I Will Learn to Run Better
by Roy M.Wallack
Cutting-edge triathletes are studying the controversial Pose Method to run faster with fewer injuries. Is there a lesson here for you?
Mel Wicks, a 65-year-old financial planner from Toledo, Ohio, has been running for 25 years, and guesses he's been injured half the time with plantar fasciitis. Sean Hylton, 32 an eight-time Ironman finisher from Naples, Florida, ran 25 to 35 miles per week for seven years and required five days to recover from every long run. Joel Andres, 40, a Los Angeles lawyer-turned-personal-trainer suffered two herniated discs in his lower back in 2001 while lifting weights. "Two neurosurgeons told me I would never run again," he says.
Yet within the last year, all three of these men have overcome injuries and bumped up their mileage thanks to a training method gaining popularity among a small subset of runners. The Pose Method is a technique invented in the late 1970s by Nicholas Romanov, a Russian sports-science Ph.D. based in Miami, who believes that the heel-striking gait of most long-distance runners is not "natural" and promotes injuries. In fact, Romanov thinks runners need to completely rethink the old left-right-left-right. 'To run efficiently," he says, "we need to approach running as if it is a skill to be learned, like basketball or golf." The Pose Method dictates a forward lean, a forefoot landing on a bent knee, rapid turnover, and short strides (see "Principles of Posing," page 71). The method purportedly subjects the knees to 50 percent less shock than normal heel-toe running and requires less overall energy. Detractors say it just shifts injuries to the calves and Achilles tendons, and that furthermore, one's running form is determined by inherent and mostly unchangeable muscle and skeletal types.
Photo by Mark Hooper
If you haven't heard of the Pose, you're not alone. For
this story, we twice posted a message soliciting opinions about the Pose on the
RUNNER'S WORLD message board and didn't receive a single response. But a
similar message on Web sites in the triathlon world, where the Pose first
gained exposure and has something of a following, drew dozens of responses from
triathletes, many of whom had attended one of Romanov's seminars or bought his
videotape or book. While anecdotal responses can't be used to draw scientific
conclusions, the Pose has created enough of a stir in the broader running world
to invite scrutiny from famed researcher Timothy Noakes, M.D., author of Lore
of Running, who published results of a limited study in February.
Noakes' article was a start, but still no long-term scientific study has ever proven that the Pose delivers all that it promises. So the debate goes on. If the Pose Method is so great, why aren't we all doing it? Or is it a ticking time bomb that causes more problems than it solves? All of which begs a larger question: Can you actually learn how to run better?
MAN WITH A PLAN Nicholas Romanov, author of The
Pose Method of Running, at Tropical Park in Miami.
HOW IT WORKS
Romanov developed the Pose Method while teaching at the Physical Education Department of the Chuvash Pedagogical University in 1977, in what was then the Soviet Union. Required to develop training schedules for runners as part of his degree, he panicked; he'd been a high jumper who regularly cleared seven feet - running all of eight steps. He'd never liked running much and knew nothing about it. Since high jumping was all about technique, he searched for books about proper running form - and found none. So he looked at newsreel footage of sprinters and distance runners, at pictures of ancient Greek runners, and even analyzed the biomechanics of cheetahs. His conclusion was nothing less than biomechanical heresy.
"Efficient running shouldn't involve propulsion at all - that's too much work," says Romanov today. "In fact, exactly the opposite should happen: Efficient runners should let gravity pull them forward. Efficient running is really falling - controlled falling."
In 1981, Romanov named his form "The Pose Technique," believing it could be most easily understood as an ideal running position, or pose. He coached in obscurity for 13 years, his influence limited to a small, devoted group that eventually included a Soviet 15-K champion.
The Pose Method's "controlled-falling" drew raised eyebrows and sneers from Cold War-era athletic authorities - as it does today from the American running establishment - but it actually starts with several familiar elements of what's considered good form: rapid turnover, short strides, and landing under the body's center of mass. Beyond the basics though, the Pose gets controversial: It requires a forefoot landing - a natural sprinting technique, but one that's counterintuitive to most distance runners. The Pose runner lands on a bent knee, directly under his torso, to absorb shock and minimize muscle strain. Following the forefoot landing, the heel makes light ground contact and is flicked butt-ward. With little effort, according to Romanov, the airborne foot then swings forward like a pendulum. To initiate movement, the runner leans forward. To speed up, the runner increases the lean so that turnover must also increase. Picture a unicyclist: The more he leans, the faster he has to spin the pedals to keep from falling over.
Romanov goes so far as saying that the Pose Method's reliance on gravity for forward motion effectively turns the legs into wheels. "The fastest runners can go 12 meters per second," he says, "but objects fall at 58 meters per second. That means you can fall five times as fast as you can run. Therefore, legs should not play a major role in propulsion. They are just carriers."
Romanov designed the Pose for efficiency, to avoid the braking force of a blunt heel-strike, but says he soon saw a bonus benefit. "We began to notice that injuries just disappeared;" he says, "due to the softer landings and less ballistic shock to the knees and hips." This did nothing to popularize his theories, however, and Romanov began to look for another way to spread his gospel. Eventually, he did what millions of dreamers with crazy ideas had done before him. He came to America.
PRINCIPLES OF POSING
WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY
In 1994, Romanov moved his family to Florida to reunite with his eldest daughter, who'd married an American. He had trouble getting work as a university professor and running coach (positions he'd held in the USSR), and was living in near-poverty in a backwoods trailer on an ostrich farm in Loxahatchee, west of West Palm Beach. Soon he was "discovered" by Cyle Sage, then a pro triathlete and assistant coach at a junior development camp, who'd heard a rumor "about a Russian with a bunch of far-out ideas."
Sage drove out to see Romanov, and spent the afternoon "hopping around on one leg," one of the recommended strengthening and stretching drills tailored to the method's unique biomechanics. Within days, Romanov was quickly networked into the triathlon community, which has a reputation for being unusually open to discussions of form, given the importance of technique in swimming and cycling. He worked with Sage as consultant to the U.S. Triathlon Junior team throughout the '90s, and has been a full-time coach to the British triathlon team for the last five years. Top British triathletes, including Andrew Johns and 2002 World Champion Leanda Cave, use the Pose, as does top U.S. triathlete Hunter Kemper. "When I get in trouble, I check my turnover and my lean," says Kemper, "and I'm back on track."
Few mainstream biomechanists, however, have heard of Romanov's method, much less studied it. Three who agreed to read about it for RUNNEWS WORLD had widely divergent opinions. "I think there is something to the Pose - it's a very sound, practical concept," says Ray M. Fredericksen, M.S., an RW technical editor and a biomechanist in the Orthopaedic Biomechanics Lab at Michigan State University. "It's being termed a new method, but it has a lot of historical validity. Most efficient runners are midfoot strikers. And running is a matter of momentum, of picking your foot off the ground and swinging your limb going forward. Naturally, you will lean."
Iain Hunter, Ph.D., a biomechanist at Brigham Young University with expertise in distance-running technique, doubts the Pose will stand up to its claims, but agrees that any new idea is worth considering. "It will not be beneficial for sprinters, as you need a large force applied to the ground for that, and I worry about its economy for long distance," he says. "Standing straight up requires very little energy, but running squatted several inches may make your muscles do more work."
Keith R. Williams, Ph.D., a biomechanics expert at UC Davis, however, is even less sanguine about the Pose. "[It] has flaws in its mechanical reasoning," he says. "There is no supportive evidence that running on the ball of the foot is better than landing with the heel first. Most people automatically do what's most comfortable and efficient." He cautions that "risk of injuries is high anytime you make radical changes to somebody's mechanics," and recommends a three- to six-month adaptation period for the Pose.
A study found that the Pose reduced impact to the knee by 50 percent. "Nothing else does this," says researcher Timothy Noakes.
In February of 2002, determined to have his method
legitimized by the broader running community, Romanov contacted Dr. Timothy
Noakes while accompanying the British triathlon team on a trip to South Africa.
"No one else will study this," he told me" says Dr. Noakes.
"'They think it's a waste of time.' I listened to him, was intrigued that
his running mechanics were quite different and said, 'Let's do it.' It's my
responsibility as a scientist to see if he has something." Dr. Noakes
studied Romanov in his lab at the University of Cape Town and found a reduction
in knee-loading and impact. Six months later, Romanov returned to Cape Town and
spent five days training 20 heel-to-toe runners to use the Pose Method.
The before-and-after study, entitled "Reduced Eccentric Loading of the Knee with the Pose Running Method," was published this year in the American College of Sports Medicine journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise. "We found a substantial de- cline in impact forces at the knee joint - I was quite surprised at the magnitude of the change," Noakes says, noting that it was 50 percent. "We have seen nothing else that does this - not shoes, no matter how padded.
"My opinion? He really does have something," says Dr. Noakes. "I think the Pose is advantageous in preventing injuries, which is important since about 60 percent of runners get injured each year."
AN ACHILLES' HEEL - AND REPROGRAMMING
But Dr. Noakes does issue a warning: "The Pose has one big negative that prevents me from recommending it: You have to absorb the shock somewhere, and you absorb it in the Achilles tendon and the calf. Some of the test subjects had calf pain."
Romanov, of course, has an answer for that. "We were rushed," he says. "It isn't until the second week that the calf muscles start adapting to the new biomechanics of the Pose. These people had five days - not enough time to get used to the new load."
"I'm glad to hear that," Dr. Noakes responds. "I can believe he may well be right. We will do a long-term test. But until then, I will not promote Pose running. It must have a big warning: If you are one of those who is prone to Achilles problems - after all, injuries are the result of exposure and genetic susceptibility - watch out."
Indeed, calf problems often dog new Pose runners and even knock some out of the program entirely. "I'm busy when Romanov comes to town - I get more injured clients," says physical therapist Robert Forster, whose Phase IV performance lab in Santa Monica, California, is a home-away-from-home for the large triathlete community in Los Angeles. "Regardless of whether I disagree with the physics of the Pose - and I do - I see dozens come in with shin-splints, and Achilles-tendon and calf injuries after his seminars. Recreational runners don't have the strength to land on the ball of the foot. That's only for advanced runners."
Pat Manocchia, owner of La Palestra Center for Preventative Medicine in New York City, disagrees. An enthusiastic cheerleader of the Pose since 1999, Manocchia trains about 100 clients per year in the method, emphasizing its warmup drills and core-strengthening exercises. "Done right, nobody gets injured," Manocchia says. "My clients' lower-leg, knee, and IT-band injuries went to nothing because you can train more with less muscle damage. You can't teach this in a weekend - or in an article. Old habits - over-striding, heel-strike, slow cadence - don't die easily."
Many Posers suggest an adaptation phase of a month or two. "By three months, you can master the Pose," says triathlete and fitness expert Joe Sparks, who taught Mel Wicks the method and claims the Pose helped him, after an operation to repair a torn meniscus, run his first sub-40-minute 10-K at age 44. "But you have to start slowly, gradually developing strength and flexibility in the calves. You have to treat it as a skill. You don't learn a new skill overnight."
Not surprisingly, the long learning curve can be frustrating. "It's like starting over," says Sandy Snyder, a 34-year-old engineer in Toledo, Ohio, who lowered her 5-K time from 30 to 25 minutes with the Pose. "I didn't have the calf problems, but I was completely winded at first. I didn't get the hang of it for four months. But once I did, I was so smooth that an old guy came up to me one day and said, 'You really look like you know what you're doing.'"
Rich Strauss, a triathlon coach in Pasadena, California, who says he's had no injuries since 2000 "due to Romanov," eases his clients into the Pose. "I call it Form Fartlek. Do eight minutes your old way, and two the Pose way, and repeat. Then after a few days, do seven old and three Pose, and keep working down to all Pose." He says it allows people to maintain their fitness during the transition. A good rule for competitors: Start the Pose in the off-season.
Of course, some people don't get it at all. "I attended a Pose seminar but it never really clicked for me," says Jen Hood, 34, a fitness trainer and runner from Perrysburg, Ohio. "I definitely take shorter strides now, especially when I'm running downhill. But I couldn't keep it up without much harder breathing. After five months, I reverted to my old form."
FORM AND FUNCTION
Learning the Pose is clearly a difficult and time-consuming proposition - a fact that begs the central question of whether any running technique that must be learned is worthwhile in the first place. Who better to ask than the Kenyans? Not only are they the world's most dominant distance runners, they're renowned for a "soft" gait and economical running style that is somewhat reminiscent of the Pose. This past January, several past and present champions gathered in the town of Eldoret for the 11th annual Fila Discovery Races, Kenya's national championships for 5- to 18-year-olds. When Kip Keino saw a copy of Romanov's book, The Pose Method of Running, he shook his head. "No, there is no correct running form, and you can't learn it," said the 1500-meter gold medalist at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, now the head of Kenya's National Olympic Committee. "Form is God-given. If you systematize it, you destroy it."
"Kenya's success is not dependent on form," said Paul Tergat, who set the marathon world record time of 2:04:55 last year in Berlin. "No runners' is." Up and down the line they agreed: Kenyans do not learn or even discuss form. That's the way their coach wants it. "It's crazy to try to alter form," said Dr. Gabriele Rosa, the Italian who in 1994 founded the training-camps program credited for much of Kenya's long-distance success. "You can't run thinking of all this stuff-how to move your feet, your body, your hands, as you run - it's too distracting. It's all training, nothing else. Look at the form of [England's] Paula Radcliffe; she got the world record [2:15:25, last year in London] with her head twitching all over the place."
Alberto Salazar, New York City marathon winner and coach of the runners in Nike's Oregon Project, is similarly dismissive. "The Pose is contrary to everything I know about running," he says. "Haile Gebrselassie runs straight up and down with his hips thrust forward. It's obvious that's the best running form for him."
Even so, not every coach agrees that perfect form comes naturally. "In any other sport, it'd be ridiculous to say form can't be learned;' says Ken Mierke, the author of Training for Triathlon Running. "Training only goes so far. All you can do is get more economical."
Ultimately, the Pose may help runners only because it raises the level of discussion about form. Last year, when retired six-time Hawaii Ironman winner Mark Allen, one of the greatest runners in the sport, was told about the Pose, he blurted, "That's stupid!" But this spring, after he attended one of Romanov's seminars, he had a new perspective. "Its main benefit is that it gives you a checklist, a system of things you can think about to run better," Allen says. "And that's a good thing."
BECOMING A POSER
What you learn in a weekend with the inventor of the "controlled falling" running method.
When I met Nicholas Romanov at a weekend Pose Method workshop in Laguna Beach, California, in April 2003, he was preaching to the half-converted. Four years earlier, knowing nothing of the Pose, I'd used some of the method's principles to finish the Boston Marathon on almost no training. I hadn't run in months due to a separated shoulder. A couple weeks before the race, my physical therapist said I had only one hope of finishing: by running "soft" - minimizing impact and muscle strain with short, low strides, rapid turnover, and a footstrike under center of mass. Now I know them to be mainstays of the Pose Method.
In the cool Saturday morning air, Romanov, 53, reviewed his lecture from the previous night, emphasizing his premise that using gravity to pull you along is more efficient and less stressful than pushing (propelling) yourself against it. Then he demonstrated the Pose technique himself on the concrete walkway. He seemed effortless - knees low, feet rapidly churning but barely grazing the ground, smooth as a train on a track. "This is easy to learn," he said, "but harder is to break old habits."
He videotaped each of us running a couple minutes in our normal form, then spent the rest of the day teaching us the Pose. Step one: leaning to the point where the body begins to fall and you instinctively put a leg out. Next came the forefoot landing, which made sense to me since short strides make it hard to heel-strike, anyway. But coordinating it with the forward lean, upward heel flick, and general "controlled falling" construct wasn't easy. Instead of my legs turning into "wheels" that barely touch earth as they "spin," I clumped along like a car with two blown tires, pounding each forefoot into the ground, the antithesis of the Segway-smooth, barely-bobbing Romanov. "Pick the feet up, pick them up!" his wife Svetlana, a former university English instructor, hounded me, cueing visualizations of running over hot coals and down stairs.
We started Sunday with warmup drills, including jump rope-style up-and-down bouncing, then ran a 5-K in the Pose Method. Following individualized criticism and instruction, there was a clinic on Pose stretching and warmup exercises, and hill-climbing and - descending practice. For me, that's when it clicked, my feet pinwheeling in little short-stride circles like the Road Runner. Our Pose running was videotaped, and we viewed the before and after to see the changes in our strides.
Like several in our class of 30, I had calf pain. Romanov explained that landing on the forefoot does not mean that the heel always stays off the ground; the heel brushes the ground lightly before you pull it up. This advice cut most calf pain on my next runs. Romanov says that it takes at least two weeks for the calves to adapt to the new load.
If you run well with no history of injuries, the Pose is probably a hassle. But if you seek to eliminate fear and frustration caused by injuries or slow times, "soft" running - Pose or not - can be a godsend. -R.M.W.