Some people are born to run. Others are born with big hips. I've forever believed that the width of my curvy Latina body is the reason my knees always kill after a short or long run (three miles to six). When your bones don't stack up in the most aligned way, it generally makes it harder for your body to withstand pounding the pavement (or treadmill) over and over again. Or at least that's what I rationalized as a good excuse to hang up my sneakers after a few painful triathlons, 5Ks, and 10Ks about five years ago.
Fast-forward to polar vortex winter 2014. The cold weather had officially made me flabby, so I decided on a whim in February to sign up for the Nike Women's Half Marathon D.C. as a motivator to lean out and lose the polar pudge. I worked closely with a brilliant run coach to slowly get ready for the physical and mental challenge. I trained for two months in my fave shoes at a slow pace that I could maintain without pain for 13.1 miles (about a 10:45-minute mile). By race day, I proudly knocked out the half-marathon distance with no issues and a huge smile on my face. At the finish line, where I stood pain-free as I received my Tiffany's necklace in place of a medal, I thought, “Yes, I had pre-maturely given up on running.”
A day or so later, I was singing a different tune that went like this: “Eeeyouch!” The post-adrenaline-rush aches had set in, making walking down stairs or squatting utterly unbearable on my poor knees. My 74-year-old mother was moving and shaking faster than I was, so I returned to my initial conclusion: “Nope, not a runner!“
When Asics soon came knocking on my door, asking if I wanted to train with them for the New York City Marathon next, I declined with the politest “Hell no” possible. Though passing up the prestigious 26.2-mile road race was a no-brainer, I'm not gonna line, it crushed my ego. It's one thing to turn down an opportunity because you're not interested. It's another because you can't do it.
Or perhaps not. When I visited NY SportsMed’s Athlete Performance Center to try out their new 60-minute full-body analysis program called RunLab, I told Francis Diano, a physical therapist, triathlon coach, running coach, and injury consultant for the center, my personal and physical history as well as how I recently ruled out the NYC marathon. Once he got the verbal background, he began the physical assessment portion, which included ranking and grading my body for imbalances, weaknesses, strengths, functional limitations, and asymmetries.
It was evident right away that I was lacking in both flexibility and strength. My balance was all right but nothing to woot-woot about. Diano's biggest concern was that my ankles were taking on too much work because my other (apparently lazier) muscles—especially my core—were not engaging when they were supposed to.
From there, he had me step onto the Optogait, a super high-tech, high-touch system that is most often used by Nike and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Made up of two bars with built-in visible LED lights on either side of a treadmill to optically detect and track one's gait, this unique device is designed to offer patients a qualitative and quantitative runner's report card with a focus on preventing injury.
Diano had me walk briskly for about a minute before he asked me to run at my 5K pace (10-minute mile) at a level-one incline for about a mile. Using the data he collected during the floor and treadmill drills, he focused on what he conjectured might be some mechanical inefficiencies or asymmetries. Then he had me swap out my well-worn sneaks for a new pair and had me run for a third of a mile or so. Afterward, he took a moment to review the Optogait's info and compare it with his own observations before he sat me down to give me the news.
My Hips Don't Lie
According to the Optogait, my flight time (how long I'm in the air mid-gait) was very symmetrical in my old running shoes—there was only a 2 percent difference between my left and right leg. In the out-of-the-box pair, however, the flight time difference was about 18 percent between legs, signaling an asymmetry. This made me immediately think that my go-to kicks were just a better fit for my style. But Diano quickly squashed that, noting the discrepancy might not come from the shoes but elsewhere. To better understand what's causing the deficit, we looked to the video on his iPad.
Diano began drawing virtual lines on my lower half—from my heel to my knee to my hip—to show me what he thinks may be the issue. “First thing we see is a slight overpronation in your ankle. For someone who wears Newtons, which have a built-in bar that juts out at the forefront of the foot, this is not something you want to see. The point of the shoe is to correct this for you. If you overpronate wearing these, it could possibly increase your risk of an ankle injury,” he warned.
He went on to say how my other muscles are leaving my poor ankles to do all the work. “Your hip is dropping and your knee is internally rotating on the landing right leg. This causes your IT band to tighten to compensate for the lack of stability and muscle-engagement, which ultimately causes tension on the knee.” The same happens on my left leg, and on top of all that, I'm quick to fire up my lower back muscles and ignore my core.
I had no idea that most of my body likes to take a vacation whenever I run—that totally explains the post-run knee pain. It's a miracle I haven't gotten injured yet. “You basically have too much tension and strength in the mid-line and you don't have enough strength to help you rotate out. We need to teach you activities that do the opposite of what you've been doing,” he said.
Final Verdict: Yes, I Can Run!
“Running is not out of the question,” Diano said reassuringly. I just need to learn to fix these issues and head off potential hip labral wear and tear, meniscal injuries, IT band disorders, and patella tracking disorders. Though I'm not a hopeless runner, I have a lot of work ahead of me according to my final report card score of 47 out of 100. I knew I wasn't a strong runner, but I didn't think I was below average.
“The reason your score is so low is because there are structural things we need to take care of. If you focus on going back to the basics of learning how to control your core activation, limit engagement of your lower back, and get your hips stable, you could automatically boost your score by at least 20 points,” explained Diano, who advised me to come back in a month or so to get retested.
“So you're saying, I can run a marathon, at some point, without getting hurt?” I asked somewhat skeptically.
“Absolutely. The build-period for a marathon is a least a year,” said Diano, emphasizing that if I really want to run the NYC marathon in November 2015, I can definitely do it if I start training slowly and early.
While he recommended that I meet with NY SportsMed's physical therapists to learn some at-home exercises to work on my flexibility, core strength, and stability, he also said taking Pilates and/or yoga classes could help address most of these concerns. In the meantime, he says to break in my new Asics a bit more and keep my runs short and about quality, not quantity or speed. With time, patience, mindfulness, a few tweaks, and proper guidance, I can cross the finish line after 26.2 miles with a smile on my face and no worry that I've destroyed myself afterward for just one event.