Stretch Your Limits
by Ben Boyd and Cynthia Roth
Hit the wall in a marathon and you can recover relatively quickly. Hit the downhills or track too hard and you'll suffer a few days of gradually mitigating pain. But hit the world of big-time injury, and your recovery will usually come at a torturously slow pace - if at all. An awful lot of runners are slowed or stopped by injury and still more are one bad run away from disaster - running reactors ripe for a meltdown. What was once a source of joy and exhilaration can swiftly morph into an activity fraught with pain and frustration, or one that's just plain impossible. To add insult to you-know-what, most of the injuries are self-induced. There are methods to help you recover from and prevent injuries, as well as increase your overall biomechanical efficiency - adding more years to your running life and more life to your running years. These methods include yoga, Pilates (Pul-LAH-Teez) and Feldenkrais (Feld-en-Krise). The one you choose is entirely dependent on your needs and disposition, but the dividends are well worth your effort. Think of these as running insurance policies, and remember that, like all such policies, they're only effective if you keep paying your premiums.
A Trusted Name in Insurance
"Mile 21 of the Chicago Marathon is when yoga took over," says triathlete Patrick Baldwin. "My legs were done, so I concentrated on my breathing and drew from the wealth of strength and discipline I had acquired in yoga class." Yoga, meaning "union," is a journey into balance - a balance of mind, body, intelligence - all working together. Based on the 2,500-year-old writings of Patanjali, the fundamental purpose of yoga is to unite the body and mind so they can walk (or, in this case, run) together. Although there are four distinct branches, hatha yoga is the one you've most likely seen practiced. Depending on the training of the yoga instructor, the style of hatha yoga may be called Ashtanga, Iyengar, Flow, Bikram or Power. The postures and benefits of each style are similar, but order, repetitions and room temperature will vary. In hatha yoga, you use a series of asanas (postures) and breathing techniques to enhance your body's strength, posture, flexibility, ease of respiration and sense of well-being. A typical session begins with breathing exercises, moves into a series of asanas and may conclude with a short meditation. The postures build on one another to create openness within your body. Although some postures may look and feel like the impossible gymnastics of a circus contortionist, there's no need to be intimidated. Postures can be approximated or aided with props, and even experts are always trying to improve. Runner and yoga instructor Michael Fukumura agrees with triathlete Patrick Baldwin about the power of the breath, saying, "One of the primary benefits of yoga for runners is the correct use of the entire breathing apparatus. Using yogic breathing, my running is smoother, more even and more efficient. And where I used to overheat, now I even run cooler."
A Policy of Core Strength
Colleen DeReuck, a 2:26 marathoner, ran her specialty favoring a hurt foot at the 2000 Olympics. She continued to favor the foot in her training after the Games and ended up with a stress fracture. DeReuck used Pilates as part of her recovery program and is now planning to go after the American Championship title at this fall's New York City Marathon.
What is Pilates?
In the 1920s, German-born Joseph Pilates emigrated to the U.S. bringing his method (then called Contrology) with him. The method, which combined mental and physical conditioning, was considered years ahead of its time in terms of rehabilitation and exercise training. The work became popular in the dance world, receiving high profile exposure from the likes of Martha Graham and George Balanchine. Ideal for runners as well as dancers, its unique exercises are designed to lengthen and strengthen muscles, resulting in longer, leaner muscles without added bulk. There are two formats: mat work, which is done in group classes; and individual instruction, usually carried out on specialized exercise equipment. Both aspects of the work emphasize building core strength and stability while correcting postural imbalances. Pilates instructor Adrienne Dornheggen reports working with a marathoner who, at the end of four weeks, claimed she was running longer and faster with less effort. Dornheggen adds, "Though there is a lot of emphasis on the physical aspects of Pilates, the importance of using awareness while perfoming the exercises is huge. This method is just as challenging mentally as it is physically.
An Easy Investment Plan
While training on her bike shortly before her 21st birthday, runner and triathlete Sharon S. de Moyano was hit by a semi. She sustained severe injuries to her left side and doctors told her she would probably never run again. Eight painful months and seven surgeries later - she had parts of three muscles removed from her left leg - she was introduced to the Feldenkrais method by her brother (who had used it to successfully recover from a back injury). She worked with a practitioner daily for three weeks, at the end of which de Moyano was pain-free and running again. So complete was her recovery that she went on to lower her marathon PR by 20 minutes. She eventually became a Feldenkrais Practitioner herself. Deceptively gentle yet extremely powerful, the Feldenkrais Method of somatic education was brought to the U.S. in the 1970s by its originator Moshe Feldenkrais, a Ukranian-born Israeli physicist. He developed the method to correct his own soccer-related knee injury. Feldenkrais is an educational approach that teaches people to become more aware of themselves and to move with a greater range of ease and skill. There are two ways to experience the method: Functional Integration (FI) and Awareness Through Movement┐ (ATM) lessons. With FI, a practitioner works on you in private, gently guiding you through movements, communicating new information to your muscles and nervous system through their hands. You take ATM lessons by following an instructor's verbal directions in group classes or practice on your own by following audio tapes. Experienced runner Renee Schor says, "The great thing about Feldenkrais is that you don't have to really know how it works. It just does. Your nervous system picks up and uses the new information and you spontaneously run better."
Before You Sign on the Dotted Line
An old Latin saying goes "There are many roads to Rome." There are also many paths to injury prevention, injury recovery and running efficiency. Your running enjoyment, success and longevity depend on employing a method that addresses these issues. Any one of the three methods discussed here will take you a long way toward enjoying that success. The path you pick should feel right to you. Most yoga centers, Pilates studios and Feldenkrais classes welcome visitors, so try a few different classes to find a style and instructor you like. Some health clubs offer group classes to members at little or no additional charge, and private instruction is usually available. As with any kind of insurance policy, it pays to ask questions: What kind of training did your instructor have? How long has your instructor been practicing? Does your instructor run, or have they worked successfully with runners? Do your homework, find a plan and keep investing in it and you'll greatly increase your chances for a more enjoyable, injury-free experience in the long run.