Wednesday, August 6, 2014

I once was a hippy

Those who know me well should not be surprised that at Kailua High School  in 1967 I was one of the leaders of the counter-culture movement generally referred to as hippies. The summer before my senior year I let my hair grow long and I stopped shaving. Naturally at that age a summer growth of facial hair produced little more than peach fuzz, but at the time it was a radical statement.

It was a confusing time for me. As much as I liked Bob Dylan and Canned Heat and that crazy San Francisco scene, I also loved cars and hung out with greasers -- local slang for hot rodders. Then there was the classical music and the jazz and the Indian music. All very complicated.

Lately my life has gotten even more complicated. I have gone from hippies and hipsters to the pursuit of greater hip mobility. Not to be confused with upward mobility. Nothing philosophical or cultural about it. Just plain, simple body motion. Never in my wildest dreams did I see myself becoming athletic, yet here I am, enjoying myself just as much as I did playing in the Honolulu Symphony, or jazz with Dave and Ken Wild, or studying sitar with Nikhil Banerjee.

Last year I was working on increasing my running cadence. I had learned from a number of sources that a faster cadence (stride rate, SR) increases efficiency and reduces the risk of injury. A value of 90 or better foot strikes per minute is a reasonable goal. For musicians, a classic march tempo is 120 and each foot hits the ground on a beat, left-right-left-right ... so for runners that would be a cadence of 60BPM.  I was getting up to around 85BPM last fall when my hernia derailed my marathon plans. Back then I noticed two limiting factors. First, my feet just did not want to go that fast. Second, my heart rate (HR) would go really high.

This past winter I followed Matt Fitzgerald's Intermediate Half-Marathon training plan. He specifies nearly all long runs to be done in zone 2, and I could never get above 80BPM without my HR going up into zone 3. I ended up doing some speed work on weekday mornings when a little high intensity is not going to cause problems, and tried my best to throttle back my Sunday morning runs along Kalanianaole to stay in zone 2. I was very happy with my result at the Hapalua Half Marathon in April. My average pace was 14:07, average HR was 136 (mid zone 3) and average cadence was 82BPM. Better still, my peak 60 minutes cadence was 84 and my peak 5 minutes was 86. (Training Peaks gives me all that sort of data.)

So I was getting faster, but that 90BPM goal still seemed out of reach. With this year's marathon training staring me in the face I decided to ask an expert. I posted this question to Bobby McGee's Facebook page:

I want to increase my cadence from around 83 to 86-90. When I run at the higher cadence my HR goes high. Will strides improve this? What else do you recommend and how often per week?

Yesterday I received an answer. From Bobby himself! How cool is that? It is very long and detailed and I am not going to repeat it here, only some excerpts:

Music to my ears when someone wants to improve their cadence! Remember running speed is SR (stride rate/cadence) times SL (stride length). Stride length is more variable than stride rate & is at the “mercy” of ROM (range of motion), leg length (especially relative to torso length) & elastic power. Stride rate (cadence) increases, (or should increase) with speed, but remain within a certain bandwidth so to speak. Runners with really low velocities, (slower than 11min per mile) can have stride rates just less than 80 steps per minute with 1 leg. Faster though & we are looking at 82/84 plus as being “healthy” lower limb-saving cadence. 

Did you catch that part about really low velocities? He's talking slower than 11 and I am at 14. I'm a turtle! But he is correct, my cadence used to be around 78 and only got above 80 after a lot of hard work. Also, don't overlook his mention of ROM.

An increase in stride rate should not be pursued as a primary objective – i.e. cognitively trying to move up your stride rate is just about an exercise in futility – you’ll become inefficient, feel uncomfortable, get tired & may even injure yourself.

Putting yourself into a position where a higher stride rate is a response to correct posture, rhythm & movement is crucial. An increased stride rate must be a reaction, not an action to improved running dynamics.

I find this to be a fascinating challenge, because what he says is so mysterious. I know my posture and movement has been abysmal, and that I am improving thanks to a lot of helpful coaching.

Midfoot strikers can actually drive their foot down under themselves a little quicker, dabbing at the surface with a stiff ankle, knee & hip – this increases spring loading & rapid return of the knee to the front (if they have the range of motion to get that thigh far back enough).

Lastly the shorter the lever of the leg is when it is returned to the front after toe off, the quicker the cadence. So great runners actually get their heels either in contact with their butts or damn near it when at speed. The lever length thus of the leg until the heel passes under the pelvis is only as long as the femur. Even slow running requires that our shin be at least parallel as our heel comes under our pelvis. A prerequisite to achieve this is having the rhythm & hip mobility to do so. I spend a LOT of time working on hip mobility with my athletes.

One of my favorite running reads is Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention, by Jay Dicharry. I think it is time to re-read this book, especially chapter 9, "Assessment and Development of the Athlete Within -- Redefining the Body You've Come to Know and Love." Jay lists three attributes a running must have; notice in particular what is #1:

  1. Enough mobility to get the leg behind you in stance.
  2. Stability of the core, hips, and foot to maintain posture and optimize transfer of energy. 
  3. Strength and power from the glute to drive the body up and forward.

He follows this with a set of mobility assessment tests and corrective actions. Test #3 is Hip extension, and that is where I expect to be spending a lot of time over the next two months.

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