Training

Burning Runner: Fixing My Form To Avoid Injury

In 25 years of running, T.J. Murphy never paid much attention to his technique. Until now.

Ultrarunner Brian MacKenzie instructs a group on the importance of running form last week in San Francisco.
Ultrarunner and Crossfit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie gives a seminar on the importance of running form last weekend in San Francisco.

In 25 years of running, T.J. Murphy never paid much attention to his technique. Until now.

Written by: TJ Murphy

Last weekend I attended a running clinic held at San Francisco Crossfit. Brian MacKenzie, founder of Crossfit Endurance and an ultramarathoner, taught the clinic. MacKenzie’s foremost goal in his Run and Performance seminar is providing background and instruction on how to develop running technique—a subject that got tremendous traction in Christopher McDougal’s bestseller, “Born to Run.”

My personal history with running form and technique: 25 years of not worrying about it. On occasion I would do a few drills I picked up, like bounding and high-knee skips, but the hard fact is I never gave it much thought and went with the line of thinking that by running lots of miles my form and stride would evolve naturally in the direction of efficiency.

But for sure I’m one of the reasons statistics have shown that most runners suffer through a consistent string of injuries. I’ve always been either injured or on the edge of being injured. MacKenzie spent years studying and teaching Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s “Pose Method,” which, as McDougal cited in “Born to Run,” is one of several approaches (like Chi Running and Evolution Running) that declare giving attention to how you run will engender greater performance and lessen the risk of overuse injuries.

As I’ve reported previously, the injury that shut down my training in November and sent me on a six-week spree of pain-filled limping had me thinking I might be cooked for good. McDougal asked similar questions in “Born to Run” as he detailed his battles with injuries. For me at least, after years of ramming into the same problems, my mind was open to new possibilities. I’d heard of the Pose Method for years but never really looked into it. In the preface of Dr. Romanov’s book, “Pose Method of Running,” he suggests that you bought the book for one of four reasons:

  1. You want to run faster.
  2. You want to avoid injury.
  3. You want to lose weight.
  4. Someone who had no clue what to give the runner in his or her life gave it to you.

In my case it’s the first two reasons, both offered to me by MacKenzie and Kelly Starrett—that digging into the Pose Method and paying serious attention to movement, mobility and strength can help me distance me from injury and enjoy running again. And both have said that I will be surprised at the potential for increased performance when I get on top of this.

To be honest, I’ve turned a closed mind to almost any idea that falls outside the boundaries of the traditional training practices that allowed me, some years ago, to run a sub 33-minute 10k. Now after acquainting myself with MacKenzie’s Crossfit Endurance program and the Pose Method, I’m curious as to why, after a decade of constant injury, I was so dead-set against new ideas.

Runners perform various drills at a technique clinic hosted by ultrarunner Brian MacKenzie last weekend in San Francisco.
Runners perform various drills at a technique clinic hosted by ultrarunner Brian MacKenzie last weekend in San Francisco.

I recall the quote from Frank Shorter’s book, “Olympic Gold: A Runner’s Life and Times”:

“So there I was at the end of 1979; atrophy in the left leg, ‘hot spots’ up and down the body, a possible stress fracture in the back, and more. And not willing to let some very fine physicians help me. Of course, that didn’t stop me from running the Honolulu Marathon. The same personality—independent, introverted, single-minded, self-reliant, self-confident, distrusting—that enabled me to excel as an athlete in full health hindered me when I became an athlete in pain.”

So maybe there was some of that. What I’ve liked about talking with MacKenzie on this is that he’s been down the same road—severe illotibial band problems highlighting the standard list that qualifies someone as a broken down runner. Yet he was able to overhaul himself into an ultrarunner capable of good results in 100-mile trail races. I was ready to listen.

My girlfriend is a trail runner too, and has studied the Pose Method. When looking at a picture of me running in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon this past October she pointed at my foot—it was pure heel strike. I couldn’t believe it—I thought I was a mid-foot runner. MacKenzie has looked at my running and has shown me how I’m only using small muscles, like hip flexors, to propel myself down the road, and reaching out with my foot strike, putting some of the huge stress on my knees that caused my breakdown in November.

Since my visit with Starrett in mid-December—when I limped into CrossFit San Francisco and haven’t limped since–I began devoting myself to his daily mobility routine (http://mobilitywod.blogspot.com). I’ve been discovering a system of weaknesses in my body that are obviously the result of not thinking of running in holistic terms. Last Tuesday I spent some time with C.J. Martin of Crossfit Invictus in San Diego. He performed a few simple tests in the gym to get an idea of where my previous running injuries have landed me. Just simple strength and range of motion tests. The difference between my right and left sides is shocking, and in one of the exercises, one that had me simply lift my arm using a muscle in the mid-back, I could barely pump out 10 reps. Some of the exercises MacKenzie has had me perform have served up some real ugliness in the facts of how pathetically weak I am in the core muscle groups. But even the cautious bit of work he’s had me do has yielded benefits I can feel just standing up. With very careful attention to proper technique he’s had me perform weighted squats, deadlifts and good morning exercises—-and I haven’t felt the slightest bit of pain in my knee in doing them.

Two times a week, under MacKenzie’s guidance, I’m doing Pose running drills and short intervals. I’ve had several moments where I feel what he and Romanov are talking about when they describe using the hamstrings in a very compact, high-turnover fashion of a running stride. As MacKenzie told me up front, the transition from being a broken-down runner into his Crossfit Endurance running program can be a painful process and requires humility and patience. But I’ve seen his running technique—very brisk, light, fluid and powerful looking. Contrasting this image with the picture of my fully extended leg, knee locked and heel striking the pavement like an axe, I’ve committed myself to this process.

The one thing I didn’t expect was how much I’d enjoy letting go of what I used to do and taking on the challenge of a whole new approach. I’m having fun.

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T.J. Murphy is the Editorial Director of Competitor Magazine. A 2:38 marathoner and five-time Ironman finisher, he is the former editorial director of Triathlete Magazine and Inside Triathlon. His writing has also appeared in Outside Magazine and Runner’s World.