No criticism of others' efforts and intuitions, but I'm coming to the painful realization my own entire thought process has been flawed. I'm like the law student who reads a Supreme Court opinion and concludes "good writing is using lots of words or phrases like 'query' and 'meet for the case'," missing the crux reality that once one is a good writer a phrase like 'meet for the case' may be the only one that fits. The funny thing is that I am not naive to the problem but I haven't taken the dramatic steps required to resolve it.
Causes of my Problems
I have badly foreshortened hip flexors. Most runners do. I would guess most people do, because sitting shortens them and in the absence of a deliberate effort they will not re-lengthen. Biking, with a posture that is like sitting with your elbows on your knees, is especially bad. Biking all day is even worse, and recovering from biking all day by spending the next day in the fetal position, well, it is a surprise I can walk.
I also have weak hips. That one surprised me to learn -- I work hard to strengthen my hips -- but it is true. The hip/glute muscles do not do their job of pushing the hips forward when standing -- and certainly not when running. It is easy to cheat strength training, taking the stress on your lower back.
I said "I knew what the problem was." And I did. Coach Mike has been after me about my hip tilt since, well, ever. I even once used the password "runhipsfirst" (changed after the Heartbleed scare) to keep the issue in my frontal lobe. But I never made any real changes because things seemed to be going just fine the way I was running.
D__ recently shared with me this thoughtful Runners World article addressing this issue.
This one-two punch of weak hips and tight hip flexors has manifested itself in several ways in my various athletic efforts. One that would not immediately jump to mind: when I telemark ski, a sport that involves a lunge-like motion for the turn, I overweight the lead ski and under-weight the trailing ski, because in a lunge position my weight is naturally forward.
|Me telemarking. Too much weight on that front ski.|
When I run I tilt forward at the hips relative to my torso.
|Triathlon gear shows the tilt well. Consider the angle of the short waist-line to the torso above it.|
In addition to a hip tilt, both the picture and the video show a short follow-through on the stride. Contrast that to this picture of Moses Mosop, the world's second-fastest-ever marathoner.
|See both follow-through and waist-line to torso.|
One further symptom the hip tilt does not show well: running with the glutes only marginally engaged permits lots of side-to-side/up-and-down motion in the hips as well. The below video shows what happens when the hip of the striding leg is not bearing my weight sufficiently well.
Hip Angle-Foot Strike
I think it is no accident that I have tended to be a heel striker, although recently I have been able with serious effort to change that. When I consider the Mosop picture I don't see how he could strike the ground heel-first. But too, he does not need to do so, because his loose hip-flexors permit that long - and beautiful -- follow-through at the end of the stride.
So it's just a working hypothesis, but I propose that foot strike is the symptom of a root cause, which is hip angle. Here is my test: I stand as if on a start line. I lean forward from the ankles, flexing the glutes to keep the hips pushed forward. I take a stride at the last minute possible to keep myself from falling over.
Without thinking about it I am landing mid- to fore-foot. Time and again.
In contrast, if I go with my normal "pretty good posture" stance -- i.e., the way I stand when I am not thinking about it -- and I try the same thing, the natural landing position is further back on the foot. It may not be a full-on heel strike, but (and you may not be able to discern this from the video) it does involve my heel striking the ground.
Changing my Running
I took this idea to the streets yesterday. I was warned by PT Kristin from Fast Track Therapy to run in short doses -- 3 minutes on, rest, 3' on, rest. During the rest period Kristin suggested I do a drill or two designed to activate the glutes or to concentrate on the extended hip flexors. And she was right -- it is hard to keep the head in the game while doing this. As soon as my mind wandered I was back in my normal stride, which, frustratingly, is just effective enough that I have to tell myself "no! Do better!"
A variety of exercises can help with this. Ultimately it is a core strength question, with "core" meaning "glutes and hips" more than it does "six-pack abs." I found a video of Ironman great Craig Alexander showing off his core strengthening routine. What I like is that as he moves, including going to one leg at a time, his hips stay rigid. Mine decidedly do not.
No clue how long this will take. The idea is that if I pull off the change I will run more cleanly, with less stress on the parts that don't age well, but also that I will engage the big glute muscles so run faster and longer. That's a prize worth working for.