Kids know how to run. Image: Legar.bg
Continued from Part One
Charlie Watson, a local Ironman athlete, spent several years trying to adapt to a more efficient running style. His quest took him to the Buffalo Rehab Group, and RUNSMART—an innovative new program, unique to Western New York, designed to help runners improve their technique.
“I had been working on technique by reading articles and buying different sneakers,” says Watson. “I ran with Newtons for a couple years before I had my visit with RUNSMART and I was positive I was striking the ground on my forefoot. Steve [Gonser] told me I was heel-striking and I argued with him that I wasn’t, until he showed me in slow motion [video]. Sure enough, I was reaching out and landing on my heels.”
RUNSMART is the brainchild of Gonser and Scott Tanski, both graduates of Daemen College’s Doctor of Physical Therapy program, along with Patrick O’Connor, president of the Buffalo Rehab Group, who has been a practicing physical therapist for over 20 years. All three men are active runners or triathletes.
RUNSMART grew organically out of the trio's experience treating injured runners and studying biomechanics, as well as their shared love of running.
The first time I was subjected to a video running analysis, I was fifteen years old, at running camp in Ohio. One of the coaches videotaped each of us young, eager runners as we dashes across the parking lot at a steady clip. They took us into a dark, conference room, played the tape, and explained what we were doing wrong. Then we all went to dinner.
As you might imagine, it wasn’t very helpful.
When I visit the West Seneca office of the Buffalo Rehab Group on a hot Tuesday afternoon in June, Gonser convinces me to hop on the treadmill for a quick thirty seconds at 8:30 mile pace (my ideal marathon speed). He films me with a small digital camera on a tripod, and after I finish he plugs the camera into a laptop and loads the film into Dartfish, a computer program that functions as the fourth member of the RUNSMART team.
“Dartfish allows us to slow down video, track angles, pretty much freeze-frame it,” he says, a man slightly in love with his cool new gadget. “We can pretty much do what they do in the NFL, where they freeze certain plays and they draw all over the screen.”
“The video’s pretty much a palate like an artist has,” he adds.
Teyba Erkesso also knows how to run. Image:IAAF
He draws all over my video, bright yellow, red and green lines, showing me the angles I create (or fail to create) when I run. I’m the perfect subject for a lesson on the dangers of overstriding, because when I slam my heels right into the treadmill I practically have my knees locked. Gonser uses the paintbrush, slow down and reverse features of the program to explain how heel-striking stops my momentum.
RUNSMART clients initially come to the office for a busy one-hour visit. The therapists film runners from three angles on the treadmill—front, side, and rear—and review one of the angles in detail, going over a few basics to give the runners something to leave with. Runners come back about a week later for a short follow-up visit; in the meantime, the RUNSMART therapists burn a DVD of the session and provide voiceover analysis of the runner’s gait, recommending drills and exercises that the runners can do to improve their form. Additional services include hour-long follow-up visits and a six-week weight-training program to help address the muscle imbalances that develop from years of under-using key muscles. They can also take field trips out of the office to work on hill and trail running, or to give more guided practice on the new techniques.
Later this summer, they’ll begin posting a few free webinars. For one, Gonser wants to use Dartfish to compare his nephew’s running gait with that of an adult.
“With adults,” he says, “you tend to see that they’re upright, reaching with the foot, and just completely killing the momentum.” Kids, on the other hand, “have this real short, choppy cadence and they’re lifting their hips and leaning forward and it’s pretty much a controlled fall all the time.” That might sound weird. It also describes the gait of Teyba Erkesso, the 2010 women’s champion at the Boston Marathon.
Though most of their time is spent helping runners address problems with overstriding and heel-striking (the most common issue faced by their clients), the RUNSMART therapists analyze everything from hip movement to arm motion. They also make individual shoe recommendations based on analysis of the foot-view they film.
The program is still in its infancy, but reactions so far have been positive. Charlie Watson reported that he ran a recent 10K at a faster pace than his previous 5K best, and a local high school athlete set a school record and earned a scholarship to Penn State after refining her technique. And for Tony Garrow, who was plagued by heel-striking injuries, adapting to a forefoot-running stride has made a tremendous lifestyle difference.
“Because I always thought I just didn’t have a runner’s body, I kept my weekly mileage to around 20-25 miles,” he says. “I went [to RUNSMART] in February, and since that time, I am running consistently 25-30 miles a week, have been to Tuesday night track every week since May (I usually have to quit after 3 weeks because my hips blow out), have done a long run 3 weeks in a row now (10 miles or more), NO back issues, pain anywhere, or any running problems….No one explains it or describes it like they do at BRG. They have really worked a miracle on me and I have even contemplated returning to marathoning….I sincerely couldn’t be happier.”
Although they don’t hesitate to promote the benefits of their program, the guys at RUNSMART don’t pretend that it provides a quick fix.
“The big thing that we find,” says Gonser, about the immediate reaction of runners who attempt to change technique, “is everyone says it’s awkward. Well of course it’s awkward, because you haven’t tried running like this in a long time.”
“To get better, at first you’re going to have to start thinking about it,” he continues. “If you want to become a good golfer, you’re not going to just go play more, that’s not going to necessarily equal results. You have to be out there, making sure you’re focusing on the movement patterns.”
Most athletes will adjust somewhat to big changes within 2-3 weeks, which are usually followed by a few months of careful polishing work. The range of adjustment depends on several factors, including what degree of error the runner starts with, how long he or she has been running that way, and how hard they work to improve.
Gonser, who started running a few years ago, admits that he didn’t start addressing his own form until last August. “I still have to make sure I’m doing certain things,” he tells me. “It actually becomes natural, but there’s also always something to work on. Say the footstrike seems to be working, so then you start working on cadence.”
“When you go back to try your old form, and that feels awkward,” he says, “You know it’s working.”