Some incredible quotes and statements from one of the top U.S. running coaches.
A Brief Chat With Alberto Salazar and Alan Webb07/31/2010 11:55 PM
By Amby Burfoot
Photos of Alberto Salazar and Alan Webb by Victah Sailer
American mile record holder Alan Webb hasn't run a race in 14 months, due to a series of injuries, but he's entered in several lowkey European meets next month. And to judge by a workout he ran Tuesday on the Nike campus in Beaverton, Oregon, Webb's headed for some solid performances. With a group of elite U.S. high school runners looking on, including the Rosa twins from New Jersey - the high schoolers were attending a week-long Nike camp – Webb ran a six-mile tempo run on a soft grass oval in 30:05. From there, he jogged quickly to the Michael Johnson track, put on his spikes, and finished off the workout with five smooth looking 200s in 27-28, and a sixth in 24.9.
Solid. And coach Alberto Salazar, monitoring every moment, was well pleased, especially by the 200s. "You see how much more efficient he looks," noted Salazar. "Before he weighed about eight or nine pounds more than now, and his toes pointed out when he ran, and his arms were all over the place. He's much more fluid now. His arms are working in a straighter line. His toes are pointing straight ahead."
Always a tinkerer, always trying to bring new tricks and ideas and performance-improvements to his athletes, Salazar has recently been putting added emphasis on optimal running form. The topic bubbled up a week ago in the announcement that Dathan Ritzenhein was entered in this fall's ING New York City Marathon. It came up again Tuesday in his observations of Webb.
Salazar realizes that changing running form is a tricky, complex subject, but he's not letting that get in the way. Not when great runners like Ritz and Webb encounter injury problems. Not when there are just two years to go until the 2012 Olympics – two years that will pass very quickly. The time to act is now.
Not everyone is convinced that it's a good idea to tinker with running form.
Alberto Salazar: I know. It's not like I think we've got everything figured out. But I believe there are certain principles you have to follow. If you don't, then you begin to develop problems. Everyone seemed so shocked when Dathan ran 12:56 last year. But I wasn't. We took care of a couple of basic biomechanical things. He was holding his hands too low and directing a lot of force into the ground. So we got him to bring the arms up to a 45-degree angle, and to use his hands and arms for more lift. So he was ready to race fast.
During the New York City Marathon conference call, you talked about some more biomechanical work you've done with Dathan this year, I believe. More to prevent recurring injuries.
AS: He was having these metatarsal problems. When we got him running on a forceplate in the Nike biomechanics lab, you could see that he was producing these force spikes under one metatarsal. This was giving him a lot of pain, and we could see why. So we did a couple of things. We worked on his form. He had been leaning forward a too much, with some of the lean actually coming from the waist. So we worked on running straighter and also to go from a heelstrike to more of a forefoot strike.
But when Dathan began bringing his foot down sooner for the forefoot strike, he was hitting the ground harder. I was afraid this would exacerbate his tendency for stress fractures. So we decided to concentrate on just the upper body changes. And it turned out that those alone moved him substantially forward on his footstrike.
He still has the pressure under the metatarsal. You can see it very clearly in our lab. You can see a pressure spike where there shouldn't be one. We decided we could possibly reduce it by excavating some material out of his shoes. At first, Dathan and I literally dug a hole in the midsole. Now Gordon Valiant and our biomechanics guys are making him a sort of dual density midsole with a softer material under the spot where he's coming down hard. It's going to take some fine-tuning, but I'm confident we'll be able to reduce the inflammation in his foot. We're going to retest him a lot. We want to make sure the forces aren't going somewhere else.
Dathan and I both believe that you can't afford to look and run much differently from the top runners. Sure, you can point to great runners who seem to be an anomaly form-wise. But I believe the best runners with the longest careers are those who have the best form.
The Kenyans all look different, and many of them don't last long. But when you look at the top Ethiopians, they have impeccable form and they also have long careers.
There has to be one best way of running. It's got to be like a law of physics. And if you deviate too much from that–the way I did in my career–it can be a big handicap. Dathan can't be a heel striker and expect to run as good as the best forefoot runners. You can be efficient for a while with bad form–maybe with a low shuffle stride – but eventually that's not good for your body. It's going to produce tightness and muscular imbalances and structural problems. Then you get injuries, and if you're not careful – if you don't take care of the muscular and structural issues – the injuries can put you into a downward spiral.
You show me someone with bad form, and I'll show you someone who's going to have a lot of injuries and a short career.
Let's talk about Alan Webb. I was quite impressed by how good he looked today.
AS: Sure. Well you know, he's got so much talent. He just had to get healthy. When he arrived here last September, he had an Achilles problem. We tried every therapy, we visited the best doctors. In the end, he had a simple surgery in mid-December and it showed clearly that his Achilles tendon had become adhered to the covering sheath. Once that was released, he was fine. But during his comeback, and we were very cautious, very conservative, he suffered a calcaneus fracture. So he had to miss more time for that, and we started over again, even more cautiously than before. He's doing like 95 percent of his running on grass and soft trails, and an additional three hours a week on the underwater treadmill.
And that's gone well? What's the hardest he's run?
AS: It has gone very smoothly. I'd say he's been up around 70 miles a week for the last eight weeks. You saw what he did today. That was his longest tempo run, and he finished off the 200s with a pretty fast one. But we haven't been emphasizing speedwork. We want to be careful. It's not important for Alan to run superfast now. It's important that he get his strength and confidence back. He's done workouts like 8 x 800 in 2:13, and
cutdowns of 600-400-300-200 where he'd run three sets in 1:34, 60, 44 and 28.
How fast do you think he might run in Europe?
AS: He's running all lowkey events, a couple of 800s and 1500s. I think he might start off with an 800 around 1:50. By the end of August, he might be ready for a 3:35 to 3:37 for 1500. He'll get faster in time. He could still lose a couple of pounds off his upper body. That will make him quicker and smoother. He's such a responder with strength training, we can't even let him look at weights or he'll put on a couple of pounds of muscle.
[Questions for Alan Webb]
How do you feel about some of the form work you've been doing with Alberto?
Alan Webb: I'm excited for the subtle changes. It's not like it's something I've never done before. But I've been focusing more on it. We're doing more conscious work on it. And I'm adapting. I feel like I'm running well.
Are you excited that you're getting ready to race again?
AW: It's definitely good to be decently fit again after such a long time. In terms of how the races will go, I just don't know. The next month is going to be like starting over again for me. It's going to be a time of self-evaluation. I haven't had a race in 14 months. That's the longest I've gone in my life, since I was beginning to swim as a four-year-old, without some kind of formal sports competition.
That's made it a weird time for me. It's been a tough time. After my strong 2007 season, I set some amazingly high goals. But it seems like all my dreams were crushed after that. I got hit by one thing after another. It hasn't been fun. Now everything seems a lot better. I'm doing the workouts. I'm sleeping better at night. I guess you could say I'm cautiously optimistic.