By JUDI KETTELER
When you are trying to improve yourself through any kind of exercise programme, it’s good storytelling to use phrases like “I wanted to be a better version of myself,” or “I was ready to see what I was truly capable of.” But I hired a running coach because I was tired of fighting with my husband about the cost of running shoes.
I have been a runner for 20 years. I estimate that I have run 14,000 miles and gone through close to a hundred pairs of shoes in that time. In the last five years, I haven’t been able to get more than a few months of wear out of a pair of shoes before both heels were obliterated.
I’m a heel striker, hitting the ground with my heel first, something I suspect has led to pain in my feet, calves, lower back and shoulders. But it wasn’t until it started affecting my marriage that I decided enough was enough.
“I just don’t understand. Isn’t there another kind of shoe you can wear?” my husband would ask.
I explained that I had tried a bunch of different shoes designed for heel strikers. “The girl at the running store said these seemed best.”
“Well, they’re not.”
I knew he was right. But I also knew the minute the heel cushion wore down, my legs started to hurt. So every three months, my husband, who loves the search for a deal, would scour the Internet for the best price on my shoes, usually around $100 for a pair.
The package would come. I’d put the shoes on with a smile. He’d glare at me.
The thing about us middle-of-the-pack runners is that we tend to be an independent lot. We pride ourselves on self-reliance and just figuring it out.
So I started reading articles about how to stop heel striking. There was form advice (keep your chin parallel to the ground), mental cues (think about using your whole foot) and lots of diagrams and descriptions of a proper stride. But when it came to actually hitting the road for a run, I really had no idea how my foot was hitting the pavement.
So several months ago I decided to swallow my self-reliance and put myself at the mercy of a running coach. I found Ryan Smith through a quick online search. He appeared to have every training credential that existed (none of which I had any clue about). More importantly, he was smiling in his picture.
At our first meeting, he took videos of my running from various angles, and we watched the playback. I was horrified. Was that really me? I couldn’t imagine how I had possibly run 14,000 miles — including three marathons and dozens of half-marathons and 10Ks — with such an ungraceful and inefficient-looking stride.
Coach Ryan slowed the footage way down, and I saw immediately how my foot was reaching out in front of me, grinding into the ground. With each step, my hips were twisting as my right leg crossed over in front of my left. My shoulders followed behind, and my head bobbed up and down. It was a train wreck of a stride.
“Basically, with each step, you’re stopping your own momentum,” he explained. “You’ve just taken the way we walk, with our heels hitting first, and transferred it to running.”
I must have looked crestfallen, because he added: “It’s very, very common.”
I asked him if there was any hope.
“Absolutely. But we have to start from the beginning.”
That meant no real running for weeks. Instead, I did a series of bouncing, running in place and arm movement drills designed to teach my foot how to hit the ground and my hips and shoulders to stay square. I had to do each drill to a metronome, which started at 165 beats per minute in the first week and eventually moved to 180, along with a long list of core-strengthening exercises.
And, most importantly, he put me in new shoes — lightweight and stripped down with one distinguishing feature — lugs. Lugs are a row of raised pieces of sole on the ball of the foot to encourage the user to hit right there. Run the way the shoes are intended to be run in, and I should be able to get 600 to 700 miles out of a single pair, he told me.
He had me start running, first for just 30 seconds at a time, focusing on hitting my whole foot with the weight on those raised lugs. He cued me to keep my body straight with my core “on,” but to lean forward to move forward, and use my glute muscles to move my legs. Moving this way ensured that my foot was under me each time, instead of reaching in front of me.
I felt self-conscious, bouncing up and down in my driveway and then doing a series of 30-second runs up and down my street. And then I remembered my husband’s glare. I decided not to care about the neighbors.
After a few weeks, we went to the track to talk about speed. A cadence of 180 or 185 is optimal, no matter how fast or slow you’re running, he said. Your foot can only hit the pavement so many times a minute. It is everything else that determines your speed, he explained.
I nodded, hoping “everything else” would click soon.
And it did, a few weeks later, on Shawnee Run Road, two miles from my house. By this point, I had the stride and cadence. I was no longer heel striking. Instead I was hitting my whole foot, weight on those lugs, leaning forward to move forward, which kept my foot under me.
On that morning, the sun was out, I was feeling good, and I wanted to move faster. My new, improved posture wouldn’t let me reach in front for a big stride. The metronome in my ear buds told me I was already hitting at 180, so it wasn’t about more foot strikes. The only option I had left was to push it all away from me, beginning with the ground. And when I did that, a spring uncoiled and shot me forward with so much less effort than ever before. I moved faster because of what I put behind me.
It’s as if a force that had been there all along shouted up: “You found me! What took you so long?”
Speed, I had learned, comes from what you put behind you. I knew I wanted to put those ridiculous fights with my husband behind me. I just had no idea it would be joined by a totally new understanding of where momentum truly comes from. And that, yes, it would make me a better version of myself.
We’ll see how long it will be before I need a new pair of running shoes. (NY Times)
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