Older runners can see how they run — and then fix it
I've missed qualifying for the Boston Marathon 24 times. Twenty-four.
I'm pushing 50, and Boston is my great white whale.
I've come frustratingly close to beating the qualifying standard several times over the years but have always been a little (or a lot) too slow. But because the time requirements are age-adjusted, my target will ease a bit soon: If I can finish a marathon in less than four hours this fall, I'm in.
That's why I found myself watching a painfully stark video of my running, shuffling, wobbling self at the SPEED Clinic at the University of Virginia, a lab known for using detailed biomechanical data to help runners get faster.
The clinic (the acronym stands for Strength, Power, Endurance, Education and Development) has built a national reputation in running circles for overhauling the wayward strides of young, gifted athletes with flawed mechanics.
I wasn't sure what they'd do with an obviously not young, not gifted schlub like me.
Turns out, SPEED's bread-and-butter client base is middle-aged and older runners who have ample amounts of both desperation and disposable income. (The clinic's signature 3-D gait analysis costs $350, and, no, health insurance will not pay to improve your marathon time.)
Director Max Prokopy said the oldest person the lab had analyzed was a 78-year-old who, like me, wanted to qualify for Boston. He made it.
The service is not limited to runners. The clinic sees fitness walkers and people with medical issues that affect their gait, such as amputees and Parkinson's disease patients. Within the past year, it has added golf-swing analysis. But it is mostly frustrated, older runners who jam its schedule months in advance.
Everyone slows some over the years, Prokopy said. But people tend to chalk up all plummeting performance to age, when often much of the problem is biomechanical — and fixable.
Often, runners past their speediest years are discouraged from even trying to get faster, as if hard effort inevitably will lead to an injury-plagued descent into mall-walking.
"It irritates me," said Greg McMillan, a well-known running coach in Flagstaff, Ariz., who has referred a handful of his charges to the SPEED Clinic. He created the marathon training program I'm using, and he said the only concession to age that he built into it is a bit more time for recovery. Otherwise, I'm supposed to do the same workouts as people half my age.
"It goes back to the whole 'use it or lose it' thing," he said. "The problem we have is that we stop using it."
The clinic's aim is to get people to use it better.
As I arrived at the U-Va. School of Medicine campus in Charlottesville for my appointment, I wondered if the lab would have as much neon and chrome as those glitzy performance labs in sports-drink commercials.
It had exactly none. It was more plywood and AstroTurf, each component built from scratch, purely functional and scuffed a bit by 12 years of use.
The wow factor would come later.
First, Prokopy and data research assistant Mike Myers took a few measurements and glued little gray reflectors to various points on my legs, hips and torso. Infrared cameras would read their movement as I ran. Then I climbed onto an enormous, specialized treadmill and ran at my usual, easy pace for about six minutes.
Next came a short questionnaire about my running and injury history and a few quick tests to evaluate things such as balance and hip alignment.
Finally, as I sat in slightly damp running clothes next to Prokopy and his computer, it was time for the big reveal.
"This is how the sausage is made," he said, as he queued up a slow-motion video of me running. The metaphor struck me as harsh until he hit play.
With every stride, my hips wobbled, my back arched, my right knee collapsed inward and my right foot flew out to the side like a flapper dancing the Charleston. Meanwhile, my upper body was unnaturally stiff, apparently trying to control the chaos below like a rider on a mechanical bull.
And there was jiggling. So much jiggling.
I was stunned, as Prokopy said many runners are when they see themselves run for the first time.
Before I could wallow too much in the awfulness, he switched the screen view and up popped a skeleton.
It was literally a bare-bones version of me, generated using data from the infrared cameras and force plates in the three-ton treadmill. It showed in three dimensions how my bones and joints operated when I run (and, bless it, no jiggling).
Each time the skeleton's foot touched the ground, vector arrows shot through its pelvis showing the direction of the "ground reaction force" — that is, the direction in which the force plate was pushing back. (It's a Newtonian equal-and-opposite-reaction thing.)
In a runner with perfect alignment, the arrows would shoot straight up the inside of the leg, through the hips and the middle of the rib cage. At various points on each stride, mine went too far backward, too far forward and too far to the left and too far to the right. Not one went straight up.
Along with the video and the skeleton view, a series of charts compared my movements with a control group of my peers so I could see how — and how far — I veered from the norm.
"We're showing you the same thing five different ways so we can beat you over the head with it so you don't forget," Prokopy said, a little too cheerfully. The idea is that, given the proper information, the brain may fix some problems on its own.
Some of my issues were common to middle-aged runners, who tend to have weak core muscles and tight hip flexors thanks largely to sedentary jobs and lifestyles.
"The No. 1 thing we focus on most often is posture," he said. "It tends to get worse as people get older — daily life, sitting more."
My posture was off because my back was taking up the slack from my glutes, which had grown too lazy to power my stride or stabilize my hips. The arch muscles in my feet were also weak, and the combination made my single-leg balance very poor. Because running is basically switching from one leg to the other very quickly, single-leg balance is important.
Like most longtime runners, I had unknowingly altered my stride over the years to compensate for all sorts of tightness, twinges and injuries. I ended up slow and inefficient.
The consequences, laid out in a detailed numerical analysis, were stunning.
First, the data showed that I put more force into stopping than into moving forward. That's not as terrible as it sounds, because we have to halt ourselves when we take a step or else we'd fall on our faces with every stride. But I was way too heavy on the brake pedal.
Second, my squirrelly right leg was producing 20 percent less propulsion than my left. My collapsing knee was pushing my leg toward the left when the rest of me was going forward. If I could redirect it, Prokopy said, he thought I'd be faster by 20 seconds per mile. I've missed Boston by less than that.
The last hour before I left was devoted to a plan for fixing my considerable flaws.
Prokopy prescribed an easy set of exercises and stretches — "mobility interventions," as he called them — and made sure I could do them correctly before I left. Once I mastered those, I would graduate to more advanced drills.
After two months of the basic drills, I started to see small changes in my running, such as a quicker pace and less foot flinging. Then, before I even got to the tougher drills, I took an awkward step running up a hill and tore one of those tight hip flexor muscles. I'm now sidelined for six weeks.
So the program doesn't instantly and magically reverse years of problems. But most people do get faster in time, Prokopy said.
One of them is Stephanie Danahy, 57, of Fairfax Station, Va., who visited the clinic in November with a wish list. She began running at age 40, so she figured she was still on the upswing. Her goals included a faster marathon — she has already qualified for Boston 11 times — and a stronger 100-miler.
"I told Max, 'I'm an old woman and I want to run faster,' " she said. "I want to run for 30 more years. . . . I'm in aerospace engineering, and I was blown away by the vectors. I could see how much energy I'm wasting. I was like, 'I understand this. This is science. We should fix it!' "
She incorporated Prokopy's suggestions into her regular running and ran a personal record at the tough, hilly Vermont 100-Mile Endurance Run in July.
So I'm not giving up hope.
Like all SPEED Clinic clients, I left the campus with a parting gift: a DVD with all the charts,the digital skeleton, film clips of the mobility interventions — and that horrible video.
If I make it to Boston, it will be my favorite movie of all time.
(c) 2014, The Washington Post.