To change or not: Salazar, Ritzenhein, and running form changes

Ritz and his new form:

There is a lot of buzz going around about Dathan Ritzenhein and his form changes. You either fall into one of two camps as Amby Burfoot stated in his blog on the subject: it’s great or insane (his article is here).

I’ve got to observe Salazar working on mechanics twice. I was fortunate enough to watch Salazar work on running mechanics with none other than Paula Radcliffe and Kara Goucher when I was up in Portland for the Nike HS Cross Country Champs last fall with Ryan. They were doing 100m strides on the track while filming it all with a high speed camera. I mostly sat back and observed as that’s my nature, but I couldn’t help but throw in my two cents on some things that I noticed. My “coaching” instincts on mechanics ingrained by Tom Tellez could only be held back for so long.


I’m not here to talk about what Radcliffe or Goucher or even Galen Rupp were working on, the point is that they all were working on something. Whether it was foot strike, arm stroke, or some other slight change in watching the group and then in talking with Salazar after, it was obvious the importance that mechanics were given.  So it does not surprise me that Ritzenhein is the latest to get a mechanics makeover.

It’s strange to think that a man known for his horrible running style would be so adamant about the importance of running form, but that’s where were at. At the tail end of his career, Salazar worked with my coaching mentor, Tom Tellez, and said that that was what got him thinking about the importance of running mechanics. Since then, it seems like Salazar has tried to meld the distance and sprint/mechanics side of the sports.

The point of all this is that for too long there has been this concept that “you are stuck with what you got.” For some reason, we spend endless hours working on perfecting skills like throwing a baseball or hitting a golf ball but take the skill of running for granted. And make no mistake, it is a skill.

The research is rather interesting in this regard. With many animals walking or running are largely lower level nervous system activities. In many instances, the motor program is mostly at the spinal cord level through something called the Central Pattern Generator (Molinari, 2009). In studies on animals and humans with spine lesions that prevent higher level (i.e. the Brain) communication to the legs, animals can be retrained to have a walking pattern that somewhat mimics their normal gait (Duysens, 2005). People on the other hand can be reatrained to have a sort of walking movement with assistance but it is not near as normal as the animals. The reason is likely that the animals walking pattern relies on the lower level pattern, while humans use more of a mixture of both higher and lower level nervous system control. The higher level nervous system is believed to be more susceptible to learning/development.

At one time it had been thought that improvement in motor learning only occurred at the higher levels such as in the motor cortex in the brain. However, recent evidence has demonstrated that even at a spinal cord level, the movement pattern can be refined (Molinari, 2009). The movement pattern is generally improved by a better coordination of activating just the right amount of motor units to do the work, improving the cycling of motor unit activation, and decreasing the level of co-activation (when the opposing muscle is active at the same time as the main muscle). Additionally, as a movement becomes well refined, it is believed that the CNS becomes better at using all of the sensory information that is receiving, essentially weeding out the pertinent versus inconsequential information better than when first learning how to move.

Take a Chance

Carl Lewis set the national High School long jump record during his prep days. When he came to college, coach Tellez switched his takeoff leg. If letsrun or blogs were around back then, this change would have been ridiculed to no end. However, history shows it worked out pretty well. The point is that sometimes with top athletes or even with average athletes, we are afraid to change. It’s much easier to take the safe route and not change anything. With top athletes, many times we are afraid to coach them. This is the wrong approach. If you know what you are doing, be confident and make the change.

This brings me to my own experience. I’ve worked with several runners who have had injury problems directly related to their running gait. I just worked with a young girl who had been having strange knee pain, and after looking at her gait and noticing her over striding and the big torque/twisting movement she was placing on the lower leg, I changed up her form. Since then she’s been injury free.

Similarly, with Ryan, we changed up his running form after his sophomore year. Even though he was having a lot of success, we stuck with the concept of trying to do what’s right and what we believed in. So, his form changed, and I’d think if you asked him, he’d tell you that one of the reasons he developed a kick and some actual speed was because of that change.

With all that being said, with Salazar and Ritzenhein, if they’ve researched it and are confident in their ability to make the change, I think it’ll work out well. The biggest problem that people run into with changing mechanics is being led down the wrong path. They make changes without knowing what they are doing, why they are doing it, or even what good mechanics are. This problem will get even worse with the rise of popularity of barefoot running and forefoot striking.

Generally, you’ll see an increase in injuries if you make changes without knowing what you are doing, and I believe this is what has given running form changes a bad name. Too many people with good intentions without knowing what to do and how to change. Remember that you are messing with probably 2 decades of motor programming. It’s easy to mess things up.

Salazar and his crew know what they are doing. If done properly, it’ll be a good change for Ritz.

8 comments:

  1. Anonymous1:35 AM

    One of my struggles is to know how much change to make, and thus, how much risk to take. This is even the case when making change appears to be logically sound. This is one of the reasons why I believe many coaches can become too stuck in tradition and not innovate enough. They know that some certain way of doing things typically has some sort of approximate outcome (of course with some variance due to various external variables). They don't know what change may bring. Putting change to the test can be a hard thing to do, because they are not being tried with guinea pigs, but on people, with their long hours of effort, sacrifice, and dreams.

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  2. Great post Steve, and you're right about barefooting and proper mechanics. Too many people who try it attempt to force a forefoot strike simply because they hear that's what you're supposed to do, then wind up getting hurt. The body needs time to re-learn proper mechanics. Maybe some can transition overnight, but my guess is that that would be the exception rather than the norm. I'm hoping Ritz does well in NYC.

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  3. Anonymous8:17 AM

    I had knee surgery recently due to a torn meniscus. Unfortunately, the surgeon also found arthritis under my kneecap, but at least it was mild. This was all hard to take due to the fact that I love running. I saw a physical therapist who basically said that with the mechanics of how I walk and run, (a twisting/torquing motion) it was inevitable that I would have a knee injury. Where can "normal" people like myself, find a running coach that would help me learn how to have a better running form?

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  4. Not to over-simplify but after a year of injuries, I went 100% barefoot for 3 months and then took my natural barefoot running style back to shoes and it has worked terrifically. For me, that was a forefoot strike but I didn't force it. I didn't have access to a lot of top level coaches so I figured my natural body would tell me or at least alter me when I made a mistake. The moment I went barefoot, my stride shortened, back straighted, landed softly and cadence increased.

    In fact, I wonder if Danthan did any barefoot running during that transition? In any event, great post Steve (as always).

    I'm not a scientist or a coach but if a person has different form barefoot vs. shods, I wonder if that's a starting point to begin the analysis. I'm not a barefoot zealot of anything but it's an interesting topic.

    Harry

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  5. As prep for a presentation given at Zombie Runner with olympian Magda Lewy-Boulet, I decided to put on the Vibram five fingers my sister gave me and see how it would feel to run a mile in them on the track after a couple laps of warm up. I had just run 6 miles each of the previous two days at a 7:18 and 7:30 pace without soreness, so I really didn't see how one mile at that pace would be a problem.

    Well, the 12 step program to running barefoot or "minimal" handout that I received from runningquest.com came a day too late, as I realized I had skipped up to step/week 8 and foolishly ran a tempo 7:13 mile in them. My calves felt tight in the last lap, and the next day I was hobbling around with really sore calves. Granted, it feels like a good soreness, as if I did too many calf raises, not like I injured them. In fact, I'm excited that such a seemingly simple alteration of my running style for such a short distance can make such a big difference in muscle utilization.

    I had just finished reading Born to Run and I had started to feel like my right plantar's was tight and inflamed after my last road race, so I didn't think it would hurt to try something that everyone seems to be talking about. I'm giving the legs a rest now so that I'll be able to run a good 6 mile race in few days. That will be 5 days post-Vibram fiasco.

    Vibram, by the way, makes Chaco sandals, which I love and have been wearing continuously since 2003 when I'm not barefoot, or exercising in my running shoes. It's also interesting that I feel much less pain if I wear heels, or walk on my toes, or even jog and play tennis. I guess I'm engaging my plantars/achilles/calves/lower leg more when I do that and feeling the tautness does give a springy sensation to my stride. I would have thought all my time spent in climbing shoes would have built up those same areas, but then again I haven't been climbing regularly of late.

    I plan to order ChiRunning and Running with the Whole Body to research this more. I would like to incorporate the mid-forefoot strides more during interval training to increase my strength and speed. I think I already have good posture so I won't mess with that except to be more aware of my stride length/turnover/body alignment. I'm hoping this might even help my husband who stopped running due to back pain and is now in the market for a pair of five fingers. It's expensive to experiment with these new minimal shoes, so that's the next step, as I don't see liking the feel of the five fingers on trails, not to mention my longer 2nd toe : )

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  6. I had a period of 2.5 years where I was plagued with tons of injuries. It wasn't until I went through a year of deep tissue massage and realizing that my form changed from forefoot to heel striking (thanks to the overly think shoes i was running in). I've been switched over to my forefoot style running in Newton's for a year now and have been injury free.

    Ritz changing his form will at least make him injury free and able to run. It doesn't matter how fast he is running on his heels if he's injured and can't run 100%. It may take him time, and time to develop all the muscles he needs to to run forefoot, but over time he'll be back strong and injury free.

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  7. Thanks for all the comments, especially the success stories! Great to hear so many positive changes.

    Anonymous- I'm afraid I don't know who to recomend. At the moment, my best suggestion is to look into some of the University Running Injury clinics. They'll give you a full running form evaluation with some cool biomechanical analysis software. I know there are 5 or so throughout the country. The two I know off the top of my head are the University of Virginia one and then one led by biomechanist Irene Davis, though I forgot which school.

    Harry- I'd agree completely that comparing shod vs. barefoot form is a great place to start. If there are significant differences, and there usually are, then the shoe is obviously changing the running motion. A comparison would be a great starting point of analysis.

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  8. Irene Davis was in Delaware though I recently heard she moved to harvard. I would expect her running biomechanics lab is still ongoing at the Univ. of Delaware.

    Greg

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