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.

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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!





A Strength Workout

18 06 2012

I’ve been back from the 15th Asian Junior Athletics Championships for nearly a week now. But as with any kind of competition, the excitement, thrill, and the determination to unlock more of my human potential lives on.

My event at the Championships was again the steeplechase – I’ve developed a sort of obsessive attachment to this exhilarating race. The seven and a half laps, the 28 hurdles, the 7 water barriers…with each race, I’ve become more and more attached to the steeplechase.

Concretely, I suppose I did alright at the Championships. I clocked a 11’46″96, six seconds faster than the week before and setting a new Hong Kong Junior Record. That was nice. But one of the biggest disappointments came as I rounded the final bend and into the final 100m stretch. There was a Vietnamese competitor right in front of me. She had been half a step behind me for the entirety of the last lap, but as soon as we stepped off the water hurdle, she was off.

I know I wanted badly to overtake her, to fend off her challenge and to place 5th. But I also remember watching her pull away, speeding off, while, try as I might, my legs just didn’t have it in them anymore to accelerate. Now the question is, could I have gone any faster, physically? Or did I lose it mentally – did my mind budge at that critical moment? Did I not want it badly enough to endure one last push?

That, I think, was the most excruciating part of the race: the state of half-knowing that I had already pushed myself as hard as possible, but also the state of half-knowing that perhaps I could have done just a little more…

Closing ceremony of the Asian Junior Athletics Championships, held in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

BACK IN HONG KONG…A STRENGTH WORKOUT

Anyway, now that I’m back in HK, it’s straight back into training. I’ve been focusing on running so much lately that my usual twice-weekly circuit training sessions have kind of taken a back seat. So I decided to start some strength work again, with a focus on both muscular endurance and explosive power. Here’s my strength workout from this morning.

WARMUP: 15 minute bike

CORE: 3 CIRCUITS
1 minute plank
20 leg raises with 1kg medicine ball held between my feet
20 scorpions (10 each leg)
25 butterfly sit ups
1 minute right plank (last 30 seconds dynamic)
1 minute left plank (last 30 seconds dynamic)

LOWER: 3 CIRCUITS
30 squats (holding one 20lb dumbbell)
30 lunges (holding two 10lb dumbbells overhead)
30 lateral cone hops
30 alternating leg box jumps
30 jump squats (holding two 10lb dumbbells)

UPPER: 2 CIRCUITS
30 single arm rows (15 on each arm, holding one 20lb)
5 burpees, jumping up into a chin up
25 tricep dips
15 bench presses (holding two 15lb dumbbells)
25 Indian pushups

BACK
3 sets of 12 Roman Chair back raises (holding one 20lb dumbbell)

and finally….

STRETCH!
30 minutes





The Athlete and The Deaf Frog

3 06 2012

As I toed the starting line today, I knew what I had to do.

Run. Run fast. Push. Push hard. Break my record. Win. Nothing else matters – not until I cross the finish line.

For the next 7 laps, nothing else crossed my mind. Each and every step, leap, hurdle – all were propelled by nothing other than the desire to go faster, harder, to push physical and mental boundaries, to find within me the will and power to run my best race.

A LITTLE WORLD FOR MYSELF

Prior to any race, I create a little world for myself to momentarily step into.  In this little world there is only me and me alone. There are no distractions – no cheers nor boos, no encouragement nor discouragement from others. It is only me, focusing intently on the immediate goal that I must achieve. I take deep breaths and immerse myself in this self-created world. I visualise my goal, I visualise success. Then the starting pistol is fired – I am jolted out of the little world that I have molded for myself, and spring into action.

When the going gets tough – when I can sense the fatigue creeping into my legs, when my heart and lungs are working at their maximum capacity, when I feel as if I cannot push myself any longer – I remind myself of the world that I had stepped into at the starting line. I remind myself of my immediate goal – I picture it, I visualise it, I savour it. And that’s what keeps me going, that’s what propels me forwards, even if my body tells me otherwise.

The finish line is right before me. I pump my arms, I call up my final energy reserves. I grimace in both pain and concentration, anticipation and excitement. The seconds are  slowly ticking away…11’49, 11’50, 11’51…11’52″03!!! I had done it – I had broken my previous record, I had run a personal best, I had set a new HK Junior Record!

New HK Junior Record for the 3000m steeplechase: 11’52″03

THE  STORY OF THE DEAF FROG

As I sat in the meeting room after the race for a HK Athletic Team briefing, Coach Paul told us all a story.  It goes like this.

Once upon a time there was a city of frogs, and in the middle of this city stood a huge tower. 1000 steps led to the top of the tower. Each year the city held a race, where frogs competed against each other in a hop to the top. No frog had ever made it to the top.

One frog, however, was determined to make it. As he toed start line together with other competitors, the crowd cheered words of encouragement. The frog hopped – the first step, the second, the third… gradually, however, other frogs began to slow and drop dead in exhaustion. The crowd was still loud and raucous, but instead of words of encouragement, were now seeking to persuade the frog to stop, to stop hopping before it was too late. And yet the frog kept going. He hopped and hopped until he made it to the top.

How did he to do it, a flabbergasted reporter asked the frog at the finish line.

The frog cupped his hands over his ears. I’m sorry, he said. I can’t hear you, I’m deaf!

The frog hadn’t heard the crowd discouraging him from carrying on. He had thought that they were simply cheering him on, urging him to keep going. And so, in his own little world, focused only on the goal before him, the frog succeeded.

IT’S MENTAL.

I believe half the race is won in the head. As long as you tell yourself that you can do it, as long as you want it enough, as along as you are determined enough, as long as you push hard enough, persevere for long enough – then the race is for you to win.

Thank you to my uncle, Benson, and to my grandma, for their support today! Photo credits – Benson Chiu.





If they can run, so can I.

25 04 2012

What an experience.

Eye-opening, hugely motivational and quite simply, amazing – such was the All China Junior Athletics Championships 2012. Now as I try to adjust back to study-leave life at school, my mind is not on my upcoming exams, but rather the track that I raced on, the elite runners whom I saw, the 11 minutes and 55 seconds that I ran.

My event was the 3000m steeplechase, and this was my second timer ever to run it. I had first run the steeplechase only a few weeks back, clocking a time of 12:12. Coming to the All China Junior Athletics Championships, my mindset had been to run my own race, against myself. Realistically, there was no way that I would be able to compete with the mainland Chinese athletes – they simply much more experience. My goal, therefore, was to break the 12 minute mark. And I did!

The Changzhou Olympic Sports Stadium. Pretty fancy.

My water hurdles were atrocious, my pacing fluctuated wildly (fastest lap was 87 seconds, slowest lap was 99.99), I was quite nearly lapped by the winner, and I finished 11th out of the 12 runners. Nevertheless I was thrilled with my result – I had slashed 17 seconds off my previous time and set a new Hong Kong Junior Record.

What was also very exciting was seeing the elite Chinese athletes in action. Prior to this race, mainland Chinese athletes to me had always just been an abstract blur in the distance – a standard too high to even consider trying to reach. Not any more. Actually seeing them run and racing together with them has eliminated that psychological barrier, and has served as a reminder that they too are young female Chinese runners like me.

And if they can run that fast, so can I.

That, I think, is what I’m taking away from this race. If those girls can run a 3000m steeplechase in 10:19, there’s nothing to stop me from doing the same. All I have to do is train hard and train smart. I’ve completed the challenge of representing HK and running my first ever national-level race. The next challenge now is running the steeplechase in 11:30…and who knows, maybe even 11:00!

Some of my fellow HK teammates, along with the super-cool Coach Paul.

Doing a bit of history revision in my hotel room.

A bit of exploring

In between training and racing, I went out exploring the streets of Changzhou. Armed with my iPhone (I had been too lazy to lug my DSLR to China), I finally gave iPhoneography a proper try. Here are some of my favourites shots.

Woof!! As I bent down to snap a photo of this little puppy, he flinched and barked at me!

This lady was just casually knitting on the street.

Who's da boss?

Mmm...street food. This was a kind of crepe/pancake, with an egg cracked over it and garnished with pickles, spring onions, parsley, gravy and a small fried cracker.

Close up of the crepe/pancake in the making.

Sesame oven baked puff pastries. Yum.





The Next Challenge

17 04 2012

20120417-172737.jpg

In less than 24 hours I will be traveling to China to represent Hong Kong in the All China Junior Athletics Championships, held in Changzhou, Jiangsu this year. This will be my first time to run at a national level – the first time to run for Hong Kong. It will also be the first time to race outside of Hong Kong, and the second time I run the 3000m steeplechase (I ran it for the first time less than 3 weeks ago).Yes, that’s definitely a lot of ‘firsts’!

Naturally, I’m feeling an exhilarating concoction of excitement, anticipation, nervousness and a tinge of something which I can’t quite put my finger on. It’s a mixture of pride, of wanting to rise to a challenge, of wanting to excel and be my own champion. Is there a word for that? Maybe not – but I’ll let you know when I find it.

Like I said, this will be my second time ever to run the 3000m steeplechase. My expectations for the race, therefore, have to be realistic. I’ll be running against Chinese runners – that in itself is already intimidating enough. But add to that the fact that they will probably all have already run the event many times before, and the intimidating, daunting feeling multiplies! What I’ll be aiming for is to gain valuable experience, to perform my personal best, to push myself, to realise new potentials. Concretely, I would like to finish in or under 12 minutes.

Achievable? I think so.

‘It’s not how good you are, it’s how good you want to be’ – that’s how I’ll be going into the race!





Running: Interval Training #4

19 08 2011

Last night’s interval training was so fulfilling that it deserves a post here, despite the fact that it may be  dry reading for some readers!

Warm-up:

  • 1000m jog
  • stretch

Technique Work

  • A series of running drills on a stretch of flat ground around 60-70m long. Run out with technique, run back with normal strides but pay special emphasis on the particular technique. Drills include:
  • Back kicks/butt kicks
  • High knees
  • Kick outs
  • Single legged hops
  • Lunges
  • Low walking
  • …and the list goes on.

Main set:

  • 400m run with emphasis on the technique just practiced
  • 30 leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 5x400m with strong focus on the back kick. Each 400m is broken down into two sections. First, a 100m sprint, followed by a quick 20 second recovery. Second, a 300m run (not sprint, but still working hard), again with strong focus on back kick.
  • 30 leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 3x800m. Each 800 is broken down into two sections. First, a 300m sprint. Second, a 500m run (not sprint, but still working hard).
  • 30 seated leg tucks, 30 dive bomber push-ups  , 30 supermans , 30 tricep dips.
  • 800m recovery jog
  • 2400m run. Smooth and relaxed back kicks and front kicks while still working very hard!

Cool down:

  • 400m walk, barefoot
  •  stretch