The past year I’ve been working with coach, physical therapist and NYT Bestselling author of Becoming a Supple Leopard, Dr. Kelly Starrett, on his second book, Ready to Run. For my part, applying the advice and philosophy has offered me a path to overhaul a body that saw its first triathlon 31 years ago tomorrow—the September 18, 1983 “All Iowa Triathlon.” Held near Lake McBride in the Iowa City area of Iowa, the event had a half-Iron length race and a full-Iron-length race. I recall (at 19 years of age) that I wasn’t sure the half was long enough, but decided to be prudent and do the short race.

It was plenty long enough. 

At any rate, the odometer was already hot by the time I hit my 30s. Add to the raw mileage that fact I never paid attention to mechanics, and by the time I was in my 40s I was so wrecked I thought I might be finished.

I began following Starrett’s work and had my eyes opened to fresh lines of thinking. I believe I share the sentiments of other older triathletes and runners who have come across Starrett’s work: “If I only had been doing this decades ago.”

Starrett has become a leading voice when it comes to how athletes think and approach movement as it relates to performance and the prevention of injuries.  I would describe it as taking the best and most progressive thought from the physical therapy world and reorganizing and reordering the principles governing mechanics and positions. How? By  using the principles of good movement to work ahead on the timeline. Rather than waiting for a knee to blow out and then go the the sports medicine clinic, Starrett coaches athletes to take it upon themselves to perform daily maintenance and adopt new habits so that the injury is prevented long before it is expressed. Sort of a double-whammy, Starrett argues that an ancillary benefit of following this preventive program is that you increase the efficiency and flow of power from the musculoskeletal system.

Starrett’s motivation to translate his movement and mobility program to the runners of the world—distance runners, triathletes and athletes in sports that involve running—was sparked in part by the Born to Run revolution. Revolution is a fair word: Christopher MacDougall’s run-away bestseller unleashed a lot of pent up frustration within the running world. There’s loads of great reporting in the book, but one thing went off like a smart bomb: The rather devastating truth that the stability/motion-control/foot-shape ethos of the running footwear industry has, forever, had exactly zero science backing it up. This news made sense for so many of us. For decades, runners and triathletes like myself have typically thought the same thing after coming up lame with some nagging injury: ‘I must need a new shoe!’ We get a new shoe and then maybe it works for a bit, or maybe not, but mostly we just try and run through the injuries until they become so bad we limp to the clinic and beg for help. 

It isn’t a bad thing to seek the help of a sports medicine practitioner, Starrett told me in one of our interviews. But if we show up at the clinic and the PT asks us, “What have you been doing to prevent the injury?” or “What have you been doing to manage it?” and we don’t have anything to report other than I tried a new shoe, then we’re blowing it, Starrett says. We aren’t getting any of the value we could be if we were having an informed conversation where the patient is fully engaged and responsible.

Starrett’s core message is this: Athletes have a personal responsibility to perform daily maintenance. Maybe you only have five or 10 minutes to do it, but such a dose, performed consistently, can have hugely positive effects in our lives.

In Ready to Run, Starrett lays out a series of standards to target to support our lives as runners and triathletes. For those who have severely compromised mobility and tissue health, a number of these standards will take a patience and consistent work ethic to meet. But in the book, Starrett makes the argument that if you can say yes to each of these standards, your body will be in an optimal state to churn out many years of fine running.

photo by John Segesta

photo by John Segesta

THE 12 STANDARDS

A quick description of the 12 standards are as follows:

Neutral feet. Making it a daily habit, in standing, walking and running, to be in a position where your feet are not flared out (duck-style) or canted inward (pigeon-toed). It may not seem like such a big deal, standing or walking wrong, but if you’re feet are splayed outward, for example, the soft tissues around the joints and the supporting musculature have to fill in in regards to stabilizing movement. This can put the joints into bad positions and slowly grind away at the soft tissues that can eventually drive us to the sidelines because of pain and swelling.

Flat shoes. Another daily habit—and one that might take time to gradually transition into—is that when you wear shoes, the shoes are flat. Work shoes, casual shoes, running shoes. Interestingly enough, if you go back to the early 1970s and before, all running shoes were flat. The pumped up heel came as the dawn of shoe technology began to boom along with the running boom. Some running shoes have had heel-to-toe drops well over 12mm. As Starrett details, this kind of overbuilt shoe ultimately shortens your heel cord and can negatively affect a host of pathologies from the feet to the lower back. 

A supple, thoracic spine. The third standard addresses the issues that stem from the rolled shoulders, poor head position and overly tight muscles in the upper back. For triathletes that spend a fair share of time in an aero position on the bike, this is a particularly important standard to address. Throughout the book, Starrett emphasizes that a human being is a “system of systems” and a postural problem in the upper spine can be the source for trouble throughout the body.

An efficient squatting technique. Running, Starrett writes, doesn’t require a great deal as far as range of motion, and if over the course of a year (or years) your exercise time is comprised of soldiering through tons of mileage within a small range of motion, the effects on overall mobility can be harsh. Especially if you have ingrained movement patterns that wear out your joints. Developing a good squat—with correct movement patterns—is part of the antidote to improve running mechanics and reducing this wear and tear. 

A normal degree of hip flexion. Digging deep into why we move the way we do can uncover, for example, constriction within the joint capsules. If we spend a lot of our day sitting at a desk, the hip capsules, for example, will mold to the position. The fifth and sixth standard are about restoring a normal and healthy amount of hip function. Compromised hip function—within the system of systems model—can be the root of dysfunctional mechanics throughout the body.

A normal degree of hip extension. A complimentary standard to hip flexion. Running a lot generally produces tight hip flexors, which I can attest reeks havoc on the knees. Pursuing this standard alone had a hugely positive impact on my running health (and my health overall).

A normal amount of ankle range of motion. Restricted ankle range of motion is the source for crappy running mechanics and this standard is designed to help you restore normal range. It should be noted that Starrett emphasizes that he aligns “normal” here with the specifics set forth by the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. It’s not about developing hyper-mobility by any means. It’s about having at least enough so that you can move and run in a healthy way.

Warming up and cooling down. Are you warming up and cooling down? This standard is about building the habit of properly warming up the muscles and connective tissues before you hit the pavement in a run, and then taking time after to allow the circulatory and lymphatic systems to do their job. The triathlete that dashes into a running workout and then after rushes through the shower, to the car, to the cubicle—where he or she sits down and shuts off the lymphatic system—is setting the stage for problems down the road.

Are you using compression? Starrett points to the research that demonstrates the positive effects of wearing a simple pair of compression socks at least part of the time during the day. Building the use of compression into your daily life—especially when traveling is a part of it—is a simple and effective way to promote the health of beaten down tissues.

 Are you free of hot spots? Hot spots—the nagging pains that triathletes and runners in hard training periods are all too familiar with. Starrett’s 10th standard requires you to avoid any desire to ignore these signals that something is wrong and unless it’s tended too it will just get worse.

 Are you hydrated? Dehydration has a number of averse effects, but within Starrett’s model, the hydration standard is about making sure that the layers of tissues in your feet, your legs, your hips and so on—skin, muscle, fascia, nerves, etc—are properly hydrated, and slide across one another as if well-oiled. 

 Can you jump and land with good mechanics? The 12th standard is similar to the squatting standard. It’s about looking at how you move when you jump and land under a microscope. Running is in essence a sequence of jumps and landings, and if your mechanics are off, then the damage will be done. In the 12th standard, Starrett encourages you to learn, practice and master good patterns when you jump and land.

In addition to defining and explaining the standards, Starrett offers the reader a full tool box of mobility exercises and techniques to designed to help you undo the damage that may be holding you back.

I’ll be joining Kelly for a Google Hangout session tomorrow, September 18,  at 10amPST/1pmEST to talk about running, mechanics, health and performance.

T.J. Murphy is the Digital Editorial Director of LAVA Magazine.