Runners are acutely aware of their bodies. They are constantly monitoring their aches and pains. They know about stride length, pronation, and strike style. Many are experts at analyzing the form of others, but few are as astute about their own way of moving because rarely do they see themselves run.
Drexel University's Running Clinic and Research Lab now offers a solution: a personalized running mechanics profile and gait analysis that will enable you to answer such momentous questions as:
How's my form? Am I a heel striker? An overpronator? Am I wearing the right shoes? Is my running style putting me at risk for injury? How can I perform better? And, in my case, will I ever be able to run again, period?
The other day, I decided to find out. So I cycled to the lab, on the second floor of an office building on Cherry Street, where I was greeted by physical therapist and assistant clinical professor Robert Maschi. A runner himself (as are many of his colleagues), Maschi, 45, has completed five marathons, including four New Yorks, and has finished the Broad Street Run twice. He understands the joy of running, and the agony of being sidelined.
The clinic's program is designed for runners and triathletes of all ages and skill levels, from elite competitors to recreational also-rans. The analysis can detect faulty running mechanics that may lead to injury as well as identify factors that you can modify to train more effectively and enhance your results.
First, I filled out a questionnaire, including a section about injuries and problems. From the waist down, my body is a wreck. Ten years ago, a mishap with a jacked-up jeep turned me from fleet of foot to hobbling gimp. The accident changed the structure of my right foot, which altered my gait, which put stress on my right knee, which resulted in tears of my meniscus, the rubbery wafer of cartilage that cushions and stabilizes the joint.
As Maschi reminded me, the body is a kinetic chain. From the toes to the spine, a defect in one link (such as a foot) is likely to show up as a defect in another link (the knee or hips).
As I lay on an examining table, Maschi tested the strength and flexibility of my feet, legs, hips, and core. Then he photographed my posture from several angles and assessed my strength and balance as I performed one-legged squats and step-downs. On a treadmill, while I set a comfortable pace, Maschi shot video to record my gait from back, side, and front, with close-ups of my feet on impact. A computer program allowed Maschi to view my biomechanics more closely and measure them more precisely.
Maschi enjoys the eureka moment when runners "see the discrepancy between what they think they look like when they run and what they actually look like."
On his laptop, he was able to demonstrate my gait in slow motion. I was surprised to learn that I'm a midfoot striker, but most of what I saw was familiar - my collapsed right foot and arch, my fully extended right leg on impact, the way my foot turned out to alleviate pounding on my knee.
A few days later, I received a 12-page report. Posturally, it showed that my low back is flexed, decreasing the curve of my spine, and that my right leg is slightly bowed. I scored within the normal range on the strength and flexibility tests, but my hip, lower abdominal, and core muscles are weak. On the plus side, because my stride is short, my feet land directly beneath my body, "a good adaptation to decrease harmful loads."
On the final page, Maschi recommended that I improve the alignment and mechanics of my right leg with an orthotic or arch insert and that I consciously change my running form to increase knee flexion, harnessing my quadriceps muscles to absorb shock.
He also recommended strengthening my hip and core muscles, glutes, and quads (excellent exercises: lunges, squats, leg extensions). As for reducing impact, he suggested I buy new shoes pronto (suggested mileage: 300 to 500; mine, over 2,500), and run on soft surfaces.
Before leaving, I asked Maschi the big question: Since my right foot is deformed and my right knee arthritic, should I be trying to run at all?
"It's a personal decision," he said. He could sympathize with my addiction and my dilemma. The only guidance he could offer is current thinking: that while running won't cause osteoarthritis, once you have it, running will aggravate it.