The Anatomy of a Runner

Some athletes have left an indelible mark – they are so spectacularly talented it simply boggles the mind.

Michael Jordan comes to mind. I was lucky enough to have watched him play at the United Center in Chicago some years ago. He was mesmerizing. And I’m just old enough to remember Walter Payton running across the field for a touchdown, like art in motion. . . the same as watching Michael Phelps swim, or Shalane Flanagan’s stride. The examples are endless, but what is it that makes these athletes successful? The magic question.

It would be easy enough to blame it on genetics, but I would offer up Misty Copeland – the first African American woman to be named principal dancer with the legendary American Ballet Theatre. Whatever your ballet stereotypes, Copeland probably doesn’t fit them. She’s been told she shouldn’t wear a tutu – she doesn’t have the right legs, her muscles are too big.

IMG_2882Emil Zátopek was the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000 meters, and the instigator of interval training. Even as he trained to become an Olympian, he wore work boots instead of running shoes, and moved his torso in a way that many criticized as inefficient. His tortured facial expressions prompted one sports columnist to remark that he “ran like a man with a noose around his neck.”

He is the only athlete to win the 5,000 and 10,000 meter races, as well as the marathon (a race he had never run) in one Olympic Games.

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What many of our favorite athletes have in common is that they were unlikely candidates for their sport. They move funny, have unorthodox body types, suffered devastating setbacks, started their sport late in life. . . or didn’t burn out despite starting too early. We all have more in common than we thought.

I hold my elbows too far out when I run. It probably makes me slower. Maybe you kick one leg out at the back of your stride, over-pronate, or carry your hips off-center. Does it matter? If we review the most unorthodox athletes of all time and consider their accomplishments, I would have to suggest the answer is no, it doesn’t matter.

Does it cause injuries? Maybe.

IMG_2885.JPGMy first real issue was that my toes went numb when I ran. My husband and I tried everything – larger shoes, different socks, orthopedic inserts. Once we figured out the problem was Morton’s Neuroma, I was on a mission to discover a fix, which turned out to be as simple as taking one vitamin B-12 each day – for ten years and counting.

Whatever the injury/pain/issue, the anatomy behind the issue became as fascinating to me as the running itself.

Runners have hundreds of issues in common. We have a propensity for pulling the same muscles: the quad, hamstring and/or calf muscles. Then there are those dreaded black toenails (cut them short!).

Muscles that are the most prone to cramps are those that cross two joints. A weakened Tensor Fascia Latae can tug on the knee and vice versa. Gentle stretching may help the sore Achilles’ tendon and an out of sorts Plantar Fasciitis, but does very little to loosen a tightened ITB. If you have knee problems, it might be wise to strengthen the hip. A sore back? Strengthen the abs.

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Every athlete is different. Our execution varies from one to the other. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. One thing is certain, however, the anatomy behind our running that can (and eventually will) affect our running is shared by us all, and it spans from our brains to our little toe.

A better understanding of our anatomy may be the secret sauce in the never-ending quest to remain injury free – something else we all have in common, whether you’re a runner, walker, dancer, gardener, or mom lifting baby.

(Reader Alert: consider this the prologue of another Fartlek series of posts: The Anatomy of a Runner.)

Next up:  The Anatomy of a Runner:  it’s all about that bass.

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