plane of movement will become weak and unconditioned, piling on a disproportional amount of stress on a limited number of muscles and increasing the likelihood of injury. Yikes.

This page lays out the case for multi-planar training quite nicely.

Doing a range of different sports that encourage multi-directional movement will probably go a long way to make our bodies more resilient, agile, injury-free and happy.

My cross-training sports of choice: badminton, golf, tennis, parkour, football and basketball.

POSTURE

Sitting-Kills-preview

Are you sitting in a chair right this moment? Get up! That chair is your enemy! Sitting is killing you!

That might be exaggerating it a bit, but the hard facts damning:

  • As soon as you sit, the activity of enzymes that break fat down plunge by 90%
  • As soon as you sit, electrical activity in your leg muscles completely shut off. As a runner, you don’t want your legs shut off, do you?
  • After 2 hours of sitting, good cholesterol drops 20%

And, if you think about it, did we homo sapiens really evolve to spend long hours sitting in a chair? Probably not.

Anatomically, sitting does not seem to me to be the most natural position for our bodies to take. And if we consistently force our body into such an unnatural posture for much of the day, can we really expect to be able to maximise our body’s physical potentials on the running track? Probably not.

REST AND RECOVERY

Train hard. Rest hard. That just about sums it up.

SO…

For me, I’ll be building all of the above into my weekly flexibility program. The human body gives infinitely many signals and, I think, responds to infinitely many stimuli. And to converse with your body, you’ve got to speak its lingo: diversity and variety.





Two Friends, Two Fighters.

9 11 2012

Cung Le shows off some of his signature kicks.

A big UFC showdown is coming to town. Macau, to be precise.

The world’s fastest growing sport is finally venturing into one of the world’s fastest growing economies: China.

What could this beckon for the future of mixed martial arts? Bruce Lee, after all, was the father of MMA, according to the president of the UFC, Dana White. So it only seems fitting that the UFC is at long last getting a foothold in the vast Chinese market.

I had the pleasure of attending an exciting UFC pre-fight press conference yesterday, where the fighters Rich Franklin, Cung Le, Dong Hyun Kim and China’s very own Tiequan Zhang shed some light on their MMA lives.

Here is a little online feature that I put together for TimeOut Hong Kong.

Friends or foes? Inside the Octagon, they’re only one thing: fighters.





Fist of Glory

8 11 2012

By Calvin Sit

It started with the movies. Then it was the kiddie boxing sets at Toys’R’Us. Finally, I signed myself up for a kungfu class and before long, I found myself sucked into a whirling vortex of kicks, punches, spins and sweeps. Soon, I even headed up to the birthplace of Shaolin kungfu for an intensive (read: painful but memorable) training program.

So it came as a pleasant surprise when, on my very first day as an intern at TimeOut Hong Kong, I was given the assignment of writing a short feature on an upcoming kungfu championship. This was right up my alley!

Are you a novice? Do you have a weapon fetish? Perhaps you seek company, or balance, or an adrenaline rush? I cover all that and more in my  ‘Around Town’ feature, here.

By Calvin Sit

“As the International Wushu Competition swings through town, Mary Hui deciphers the well kept secrets of Chinese martial arts in a rough (but tough) breakdown. Photos by Calvin Sit, demonstration by members of Mark Scientific Ving Tsun Association (麥漢基詠春拳學會).

Crouching TigerHidden DragonKung Fu Hustle. Or, more recently, the ‘Wuxi Finger Hold’, as popularised by a feisty – though pudgy – fighting kung fu panda by the name of Po. Chinese martial arts may seem straightforward in these cases but, in reality, it’s not so simple. There are countless disciplines and styles out there, which may baffle many the budding apprentice. But fear not. As the upcoming 7th Hong Kong International Wushu Competition nears, we offer this guide to help illuminate the way.”

Continue reading here.





Aiming for…Pain?

27 10 2012

Does exertion need to hurt? How much does success have to hurt? 

by AndrewLeonard

In Philadelphia, the elite New Zealander Kim Smith was running hard, breathing heavily and testing her limits as she  pushed through the last few kilometers of the Philadelphia Half Marathon. She had saliva all over her face. It was not a pretty sight.

In Hong Kong, Lau Chek-lun crossed the finish line at the Standard Chartered Half Marathon, and collapsed 40 meters later. He was declared dead soon after.

On the training track, my teammates sprinted interval after interval, their faces contorted and grimacing in agony as they worked their bodies to the maximum. At the finish line, they plopped down on all fours, heaving and wheezing as they tried to catch their breath before the next sprint.

And now, as I strive to become a strong, faster and better runner, I can’t help but wonder: how much pain is enough pain? Where is the line between pushing too hard and under-performing? At what point does exertional pain become a liability, rather than an accepted reality?

“The man who can drive himself further once the effort gets painful,” said Roger Bannister, the first man in history to run a mile in under four minutes, “is the man who will win.”

For years, the four minute mile seemed an elusive and impossible goal. The Australian runner John Landy himself declared that it was an impenetrable “brick wall”, and after running the mile in under 4’03 on six separate occasions, vowed, “I shall not attempt it again”.

Then came Roger Bannister.

As a medical student at Oxford University at the time, Mr. Bannister could only afford 45 minutes of training a day. His weekly mileage, by modern standards, was surprisingly low. And yet, despite minimal training, Mr. Bannister made history in 1954 by breaking the four-minute barrier. How did he do it?

Many believe that Mr. Bannister’s legendary feat was achieved not so much by his physicality as by his psychology. Gunder Haegg, a Swedish runner who came within 1.3 seconds of breaking the four-minute barrier in 1945, “always thought that the four-minute mile was more of a psychological problem than a test of physical endurance”. In a way, he was right.

Just six weeks after Mr. Bannister ran the mile in 3’59″04, Mr. Landy, who had all but declared the feat impossible, lowered the barrier even further by running the mile in 3’58″00 —  1.4 seconds faster than Mr. Bannister, and close to 3 seconds faster than any time he had run before.

It appears that the barrier was indeed a purely psychological one.

One theory has it that pain and fatigue are but tricks of the mind.Called the Central Governor Model, it proposes the following: Your heart requires oxygen to function. During vigorous physical exertion such as intensive running, the heart runs short on oxygen as more of it is diverted to the muscles. Sensing this, the heart sends signals to the brain, which then proceeds to restrict oxygen flow to the muscles. Hence, the pain and fatigue in your legs and the annoying voice in your head that says: “Why don’t you give up? Stop running.”

But — and here’s the catch — if you could override this subconscious impulse with a conscious effort, you will push past the pain and fatigue that prevents you from realizing your full potential.

Mr. Bannister may have done just that. He was able to convince his central governor (his brain) that the four-minute mile was achievable. He overrode the subconscious, and forced more out of himself than his brain would have allowed. Mr. Landy’s governor, by contrast, could not be convinced until it had evidence that someone else had achieved the impossible.

Is pain, then, all in the mind?

“Mental tenacity — and the ability to manage and even thrive on and push through pain — is a key segregator between the mortals and immortals in running,” said Mary Wittenberg, president and chief executive of the New York Road Runners, in an interview with the New York Times.

Of course, all runners hoping to run competitively must first attain a certain level of physical fitness. But at a certain point, the subtleties of the mind may start to play a bigger role than the brute force of the body.

Paavo Nurmi, a Finnish runner who dominated distance running in the 20th century, credited his physical feats with his psychological strength: “Mind is everything; muscle, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind.” He didn’t think his way to his nine Olympic golds, of course, but to him, mind rules over muscle.

In June 2012, I competed for Hong Kong in the Asian Junior Athletics Championships. Rounding the final bend in the 3000m steeplechase, I was neck and neck with a Vietnamese opponent. We emerged into the final stretch, and I braced for a final push to the finish. Suddenly, though, she accelerated. My legs felt like rubbery jelly, but I knew that there was still some fuel left in the tank.

Treacherously, my central governor kicked in at that precise moment:  “Don’t push. Just settle for your spot.” I watched my opponent pull further and further away.

She finished four seconds ahead of me — a massive and unacceptable gain over a mere 100 meters.

I had succumbed to the voice in my head, and though I broke my personal record, the race was an agonizing defeat for me. Never again, I decided, do I ever want to be defeated by my mind.

Chrissie Wellington, a British triathlete and a four-time world champion in the Ironman, has a timeless piece of advise. Put off by the idea of painful exertion? Don’t worry. “Expect it will be painful and have faith in yourself that you will overcome those dark times.”