Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Running and Skeletal Alignment

In my years of practice, I've seen a few successful long term runners - those who have had very little knee, ankle, back or neck trouble from running, and who compete at a high level. My own father is an example - he won records in the mile run in 1932 -1933 - Burbank High School - and kept running ever since. Now, at age 92, he is still active, and walks as he is able. All of these people, when I had them on the treatment table, were obviously in good alignment. There was no scoliosis (or very little), or pelvic torque or twisted ribs. On the other hand, when I see runners who are not "in line" they invariably have lots of joint pain issues.  They may or may not have connected it with the running. 

Repetitive, forceful-shearing-pounding on all the weight bearing joints - when alignment is faulty - is a great stress on the body, the brain and the psyche. It can certainly be considered a form of self-abuse if is long continued, using  lots of will power and determination to heroically push through injuries.  Any osteopath, chiropractor, PT, experienced Feldenkrais Practitioner, sports physician, trainer, competent coach or well-trained massage therapist can tell such a person what is really going on.  

In fact, those people did tell me that, all those years I was running so much, but did I listen? No. I thought to myself "They are jealous, or they are greedy, they want my money. They don't know how good it feels. They don't run themselves, how can they know anything true? They are not real people, because they are not runners! They must be lazy. They are overweight and sedentary - how foolish! I like exercise! I am better than they are!  I am really living LIFE, they are not! It is so easy to go running. All you need is shoes and pavement. It is God's gift. I love to run. I feel so good after running. I am not giving it up. Who cares about little things about my body, like my pelvis is out, and I have scoliosis? I am not going to let such minor issues stop ME, no sir! I don't want to go to the chiropractor every week - that does not seem right!  I am not spending all my money on chiropractic! Something is wrong there! It does not hold. Plus I don't digest my food well without running. And I love those big heavy meals...."  It is only many years later, even as I write this, that I see how blatantly egocentric and  foolish I was for thinking like that.  

In my case, and it may be  true for some others, running was indeed a cover for an eating disorder. It is what caused me to continue running in spite of severe scoliosis and pelvic torque. I could eat like a horse, because during my next 5 mile workout, I knew I could "burn it off". It took me some years after I stopped compulsive running, before my eating finally returned to something more moderate. And by the way, it was only during four years of Feldenkrais Training, that I was able to make the transition from compulsive runner to "normal person" and feel comfortable in my body without all that  running. It totally changed my life. I am so thankful to Moshe Feldenkrais and my Feldenkrais Trainers who made that possible. 

A funny thing about my Feldenkrais transition from compulsive runner to more normal: as I learned to move more 'into length" and with minimal effort, walking and running started to become too easy, too pleasant.  "How will I get any real exercise?" I wondered. What I should have wondered was "How will I burn off all that starchy food I've learned to enjoy?" Life really cannot be this easy, I was thinking.  Nonetheless, a pathway was being opened for me to experience life in an entirely different way. 

Up until then, I had been seriously pursuing spirituality and meditation, along with long distance running and Bikram Yoga three times a week to kind of hold it all together. In spite of the fact that I was doing all the Bikram poses 95% correctly or more - there was a whole lot more for me to learn, and benefit by, from Feldenkrais. I describe many of them in these blogs. I thought Bikram plus running was the best of all worlds. Had I continued like that, no doubt, Bikram would have allowed me to continue on that path for many more years. But I had to stop doing Bikram during my Training - no time to do both! What I discovered was that Feldenkrais gave me what nothing else could have done: an awareness of what I was doing in my daily life to trouble or hinder myself and my body, and how to stop doing those things. Much of it was cultural and childhood relics - being uptight as a minister's kid, rushing around so much that I never could even breathe normally, etc. Bikram, or meditation, does not necessarily correct all those relics (and I had dozens). Feldenkrais does not correct anything either, but it showed me where they were, how they were affecting me, and how to change them, if I wanted to. Feldenkrais only offers an invitation - it is most courteous and respectful in that way.  

It seems that today, so many people are not in good alignment. Some physical therapists and osteopaths consider this to be at epidemic level. It did not used to be so. Some osteopaths have told me, that 100 years ago, or more, this was not the case. People were in better alignment, they would hold better, and more direct, simple and gentle techniques were used to bring about corrections. Today, those old techniques don't always work or hold, new approaches are needed. In particular, a method to stabilize the SI joints (if they are over-stretched or inflamed) is a sacroiliac elastic belt. Such a thing was not needed back then, to stabilize a client after an adjustment.  The speculation is that today, there is more pollution, stress and the food is not as healthy - so our bodies can't hold good alignment as well as people did back then. Whatever the reason, it is obvious that prudence would dictate that before running (or even before using a mini-tampoline) - especially long distances - one should understand whether one has a body in good alignment, or not.     

When people get involved in Feldenkrais, their bodies naturally - in the best possible way - come into better alignment and movement. In fact, all the many movements and activities and environments in a person's life that may be perpetuating poor alignment "come up for review and modification".  That happens naturally, and is inevitable with prolonged and intensive Feldenkrais work.  That's because Feldenkrais heightens awareness and personal competency - especially for movement, weight bearing locomotion, and creating and  maintaining body comfort, from the inside - not using props or soft chairs etc. 

Other methods of checking, and correcting malalignment are of course very good too, but they won't necessarily give you the permanent relief and total satisfaction that you'll get from intensive and intelligent involvement in the Feldenkrais Work. There is more to the story about how to be comfortable in your body than just your skeletal alignment! You'll need to continue - often - to do those corrective exercises every day for many months or years. Of course there are exceptions; for some folks once a month or so is all they need. 

The hope, and expectation is that eventually the whole body will adjust, adapt and transform so that it will "hold" the new alignment. This is rather haphazard, and is not the Feldenkrais way of going about it. But, it is far better than doing nothing.  The body part you correct (pelvis, lumbar spine or neck) may not be the body part that is actually the source of the malalignment. It might be, say, from an old injury to one shoulder or knee.  Or, it may come from an unconscious habit of holding yourself twisted as, say, you talk to boss or answer the phone. 

A comprehensive approach is best. Unless you become aware of what habits in your life are perpetuating your malalignment, and are simultaneously taught sophisticated methods to effortlessly change such habits (that is what Feldenkrais is all about), your malalignment will continue. For many people, it is "who they are", and even if it is fully corrected (such as often happens on a chiropractic or other table) as soon as they go about their daily business, their malalignment comes back. Of course there are exceptions -  some people, with one "correction" will stay in alignment apparently forever. 

In particular, I recommend getting involved with Bones for Life which I feel will give even quicker, and perhaps  better results than Feldenkrais work alone. Ruthy Alon, a senior Feldenkrais trainer, founded the work, and it is specifically intended to organically correct poor alignment while strengthening bones using Feldenkrais related movements in a weight bearing context. I absolutely consider her work as an evolution of the Feldenkrais Method - she has added many wonderful innovations; it is not something so very different, and it is just what a runner would need to quickly get into alignment, and stay there.  Enter "Bones for Life" into Google for more information. 

I also recommend the work of Sharon Moyano, GCFP,  who does Feldenkrais workshops for runners. You can experience some of her ATM lessons for runners, by entering "The Open ATM Project" in Google. Explore the website until you find Sharons ATM lessons for runners. Those are all wonderful lessons, I have taken her workshops. You'll get a whole new perspective on running. I don't think Sharon yet has written a book, but if you can attend one of her workshops, or buy a set of her ATM lessons, please do that!

A good interim strategy would be to get involved in Feldenkrais work, or Bones for Life, while at the same time doing "quick fix" corrective exercises to put  yourself into alignment, at least before you run. The following paragraph tells you where to learn how to do that.   

So, first correct the malalignment - scoliosis or whatever - then run. To learn how to check your own alignment and know what corrective exercises you need to do, buy the two DVD's available from boydhealthworks.com. It makes little sense to run if with every step, joints are shearing, soft tissue is being slightly damaged, and the whole body is in an unconscious guarding mode - due to the structural instability. No matter how much you stretch or strengthen - unless done under the guidance of a competent and experienced mentor - it will not correct your personal alignment issues. It is encouraging, though, that today, many yoga teachers, personal trainers and others do know how to recognize malalignment and ways to correct it, using self-help techniques on your own. They do not, usually, however, know what it takes to teach you how to live your life in such a way as to not continually create malalignment. That's a job for Feldenkrais. 

Here are some ways, right now, for you to check yourself to see how your alignment is doing:
  • Lie on your back or face down. If you can, bring your ankles together so that the inner ankle bones, touch, do so. Can you tell if one ankle bone is higher than the other? You have to check  inner ankle bones, not the heels or toes.  Or, have someone else check your leg length for you. Do it like the chiropractor does it - get a firm grip on the  ankle bones (the inside bones) and lift both legs, pull them firmly, make sure you are not lying down a little twisted, loosen  or lift the pelvis, then check. With a little practice (I can do this) one can lie down on a hard flat surface, and sense whether one leg is a little bit longer than the  other. 
  • Again lie on your back. Using  minimal effort twist your pelvis - only your pelvis, not your whole torso - very slightly to the left, then to the right. Do this from the inside, do not use  your hands to twist your pelvis. Was  it easier to twist the torso one way more than the other. If so, you have a torque in your lumbar spine and/or your pelvis is torqued and your whole body has adapted to that. 
  • Notice what happens as you walk normally. If one leg is "longer", then with every step on that leg you grow slightly taller. As you step onto the other leg, you sink down, relatively speaking. It is easy to feel, and see in others, once you pay attention. The head "bobs up" on one leg, and "sinks down" on the other leg. The head is not smoothly staying at the same height. Leg length difference usually relates to malalignment issues. Rarely, thought, it can be due to congenital, authentic, leg length difference (maybe you broke one leg during childhood and that affected growth of that leg. In that case a leg lift - arch support etc - may  be the best choice). You don't need to spend money getting professional opinions about this; first try the simple, safe corrective maneuvers outlined in the Malignment DVDs, and see if your leg length corrects. If it does, you can reasonably and safely assume it was not congenital.
  • Lie down, relax. Close your eyes. Let yourself drift in sleepiness. At the same time, notice what position your eyes naturally find to "rest" in with your eyes closed, as during  (or before) sleep. That means, when you open your eyes, without orienting or moving them first, where do they point? For people with malignment, the eyes will be off center somewhat to the left or right. Amazingly, the eye position will accurately reflect the scoliosis of the spine.  In my work with clients, I often teach them a little exercise with the eyes, to help correct the scoliosis. Becoming aware like this is the first step in that exercise.
  • Sit in your favorite chair, normally, without any special body-adjustments. Notice if either knee is slightly in front of the other. The often means the pelvis is twisting to create that. 
  • Sit in a chair with a flat bottom and a flat back. Slowly sit back, leaning against the backrest. Did one part of your back hit first? That likely means a twisted rib cage, spine or pelvis.  
If  you ignore this and in spite of malalignment push ahead with will power to run at any cost - (as I did for many years) to lose weight, or get fit, or to get the "runner's high" - I think I can predict how it will be for you:
  • You'll be puzzled why some other people seem to run much faster, easier, with apparently no effort.
  • You'll begin to get "down" on yourself since you'll think your will power is insufficient, your technique is flawed, or something else must be wrong with you (actually you'll be right, there).  
  • You'll  find that it continually takes will power to make yourself run. You won't ever fully come to a place where you really enjoy it, and enthusiastically want  to do it. That's because an innate wisdom in your body knows you are hurting yourself. 
  • If you compete, your times will be mostly mediocre. You may have a few bright moments, good days. You can easily develop an inferiority complex from this.  
  • The more you increase your workouts, the harder you try, the more you will be disabled by "setbacks" - various inexplicable injuries. 
  • You and/or your coach will think you are injury prone. 
  • It may seem that your ligaments and tendons are prone to injury - while actually they may  be fine, it just that the structural malalignment puts a tremendous stress upon them.
  • The "runner's high" will be mostly why you run. That nice feeling after a long run, all those endorphins, let you feel very comfortable in your body - for awhile. It's something you don't have at any other time, so it is natural you'd become addicted to it. Then you have to run again.  This is a particularly vicious syndrome, partly because it is usually unconscious. Feldenkrais work will quickly (or, it may take some years, to be realistic) show you how to create amazing comfort in your body, without running. Then, if you do run, you can do it for the right reasons.   


Matt Metzgar said...

This was a very informative post, thank you. I will look into the DVDs.

Jim Hansen said...

I found this to be a very interesting post. I was going to email it to Matt (above) whose blog got me interested in taking a deeper look into this, but I see he has already been here.

Anonymous said...

that link to the videos did not work for me but i think www.backhealthworks.ca is what you were referencing...