Posted by Steve Magness
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.