Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Discovering "The Cool Impossible" with Eric Orton

Eric Orton is a man with big ideas.  His training methods are revolutionary, he calls for radical dietary changes and he developed his own unique sports psychology.   He describes this all in his new book, “The Cool Impossible”.  It’s densely packed full of scientifically sound training ideas and inspirational messages. Orton’s writing flows in an engaging conversational style mimicking the way he coaches his many athletes.

I doubt you’ll adopt everything he advocates in his book to your training.    I didn’t.  In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say I disagree with some of his approaches to training concepts.    But one of the strengths of “The Cool Impossible” is that different runners will each find things they will use to reach new heights in running.

And what is this “Cool Impossible”?  Orton describes it as, “…getting back to daydreaming and creating the biggest, coolest fantasy we can think of to achieve.”  While Orton claims this philosophy applies to all parts of our lives, his book focusses on achieving this “Cool Impossible” in running. 

Orton knows a thing a two about helping runners accomplish inconceivable goals. He transformed one Christopher McDougall from an injury prone runner who could only handle runs of a few miles to an ultra-marathoner who completed a 50 mile race in Mexico’s rugged Copper Canyon in just nine months. McDougall’s book about this ultra-marathon in the land of the reclusive Tarahumara Indians, “Born to Run”, became the bible of the minimalist running movement.  Declaring "running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot",   McDougall inspired runners to toss off their heavily padded shoes for ones with thinner lightweight soles.  Some ditched their shoes altogether and started running barefoot.

What Orton calls for is not so such much a rethinking of what runner’s wear, but how runners run.   Considering swimmers, tennis players, golfers and even sprinters spend much of their training time perfecting their technique, this may not seem particularly radical.  But running form has been largely ignored on the assumption it’s just what comes to us naturally.  Since each of our bodies our different, we naturally assume different running gaits based on our structural differences without considering how our individual running form creates inefficiency and injuries.  Challenging these long held beliefs, Orton declares  “…I have conducted more than a thousand training sessions with runners, and most have the same issues….all tend to lead back to muscle disequilibrium and improper form.”

A slant board I built myself using a couple
6 x 6 inch bathroom tiles and a slat of wood
Despite all the groovy New Age-like rhetoric on things like “awareness” and “flow”, Orton’s program is all about hard work, dedication and applied biomechanical science.  He outlines a number of running drills and strengthening exercises designed to strengthen the legs and the core to help runners achieve better form.  They can be done in your living room or backyard without much equipment.  All you need is a wobble board, an inflatable exercise ball, and a simple apparatus Orton’s developed called a slant board.   Ski poles, walking sticks or even cut off broomsticks are also used to help keep your balance for some of the exercises.

Trying Out Orton’s Techniques

Side Lift Position on the Slant Board
I was eager to try out Orton’s techniques myself and started working 20-30 minute workout sessions into my training 3-4 times a week.   My early attempts resulted in a lot of flopping and stumbling around in my living room.   Say this about Orton’s exercises, they’re not easy.  Standing on the slant board on one foot, I could feel the strain in my legs, from my feet all the way up to my hips, especially in the ankles and calves.  The inflatable exercise ball is used to develop muscles in the core by balancing on top it assuming different positions.  Plenty of times, I lost control on the exercise ball and rolled into a giggling heap on the floor.  You’ll probably have the same difficulties, but just keep working at it and you’ll develop the strength and balance necessary.  Orton encourages us that while developing these new skills “Use some patience and put your ego in check…work like a martial artist: deliberate movement and constant practice.”

Knees to chest on the exercise ball
(my back should probably be straighter)
I saw the results in my running within a week.  Running I found myself zipping right through patches of uneven ground I used to wobble through off-balance.  I can see why trail runners are particularly big fans of Orton’s training.  As a forefoot striker, I tend to get more flat-footed towards the end of runs as fatigue set in.  Gaining leg strength from Orton’s workouts, I found myself at the end of runs maintaining form and speed rather than stomping around over the last couple miles.  And I recognized from photos in Orton’s book I wasn’t lifting my knees high enough and so consciously worked on getting higher knee action in my form. 

Orton talks about visualizing yourself striding over “logs” while running to get proper knee lift.   As you run faster, you should visualize yourself striding over bigger logs.   I noticed during my runs I could use my knee lift as a “throttle” and just focus on adjusting my knee height to control my speed.   It’s powerful to suddenly realize the possibility to run faster not by working the legs harder, but to use the mind to guide the body to make subtle changes in form. 

Knee drive position on the wobble board
(Pictured on a carpet, but use wobble board on
a hard floor for best "wobbly' results)

Orton’s form and strengthening exercises are intended to supplement a nine-week “Strategic Running Foundation” training plan.  The plan is individualized to each runner’s ability level using one mile time trial and a heart rate test.  From this, Orton formulates no fewer than seven speed zones and seven heart rate zones individualized for each runner to follow in his training plan.  If keeping track of all 14 zones seems rather complicated to you, you’re not alone.  While Orton’s plan is based on sound science and I personally use a mix of running speeds to train, I found Orton’s plan way more complicated than necessary.  The workouts are also written in a notation that’s hard to follow.  I’m sure there’s some good workouts buried in there.   Many of Orton's readers will wish he outlined his Strategic Running Foundation in a more straightforward, simplified and accessible manner.
Doing the "Scorpion" on the Execise Ball

Orton on Eating Well, Running Well

When it comes to food, Orton is not bashful about his opinions.  He’s big on organic fruits and vegetables, and rails against all processed food that dominates our grocery store shelves.  That includes pasta, a carbohydrate source most runners crave.   When it comes to protein, he’s adamant about eating organic, free-range meats and wild caught fish with portion sizes no bigger than the palm of our hands.  He even encourages us to take on a 20 day sugar detox, eliminating sugar completely from our diets.  Orton goes so far as to suggest runners develop their own nutrition mission statement.

Whether it’s really necessary or even realistic most for recreational runners to make this level of dietary commitment is an open question.  To Orton’s credit, he doesn’t take a rigid “eat this, not that” attitude, and he’s OK if you eat a cookie or drink a beer now and then.  But he’s pretty adamant as he writes “Listen, we have a choice of how we want to eat.  We know what is best for us: simple, natural, nutrient-dense foods.  The challenge is choosing to eat that way, making it a habit, and sticking with that choice.  It takes discipline, focus, awareness.”

I’m not planning on going on a 20 day sugar detox or writing a nutrition mission statement.  But he has inspired me to make better decisions about what to eat.  I resist the impulse to pick up that pack of M&M’s at the grocery store check-out line.  I order a side salad instead of fries.  And yes, when thirsty, I’ve started pouring a glass of water instead of automatically cracking open a beer.  These are small decisions, but they add up to a larger dietary change.  I’ve lost 5 pounds off my 185 pound frame in the last month as a result, the lightest I’ve been in years.  I do feel better, too.

Return to Boston?

After finishing Orton’s provocative book, I found myself thinking about things I wanted to accomplish in running.  The last marathon I completed was the 1994 Boston Marathon nearly twenty years ago and I’ve always wanted to come back and run Boston again.   The biggest thing that’s held me back is my body has broken down on runs long before I’ve completed anything close to 26.2 miles. 
I’ve spent a lot of effort correcting the imbalances and weakness that led to injuries.  I saw a chiropractor four years ago to correct a hip imbalance that was causing all sorts of problems.   That turned out to be a great investment, but I still had foot and knee problems limiting my longest runs to 10-12 miles.  I discovered last fall my running shoes were a size too small, and now can complete runs of up to 15 miles without too much pain. 
When I ran the Boston Marathon in 1994, I really never embraced the whole Boston experience.  I was nervous and uptight, ended up going out to fast and barely made it across the finish line.  I wanted to come back and do the race over again, but the opportunity never came.  Returning to Boston is something I’ve held in the back of my head, but it never seemed realistic given all the injury problems I’ve had.  After reading “The Cool Impossible”, Boston doesn’t seem too far away anymore.

(Penguin Group Publishing provided an advanced review copy for the purposes of this review which will also appear in June/July issue of Adventure Sports Journal.)

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