Saturday, June 26, 2010

Paige Higgins Marathon Makeover


In Part 1 of this series, I explained the situation: Paige Higgins, a world championship marathoner, wants to run a much faster marathon, but her current running form limits her performance. In this edition, Paige begins the process of changing her form, and the results have been exciting (and a little surprising).

In my analysis of Paige’s pre-makeover form, I noticed a few key faults:

1. She, like many of us, overuses her arms. They cross her body instead of moving forward to backward in the classic runner’s arm swing.

2. Her shortened, shuffling stride is at least partially due to a very, very high stride rate. Most experts suggest that 180 steps per minute is optimal.

Reviewing video (above) of Paige training, racing a 5K, and competing during the World Championship Marathon last August revealed that her stride rate totaled 200-215 steps per minute. That’s a lot of steps with very little “flight” within the stride. The result, as you would expect, is a very short, shuffling stride.

3. Due to her quick leg turnover, she has very little back kick and squats while she runs. To further complicate things, she not only squats but also runs with her butt sticking out. These two faults lead to a reduced knee lift and a lack of leg extension (the rear leg at toe off should be close to straight, but her rear leg is still bent at toe off).

From this analysis, I devised a weekly series of exercises to address these faults. Paige and I met once per week for the first month to implement the exercises and to track her improvements. Her “homework” after each session included implementing the ideas learned in each technique session.

Technique Sessions, Month One

In the first month of technique sessions, I wanted to get a baseline of the issues I found in the slow motion video analysis in order to establish proper movement patterns. I also wanted to get an idea of whether her nervous system was adaptable.

Some runners have a highly adaptable nervous system. These runners can pick up new motor skills very quickly. Ask them to learn to juggle and they’ll get it in no time. Ask them to stand on a fitness ball and they can do it after just a few tries. Other runners have a nervous system that is slow to learn new skills. Juggling is nearly impossible and takes lots and lots of practice to see small improvements. Standing on a fitness ball, which requires a lot of neural activation and coordination, becomes dangerous, as the body just can’t learn the use of different muscle groups to balance on the ball.

Lastly, I wanted to see what her basic speed (fastest time over 100m) was, and if we could improve it by changing her form. It’s hard to shuffle through a fast 100m, so this is a great (and exaggerated) way to see how form changes.

From the outset, my fear was that Paige’s nervous system would be slow to adapt after literally millions of short, shuffling strides. How hard would it be to make even the smallest change? After all, we only needed to gain an inch or so of increased stride length to make a significant difference in her time over the 26.2 miles. And, could we make this form change without causing injury?

The Warm-up (and Cadence Evaluation)

Each weekly technique session started with a four-lap warm-up around the track. I had Paige count her strides during the warm-up. Even at a slow jog, her cadence (steps per minute) was 200!

You can do this test at home as well. While running, count the number of steps for your right foot in 15 seconds. Multiply that by four and then double it and you’ll have your cadence. At a slow jog, you’d expect it to be 160-180, but certainly not 200.