Learning to Run Pain-Free

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I’ve been raving to my friends about Ready to Run, a book by Crossfit San Francisco founder and physiotherapist Kelly Starrett. As I start my training for a half marathon in March, the biggest concern I had was the fear of injury. Last year, when I trained for the Brooklyn Half, I had a couple of weeks where pain in my ankles and toes kept me from being able to run the full program. It was only after ample rest that I could get back into it, but even then, I would have to endure a good deal of discomfort. My assumption was that this was just part of running and that gritting through it was the only way.

In Ready to Run, Starrett contends that the pain and injuries from running are often a result poor mobility in our bodies. And that lack of mobility is more often than not caused by our lifestyle: sitting hunched over at our desks all day, wearing shoes with high heels, not hydrating ourselves enough, and not performing routine maintenance to keep our bodies flexible, strong, and properly aligned. We try to compensate by buying expensive shoes or taking medicine for pain, but these do not solve the underlying issue of poor mechanics and lack of supporting structures in the body to make running a more fluid movement.

The book presents 12 Standards that you can use to assess your readiness to run and supplements each standard with a number of mobility exercises that you can do everyday. I went through all of the Standards and have been performing mobility exercises consistently for 10-15 minutes a day for the past 2 weeks. It’s still early, but I’m feeling great about the gains and will continue with the daily routine. Here are the 12 Standards and how I fared:

  1. Neutral Feet: Are your feet habitually in a neutral position?
    Result: Yes. Starrett provides some really good tips on how to keep a good standing posture, which I had not been doing. I’ve been trying my best to brace my back, keep my chest up, and keep my shoulders from rolling forward too much.
  2. Flat Shoes: Do you wear flat shoes?
    Result: No, but they may be flat enough. Starrett talks about the harmful impact of high-heeled shoes and how shoes with thick heels promote a heel-striking style of running, which can cause all kinds of pain and injuries long term. I have a pair of minimal running shoes that I plan to work into my workouts more regularly in the coming weeks (slowly and carefully) and I hope to be purchasing some cushioned flat (“zero drop”) running shoes in the coming weeks. Starrett also says you should avoid wearing flip-flops. They’re terrible for your feet and promote an unhealthy walking technique.
  3. A Supple Thoracic Spine: Do you have a pliant, properly organized thoracic spine?
    Result: No. Years of hunched-over sitting in front of a computer have done a number to my spine including a default hunched-over standing posture, constantly strained neck, and tight, forward-rolled shoulders. I’ve been extra conscious of my standing posture in recent weeks, and I’ve also tried to limit the consecutive number of minutes I spend sitting down in front of the computer.
  4. An Efficient Squatting Technique: Can you squat correctly?
    Result: Yes. Fortunately, squatting with good technique isn’t problematic for me. I’ve noticed some tightness in my ankles, but I’ve found it relatively easy to execute proper squats as outlined in the book. The thing to note from the squat test is that the depth of the squat should go way beyond the quarter squat that I learned in high school.
  5. Hip Flexion: Can you stand on your left leg and express normal range of hip flexion with your right hip for 30 seconds, then repeat with your right leg and left hip?
    Result: Yes, this is actually pretty easy for me.
  6. Hip Extension: Do you have normal amount of hip extension?
    Result: No, needs work. The Couch Stretch (see below) is the recommended exercise for improving hip extension. The problem for me is that I can’t do a proper Couch Stretch. There’s too much tightness in my quads and hip flexors that I can’t quite do the full stretch without moving away a bit from the wall. Hoping that doing the Couch Stretch every single day will improve the range.

    Couch Stretch

  7. Ankle Range of Motion: Do you have normal range of motion in your ankles?
    Result: No. I can’t execute the pistol position (see below) without lifting my heel. My ankle is definitely a problem area for me, so I’ll be paying extra attention to mobility exercises in the lower leg and ankle regions.

    Pistol Position

  8. Warming up and cooling down: Do you routinely perform pre-run warm-ups and post-run cool-downs?
    Result: Yes. I started doing this as soon as I read about it. I won’t run until I’ve had a good 10-15 minutes of warm-ups in, mainly a combination of air squats, jumps, and 3-4 mobilizations.
  9. Compression: Are you wearing compression socks?
    Result: Sort of. I’ve been wearing leggings when I go running, which achieves the same effect. I’m going to order a few pairs of compression socks as well. Starrett recommends wearing compression socks after work outs and when traveling by airplane as a way to boost blood circulation in the legs.
  10. No Hotspots: Are you free of hotspots of pain?
    Result: Yes. Luckily, I don’t have any hotspots of pain right now. This might change as I begin to up my weekly mileage in preparation for my half marathon race.
  11. Hydration: Are you hydrated?
    Result: No. Starrett recommends 2-3 liters of fluids a day and talks about how important it is hydrate properly before putting in the running workout. I find it tough to drink anything other than tea or coffee in the mornings, so this will be a challenging habit to adopt. I’ve purchased some Nuun hydration tablets to see if flavored water with electrolytes will be helpful.
  12. Jumping and Landing: Can you jump and land with good mechanics?
    Result: Yes. I’m happy to report that my jumping mechanics are very good. Starrett points out that running is pretty much a continuous series of jumps, so if your jumping mechanics are off (e.g. collapsed knees or feet pointed outwards on landing) then you’re likely going to have trouble maintaining proper running form.

With more than two-thirds of the standards covered, I’m feeling pretty good. The four areas I need to work on are pretty clear, and I know that by sticking to a daily mobility exercise routine, I can continue to build up a buffer of strength and range of motion that can help protect me as I run.

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