The foot is the best piece of running equipment there is.
– Percy Cerutty

Ah, our lowly feet: shunned like lepers by some, abused by others, forgotten by the rest. If they’re not being squeezed into suffocating containers for hours each day, then they’re bound, writhing and naked, onto rigid slabs, the heels lifted provocatively, the toes crushed mercilessly, their contorted suffering visible to all. Our feet are the playthings of the fashion gods, and subjecting them to stylish tortures seems to be a price many pay all too willingly. If what we’re doing to our feet wasn’t so pernicious, it might be funny; can we blame them for being the source of so much discontent?

But what we wear on our feet is only part of the problem. For many of us, the feet are so removed from our everyday awareness they seem to exist only in the imagination, perhaps occupying a dusty corner of our consciousness as some barely-remembered, far-off land we once visited. Yet despite their physical and emotional remoteness, the feet are vital to both yoga and running, and we rely on them to guide and support us as they connect us energetically and mechanically to the ground. Our emotional and physical stability is dependent in large part on our ability to create connection through our legs, particularly through the feet.

That our culture acknowledges the significant role of the feet in creating a life of purpose is evident by the many commonly used foot-based metaphors: standing on our own two feet (independence); having both feet on the ground (stability, rootedness); knowing where you stand (confidence, decisiveness); getting off on the right foot (making a strong start, moving in the right direction); putting one foot in front of the other (moving forward with deliberation); putting your foot down (establishing boundaries). The list goes on, but these symbolic references all imply the necessity of using the feet to create a strong foundation for a meaningful and grounded life.

Even as our language shows the value, if mostly only symbolic, we place on our feet, history is full of examples that illustrate how ambivalent our relationship with the feet really is. They are the basis of the near mythological status attained by Ethiopian runner Abebe Bikila, who ran barefoot through the streets of Rome to win the 1960 Olympic marathon. Devout yogis prostrate before “the lotus feet of the guru,” believing those feet to be the repository of divine energy and a “terminal of magical and spiritual power and grace.” But for many centuries in Japan, women cultivated tightly bound, mutilated “lotus feet” in a belief that small feet were beautiful, even erotic. Some of us decorate and proudly display our feet; others see them as fonts of unsightly afflictions and a source of embarrassment, if not shame. In the Hindu social structure feet are symbolically “dirty”, and the servile or “Shudra” class is typically assigned to the lowest limb of the Cosmic Man to denote their low status. But just as the feet are vital to a fully functioning human being, so the Shudra class is important to the wellbeing of society. And so it goes . . . contradiction follows contradiction.

Given this bi-polar relationship, it shouldn’t be a surprise that runners obsess over nothing as much as their footwear. They believe that the right pair of shoes will save them from injury, protect them from the elements, elevate their status, shave minutes from their race times, and cushion them as they traverse rough terrain. But in yet another foot-related contradiction, a fringe group known as minimalists preaches that society’s accepted idea of footwear is absurd, that overbuilt and over-cushioned shoes are the source of misery and suffering for runners. Minimalists believe first and foremost in the architectural wonder and beauty of the foot, and in the foot’s ability, when used correctly, to absorb the punishment of running as it goes about its job of support and locomotion.

The foot/ankle complex is a focus of attention in this course because, as yoga teacher Tias Little tells us, “the foot is the foundation to the temple of the body.” But the feet are more than a foundation, they are the starting point of the body’s kinetic chain and the only point where the body interacts with the ground. Feedback from plantar sensors on the sole of the foot plays a central role in safe and effective locomotion, in stabilizing our pelvis, and in maintaining balance. The ankle is the first significant joint in the body, and as such it forms a crucial starting point for the “joint-by-joint approach”, a way of looking at the alternating mobility and stability needs of our body.  As we will see, dysfunction in the foot or ankle initiates a biomechanical wave that flows through the body, usually with negative consequences. And because kinetic forces in the body are magnified significantly when we run, the opportunity for dysfunction is magnified as well.

The Listening Foot

Conceived by physical therapist and movement specialist Joanne Elphinston, the “listening foot” concept asks us to look beyond our limited ideas of the foot’s purpose and capacities. As runners, we typically think of our feet in mechanical terms: do the feet pronate or supinate? But our pre-occupation with the foot’s mechanical workings can prevent us from seeing the bigger picture, that of the foot as sense organ with a significant sensory and motor representation in the brain (only the hands and face have more representation by the sensory and motor homunculus of the brain). Elphinston wants runners to understand and appreciate the subtle but powerful dynamics of the feet, and the importance of the information the feet draw from their connection to the ground. It’s only then that we begin to understand the vast capabilities of the feet, which far surpass the somewhat mundane mechanistic viewpoint held by most runners. Looked at this way, the foot transcends its role as support and locomotion and morphs into a highly sensitive piece of running equipment.

 

Ask runners about their hamstrings and you might hear sad stories about chronically tight and painful muscles. No matter how much stretching they do or how many hot yoga classes they attend, some never seem to get relief from the unrelenting tension that plagues their hamstrings and makes their running less than enjoyable. Does this sound familiar?

 

What’s important to understand is that many factors affect the tension of the hamstrings, and of these running may be the least influential. There are two likely culprits when it comes to the creation of tight and painful “hams”: the position of the pelvis and dormant or weak Gluteus Maximus (GM) muscles.

 

The Pelvis

 

First, a bit of anatomy: the hamstrings are three large, strong, bi-lateral muscles that begin or “originate” on each side and at the very bottom of the pelvis. From there they run down the back of the thighs, then via tendons cross over the back of the knee and attach high up to the bones of the lower leg. They play a crucial role in stabilizing our knees and, of course, in running, where one of their jobs is to assist with hip extension. (This just means they help bring the hip and leg behind us as we run.)

 

Because the hamstrings originate primarily on the pelvis (one half of one of the hamstrings, the biceps femoris, originates on the back of the femur), the position of the pelvis plays a key role in determining the amount of “pull” that is exerted on the hamstrings. From its ideal “neutral” orientation, the pelvis can be moved into many different positions, acted on by dozens of soft tissue attachments. If the pelvis is in “anterior rotation” (tipped forward) then the leverage will cause the hamstrings (attached to the bottom of the pelvis) to be pulled more taut. Presto, you’ve got tight hamstrings.

 

Is it really that simple? Well, yes and no. Now we have to figure out why the pelvis is tipped forward. The usual (but not only) reason is that the hip flexor muscles, especially those that originate on the anterior (front) of the pelvis, exert considerable influence on pelvic position. And because the hip flexors are usually very tight, they can create a strong forward pull. Voila, there’s your anterior tilt. So by stretching the hip flexors you’ll reduce the grip they have on the front of the pelvis, and this, everything else being equal, will help return the pelvis to a neutral position. Got it? Well . . . maybe.

 

Let’s figure out why the hip flexors are tight to begin with, and from there we can determine if we really need to stretch, or if some other remedy is called for. Your hip flexors may be tight simply because of the activities of daily living, in particular too much sitting. If this is the case then they will respond well to stretching. But what if your hip flexors are like your hamstrings, chronically tight and seemingly immune to the effects of a regular stretching program? Then there’s a possibility that your core or low back is unstable, and in their search for stability the back and core recruit, and overload, the hip flexors. As a result they become overworked and, predictably, very tight.

 


This nationally ranked U.S. marathoner displays a nasty anterior pelvic tilt

 

If you’ve been stretching the hip flexors doggedly without the slightest improvement, stop, and do side and forearm planks instead. Stretching will do you no good until the core/spine is stabilized. If you find that hip flexor stretches actually offer relief, then continue with them.

 

The Gluteus Maximus

 

A second possible cause of your hamstring woes is the Gluteus Maximus, or buttock, muscles. A wide assortment of muscles play important roles in running, but the GM is preeminent among them. Quite simply, the “glute max” is the mother of running muscles, and if it’s not working properly it is far more likely that some malfunction will occur.

 

More anatomy: the bilateral GM muscles sit prominently on the posterior (back) of the pelvis. The GM muscles are the main muscles or “prime movers” when it comes to hip extension in running. When I said earlier that one of the jobs of the hamstrings is to assist hip extension, what I meant specifically is that they’re assisting the GM.

 

The problems begin when the GM is either “dormant” or weak, and for many runners it is definitely in poor shape. If the GM is not functioning optimally, then the hamstrings (and the adductors as well: chronic groin strains anyone?) must take over the role vacated by the GM. This is a role the hamstrings were not designed for or intended to fulfill, and because of this added burden they become overworked and yes, you guessed it, very tight. This is precisely the same scenario we saw with the hip flexors, but now it’s the hamstrings that are being asked to pick up the slack for a deficit in strength or stability.

 

But why does the GM get weak or dormant to begin with? That’s a bit beyond the scope of this article, but briefly: the GM is a phasic muscle. This means, in part, that it can react to problems elsewhere by becoming weak and/or inhibited. Those problems can include reciprocal inhibition or injury to muscles or joints in the leg (the ankle in particular).

 

Poor GM development is something I see commonly in runners; more accurately I see flat bums and prominent hamstrings. If you’ll excuse my rude humor, this is ass backwards, a classic sign that the “hams” are doing too much of the work and the “glutes” too little or none at all. Effective remedies for lazy or weak glutes can include deep squats, supine bridges, lunges, and one-legged postures.

 

If you can restore the pelvis to its proper, “neutral” position and activate and strengthen your Gluteus Maximus muscles, then you’ll have taken huge steps toward restoring your body’s functional motor pattern and proper biomechanical alignment. You’ll feel relief in the hamstrings (and likely other areas as well), and your running will feel fun again.

 

Did this article excite you beyond belief? If yes, then consider attending my runner’s yoga certificate course happening in November over the Remembrance Day long-weekend. There’ll be three days (15 hours) worth of lectures full of fantastic information and runner’s yoga practice for attendees. No experience is necessary in either running or yoga.

 


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How then should we define physical fitness?  To help answer that question, let me tell you my story. During one period in my life I was a respectable runner, competing for my university’s track and cross-country teams, running marathons in decent times and finishing near the front in the annual race up the Grouse Grind. My body fat was really low, my VO2 max very high. I was pretty good in the gym as well, knocking off 15 pull-ups, 50 pushups or 200 sit-ups without a second thought. I wasn’t just fit, I was super-fit, or so I believed. Then one fateful day, ablaze with superiority, I found myself in a yoga class. I can’t remember exactly why I was there, but I’m sure it had to do with the fact that I was married at the time to the teacher. Otherwise I’m quite sure I would never have gone, convinced as I was that at the end of my days science would ask me to donate my body for deeper study, such a specimen was I. What little I knew about yoga consisted of photographs in a book from the 1960s that my mother owned. The black and white photos showed a woman in dark leotards contorting herself into impossible shapes, one leg was up here, the other down there, and God knows where her arms were. I didn’t get it even remotely. Could this person run 10 miles fast?  Then what was the point?

Perhaps due to the brain’s ability to block traumatic events from conscious memory, my exact thoughts at the conclusion of the class are lost to history (or more likely stored – forever I hope – in a deep and dark corner of my mind). Nevertheless, something quite profound must have occurred, because I began to practice with the same dedication and effort that I had brought to my running. What started as a simple gesture of spousal support began a journey that forced me to examine what physical fitness is and why current definitions are somewhat lacking. Because it was there in that class, somewhere between the sun salutations at the start and the deep relaxation at the end, that I learned I wasn’t the fitness machine I thought I was. Stated simply: yoga kicked my ass. And it gradually dawned on me that there was a lot more to being fit than sculpted abs and fast 10Ks. This comeuppance forced me to confront a painful reality: if I was so damned fit why couldn’t I make some very simple shapes with my body without shaking and sweating as if possessed?  Just what the hell was happening here? The simple answer is that my body was frozen from years of athletics. And my mind, well, that was a mess too – clouded, scattered, unfocused – and as dense and unyielding as my body. Yoga forced me to re-define my idea of both physical and mental fitness, and how the two are complementary necessities as a true measure of not just physical fitness, but health. It was the rude awakening in that yoga class that showed me I was, at best, only partially fit.

In her book Power Yoga: The Total Strength and Flexibility Workout, Beryl Bender Birch writes that sports don’t get us in shape, sports get us out of shape. Too true! As runners, we have to face the fact that as much as we like to run, it is traumatic to the body. This is because running, like most sports, is a one-dimensional action that stresses the same muscles groups, tendons, ligaments, and bones in almost exactly the same way hundreds, if not thousands of times each time we run.  And you can see the results of our sports lifestyle everywhere: athletes and ex-athletes who wear their athletic careers like suits of medieval armor. By the time most runners come to yoga the years of pounding are beginning to show. When you combine the wear and tear of everyday living with participation in sports the list of bodily ailments begins to creep up on us little by little. Intermittent pains here and there become nagging pains that become serious pains that become chronic pain that we become so used to we don’t even think of it as pain anymore. It just fades into the background music of our life, only hitting our full awareness when the barometer starts to fall. The smart ones understand, they do yoga (or something similar) and begin the process of preserving or restoring their bodies. One of the highest profile athletes to compete at last summer’s Olympics was American swimmer Dara Torres. To prepare her 40-year-old body to compete against other swimmers – some half her age – Torres worked with a small army of coaches, including two stretching experts. She eventually won a silver medal. The reason yoga is such an effective tool is because it is a multi-dimensional mind and body discipline that takes the physical body through every possible plane and range of motion, while at the same time asking the mind to be absolutely composed.

Certainly, an important reason for runners to practice yoga are the benefits that arise from training the body and mind, and of actively nurturing and developing mind and body interaction. Using this approach, the mind and body are seen as a single interactive unit, much like the Yin and Yang symbol that expresses a set of complimentary opposites, with the seed of one found in the body of it’s complementary opposite, rather than as separate components of the individual. So if we believe there exists a powerful interaction between the mind and body, and modern science has certainly proven this to be the case, then the welfare of one is inextricably linked to the welfare of the other. And we then have to believe that chronic and unrelenting tension and imbalance in the body’s musculature will not only lead to an impaired ability to perform optimally on an athletic level, but will also lead to a mind that is, at a minimum, unrelentingly tight and unbalanced. Yoga tells us that body is a creation of mind, so it follows that because the practice of yoga creates an open and spacious body, this will in turn develop spaciousness in the mind, and the practitioner will become literally become more open-minded. And as with any of the eastern practices such as Tai chi, Qi Gong or the martial arts, yoga is as much about training the mind as it is about training the body. Yoga was first practiced by sages to strengthen their bodies as a means to withstand the rigors of countless hours of meditation, and over the millennia it has continued to evolve, arriving finally at the modern incarnation we see practiced today in studios and health clubs.

Yoga teacher Richard Freeman says that yoga begins with listening, and when we listen we give space to our own bodies and minds. The problem, of course, is that we don’t listen, at least not to our bodies. Go into any fitness facility and watch people go through their routines, eyes glued to a TV or magazine, iPod blasting the tunes, completely distracted and out of touch. How could what your body has to say ever compete with Oprah or Madonna?  With all that is known about fitness and health, the idea that the mind should be distracted, even entertained, while the body works-out – and that this separation seems to be encouraged – is quite astounding. After all, what is the point of going to the gym and working out, to watch TV and read magazines?  What would happen if people arrived for a workout and there was no TV, no magazines, and no music?  I am absolutely convinced – and this is without a shred of evidence to support my theory – that the blaring music, TV, iPods and magazines are doing nothing more than adding to our stress levels. We go to the gym to work out and achieve good health so we can cope with stress, instead we are met with more stress. The gym should be a temple to the cultivation of fitness and health, a place where both muscles and mindfulness are strengthened, but it has become just another extension of our vastly over-stimulated and stressful lives. The author and meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn summed it up perfectly, “It is amazing to me that we can be simultaneously completely preoccupied with the appearance of our own body, and at the same time completely out of touch with it as well.

If the health of any relationship depends on the quality of the communication, then the quality of that communication depends on our capacity to listen. Why is it such a radical idea for most people to simply sit still, watch the breath, quiet the mind, and listen to our body’s story?  If we stop and listen to what our bodies have to tell us, even for five minutes, and truly develop an open and unquestioning awareness to what our body has to say, our approach to running, and by extension health and fitness, would be grounded in an attitude of balance and symmetry. Here’s an idea: instead of thinking of your body as, say, a conglomeration of parts each performing a separate function, think of your body as an ecosystem, and that it is as densely packed, as intricately layered, and as interdependent as any rainforest, swamp or desert. When you take that approach to the entity that is you, you can perhaps begin understand why yoga can be so beneficial to the body and how it attempts to radically rebalance both mind and body, while promoting the efficient communication and connection between them.

One off the many benefits of a regular yoga practice is that the mind can be taught to endure discomfort as a means to achieve what is known as equanimity, a state of calmness and non-reactivity while under duress. During practice, a conscious breath is cultivated as a means to warm the body, stimulate the nervous system, and provide an anchor for the wandering mind. Breathing that is short, choppy or ragged reflects an uncomfortable or wandering mind; breathing that is smooth, deep and focused tells us the mind is present, centered, and calm.  So the breath becomes both a means to self-control and a measure of it. Breath cultivation in yoga is like a safety gauge, designed to measure the practitioner’s level of physical effort and the quality and overall presence of the mind. And by “quality of mind” I’m referring to a mind that is focused, clear and aware. The applications for this type of mind/body awareness training in athletics are obvious. Who wouldn’t want to be more relaxed and focused while competing in a marathon? What athlete wouldn’t want to achieve a deep, almost meditative, level of calm and focus before and during a competition?

This is not to say that an inevitable outcome of performing a particular yoga posture is discomfort. That is certainly not the case. But certain styles of yoga are undoubtedly more challenging than others, and these “athletic” styles do tend to attract people who love to push the limits of whatever physical endeavor they undertake. These yoga styles, which can be grouped very loosely under the heading of Power yoga (but which also includes the subtly intense Yin style of yoga), are quite dynamic and muscular, and can place the practitioner at certain points of the practice into postures with a high level of discomfort. If the instructor is competent, they will have thoroughly prepared the students both mentally and physically during the initial stages of the class, and the students will then carry this preparation into the execution of the postures. The instructor will impress upon the students the importance of mindfulness and will actively work to instill this quality in the students. And returning to Richard Freeman’s earlier comment, an attitude of listening to the ever-flowing river of sensations in the body is strongly encouraged. Without that attentive listening and mindfulness, the element that makes it a safe and true practice of yoga is lost.

Yoga is the antithesis of running, that’s why it’s so necessary – and so challenging – for people, because it represents everything that running isn’t. Running tears down and depletes the body, yoga rejuvenates and restores it; running activates and stimulates the sympathetic nervous system, yoga stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system; running tightens, compresses and shortens the muscles and other soft tissue of the body, yoga opens and releases the body’s musculature, creating space, suppleness and resiliency; the running breath is fast and shallow, the breathing in yoga is slow, focused and deep; the mindset in running tends to be unfocused and shallow, the mindset in yoga is quiet, calm and meditative; finally, running weakens, yoga strengthens. If we’ve had a hectic, stressful day, we can find it challenging at the beginning of our yoga practice to break free from the “flight or fight’, sympathetic nervous system mindset that our bodies and minds operate in much of the time.  Paradoxically, this usually happens at the end of a run as well, when people mistake the seeming sense of calm they feel with relaxation, when what they are actually feeling is a deep sense of fatigue. Through the effort expended running, people burn themselves into a state of exhaustion, so they return home after a run and collapse onto the couch. Their minds may seem focused, but all that’s happened is the run has burned off the body’s nervous energy, and people mistake this for being calm. This is certainly not relaxation, and the effect on the body and mind from running is very different from being very relaxed. The extreme physical exertion has stimulated the sympathetic nervous system, but by practicing yoga, sympathetic arousal is reduced or eliminated and the parasympathetic system is stimulated, leading to what is known as the relaxation response.  This is the true feeling of calm and relaxation that we are looking for.

Finally, a few tips should you want to try yoga. First, don’t expect quick results. Like any physical exercise, progress in yoga is gradual and incremental, with peaks, valleys and plateaus along the way.  But that being said even small improvements in flexibility can lead to huge changes in how the body feels and performs. Remember, the body has its own agenda quite separate from the needs of the ego, it doesn’t respond well to force or aggression. Second, find a good teacher. As with any profession there are good ones and there are hacks, so ask around. And what about the bewildering assortment of styles and names? I could fill ten pages by describing each style in detail, but the way to tell what’s right for you is by actually taking a class. I recommend you practice once per week at a minimum, two or three times is optimal. Don’t forget, yoga is a supplemental activity that will fit around your training, so it will depend on how much time and energy you have after your regular workouts.

Which returns us to the starting point, and I will repeat my initial question: how then should we define physical fitness?  How about this: mens sana in corpore sano – a sound mind in a sound body.  It makes perfect sense, don’t you think?


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