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on Running Well

February 22, 2010

I attended a UPA Coaching Corps Workshop today, taught by Fury coach Matt Tsang, and the lesson plan included promotion of the game, ethics/fairness, SOTG, and training progressions/skills, to name just four topics of the day.

When we talked about the opposite of what got us involved in Ultimate / what draws us to the sport, that is, what don’t we like about continuing to play the sport, the topic I remember being mentioned more than once was injury.

And so when we got to fundamental skills, which were (in left-right, top-down order):

  • Catching, Throwing
  • Marking, Pivoting
  • Downfield D, Cutting
  • the Force, the Stack

It struck me that the fundamental human skill of running was not on this list…

For each of the other fundamental skills, three of us gave a 3-minute presentation on the importance of the skill, taught the basics by giving 3-4 simple coaching cues, and gave a short drill.

[Afterwards, Matt gave a short critique, and we chimed in with useful cues on catching (pancake catch with arms like a cone, not like a clamp; letterball drill), throwing (“like a coil”, imagining headlights on your shoulders which stay level and face your target–thx Nancy Sun; “throwing” forehands without releasing them to develop one’s flick/jerk), marking (cue: sternum-to-shoulder, keep your sternum to their non-throwing shoulder), and pivoting (a high-five drill where you play keep away from partner high-fives by pivoting).]

Following that coaching template, I’ll explain the importance of running (duh? 🙂 well, mention 3-4 simple coaching cues, and give a short drill to develop your running technique.

How much you run in a game probably depends on what level you are playing at–sometimes you mostly jog, other times you’d rather sprint as much as possible–but one thing is for sure, if you tell a young person or a sports/strength coach that you play Ultimate, a not uncommon response is, “don’t you guys run a lot?”

I suppose we do, and for a n=1 data point, during my most strenuous tournament day last year, my Polar HRM reported that I burned the calorie equivalent of a half-Ironman (3720+ kcals). However you slice it, the distance covered in a tournament is non-trivial, and once you start summing up your bodyweight over all the thousands of steps, you have an incredible amount of load on your body.

In fact, if you think about it, it’s highly unlikely that you move more weight when lifting than you do just walking around, even if you subtract out 1x bodyweight. IIRC, you put 2-3x bodyweight of force down when you jog, 4-5x when you run, and up to 9-10x your bodyweight when you sprint. When’s the last time you lifted over 5x your bodyweight for more than 8 non-stop reps in a row? And yet, this essentially what world-class 100m sprinters do, which is why sprinters are built like this or like so, whereas marathon runners are pretty lean in comparison.

Now, you might think that since you are putting this stress on your body when you sprint, you want to focus on developing lower body / posterior chain strength or getting up to a 2.4x bodyweight deadlift like Allyson Felix did in high school, and you’d be on the right track, but we’re going to keep things simpler here for the moment.

Back track to the UPA Coaching Corps, and the rise of youth Ultimate, in a westernized society with ever increasing rates of childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles. Sure, we may have been Born to Run, but let’s remember that studies show that about 60-65% of all runners are injured during an average year, and it’s been reported that running injury rates have only increased decade-over-decade since introduction of the Nike waffle shoe in 1972.

There are those sports coaches who suggest that (general population) women shouldn’t run to get fit, and others who make the bolder claim for everyone, citing Canadian physical therapist Diane Lee who has said “You can’t run to get fit, you need to be fit to run”. As Ultimate players, I think we get enough running from tournaments / practices and sprints at-the-end-of-practice, so I think this advice somewhat applies, which is why I recommend either stationary bikes (most gyms don’t have Airdynes, le sigh) or jump rope, kettlebells or lift complexes when you’re training off the field, rather than treadmills or ellipticals, which may interfere with your running motor patterns and other bad jazz.

Okay, so that probably took more than 3 minutes to explain, but I hope you got the point! Even if you’re Usain Bolt, your running form could get better (he has great “shin angle“, see how the shin angle matches the torso angle as he begins the sprint, but has been working on his start mechanics for a while). And if you’re a new or veteran Ultimate player, chances are nobody took a whole chunk of time and tried to coach you how to run even better.

That in mind, 3-4 simple cues.

  1. Stay tall / long spine
  2. Run narrow
  3. Slight forward lean
  4. As if you were barefoot

The drill? Take off your cleats before practice and run barefoot on grass for 2-3 minutes, having a partner/coach watch your form. The partner gives both positive feedback & things to work on. Switch places and repeat.

2-3 minutes sounds pretty short, but with any sort of barefoot work, you need to start very conservatively and work your way up over weeks and months. Remember that while your nervous system can adapt at 800+m/s, your bones & muscles adapt notably after a few weeks, your tendons and ligaments heal/develop much more slowly (months) due to reduced vascularity/blood flow.

Again, this is not strength training (although in a sense it is, and barefoot work can be treated as such), or even conditioning, but working on movement patterns, greasing the groove of “proper” movement.

Why barefoot? You can read about all the scientific details at the new website, or google around to learn more about the VFF (vibram five-finger) / Nike Free (but only the 3.0s really) / barefoot running world, but it comes down to how your optimal sprinting / running form is essentially what your body would do barefoot. Without extra gear to direct force away from your feet and up towards your knees / lower-back (shod running form tends to increase eccentric knee load, according to one of Dr. Tim Noakes’ studies), your feet actually sense the ground better and often land with less force overall. And if you’re running enough to burn 2-4 kcals a tournament day, better running mechanics / reduced load is definitely a good thing.

As for running barefoot for more than a few minutes a day before you put on your cleats, that’s a topic for another post. The main point of this drill is to focus on your mechanics, and then when you cleat up, just remember the fourth cue: “run like you do barefoot”.

But before we throw out some more complex cues, let’s briefly explain the 4 cues we mentioned already.

1) Stay tall / long spine.

As it turns out, kids today have postures like 60 year old (Western world) gmamas. Actually, freshman here don’t stand as tall as my gmama who’s over 80, and I think it’d be a tossup with my grandgrandmother’s posture, but cultural dynamics aside, it’s very rare to find youth without a forward head/upper spine posture (aka kyphosis), flexed at the thoracic (upper-mid-back) spine. That takes a while to fix, but focusing on staying tall, “push through the top of your head” can at least mitigate inefficient postures. Take a look at how elite runners stay tall and keep their spine “long”.

2) Run narrow.

Don’t flail your arms from side to side, crossing midline. One cue that is taught is to move your arms cheek-to-cheek, from your thumbs pointing to your chipmunk cheeks to brushing past and stopping near your glute max cheeks. The overall motion from the front should look “narrow”.

3) Slight forward lean.

Not all running forms teach the forward lean, but it is an element of good sprint mechanics, and I believe is taught by both ChiRunning and POSE methods. In general, some might say that Ultimate (like many other field sports) is won in the first 10 yards, which means that a forward lean, making sure your shin angle matches your torso angle, will let you more effectively apply force down and backwards.

4) As if barefoot.

At first I was going to have 4) be engage the core, but some might say that long spine is all you need for core activation (ChiRunning teaches a lot about core engagement). I also thought about having 4 be “don’t heel strike” or to encourage the “mid-foot strike”, but basically it comes down to cuing the athlete (yourself) to run as if you were running barefoot. Once you start (gently) running barefoot on grass, you’ll eventually develop more efficient and less force(waste)ful running mechanics. Then when you see all your peers running around in cushy running shoes, you’ll wince if you imagine doing the same whilst barefoot.

As many would say, Barefoot running form = Optimal sprint form. Land on the mid-foot, closer to the ball-of-foot than the heel. Landing foot makes contact below your body, rather than in front (“overstriding”). No unnecessary force!

Still not enough? Some advanced cuing/coaching for ya:

[More complex: keep your upper body relaxed, hands soft as if you’re holding a potato chip. Engage the core to a level appropriate to the exertion level. The half-A / full march drills you can find on the Ultimate Fitness DVD. Create a positive shin angle, match torso to shin angle.

Also look into what Lee Taft calls the plyo step / false step, which some believe can increase sprint performance over short distances, also good to know for a multi-directional running sport.

Interestingly many folks don’t get to deceleration training before acceleration training, and I’m guilty of that here… if you can, in theory you could argue it’s better to teach folks how to stop safely (and then quickly) before teaching them to accelerate in a game, but in practice it’s not quite as sexay. Alas, I don’t have great references, yet, “on Stopping Well”.]

The best concise guide I’ve found to running well is, unsurprisingly, a new book titled Running Well by Sam Murphy and Sarah Connors [published by Human Kinetics, good stuff]. The best non-concise guide to the lore of running is, you guessed it, Tim Noakes’s Lore of Running. I’ve heard positive things about both ChiRunning and the POSE method and personally cross-train with VFF KSOs (Vibram five-fingers) and Nike Free 3.0v2s. On the field, I’ve been trying out Lacrosse cleats for the first time, Air Huarache TDs to be specific, although I used to play in Diadora and Adidas fútbol cleats.

Online, you’ll find many more folks cautious but sometimes optimistic? about running barefoot, and chances are your podiatrist won’t like it. Then again, when you have knee and lower-back pain, do you go see your podiatrist? Hmm… Well, go get a few different opinions from health, fitness, and strength&conditioning professionals and make up your mind / get informed before you run (literally) into a barefoot heavy program.

Also remember that it can take weeks, months, years to change your running form effectively and safely, so no need to rush. Ankle mobility / strength, as well as mobile / strong hips can also help smooth along your running stride. If you can get someone to Flip / vid record your running form, why not spend a few minutes doing so?

Now, go.

Run hard, run well.

8 Comments leave one →
  1. February 22, 2010 8:50 am

    Excellent advice! I hope your readers take it to heart-it could prevent a lot of unnecessary injuries. Form and technique are so important for success in any sport. Sheer talent only takes you so far!

  2. February 22, 2010 8:08 pm

    Do you recommend the heart monitor that you have? How do you use it in training/at tournaments? I’d love to see a post on heart rate in training and competition.

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      February 24, 2010 3:11 am

      I have had good success with the Polar F11 but have not tried other brands/models so can’t offer a more specific recommendation.

      A post on HRM training might be interesting–I was really into it for about a year but then the strap started wearing out and I haven’t done as much since then.

  3. James permalink
    February 24, 2010 1:29 am

    Do you think there are advantages to be had in performing sprint/lateral conditioning drills barefoot (or in VFF’s), as opposed to jogging/linear sprint work? That is, typically it’s been suggested (at least to me) that sprint ladders and t-cone style drills be done in cleats (or turf shoes) to maximize explosiveness and train for ‘game speed.’ Would barefoot renditions of these workouts yield benefits that outweigh their slower pace?

    • Leslie Wu permalink
      February 24, 2010 3:18 am

      I think it might be worth practicing sprint mechanics and lateral movements barefoot, to get quicker feedback on errors in form / mechanics, but after you practice sprint/lateral mechanics for a few minutes it probably does make sense to then put on your cleats and do longer drills/conditioning cleated.

      There’s the SAID principle at work–specific adaptation to imposed demand–and as you point out, one can sprint/move faster in cleats.

      That said, how much time should you spend doing lateral movement (barefoot/VFF) practice vs lateral movement shod (cleated) conditioning/drills? I’m not sure–I haven’t seen many people recommend much non-linear (non-sagittal plane) unshod work, but I think there might be some benefit to it. I have done some lateral movement practice unshod (barefoot/VFF) and that has been useful for me.

      I guess the point is that it’s a lot easier to figure out your weaknesses (mechanics, muscles/joints) unshod, moving in the linear or frontal/coronal/(lateral) plane, whereas you still need to condition / practice in “game speed” situations.

  4. March 20, 2010 1:41 am

    Cool stuff so far. Funny how little to no coaches address the need for perceptual skills. Much easier to catch a ball or in your case a Frisbee knowing where it is in space.

    And yes, more time spent in deceleration, rather than acceleration will help everyone. Address Force-Velocity Curves and how Eccentric force is so much more powerful, than concentric force at higher speeds and you have a good progression model for also developing top level acceleration, as weird as that sounds.


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