– Derek M. Hansen –
Running is one of the most practiced methods of exercise in the world today, mostly because it is a relatively simple and accessible activity. Just get yourself a pair of running shoes (unless you are a barefoot running fanatic), pick a route and put one foot in front of the other. Before you know it, you are running.
For those of us who have a more comprehensive and strategic approach to running, it can be a much more complex process. We can have detailed training plans, a personal coach for technique, a training diary, a performance oriented diet and a specialized physical therapist that works out our aches and pains one time per week. Knowing and listening to our bodies is part of our everyday awareness routine, and anything that can help us be more “in-tune” with our machinery will contribute to achieving our running goals.
A recent Human Kinetics publication, Running Anatomy, provides greater insight into a person’s individual component parts involved in running. Written by Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy, Running Anatomy begins by detailing the evolution of running for the human race. Initially, running was a means of catching our food and escaping our natural predators, with performance outcomes (slow versus fast runners) contributing to Darwin’s theory of “natural selection.” Running became less prevalent once horses were domesticated and became a primary means of expedient transportation. Eventually, running became a competitive endeavor in the original ancient Olympic Games. However, after these games were abandoned, significant competitive running didn’t re-emerge until the 19th century and the modern Olympic Games. Leisure running really didn’t take-off until the 1970’s and has gradually become part of modern society for recreation, health and wellness.
The book quickly moves into running physiology and mechanics, identifying the critical functions of the body involved in creating energy for locomotion. Running drills, different running events (track and cross country) and varied running terrain (trail and hill running) are covered in a general fashion, providing a context for the main thrust of the book: preparing your body for running.
In many ways, Running Anatomy can be considered a strength training manual for runners. Roughly 100 pages of the book are dedicated to outlining exercises designed to work various anatomical structures involved in the running motion. These exercises involve body weight, free weights (dumbbells and barbells) and weight training machines. The section on upper body torso training involves a number of pressing and pulling movements to train the back and chest. The section on arms and shoulders focuses on the biceps and triceps through a series of curling and elbow extension movements.
The chapter on the “core” is enlightening for the common runner, as I believe many people believe the core is simply the abdominal muscles. In reality, the core musculature is all of the structures in and around the pelvis, abdomen, hips and back. It is a complex web and chain of contractile tissue that not only generates force, but also allows greater transfer and translation of force through the body’s center of mass. Many running problems originate in the core and can manifest themselves as soft-tissue problems well away from the core, such as in the knees, ankles and feet. Running Anatomy clearly identifies all of the muscles involved in the core and provides some exercises that can assist in bolstering this area.
The sections on upper-leg, lower-leg and foot muscles identify a number of exercises that can strengthen the primary muscles involved in running. Where readers have to be careful is in the application of these exercises as part of their over-all training program. While many people believe in the “more-is-better” approach, over-doing it on lower body strength training exercises can be problematic. Because running is primarily a lower body activity, it is not difficult to create over-use problems in the muscles and joints of the legs and feet. For example, while calf-raises can strengthen the muscles of the calves and ankles, they can also tighten up these muscles and adversely impact the shock-absorbing properties of the lower leg. A stiff calf muscle and lower leg compartment can result in heavier impacts that can create knee pain, lower back soreness, neck pain and even headaches.
Accordingly, Running Anatomy then dives into the subject of running injuries, identifying the common injuries and respective causes. It follows up the injury overview with a series of static stretches and simple exercises to target problem areas. I would like to have seen a bit more effort taken to emphasize the need to manage muscle quality throughout the training process, in a preventative manner, and not simply as a cure for after-the-fact running injuries. Although static stretching can be useful, stretching alone cannot combat the various problems a runner would encounter in a training program. Simple soft-tissue therapy techniques, including self-massage or self-administered trigger point therapy, as well as hydrotherapy techniques, can address muscle problems that static stretching cannot target alone. Regular massage of problem areas can also keep injuries at bay. Of course, I am aware that “my” version of Running Anatomy would be a 500-page text to ensure that all of my hang-ups were addressed in great detail.
The book concludes with an overview of running shoe selection and a section titled “Full Body Conditioning.” The latter section starts well with a review of water running as a supplement to regular training. Deep water running is identified as a good training alternative for both healthy and injured runners. However, the book stumbles in an overview of plyometrics. Because of the risk presented by high force jumping movements, all discussion of plyometrics should be preceded by a introduction to the concepts of build-up and progression. Running Anatomy doesn’t follow this guideline and presents a squat jump (described as a “frogger”) and an “A-step depth jump” (showing an athlete launching themselves off a box like a long-jumper) which could create serious injury in any runner who has not been following a significant lower body strength program and had not progressed with much smaller jumps. The authors would have been well advised to simply leave plyometrics out of the book, or simply limit them to basic two-footed hopping movements on grass, building lower leg elasticity.
Human Kinetics has had success with it’s “Anatomy” series of books, helping the average consumer learn more about their bodies when lifting weights, dancing, stretching, swimming and, now, running. The book is well illustrated and provides runners with a greater awareness of the complexity and inter-connectedness of their bodies. For the most part, the strength training exercises are sound and will help the average runner choose a routine for strength training. The section on arm strength is a bit over-done, as elbow extension and flexion is not a desirable movement in running mechanics. There are also a few technical issues in some of the running drill and lifting diagrams. However, I am quite picky when it comes to technique and the general presentation is quite good. The book is an easy read and not overly complicated when it comes to the anatomical diagrams. It goes well as a cover-to-cover read, or simply a reference book. If you are a recreational runner and you want an anatomy book that doesn’t make feel like you are at a Leonardo da Vinci exhibit, then Running Anatomy is the book for you.
Running Anatomy, Joe Puleo and Dr. Patrick Milroy, Human Kinetics 2010
– Well presented information on running and sport-specific anatomy
– Basic strength training requirements well documented and illustrated
– Good overview of “core” components
– Easy read and good reference text
– A number of diagrams could provide better technique examples
– Plyometrics information could be presented in a safer, more progressive manner