This is Part One of a Pose series. Part Two digs into the (mostly) scientific arguments made against the Pose Method
“You run like shit.”
Not exactly something anyone wants to hear. If you’re currently in the process of running 80+ miles a week, this kind of news can be devastating. I stared blankly at the 50-inch flat screen placed precariously in front of our small group— maybe 16 people—and wondered why I looked so bad.
The full breadth of my stride was on display here; one foot trailing behind my body and the other reaching in front, driving forward. This was how I was supposed to look. This is how “good” runners look. All those Nike ads and pro-runner’s Instagram feeds had burned the images into my mind. I didn’t understand. All these people I emulate run like shit too?
There was clearly a disconnect here. The smartest man in the world of running, Dr. Nicholas Romanov, was tracing a laser pointer across the TV screen, advancing my lumbering body frame by frame to show everyone in attendance why I couldn’t run. In increasingly specific terms, he shredded my gait from top to bottom, eventually concluding that if I was going to run like THAT, I should probably just save my energy and not run at all.
As I sat there, disillusioned, disheartened and incredibly embarrassed, I realized this was, in fact, exactly what I wanted. Did I really spend a shitload of my money and time to fly to Miami (in August!) so I could hear Dr. Romanov tell me that I run perfectly? That’s an expensive ego boost, even if it is coming from The Most Interesting Man in the World. No, this was a good thing. It was time to figure out what I had been doing wrong. It was time for my education to begin.
- Historical Context
It has become widely accepted that running played a huge part in our development as human beings. Despite anecdotal romanticisms like Born to Run, the real information (i.e. backed by data) is out there and has become an accepted addition to our larger evolutionary picture. In his incredible book, The Story of the Human Body, Harvard Evolutionary Biologist Daniel Lieberman describes all the ways evolution designed us to become running machines, from the stabilization and balance systems in our heads/ears/spines specifically designed to let us balance and see clearly while running to the entire anatomy of our lower leg being setup like an energy-returning spring.
According to Lieberman’s research, running made us who we are today. It allowed us to track and run large mammals to death, largely thanks to our bipedalism and superior cooling systems, which allowed for larger, more nutrient-dense meals to be consumed, eventually resulting in an explosion in brain size. So without running, there is no us. We are inextricably linked to this simple act of locomotion, for better or for worse, and whether we want to believe it or not, we are all “runners”. We might not be “born to run” but we were certainly “born runners”.
Most people view running as a very simple movement. People are constantly uttering cliches like “just put one foot in front of the other” or some similarly reductive phrase to remind you how simple it is. Sure, at one time it might have been the pinnacle of complex movement, but now we have bikes and baseball bats and basketballs and pole vaults and 110m hurdles. We go to the gym and sit on massive machines designed to let you barely move a single joint in your body so you can “isolate” it.
Clearly, we’ve got it all figured out. All this overcomplexity and information has made us the healthiest we’ve ever been in human history (ha!). Also, we never get injured anymore (ha!). All kidding aside, the real irony here is that if you look at all the athletic movements we make as humans, only the ridiculous invented motions (i.e. swinging a golf club, shooting a three-pointer, the backstroke, etc) all come with a universally accepted prescription. In a lot of cases, it’s based in physics (measuring the amount of torque produced at the end of a bat based on various swings) or simply based on years and years of data (the tennis coach who has seen thousands of hours of backhand swings and understand exactly— even if he cannot fully articulate it— why certain players are more effective than others).
For running, this doesn’t exist. If you go out and hire a running coach, 90% of them will “coach” you by essentially writing a program that tells you when, where and how hard to run. They toss around words and phrases like tempo, intervals, aerobic threshold, hill repeats and “recovery run” to make it seem like they’re doing something more complicated to justify the money you’re spending, but the bottom line amounts to ZERO time spent focusing on actual running technique. People don’t teach it. If you compare that to someone who hires a tennis coach or swimming coach (or any other coach), the vast majority of the time spent coaching, usually around 90%, will be spent on technique.
What this fact tells us (beyond illuminating running coaches as assholes who steal your money) is that the prevailing sentiment— not just in the running community but in the athletic community at large— is that we all run differently. People believe that they DO NOT need to be taught how to run. People will say things like, “Nobody taught me how to walk, when I was eight months old I couldn’t even talk, I don’t need anyone to teach me how to run.” Most intelligent people quickly see how foolish a statement like this is. It shows a total lack of understanding for how we “learn” as humans while completely missing the point at the same time (more on this in Part Two).
So just to recap: All the invented-by-humans human movements we’ve been talking about, swinging a golf club, the breast stroke, karate chopping a cinder block— whatever it may be— has a very specific technique that must be taught and mastered. Deviation from this technique is worthless and unacceptable. But running, the movement that was “invented” by natural selection over the course of millions of years with a very specific set of levers and fulcrums acting against a very specific force (gravity), can be done any fucking way you feel like it. It doesn’t matter at all. Just do what feels “natural”. Nature doesn’t know shit. You know everything.
II. Looking for Answers in All the Wrong Places
Ever since reading ’Born to Run” I had been wearing minimal shoes. For my first race ever, a 50k in Idaho, I “laced up” a pair of Vibram Five Fingers. I ran a mountain 50k wearing these kicks, based on Chistopher McDougall’s generalized view that minimal footwear makes you run properly. I had dreams of running 100 miles across the mountains like Tony Krupicka and Scott Jurek but I could barely run 50 miles a week without totally breaking down. I was bruising my feet constantly on rocks, my ankles were always a mess, my knees ached, my IT Bands felt like someone was ratcheting them up like a slackline. I would read articles about the weekly volume elite ultra runners were putting in, sometimes upwards of 200 miles a week, and wonder how their bodies could possibly withstand all the punishment. It seemed unfathomable.
Nevertheless, I tried and I tried. I started to get my weekly volume up a bit. I finished 7th place at the Zion 100k. I snuck onto the podium at the Malibu Creek 50k. I started really pushing to get more miles on my legs. I was looking at all these successful runners and the formula seemed obvious: more volume.
The problem for me was all in the health of my lower extremities. My energy systems were never an issue. My feet or legs would always breakdown long before I could get to that point. I needed more volume and my legs hurt… so I began running through a lot of pain. I ignored my body completely and routinely went out on long runs in the mountains despite experiencing agonizing pain with every footfall. Then one day, about nine miles from the trailhead, the pain got too bad to continue. After a two-hour hobble and a couple of days of denial, I was at the doctor’s office with a diagnosis: severe stress fracture of the Lateral Malleolus.
The Lateral Malleolus is the distal end of your Fibula, basically what most people refer to as their “ankle bone”. According to my physician, during bipedal locomotion, this bone is non-weight bearing. To me, this immediately meant that my gait was FUCKED UP. I did enough damage to a non-weight bearing bone to break it? My stride is so bad that I’ve got muscles wrenching on the end of my fibula to the tune of enough torque to crack it? This was obviously something I needed to figure out.
Naturally, I asked the doctor what I was doing wrong. What could I do to fix this? I will never forget what happened next. This prestigious orthopedic surgeon, operating out of one of the most respected clinics in Los Angeles (SMOG), sat down in the chair across from the table I was sitting on, took a deep breath, exhaled, looked up at me and said, “Unfortunately, you’re just too tall to run. Especially long distances. I wouldn’t recommend running more than two miles at a time. You need to get some shoes with some more padding and on your next visit, we’ll fit you for orthotics.”
I am tall. I’m 6’7”. But I have the same equipment as everyone else. I have the same set of levers. Just a little longer. I couldn’t believe what he had just said. I stared blankly through his face as he kept rambling on about the history of tall NBA players and stress fractures of the feet. He was saying something about Yao Ming when I stopped listening.
This couldn’t be true. I wouldn’t accept it. I’d long held a deep distrust for every doctor I’d ever met so it wasn’t hard to convince myself that he was a myopic idiot. No, that was easy. The hard part was going to be figuring out what to do next.
The answers had to be out there, I just needed to find them. Freshly clad in a size 15 walking boot, I was out the door and on the search for my running salvation… but a revolution would have to do.
III. (My) Running Revolution
When you’ve been running a couple hours everyday for the past year or so and then you’re forced to halt this activity abruptly, it really fucks with your psyche. There have been countless studies done showing the hormonal effects of cardiovascular activity— it changes your brain. It alters your decision making. You’re not really the same person, in terms of brain chemistry, when you’re not exercising that you are when you’re regularly getting a good dose of cardio.
I suffered through this (much of it probably placebo) for about three weeks and fell into a desperate pit of despair. Then my ankle finally got to the point where I could put some weight on it without any pain, and I started biking, doing a lot of hang cleans and front squats (I still couldn’t do a full power clean) and generally started to feel less worthless and ready to uncover some answers (that I hoped were there).
So I started doing research. And this is when I started to realize that most people don’t talk about running form. If someone was , it was usually a current or former elite runner who has made a transition to coach, but doesn’t understand why they were faster than their peers or happened to stay injury free. The result of this is a lot of ambiguous, relative terms being thrown around like, “make your stride feel smooth” or “be light on your feet” or “imagine yourself gliding down the trail” or “drive your legs”. None of this helps anybody and it certainly wasn’t what I was looking for.
No, I wanted definitive information about the differences between a heel/forefoot strike. I wanted to know what cues I should be focusing on during the different phases of my stride. I wanted to know if Nike really ruined the world like Born to Run claimed. And more than anything, I wanted to be able to run with a certainty that I wasn’t damaging my body. A quick google search of “running+physics” and I stumbled across the Pose Method site.
I started reading a bit and it sounded promising. It was offering me a way a singular, correct way to run. At fast speeds and jogging alike. It has always seemed naive to me that, as creatures of the same species, we run so dramatically different. I grew up watching NBA games on TV wondering why some of the players (the more athletic ones) ran on their forefeet, while the big centers usually plodded down (very un-athletically) with an obvious heel strike. It was apparent that these things were not equal, but no one else was talking about it and I was ill-equipped to discover the answer to which of these methods was better.
Dr. Romanov was laying it all out there for me: here’s how you run and here’s why. Not only did he have the balls to say something audacious, but his claims were making sense. I was never a competitive runner before I started entering ultra marathons in my 30s. I never worked with a track or cross country coach and I never had anyone tell me how to run (my college basketball coaches wouldn’t have dared to correct someone’s running form). So, I was picking all of this up starting at first principles, with an empty cup waiting to be filled with information. (I honestly think this was a huge advantage for me because I didn’t have to unlearn a bunch or erroneous information or running dogma. A lot of runners are already full of that shit, so it’s hard.)
Upon my initial reading of The Running Revolution, I missed a lot. Even with the videos that accompanied the iPad version of the book, it’s hard to learn how to run by reading a book. It’s hard when you can’t watch yourself and see what you’re actually doing. So I kind of heard what I wanted to hear and picked up about half of the Pose tenants and adopted them in my running.
It helped a lot, but it wasn’t perfect. My big mistake after reading the book was inaccurately synonymizing the words “fall” and “lean”. I took falling to mean leaning, and I ran with poor posture. I was trying to do a continuous-leaning-type-thing instead of the pendulum falling effect. Then, when your posture is shit and you’re bent at the waist, you’re forced to counter-balance (around your GCM) by leaving your feet trailing behind you when they should be directly underneath your hips. I had more time on support because I was waiting for my trailing leg to catch up with the rest of my body that was essentially running away from it.
I need someone to look at me and point out my specific deficiencies, and Dr. Romanov certainly obliged. After I left the clinic in Miami, I couldn’t wait to get out and try my new technique. I had finally seen myself in action and I knew what was going wrong. At first it wasn’t easy. I had been so conditioned to “use my long stride” that the short, choppy steps felt incredibly foreign to me. I didn’t feel like it was conducive to running fast. Then, one day about two weeks of running, I had a breakthrough.
I was running on a trail that I had been on a lot (over 100 times) and I was focusing on pulling my foot from the floor as quickly as possible— even though the high cadence felt weird— and maintaining my posture. I got to the top of the climb much quicker than I normally would, but I was keeping the effort easy and (incorrectly) assumed that there was some mistake or I had forgotten to un-pause for a bit after I took a leak.
I turned and started back down the mountain, once again with laser-focus on my cues, fighting the urge to over-stride. What happened next was amazing. I still remember the sensation vividly. My short, choppy steps started to flow. My legs started to feel light, like they were popping off the ground as soon as they touched down. It felt great, but I assumed that I was running very slowly. I felt way too in control of my body to be running fast downhill— usually when I hit seven minute pace, I felt out of control like I was pounding and the impact felt dangerously high.
I glanced down at my watch and did a double-take. It said I was running at 5:30min/mile pace. That can’t be right! There’s no way I could be running this fast and be in control like this. I didn’t feel like I was doing anything. I had this weird feeling where I felt detached from my legs. I was just this person up in the cockpit driving, and all I had to do was pick my feet up and get them under my GCM as quickly as possible. It was surreal. And I was fucking flying down the hill. I couldn’t help but let a huge smile grow across my face.
Never in 100 years would I have come to the conclusion that my downhill running problem was from leaving my foot trailing behind me too far. This type of error wasn’t even on my radar. In a single moment of clarity, running downhill switched from being slow and strenuous to being fast and fun.
I got home and checked the results of my run on Strava. I set something like 25 personal records on a run that I had done 100+ times. And I had kept my effort easy the entire time. I wasn’t pushing, I was concentrating on my cues. From that day forward, I was sold. You could now call me a Pose runner.
Since then, I’ve naturally had some ups and downs with my training, but you can’t even compare the runner I was with the runner I am now. 100 mile weeks aren’t scary anymore. My legs don’t hurt. I’m partially convinced that the only thing holding my running back at this point is the amount of food I can eat. Now, instead of having my legs break down, I’m dealing with energy systems issues (which has led to a few dangerous situations actually where I was way too far away from home and running out of energy— it took me a little while to get a handle on that situation because it hadn’t happened before).
I do a lot more flat running too. I still hate it, like I did before Pose, but now I see the real benefit in it and I understand how it translates to the mountains a lot better. I need to come back to the flat to push the reset button after too much time on variable terrain. Taking all the other variables out of the equation is still the best way for me to get in touch with my form, but as I said, I’m still very new to this whole thing, so hopefully that’ll improve in the future.
I’ve fared well in my races since fully adopting the Pose method as well. I brought my 50k PR well below five hours and somehow (I’m slow) managed to place 2nd in the Santa Barbara Red Rock Marathon with I time I wouldn’t have dreamed of a year before.
I haven’t raced much though, and it seems to surprise people when they look at the volume I’ve been consistently putting up for the last year. They want to know what I’m training for. I’m just having too much fun running as much as I want as hard as I want. I’m having too much fun pushing the boundaries of my own body right now. When I’m interested, the races will be there. It’s like someone finally gave me the blueprint to operate this vehicle I call a body and I’m still test driving the shit out of it.
There are myriad reasons why I’m sold on Pose running. But to avoid sounding dogmatic, I’m going to save you the rest of the anecdotal evidence of my personal experience and do my best to look at some of the common arguments made against Pose (scientific and otherwise), understand why they are being made and attempt to get to the truth. Because at the end of it all, after the trolling and debating and commenting is over, truth is all that matters.