Can Running Compliment Flexibility Training?

Being flexible and a beginner runner has its challenges and rewards

Everyone knows that running and flexibility exist in opposition to each other. Right?

Ask any flexibility coach about cardio cross-training and the vast majority will tell you to stay away from running. Ask any runner about flexibility training and most will groan and treat it as a boring and unpleasant but necessary evil to keep them from turning into one big, gristly tendon.

Convention will tell you that running makes you inflexible and flexibility training and being highly flexible or hypermobile makes you unsuitable for running.

But what if, by focusing on impeccable running technique, proper pre-conditioning, warm-ups, balance, and an almost exclusive application of active over passive flexibility exercises, these two disciplines could complement each other instead of oppose each other?

This is my experiment of one, as I test the capabilities of my own body in the lab of life.

Running with Proper Technique

Fortunately, with running technique I don’t have to invent the tools because someone else has already done it and written the book.

In the process of preparing for and recovering from foot surgery for osteoarthritis in my right foot I started running. I had been working with a client who was a trail runner and he had recommended that I read “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. The running technique he describes in the book flipped my preconceptions about running being hard on the joints, positing that with the right technique and preparation running can strengthen and heal our bodies (and be insanely fun at the same time and I’m always down for fun).

My feet and ankles have always been a weak point. As a dancer I struggled with a perfect relevé, always wobbling like a faun. I’ve sprained both ankles more times than I can remember, over-stretched my feet and toes in pursuit of perfect lines, danced for years in high heels, and suffered bouts of tendonitis in my ankles. Now, with osteoarthritis limiting the flexion in my right big toe, it seemed so easy to follow the doctor’s advice and resign myself to a life of supportive shoes, cushy insoles, and a strict avoidance of impact training.

But everything I know about bodies in general, and my body in particular, told me that this medically recommended course of action would cause me nothing but misery. Because I’m hypermobile, constant strengthening and stability work is essential to keep me out of pain. If I’m not working out, everything falls apart very quickly. If I stop challenging my feet and ankles I’ll soon be walking around on a couple of melted marshmallows. What will that do to my knees, hips, back, and psyche? Nothing good.

So McDougall’s book spoke to me. He had also defied countless medical opinions to become an ultramarathoner and running devotee. His book chronicles his training with coach Eric Orton who rebuilt his running technique based on the timeless, tried and true form used by all the world’s best runners like the Tarahumara people of Mexico’s Copper Canyons. The way we ran before our obsession with over-engineered sneakers robbed our feet of their agency and power—what is now called minimalist running because you don’t need much more than your own body to do it.

Learning Beginner Running When Flexible

I started running about one year prior to my scheduled surgery date. I bought myself some minimalist running shoes (the Xero HFS) and hopped on the treadmill a few days a week. I quickly found that the only kind of running that didn’t make my knees and ankles scream at me was sprinting. A steady jog hurt, but sprinting felt great. I couldn’t do it for very long, so my running sessions were all done as interval training, alternating between uphill walks, 1-2 minute sprints, and recovery walks. These training sessions, as well as the extensive foot and ankle strengthening I did every morning, sent me into surgery with the strongest feet I had had since ballet training and certainly aided in my fast recovery.

A few weeks ago, three months post surgery, I started running again as part of my rehab. My cardio was utter crap after three months of inactivity, but as usual I found that a slow jog was painful so I was gasping through 30-60 second sprints with 4 minute recovery walks in between.

It was then that I had the good fortune to find myself on a Zoom call with Chris McDougall and Eric Orton themselves! It was exciting to have the opportunity to chat about fitness in general and beginner running in particular, and share my story.

I described how running had been part of my pre- and re-hab from the osteotomy surgery but that I was really only comfortable with sprinting, and Eric asked me about my cadence.

Cadence? What is cadence?

Eric explained that extensive observation of effective running technique has shown that everyone, regardless of leg length or the speed they are running, has optimal form when their feet hit the ground at 180 beats per minute.

If you aren’t a musician or dancer, I’ll tell you that 180 bpm is a pretty fast clip. Think of The Ramones’ Judy is a Punk or, Eric and Chris’ favorite, the B52s’ Rock Lobster. Eric explained that even if you are chugging along at a stately pace of 4.5 mph you want to keep that quick cadence. At 180 bpm your feet are boinging back up off the ground like the spring-loaded shock absorbers they are designed to be, and there is no time to sink into your joints. Most of your time is spent in the air where gravity can’t hurt you.

At the earliest available opportunity I was back on the treadmill, ready to try out this new approach. I loaded up the B52s in my headphones, momentarily transported back to my efforts to create a mosh pit at the 7th grade dance, and started trotting.

The effects were just as Chris and Eric describe in their new running technique book Born to Run 2, immediately effective and delightful. From 1 minute run/4 minutes walk I was instantly able to do an effortless 2 minutes run/3 minutes walk. A few days later 2.5/2.5. With no joint pain at all. I had been relying on sprinting to protect my joints because, at 7.5mph I had no choice but to spring back up off my feet.

Most people without squishy joints can get away with jogging at a lower bpm without pain, at least for a while, until something starts to feel worn or overworked and then that 70% injury rate for runners kicks in. For better or for worse I don’t have the ability to run slow and heavy at all. Hypermobile folks don’t have any of that desirable stiffness in our connective tissue that many runners rely on to protect their joints and help their muscles work more efficiently. Thumping along I was relying solely on muscles to hold me together, and with the slower cadence my feet were spending long enough on the ground with every stride that the muscles couldn’t hold on and I was sinking down into every joint. Pain appeared almost immediately.

After 30 minutes of high cadence running intervals, never going faster than 5mph, I had no joint pain. The muscles in my feet and calves were singing, but it was a song of new challenge and strength-building, not the lament of damaged connective tissue. To my surprise I woke up the next morning ready to do it again and felt even better the second day. My challenge was to not get so excited that I over-trained, and remember that I’m still in rehab and I need to take it slow.

After two weeks I felt brave enough to try running around the Silverlake Reservoir, away from the safety of the treadmill. Running on uneven surfaces makes me exceedingly nervous. Every pebble and sidewalk crack is a chance for my foot to land funny and my ankle to stage a repeat performance of it’s spectacular 90 degree lateral collapse, which has landed me on my back countless times since I was a kid. But I took it slow, trotted to the sound of the Ramones in my head, and trusted the strength I was building.

The idea of a real, up and down, rocky, trail run still feels impossible in my body. But I know what it’s like to achieve things I once felt were impossible. I didn’t think that I could ever sit on my own head either, but I learned to do that, a little at a time.

Tightness vs. Stiffness for Running and Flexibility Training

In my flexibility coaching I often talk about cultivating stiffness without tightness. Stiffness comes from stability in the joints that results from both healthy connective tissue and neurological control of the full range of motion. Flexibility without stiffness, often found in hypermobile, over-stretched people, is dangerous and debilitating. Tightness is an absence of flexibility. It means that a muscle is in a locked state, unable to either fully contract, fully relax, or both. Tightness has a variety of root causes, but most often it comes from stressed-out muscles that don’t trust each other and lock up to prevent you from moving into a position that your nervous system has deemed unsafe. Tight muscles are no longer working together as a team.

What I have learned from Chris and Eric is that running with proper preparation and form can be a vehicle to cultivate stiffness, even in people like me for whom stiffness is not an innate trait. If running is making you tight it’s because something is going on to foment mistrust and poor cooperation in the muscles and joints. Your form is off or you aren’t prepared.

With this new understanding, I am deeply curious and even optimistic that I could be both a runner and flexible, and that these two skills could actually compliment each other. Goals like running a marathon and being able to do a comfortable standing split and waterfall backbend seem less like pipe dreams and more like a compelling puzzle challenge. I just have to figure out the right pieces and put them in place.

This is my experiment for the next year or two. To take these two historical enemies and cultivate a romance between them, using the theater of my rather worn-in 48-year-old body as a setting. Let’s see what happens!

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