Tag Archives: posture

Yes, I’m Aware that I’m Not Aware

Years ago, I was out on a Saturday morning club run. Among the runners that day was my instructor from the Running 101 class I’d taken the previous year. That class got me into running regularly, and resulted in my first half marathon. She looked at me as I passed.

“You’re doing great!” she said. “Drop those shoulders.”

Sure enough, they were riding up. I knew I was prone to this under stress, such as while running or in a tough Aikido class, but it’s not something I readily recognize. Since then I’ve worked on being more self-aware during long runs, and to consciously remind myself to relax.

Learning and applying self-awareness has several benefits. For one, it forces me into the moment – “how am I really feeling right now” – and takes my mind away from how much time or distance I have remaining. And once in the moment, it’s easier to remain there, to appreciate that I’m doing something I love, and how beautiful a day it is, or how beautiful the trail is. For me, at least, an ultra is a great thing to have finished, but the memories are more important. I have distinct memories from every one of my 22 (so far) ultras, and replaying them, good or bad, is very much like being there all over again.

Feeling good at the 2014 Dances with Dirt – Hell 50K.

It’s also good to be honest with yourself when others are not. Race staff, volunteers, and spectators don’t want to discourage runners. So what comes out of their mouths are things like, “You’re looking strong!” whether I’m bounding along or shuffling like a zombie and they’re texting the county coroner to stand by. So the times when they’ve been honest with me really stand out, like the guy who told me my nose was bleeding halfway through a 50K, or the aid station captain who gently hinted that maybe I should turn in my chip because I looked pale and wasn’t sweating. All this means I have to be conscious enough of my condition to make good decisions – or to specifically ask for an honest assessment from someone else..

Here are a few things I do at times during a long run or race:

  • Check my breathing. If I’ve picked up the pace, or run hard for a while, my breaths can get shallow and less productive. No matter how fast I’m going, I switch to several deliberate deep breaths. Not so much to get extra oxygen into my lungs, but to get the excess carbon dioxide out. So breathe out to empty the lungs, then breathe in normally.

Relax! Breathe deep!

  • Check posture. Am I upright, back straight, leaning from the ankles, or starting to hunch over?
  • General body check. How is everything feeling? Is there pain anywhere I’m not paying attention to? Am I favoring one side over the other? Do I need water or salt? You may wonder that I have to consciously do this, but when you’re focused on a particular goal or milestone, such as getting over this last ridge to the aid station, you can lose touch with how your body is doing.

Then, of course, there are times it’s obvious how my body is doing.

Having run ultras for years now, it’s mostly second nature. Or so I’d like to think. And yet, this very morning I was out on a club run, cruising through Nichols Arboretum, and we passed a couple of people on the trail. I was the last one in the pack, and shortly after I passed them I heard the older man’s voice behind me: “Relax the shoulders!”

One of these days, I’ll learn. Maybe.

Good Running Form = Tired Arms?

I did a long run yesterday, and boy, are my arms tired.

Your logic escapes me, sir.

Your logic escapes me, sir.

The logic would be obvious, Mr. Spock, if you had been at the running clinic at the Ann Arbor Running Company on Wednesday. It was led by Grant Robison, a star runner at Stanford and Olympic miler in 2004. Over 20 people of all ages showed up to get tips on running with better form.

During high school, college, and his Olympic career, Grant told us, he never studied proper running form, and doubted that most of his fellow Olympians did, either. That may have contributed to his frequent injuries, one of which brought an early end to his participation in Athens.

Today Grant is a teacher for the Good Form Running program, which focuses on three key aspects of running form – posture, foot landing, and body lean. Here are the main points of each:

  • Posture – body straight, pelvis under hips, proper arm swing
  • Landing – midfoot on landing, feet under hips, cadence around 180 steps/minute
  • Lean – bend from ankles, not at waist
Here's a short video showing the main principles of Good Form Running. It's sponsored by New Balance, so there are some not-so-subtle references to the company and their shoes. But the advice is good.

Here’s a short video with Grant demonstrating the principles of Good Form Running. It’s sponsored by New Balance, so there are some not-so-subtle references to the company and their shoes. But the advice is good.

I’d heard all these principles before, and working on them has helped keep me free of serious injury (falls not included) for several years of 1000+ miles of running. But what made this clinic particularly useful to me was the easy drills Grant taught us to develop the habits of good form.

For example, to restore correct posture, all that’s needed is to “reach for the sky” and then let the arms drop. “You can’t touch the sky with a tipped pelvis,” Grant pointed out. Sure enough, it worked like a charm – and it can even be done while running.

To establish a midfoot landing habit, just try heel striking while walking, or walking in place. You can’t do it – it feels too unnatural. Practice that, then letting your feet fall naturally under you while walking. Then extend that to running.

For proper arm swing, just walk in place, letting the arms swing naturally. Then without lifting the shoulders, just bend the elbows to create a 90 degree angle. This “shortens the lever” for more efficiency when running. “Most runners don’t use their arms enough,” Grant said. “It’s hard to run fast with slow arm movement. So when you go out running next, I want you to use your arms more than your legs. Concentrate on the arm movement, and the legs will naturally follow, even when they’re tired.”

For proper lean, all we did was stand straight and let ourselves lean onto our toes. “The moment the toes curl is the proper amount of lean,” Grant said. “Then just release the toes and you’ll fall naturally into your run.”

Afterward, a few of us went out for a four-mile run to try out the things we’d learned. I tried to follow Grant’s advice to run more with my arms than my legs. A couple of times I noticed my arms were not as active as they should be and got them back into action, but other than that I didn’t notice any difference in my technique.

When I woke up Thursday morning, however, my first thought was, “Why are my biceps sore?” Well, that came from exercising them in a way I wasn’t used to – which means my arm form has been less than ideal for a long time.

On yesterday’s long run I worked on form again. Sure enough, at several times over the 16 miles I realized that I wasn’t using my arms properly. I’d let them drop or wasn’t swinging them purposefully enough. At my next race (45 miles of trail April 25-26), good form will be very important to finishing strong, and this will give me something to focus on over the next two weeks.

Bottom line, if there’s a Good Form Running clinic in your area, I recommend it. It’s free and has good advice for runners of all levels. If there isn’t one, here’s a page on their website with more helpful videos.

Under Pressure

“The key to being strong,” Geoff said, his fingertips digging deeply into my side, “is to relax.”

Massage - Microsoft clip artI wanted to agree, but it was difficult with my subscapularis muscle stubbornly refusing to take his advice. Nor could I nod with my head secured face down in a padded loop. So I settled for an acknowledging grunt, which also allowed me to express my discomfort without whimpering.

The problem was tense shoulders, affecting my Aikido form. During preparation for my 1st Kyu test last December, Sensei had reminded me many times to lower them, usually by looking my way and shrugging. I’d done my best to keep them relaxed, but the photos from the test and Sensei’s critique letter clearly indicated that under pressure, the shoulders had reverted to old habits. This was something I could not fix quickly, but would require effort to overcome.

The first part of fixing the problem, I decided, was to find out how big it was. I began checking my posture several times a day. To my surprise, I’ve discovered my shoulders raised and tense when I really don’t expect them to be, such as:
……..– Running at a moderate pace
……..– Driving
……..– Pushing a shopping cart
……..– Typing at my desk, including while writing this post. Down, boys! Down!

The second part is to work on replacing the bad habit with a better one. So shoulder relaxation is now part of every workout routine, including pre-run warmups and pre-Aikido stretches. And whenever I catch myself with raised shoulders, I relax them and hold the position for a while, trying to build muscle memory.

Relax, Jeff!! Relax!

Finally, I wanted to do something to loosen up the accumulated tension and stiffness in my neck and shoulders. So every two weeks, I get an hour-long massage with emphasis on the upper body. The place I settled on is in downtown Ann Arbor above a cafe. At the top is a landing with a bench where you leave your shoes underneath. It reminded me of the dojo, and I soon found out why.

As Geoff shook my hand I thought I recognized him, and he told me he thought he knew me from somewhere. Then I mentioned my Aikido training, and it clicked; he was also a student at our school. He wasn’t training actively anymore, but he’d attended the YMCA class, which I went to on occasion. This made one part of the massage very easy; when I told him my shoulder was a little achy from too many jump breakfalls, he knew exactly what I was talking about.

Adolphs Meat Tenderizer

Tool of the trade.

He got right to work, pushing, probing, and generally letting my bunched-up muscles know that he meant business. I’m not a big fan of pain, one reason I’ve avoided massage, the deep tissue kind in particular, but I wanted results badly enough that I didn’t complain. Much.

To distract myself, we continued talking about Aikido, such as the recent increased emphasis on circular movements and focus on a smooth form, and that for this year a beginning technique is now part of an advanced test. (Which means the advanced student must do it perfectly, with understanding of all parts of the technique, in order to score well.) I mentioned that I had the tendency to tense up, especially when learning a new technique on or a test, causing my shoulders to rise. This was the context of his comment on relaxing. A well-executed technique relies mainly on a relaxed, balanced feeling instead of raw muscle strength.

At the end, Geoff asked me if I was feeling more tension on one side more than the other. When I said no, he mentioned that he’d noticed my right shoulder needed more work. “Well,” I said, “I always carry my backpack slung over my right shoulder.”

Geoff smiled. “Balance,” he said.