Improving Your Absolute Limit

Photo courtesy of Sneaker News

Sitting in Rome after the recent Rome Marathon I had the chance to chat with a runner who had traveled far to do the race. He was 60 years old from Laguna Beach, CA and was fairly new to running. I’m not sure how long he’d be actively running but he did his first marathon 3 years ago in Barcelona. On this particular trip with his wife they had been to Barcelona to do the marathon again, stayed in Europe to do Rome and then the following week he was tackling the Paris Marathon. His ultimate goal like so many is to qualify for Boston. His best marathon is just 5 minutes off qualification and he’s sure with more training he’ll get there. He was real interested in the new Nike shoe. He thought if the shoe really can give him 7% improvement he’d get that Boston qualifier.

I believe I broke his heart but he needed the truth. The Nike shoe was tested in a Lab. I don’t know all the parameters they tested but they were specifically looking at the difference between the current world marathon record and breaking 2 hours in the marathon. They were tasked with solving the problem through running shoes. I don’t think that’s very hard to understand. The point of talking about this is they are talking about giving a 2:03 marathoner 3 minutes. That marathoner is presumably running at his absolute limit for 2:03. If all else is equal and his effort is the same, how can he go faster? His absolute limit may see some gain but that’s how we get to breaking world records in the first place. Yes, their may be chemistry involved too but that’s not the subject here.

The runner in question here as stated is 60 years old. He walks like he’s been sitting in a chair most of his life. I saw him run and it was what I’d expect from him after seeing him walk. He shuffles his feet and complains his shoes only last 150 miles. He like most runners found running pain early on. He chose to go the shoe route for his solution. A podiatrist suggested he put heel pads in his running shoes and what do you know? It worked. So he’s now running in a shoe that is a 10mm offset and his heel pad turns the 10mm to a 15mm offset or a 15 mm difference between the height under his foot in the heel and the height under his foot in the forefoot. In doing so he thinks he’s getting more cushion which might be true. But he also completely altered the chain from his feet all the way to his shoulders. We think the 5mm heel lift would make him 5mm taller. It may but more than likely it’s not a simple equal transfer of height. For starters his achilles’ tendon is elastic it will stretch when stretched and it will compress when compressed. All of this means is this guy is not a super efficient runner. He found one thing the heel lift, to compensate for inefficiency due to his lifestyle for so many years before running.

The 2:03 marathoner does not have a lifetime of sitting in a chair. They have a lifetime of movement. They aren’t perfect runners but they as close as we see right now. With runners of that caliber you see all kinds of action below the knee. Some kick out, some toe in, some run on their heels and most run on their midfoot. Above the knee it is all efficiency. Little to no movement at all. Some arm swing but even that is completely natural. Every motion is about carrying his body over land as fast as possible which allows the athlete to use every bit of his physiology to move. When you see them run live it’s like any other athlete at the verity top of their sport. These runners make running look easy.

Take all of that efficiency at absolute limit, apply some technology (the shoe) that allows better recovery between every stride and just maybe that runner can go under 2 hours. (I have no direct knowledge and have not talked to the Nike Lab) That’s the simple math behind the project the Nike lab took on. It’s pure in it’s ideal. It’s clearly not easy to execute because of all the variables involved in running at absolute limit.

Now take our runner or any runner out there. The absolute best you can get from a shoe like this is to feel faster. That faster feel might give you a 7% improvement on a short distance like 400 meters. What it can’t do is alter you efficiency enough to make running a marathon 7% easier or faster. Your marathon is not limited by what’s on your feet. Your marathon is limited by your inefficient running. Start to fix those inefficiencies and you’ll see much more gain than 7%. I asked him a question “Can you do a full comfortable butt to heels with feet flat on the ground squat?” Of course he can’t, I knew that after watching him walk. I said “Spend the next year just learning how to do that, start with as much squat as you can comfortably do and work on getting lower. It may take an entire year. If you get to that you won’t need those heel pads, you will begin to move more freely and your running will become easier. You simply won’t need a shoe to get you 7% faster”.

He was hoping to buy the 7%. I broke his heart when I told him he’d have have to earn it.