Posted November 4, 2013

Freaks of Nature: When Biomechanics Go Out the Window

On Sunday my wife was watching the closing few minutes of the New York City Marathon on television, and when the lead two women were shown she simply exclaimed “Holy crap! Look at that girls’ stride! That stuff’s messed up!” Being Sunday and a conversation between the two of us, her exact verbage was considerably more blue than this, but the sentiment was right on track.

The observations were directed to the eventual winner, Priscah Jeptoo, a Kenyan runner who has become fairly well known for her really unique (ie. messed up) run stride ever since she was shown running in the midst of the main pack at the Beijing Olympics, even placing second. Everyone and their dog came out and said that she was a terrible runner, had injuries written all over her based on how she ran, was a walking time bomb of knee injuries, needed a corrective exercise strategy to get her back on track, etc.

Here’s a short clip of her running in slow motion with extreme zoom from the Beijing Olympics. Watch the knee valgus force:

Having worked with a lot of distance runners who exhibit some of these characteristics (bilateral pronation of the ankles, valgus collapse of the knees, right shoulder dominant upper body rotation, internal rotation at the hips through the stride phase of gait) and subsequently become injured, small corrections in stride technique have helped reduce the incidence of pain and discomfort when running, but not every time. Some people don’t respond to these corrections and have their own specific characteristics of motion.

Here’s the kicker. We can say how terrible her run stride looks on video, but she won the NYC marathon and a cool half million bucks for her 2 hours and 25 minutes of work. Her average speed through a somewhat hilly course was 10.9 miles an hour (read that last part again. Her AVERAGE speed for 145 minutes was 10.9 mph). Many people would be hard pressed to maintain this speed for more than a minute or three, let alone over the course of a marathon.

Realizing that someone who has that messed up of a run stride and has in the same year won silver at the Olympics and then the NYC marathon while maintaining an anaerobic threshold pace higher than your sprint pace is about as mind-blowing as seeing what Mr. Bean’s kids actually look like.

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In terms of biomechanics, Priscah’s a freak. By all known concepts of repetitive strain, physics, and every lesson taught by Saved By the Bell re-runs, she should have blown out her knees long ago, and been reduced to officiating 5km charity runs in her home country, not dominating the marathon circuit. If she were injured, there would be no way to place as well as she did for 2 consecutive years in a highly competitive field.

While she’s a freak, she’s not alone. The sporting world is loaded with examples of people who defy physics and seem to find a way to excel without following convention.

In the 1940’s a right-handed baseball pitcher named Ewell “The Whip” Blackwell had a delivery that apparently resembled falling out of a tree, and also racked up 839 strikeouts and a 3.30 ERA over 10 seasons, and almost pitched consecutive no hitters.

Rick Barry is one of basketball’s greatest players ever, and made it there even while shooting “granny style,” an overhand shot style that came from below the hips and resembled what your grandma would do if faced in a similar situation. Fast forward to 1:20 to see it in action.

A more contemporary basketball player, Reggie Miller was as known for his odd shooting style as his on-court discussions with Spike Lee and generally being one of the dirtiest players in the league, while also being one of the best shooters the game has ever seen.

Fast forward to the 3 minute mark to see Reggie, and watch his release and followthrough to see what I’m talking about:

That corkscrewing method is something some people have probably tried, but failed at miserably. It’s sort of like watching newbies at the driving range thinking they can wind up ala Happy Gilmore and drift it straight.

Back in baseball, with a player who is currently active, Tim Lincecum, aptyl nicknamed “The Freak,” has a wild and incredibly mobile throw that would be hard pressed for anyone to repeat due to joint physical limitations, but he can throw some wicked heat and put the ball pretty much anywhere.

Watch how rapidly his shoulder rotates through the final whip phase of the throw, as well as how angled his torso is through the windup. There’s a reason he’s called “The Freak.”

What do all of these elite athletes have in common? They defy logic when it comes to biomechanics, injuries, and how the best of the best “should” be. Essentially, as Red Aurbach used to say, they’ve found the way that worked best for them, and stuck with it.

They also win.

There is absolutely a lower risk position that individuals can be in, but do we know for certain that it is what is optimal? Take high jump for example. In the 1950s it was common for people to use a technique known as the barrel roll, where they jumped off the inside foot closest to the bar, and rolled, belly down, over the bar. Occasionally they would employ a scissor kick version, which usually failed more than it succeeded.

Then an American jumper named Fosbury came along and changed the game. He initiated the movement from the outside leg, going over the back back down in an exaggerated arch, essentially propelling his centre of mass higher than if he would have used the barrel roll, and allowed him to start winning championships, including the gold at the 1968 Summer Olympics.

In the name of elite performance, there will never be an athlete who retired from natural causes. Typically it’s because of low performance or injuries. The risk is there, no matter what their biomechanics or coaching looks like. These freaks of nature who have found a new way of doing something and have had some serious success from it will most likely get injured, as all athletes do, regardless of technique chosen, and will have championships to show for their efforts.

Does this mean you should emulate their style? Absolutely not, as it is their style and not yours. They have found what has worked for them through trial and error and adapted to their own unique individual situations. I don’t doubt each of them have had access to some of the best coaches in the world, and as a result have been analyzed inside and out, so having an internet expert analyze their form and offer commentary on how they could be better, especially when they’re winning in the top 0.01%, is quite frankly ludicrious.

Maybe they’re on to something.

Our field is constantly growing and evolving. These oddities may be able to showcase some missing piece of evidence that we didn’t think of before to allow us to gain further understanding on how performance can be achieved. For instance, Priscahs run style resembles a breast stroke kick technique, which uses rotational force vectors to propel the swimmer forward. This rotational force development is also becoming popular among sprinters when using their hands to essentially spiral through the air. This is a technique Tyson Gay used at the DN Galan race in 2010 to beat Usain Bolt in the 100m race.

In a sport where mere thousandths of seconds can make the difference between winning and losing, maybe this small advantage of a spiralling hand position helped push him slightly faster through the air.

Perhaps Priscah has found a way to use innate tension through her SI joint to take advantage of a similar whip effect from the leg to rotate versus drive through saggital plane action? It’s easier to clean a kettlebell to your shoulder by rotating the wrist and essentially keeping the bell in the same vertical alignment throughout versus flipping it over your wrist and having it smack your forearm, so maybe for her its easier to involve a big rotational force to create a whip effect, similar to how Tim Lincecum uses his innate mobility to launch some heat? At the same time, perhaps she’s fortunate enough to have a greater thickness in her MCL of her knees to resist valgus forces from the whip effect of the swing and plant phases of her gait, essentially bullet-proofing her against her own technique?

Sometimes coaching is as much about knowing how to step back and let things happen than about stepping in and altering what may not need to be altered. If she had a history of injuries, had issues getting up to speed, or had any reason to have her technique altered (video analysis showing a different type of stride at a higher velocity or during fatigue), that would be a cause to step in. Seeing her win world championships and medal at Olympics probably wouldn’t do that, especially if she’s one of the fastest women in the world.

“Use only that which works, and take it from any place you can find it.” – Bruce Lee

What do you think? Drop a comment below and let me know.