Reader Question: Should you wear an ankle brace while running?

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What have you found to be the best compression like sock for protecting your ankle while running a short or long distance? I recently used a Protec Athletics 3D flat sleeve. However, it felt fairly tight and I wasn’t sure if it was doing its job on a simple walk for about 5 to 6 miles.

First of all, is is important to know why are you wearing an ankle sleeve in the first place. Is this due to a previous or current injury? Was it recommended by a doctor or physical therapist?

Protec is a respected brand in that category, so I’m not sure if – assuming you do need the support – that a different sleeve would be better; perhaps a different type of brace could be in order if you truly need external stability, but if that’s the case you really should see a physician such as a podiatrist, or a physical therapist. If it is just too tight you could try a larger size, of course, but the idea is for it to be tight to provide some stability.

If none of the above, I assume you are using it to try to prevent ankle sprains or perhaps someone suggested runners use these so you should too . FYI, this is not common among (uninjured) runners. As a general rule, I suggest people not use any sort of brace or support that isn’t necessary, since that could ultimately result in weakening the support structures (ligaments, tendons, muscles) that naturally stabilize your joint. This would of course just weaken the joint more and more over time and cause you to become dependent on the brace.

You might benefit much more by doing regular strength and stability exercises for your ankles (2 or 3 times per week is enough). Again, this is general advice and not meant to replace anything your medical professional has recommended.

The basic ankle strengthening exercises include heel raises (aka calf raises), tracing the alphabet with your big toe while holding your foot off the ground (you can also do circles in both directions, and sweep the foot side to side = inversion/eversion), and balancing on one foot.

Most people begin heel raises with just their body weight and using both feet at the same time – standing with the front of the feet on a step and slowly lowering the heel and then raising up on the ‘tip-toes’. You can progress by first adding more sets; once you can easily do 15 – 20 reps, then do one set in a ‘duck-footed’ stance, one with toes straight ahead (neutral), and a final set with toes pointed in (pigeon-toed). Further progression involves using only one foot at a time, and ultimately adding weight (e.g. holding a dumbbell).

With the alphabet/circles/sweeps, once those become easy you can consider wrapping a light cuff weight (maybe 1 – 2 lbs) around your foot while you do them. Doing the alphabet pretty much ensures you are moving your ankle in all possible planes and directions, but you might need to take a break before finishing all the letters. With circles or sweeps, most folks do about 10 in each direction.

Standing on one foot is pretty self-explanatory; once you can do so comfortably without losing your balance for 30 seconds x 3 sets, you can progress in different ways. One way is simply to close your eyes, which makes balance much harder. Or you can stand on a softer surface like a pillow (there are commercial balance pads available, too, at different difficulty levels – the softer the pad, the harder it is to balance); mini-trampolines work well, too. You can also ‘perturb’ your balance by moving your arms and other leg around, or by having a friend stand behind you and randomly give you little pushes in different spots, or have them toss a ball back and forth with you, sometimes tossing higher, lower, or more to the left or right.

Good luck!

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Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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Reader Question: How can I stop ankle tightness when running?

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A reader on Quora asks: How can I stop ankle tightness when running? When I run my ankles get so tight or numb, not sure what the issue is but it makes me slap my feet on the ground. It prevents me from going long distance; any suggestions or ideas on how to fix this?  (Also, shoe suggestions/sizing.) 


I’m having trouble picturing what you mean; is it your achilles tendon (heel cord) that is tight, or is it the inside, or outside, of your ankle, or all around? The fact that you say they get numb is a bit concerning and makes me think that you should consult a medical expert. That could be a sign of something more serious, like a nerve impingement or a circulatory problem. As is often the case on Quora, there isn’t enough room for you to give all the details, such as how long you have been running, how much you run, how much you weigh, your previous injuries, your age and your gender. I also don’t know what kind of surface(s) you are running on, e.g. concrete sidewalks, technical/uneven off road trails, nice smooth soft dirt paths, slanted road shoulders; what other training or sports you participate in, or what kind of shoes your are running in. It could be as simple as you are trying to ramp up your mileage too fast and not allowing your ankles time to adapt. With so little to go on, there is no way to know unless you get it checked out; there are just too many variables to assess. 

They aren’t always easy to find, but your best bet would be to locate a physical therapist who is an expert in running biomechanics. In addition to a thorough medical history and an examination of the related musculoskeletal system, he or she will probably video record you from different angles running on a treadmill to look for clues (bring your running clothes and shoes to the appointment) and conduct a functional movement screen. With a good idea of any muscle imbalances in strength and flexibility (keep in mind it could be caused by an issue further up the kinetic chain, such as hip/glute weakness) and your running mechanics, the PT can design a plan to correct the problem, which will usually include exercises for strength and flexibility and potentially some other interventions.

If the PT does think it could be something other than a simple musculoskeletal issue they would refer you to a physician. Of course if you want peace of mind you could start with the physician and then go to a PT if you get an all clear. 

As far as footwear, research shows that different types of running shoes really don’t affect injury rates; that is, in studies where one group gets running shoes based on an assessment of their ‘pronation factor’ and another is assigned shoe type randomly, the injury rates are about the same. For years, running shoes have been classified as ‘stability’ ‘motion control’ or ‘neutral’, but with this newer information many shoe companies are moving away from those categories. 

What has been found to affect injury rate is the comfort and fit of the shoe to the person, which means you should go to a running shop and try on several models and run in them at the store (most now have a treadmill you can run on; many years ago the shop I worked in allowed you to run up and down the sidewalk). You will want about a “thumbnail’s width” of room between your longest toe and the end of the shoe, and the width should feel good – the shoe should be about the same width as your foot rather than your foot spilling over the sides or sliding right to left, and it should be snug but not overly tight in the heel. There are different ways to lace shoes to improve the fit, and you can ask the folks at the running shop about that. 

Another thing you will notice is that some shoes are easy to flex, others are quite stiff, and most are somewhere in-between. Also, some have a lot of cushioning, some a moderate amount, and some practically none. There are more running shoes on the market now than ever before, and it seems new shoe companies pop up every month. The variety is generally a good thing, but it can be overwhelming having so many choices. You will have to decide which feels the best by trying them, and again a running shop will take the time to help you narrow your choices. 

Once you have your new shoes, it is still possible that they won’t feel as good after a few miles of “real” running as they did on the treadmill in the store, so see if they have an exchange policy in case that happens. Give them a fair trial, but if you feel like they aren’t working for you then you’ll want to try something else. It is just kind of a trial and error system. Once you find the type of shoe that works for you it becomes much easier from then on to find the right shoes. 

One other thought; you didn’t say what kind of shoes you are running in now, but if you are using something like basketball or tennis shoes, that might explain some of the problem with the foot slapping you describe. Otherwise, I think the PT and a gait analysis will help figure out and fix the ‘hitch in your giddyup’. 

So, in summary it could be one or a combination of (1) a more serious medical issue, (2) doing too much,too soon, (3) weakness/tightness in the feet and/or ankles and/or lower leg muscles, (4) weakness/tightness further up the kinetic chain (quads, hamstrings, abductors, adductors, internal & external rotators, hips, glutes, “core” muscles, etc), (5) the surface/slant you run on, (6) improper footwear.

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Reader Question: Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

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Are there any etiquette rules for running a 5k?

This is a great question, and shows that you are a caring person in my opinion; otherwise you’d just go all ‘bull in a china shop’. 😉

“Common sense” goes a long way, but some runners who are inexperienced at participating in races might not think about certain points of etiquette. Given the popularity of ‘couch to 5K’ training programs (i.e. training programs that encourage sedentary or non-runners to take up the challenge of getting ready for their first 5K (3.1 mile) ‘fun run’ race, there are many first timers at most 5Ks. 

I will approach this answer from the standpoint of a first time, or fairly new, runner. Most of this will generally apply to whatever distance race you run, by the way.

Getting there.  Get to the race at least an hour before the start, and even a bit earlier if you are picking up your race packet (your number) on race day. This keeps the stress level down for you, and for the volunteers who have to scramble to get everyone checked in as race time approaches. Understand that most of the time races do start almost right at the stated time, with or without you. Don’t show up at 8:45 for a 9am start, in other words. You need time to get your number, pin it on, use the world famous port-o-potties (there will be a long line), snug up and double tie your shoelaces, and find your spot in the starting area.

Bib number. Pin your race number to the FRONT of your shirt (or shorts) so that it is clearly visible to race staff. It’s not the Olympics, so you don’t get a front and a back number. Also, some races still use the tear-off tag on the bottom of the number for recording finish place and time, so DON’T REMOVE THE TAG from the bib number, and do not put a safety pin through the tear-off tag itself. If they are using this system, be ready to give the volunteer at the finish line your tear-off tag quickly so that they can get to the next person behind you and keep the finish area from getting clogged up. (Most larger races now use timing chips, but small fun runs often use the tear-off tag or another low-tech system.) If your race uses a timing chip, make sure you follow the instructions for using it – some are built right into the number, but some have to be attached to your shoe laces.

Lining up. Be sure you have a decent understanding of how fast you will run, and line up in the starting corral accordingly. For example, if you have been running blazing fast times in your workouts and think you might finish in the top 10, then line up on the front row with the other speedsters. But if you have been doing a run/walk program and are not yet quite able to run the full distance, line up towards the back of the pack at the starting area. If you are somewhere in-between, then of course line up somewhere in the middle. (Gigantic races will usually seed you, so you line up where they tell you to; most smaller runs count on the runners to understand where they should start.) The smaller the race, the less critical this issue is, but you still don’t want to be up front if you aren’t ready to get swept up in a really fast start. It’s dangerous for you and the other runners if you get tripped up and fall. The start of a 5K can be pretty chaotic for a minute or two with all the kids that don’t know any better sprinting out ahead of everyone and then slowing down, and the real front runners dodging them and each other; you don’t want to be in that mess if you aren’t ready for it.

During the race. Just have fun and run your own race if it’s your first one. In a 5K there may or may not be a water station on the course (usually there is one at the half way point). If there is one, and you think you need water, how you approach it depends on where you are in the race; if you are up with the speedier overall or age-groupers, most won’t get water at all but those that do will not slow down to do so. They will just grab the cup, pinch the top to make a spout, and then pour most of it down the front of their shirt (not on purpose). If you are with the mellower paced crowd, you can usually just pick up a cup, thank the volunteers, drink it and put the cup in the trash can if there is one. (You’ll see a lot of littered cups on the ground, which the volunteers will pick up. This practice is pretty accepted in road races, but not in trail races, fyi. On the trail, you hang on to your trash until you find a trash can.)

Anyway, the main point of etiquette here is not to impede another runner at the water station (or anywhere else on the course), either by cutting them off or by suddenly stopping in front of them. Plan how you are going to approach the water station (and any walking breaks) and pay attention to what other runners around you are doing – if they are grabbing the cup while running, then you will need to do the same; you can walk if you need to after you get clear of the water station and aren’t in a place where you will be blocking anyone’s progress by walking. It’s like switching lanes while driving; make sure the person behind you isn’t going to rear-end you if you move over and/or stop suddenly. Again, if you are doing a run/walk thing, there shouldn’t be much chaos around the water station. If you are worried about it, and think you’ll be out there long enough to need some water, you can always just carry a bottle with you. Also, if you wear headphones, keep the volume low (or keep one earbud out) so that you can hear other runners. In my opinion, especially in a first race, it’s best not to use them at all. You don’t need the extra distraction.

At the finish line. Pretty much already covered above. If they are using a chip system, you might have to stop and give back the chip. Most use disposable chips now, though, which is the simplest of all. You just cross the finish line, do a cartwheel (if you want) and go get some post race bagels and bananas. Follow the instructions from the volunteers at the finish and all will go smoothly. Usually you can find out what scoring system they are using before you even start the race. In any case, just don’t hang around right at the finish line so there is room for others to cross the line.

That was kind of long, but in summary (1) get there early, (2) pin number to the front and, if used, make sure you have the timing chip, (3) line up in the right spot, (4) pay attention and don’t stop suddenly or cut off other runners, and (5) follow the instructions at the finish line. Also, be sure to thank the volunteers. Pretty simple, really.

Have a great race!

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Reader Question: How could I improve my weight and endurance?

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I’m a runner. How could I improve my weight and endurance?

I’m 34 years old and running 50 miles per week; I’m training for my next marathon and my weight is 52 kg (117 pounds approx ) and my Fat index is 4.3% (athletic measure option), 10.5% (normal measure option). [asked on Quora]


I’m not sure what you mean by “improve my weight”. Most of the time when people say that, they mean they want to lose weight, but at 117 lbs with low body fat, I don’t think that is what you are asking.

You don’t say how tall you are or what gender; I’m assuming you are male with a body fat percentage that low; if you are female then you have a whole other conversation about healthy body fat percentage you need to have with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian. 


Either way, you could benefit from getting a more accurate estimate of your body composition (I’m assuming you used bioelectrical impedance or a similar consumer grade device). You can have this done at most university exercise physiology labs for a small fee.

This would give you a better idea if you have any room to drop a little bit of weight to improve your performance; keep in mind that about 4% is essential body fat for a man. Go lower than that and you will be sick and hurt; even at 4 – 5% you might have problems, but it is an individual thing. Some thin runners perform better by gaining a bit of weight (eating more) because they have more energy to put into their training and recovery. If you find you are 10% or higher, you could consider bringing it down slightly (again, if male). With the wide estimate range you have now, I don’t recommend trying to lose any weight. A female with body fat in that range would almost assuredly perform better by eating more and increasing body fat.

Improving endurance is a matter of proper training. For most non-elite runners, 50 mpw is a good amount given all the other demands of life. If you can swing it, at some point in your training you can try some higher mileage weeks in which you reduce intensity. For example, go up to 60 – 70 miles every few weeks, but cut back on the tempo, reps, or intervals you would have done that week. That’s pretty general; best thing to do is find a good training plan that fits your current fitness level and the amount of time you have until the marathon. You improve endurance and speed-endurance (ability to hold a “fast” pace) with a proper combination of running volume and intensity – more miles plus tempo, interval, and rep work at the right pace, etc. 

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Big Announcement! Dr. Matt is in the Coaching Business (Updated)

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I have formed Sport Science Running & Fitness, LLC, gotten my ducks mostly in a row, and am set to begin taking clients as a running coach. If you are interested in learning more, click the Coaching for Runners tab or drop me an email at or call 505-299-0127. I will be coaching worldwide online and in-person in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA.

Update: Ask about charter member fees! Save up to $1200 a year!


In this blog post I briefly discuss how you might benefit from hiring a running coach. Full disclosure, since I am in the business of coaching runners I’m predisposed to thinking it’s a good idea. If I didn’t think it was helpful, I wouldn’t do it. Does everyone need a coach? Probably not, as I discuss below, but nearly everyone can improve more with the help of a good coach than they can on their own. Much depends on the runner’s goals and what they want to get out of the sport. I approach the topic using examples of some general categories of runners. Not everyone fits neatly into these categories, but I believe they illustrate how coaching can be a benefit in a variety of situations.  Am I the right coach for you? We won’t find out unless we discuss it, so drop me a line if you are interested. No obligations, no hard feelings if it isn’t a good fit for your needs, or mine for that matter. 

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Do you need a coach?

Virtually any runner at any level – beginning fitness runner to Olympian – benefits from having a coach to help plan and guide his or her training. Some athletes do a good job training themselves, while other self-coached runners seem to “have a fool for a client”. Here are my thoughts on what you should consider when deciding if you would benefit from hiring a coach to guide your training.


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Beginning Runners

Beginning adult runners are usually interested in running primarily to better their fitness. This is a wise choice for most, as running is one of the best and most efficient means to improve one’s health and endurance. It is common for beginners to take up the challenge of training for a 5k (3.1 miles) fun run that is a few weeks or months in the future. This distance is long enough to provide a motivating challenge, but short enough that finishing is a realistic goal for virtually anyone willing to prepare. Not all beginners are interested in participating in a formal fun run, but the principle is the same for working up to a given distance in your own neighborhood.


Many beginners are able to successfully use a “couch to 5k” or similar program to meet this initial fitness goal, but others find it difficult to customize a generic program for their particular needs or limitations. A coach will provide a plan customized to the current level of the runner. The training plan will progress at the appropriate rate for the appropriate length of time, and be modified along the way based on the runner’s feedback. A knowledgeable coach will also help cut through the maze of confusing and often conflicting information concerning proper footwear, clothing, hydration, nutrition, stretching and strengthening exercises, and be able to address the runner’s other questions and concerns. Having a coach helps reduce the ‘first race jitters’ by letting the runner know what to do and what to expect on race morning, and can prevent a beginning runner from making a lot of “rookie” mistakes in general. Better to learn from the mistakes of others than from the school of hard knocks. The bottom line is that while following a canned program will probably get you to the finish line, using a coach will help keep what should be a fairly simple and fun activity, well, simple and fun.  


Beginning to Intermediate Runners

Then there are the runners who have met the challenge of a first 5k, loved the experience, and want to take up a new challenge but aren’t sure what to do next. They wonder if they should train to run faster 5ks, or to run farther (such as a 10k), or perhaps take up both challenges at once. Once that’s sorted out, it usually doesn’t take long for these runners to think of longer term goals, such as ‘maybe I can run a half marathon some day, or maybe even a full marathon of 26.2 miles’. It can be a daunting task to determine realistic goals and set realistic time frames for those goals. A coach will help with appropriate goal setting and design both short term and long term plans to reach those goals. A good coach also knows that sometimes a runner needs a pep talk to keep going, while at other times he or she will need help realizing it’s time to back off the throttle. If a runner has just completed her first 5k in 40 minutes and decides she will go for a sub-30 in a couple of weeks, her coach will gently let her know that a sub-30 is possible in the longer term, but will help her set a more realistic short term goal. Rome wasn’t built in a day.


Some intermediate level runners are happy to keep running mostly for the fun and fitness aspects, and perhaps the challenge of running longer distances ‘just to finish’, while other will catch the competition bug and become more performance oriented ‘age groupers’ and beyond. Both are fine choices, each with its own set of challenges and rewards. Some people want to run a Boston Marathon qualifier and some want to run a marathon in every state, while most are somewhere in between. Every runner is unique and each should determine what they want out of the sport. The coach is there to help guide the runner along whatever path he or she chooses.


Intermediate to Advanced Runners

Some ‘advanced’ runners are not all that experienced. On occasion, a runner discovers he or she has some real talent for running during their first race, maybe placing in the age group competition after minimal training, and catches the racing bug. I think these runners especially benefit from having a coach to guide them since it is all too easy to do “too much, too soon” which can lead to injury and burn out. Even if the runner takes a more conservative approach, it is difficult to know just how to train and he or she will be exposed to confusing, conflicting, and outright bad advice. In the information age, everyone is an “expert”. But in general when I use the term advanced runner, I am referring to someone that’s been around the sport for a while and has a good grasp on what it’s all about.


Some experienced runners with a solid understanding of the physiological principles underpinning endurance training do just fine by modifying a “cookie cutter” training program from a book, magazine, or website. There are many good resources available for those willing to invest the time in designing their own training program. Still, it should be remembered that even world class, Olympic level runners nearly all employ coaches. Runners at all levels benefit from a cooperative coach-athlete relationship in which the coach helps plan and modify training. For many athletes, having someone else do the bulk of the thinking means they are free to just go execute the workouts. If you are knowledgeable and analytical, you may still prefer designing your own training program. Otherwise, consider the benefits of working with a coach.


Another factor to consider is that it is common for runners to find their progress has stagnated after a year or more in the sport. When they first began serious running, their times improved rapidly as they improved their fitness, which is the norm. This almost magical improvement from race to race is very rewarding, but usually only lasts a year or two with adult runners before fitness levels off. This is due to the “floor effect”; the less fit you are when you start, the more room for improvement you have; in other words, even with modest training you can only go up. But eventually the runner discovers the “ceiling effect”, meaning that the less room there is left for improvement the more effort it takes to make small gains. When dealing with performance improvement in running, the law of diminishing returns is in play. It really is easier and quicker, physiologically speaking, to go from an initial 45 minute 5k to a 30 minute 5k than it is to get from that 30 minutes down to 25 minutes. For many runners, the former occurs in the space of a few months, while that latter may take another one or two  years. Once performance has leveled off, a coach can usually figure out how to help a runner make those small, incremental improvements that can be even more rewarding than the initial break-through runs.  If you are stuck in place or sliding backwards in your performances, I consider that to be one of the best reasons of all to hire a coach.


Coach Matt in his Collegiate Days, circa 1985. That's some great hair.
Dr. Matt in his Collegiate Days, circa 1985. That’s some great hair.


Post-Collegiate/Elite Runners

This group includes athletes that previously ran for a NAIA, NCAA or other collegiate cross-country and/or track & field program, and elite runners who are of that same general age range (20s and 30s) even if they did not run for a college team. These are professional runners, even though only a handful makes a living solely from running.


Please note, before engaging the services of a private coach, any athlete with eligibility and considering competing for a collegiate or scholastic program is advised to determine if doing so is within the rules of the governing bodies and institutions involved. It should also go without saying that any such athlete should not accept any sponsorship or prize money that could jeopardize his or her amateur status.  


I’ve already mentioned that Olympic level runners nearly all have coaches. At that level the coaches are usually paid by some combination of money from the athlete’s sponsors, national governing body, and a percentage of the athlete’s prize money. Most post-collegiate runners aspiring to reach that level can at best get some free gear and maybe a small training stipend from their sponsors or other groups, in addition to whatever prize money they might win. Fortunately in the US some training programs have been set up over the last few years to help these runners pursue their dreams.  Unfortunately, not every elite runner is quite at the level to earn one of the limited spots in those groups. Some may continue to work with their former collegiate or high school coaches, but many simply have little choice but to coach themselves while working a part-time job. Few runners at this young professional level doubt the importance of having a coach to guide their short and long term progress. If you are a post-collegiate/elite runner who falls in that gap I’ve just described, I invite you to contact me to see what we can work out.


Dr. Matt, More Recently. Running Keeps You Young.
Dr. Matt, More Recently. Camel Rock, New Mexico


Masters Runners

Masters competition for most running events begins on one’s 40th birthday. The older one gets, the more factors must be considered in designing a training program. It is a very rare masters runner that can continue doing the same volume and intensity of training he or she did as a 25 or 30 year old. In fact, most runners notice that it becomes more and more difficult to properly recover after hard workouts as they move through their 30s. Of course, many masters runners only enter the sport after their 40th birthday, some far after, so this is another factor taken into account when designing a training program. While the experienced masters runner knows his or her fastest days are probably in the past, a beginner to intermediate masters runner is likely to improve for some time, but still needs more rest and more injury prevention measures than a younger counterpart. For the masters athlete, a coach becomes invaluable for squeezing the maximum benefit out of the minimal amount of training necessary.

 Until next time, be well and happy trails!


Update: Ask about charter member fees! Save up to $1200 a year!

If you are interested in learning more, click the Coaching for Runners tab or drop me an email at or call 505-299-0127. 

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part III – Varsity


SCHS XC Meet start 79 -I'm on the left

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In Part II  I discussed the further quirks, embarrassments, and stubborn persistence of my later youth. These included my quixotic tryouts for the middle and high school basketball teams, designing my first workout program at age 13, joining the high school track team, getting lapped in the mile run, and the accidental sprint workout that changed everything. We left off at my decent post-revelation run in the PE class mile, followed by the realization that I had the summer to get ready for my first cross country season in the fall.

Today I continue the story of going from last place high school freshman to a goal of making the varsity team, making some big time training mistakes, discovering road racing and the flow state, and beginning the next quixotic adventure – the plan to join a collegiate cross-country and track team.


Into the Sophomore Breech

I spent the summer before my second year of high school running nearly every day, riding my bicycle, lifting weights, and often getting in trouble for neglecting my farm chores. I also did a tremendous amount of static stretching, something that started during my middle school days and continued throughout high school. From the 1970s until just a few years ago, nearly every running and sports expert in the world was emphatic about the need to thoroughly stretch before and after every run or workout to prevent injury and run better, and I took this advice to heart. If a little was good, a lot must be better. I often spent up to 45 minutes doing every stretching exercise I knew three or four times before I went out for my run, and again when I got back. I got so limber that I could easily do forward splits, stand with my knees locked and put my palms on the floor, and other contortionist like tricks. Had stretching for runners been a sport, I would have been world champion.

As a practical joke in cahoots with the coach, I once was paired with a new team member for “buddy stretches”. One stretch involved long sitting on the floor – knees locked out – with the bottoms of each partner’s shoes together. From there we would grasp hands while one partner gently pulled the other forward to stretch the back of the legs and lower back. On my turn to be stretched, the unsuspecting newbie pulled and I “collapsed” forward, head to knees. “Oh my God, you killed him!” the coach cried, “I told you not to pull so hard!” Good times. (Flexibility training – which I was not doing correctly back then – is a topic I plan to write about in the future, but for now let’s just say having the flexibility of a 9 year-old female gymnast is not favorable for running sports.)

The running gods took their revenge for my practical joke one icy day that winter as the team was running sprints down a long hallway inside the school. Just a few strides before going through the double doors in the center of the hall, the fire alarm made a quick bleep, causing the automatic doors to close. The runner next to me shot ahead and squeezed through the narrow opening while I slammed into the thick metal fire doors at nearly full speed. And to think, my mother was worried I would get hurt playing football.


The First Cross Country Season 

Cross country practice began in late summer, about 3 weeks before the start of the school year. It was still hot and humid, and allergy season was in full bloom. We gathered at the new city park that had just the prior season become home to our cross country course. The park had been carved out of farmland which had just a few years before been plowed or used for cattle pasture. No one was running the course regularly, so it had not been trodden into a well worn path by any means. The non-wooded portions had been seeded with grass, but it was still pretty lumpy and had a lot of soft spots due to its former agrarian usage. Opportunities for sprained ankles were everywhere; if there was a hole or rut to be stepped in, I would find it. I quickly learned this course would be much different from running on the track or the roads. To make matters worse, my severe seasonal allergies peaked in summer and persisted through the fall. Non-drowsy antihistamines had not yet come on the market, so it was either suffer the itchy red eyes, runny nose, wheezing, and frequent sneezing, or take a pill that put me to sleep during classes and made me feel hung over at practice. I usually chose the former. Ironically, my head would be the most clear during runs, even though I was ramming much more airborne pollen into my lungs. Unfortunately, at the end of each run a major rebound effect would cause a 10 to 20-minute sneezing jag, sore ribs, and more severe symptoms for a couple of hours. A cross country course is about the last place someone with such allergies should spend large amounts of the day.

Despite the lumpy course and allergic fits, I felt ready for my first ever cross country race after a summer of training and waiting to redeem myself for an embarrassing freshman track season. I got my chance in a junior varsity (JV) race at E.P. “Tom” Sawyer Park in Louisville. I didn’t know it at the time, but this was like a jockey having his first mount at Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby. Sawyer Park is used regularly forNCAA regional and national championships. It has long been used for high school and collegiate meets, so unlike our home course, it had a relatively smooth running surface.

I recorded in my race log that I finished 67th in a field of 183 runners in that first JV meet on a 3000 meter (1.8 mile) course. I didn’t record a time or my place on the team but I’m pretty sure I was 3rd or 4th, losing to some future all-state freshmen feeling their way through their first ever race. I remember the surprised look on a couple of my team mates faces when they realized the guy that got lapped in the mile was running right along with them. I suspect my big brother, running on the varsity team, might have been a little less embarrassed to have me around after that performance, too.

That day I felt fast and competitive and tried to pass as many runners as I could, especially towards the end of the race. Cross country is a team sport, so the athletes are taught to beat as many runners as possible, no matter where they are in the field. Your finish place is your score (e.g., I scored 67 points that day), and lowest score wins. The points of the top 5 on each team are added to get the team score, but even the non-scoring 6th and 7th runners can add points to other teams’ scores if they beat any of their top 5. The team aspect is one of the best things about the sport, since even on a bad a day a runner can still come through for the team.

As good a performance as this was for me, finishing in the top half of the field, I was still disappointed at not winning or at least being in the top 10, since this was “only” a JV meet. This was a total change of perspective from that first track season only three months earlier. I had gone from jogging along while thinking the guys running all out were doing it wrong, to unrealistically thinking I should be winning.

It only became apparent to me what a good debut cross country race I had run once the rest of the season was in full swing. I ran in one other JV race at a big invitational that season, finishing 111th in a field of about 200. In the rest of the meets there was no JV race, so I ran as a member of the “B” team in 5k (3.1 mile) varsity races and finished all of them in the back of the field, usually beating only two or three runners, and finishing last a couple of times. I also realized what a difference a fast course like Sawyer Park meant for me. What I didn’t realize at the time was that the rubber legged, knock-kneed, lack of power feeling I had when racing was primarily caused by the combination of the mushy courses and all that static stretching. It would also be several years before I figured out I needed to correct a bouncy running form that was wasting energy by transferring what should have been forward momentum into vertical motion. I was running hard, but that effort was not being translated into speed. Apparently all of this was less of a limitation when running on smoother, harder surfaces like Sawyer, or during road races.


The Road Race

My first road race came when our coach used the local Tobacco Festival run (yes, a run celebrating the Tobacco harvest, this being Kentucky) as our third “cross country meet” of the season. I finished 32nd out of 60 runners, with a time of 39 minutes on a 5.6 mile course. If both my time record and the length of the course are accurate, that means I averaged 6:58 per mile. Compared to the 8-minute pace of my first couple of 3.1 mile races on the grass, this was quite a difference. I did manage to get my cross country time down to under 21 minutes (6:44 pace) near the end of the season, which given my limitations wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. But everyone else had improved too, so I was still bringing up the rear.

The main lessons from my first cross country season were that I needed to be patient and improve gradually, enjoy the personal best runs, marvel at how far I had come from the orthopedic shoe days, and not be so hard on myself. Of course, I didn’t learn any of that and instead continued to think I just wasn’t working hard enough or trying hard enough or stretching hard enough. I did learn that I would probably be more successful in road racing than in cross country, for what that was worth.

In the spring – having survived my winter battle with the fire door – I branched out on the track, running the half-mile and two-mile a couple of times, in addition to the mile. I still wasn’t varsity material, and continued to finish in the back of the field, often last, but I was now running around 5:45 in the mile consistently. I still hadn’t learned very good racing strategy, pacing, or tactics, and these shorter races did not play to my strengths, but compared to the freshman season this was a big improvement. I even finished second in a JV half mile race, leading all the way before being beaten at the line.

I wasn’t given a uniform to wear that track season, so I was still racing in the PE gear. When I summoned the courage to ask the coach why, he simply said I had yet to earn it for track. (There were three to four times as many athletes on the track team compared to the cross country team, meaning there were fewer uniforms to go around). That response added a little more fuel for the fire. Without permission from the coach, I borrowed my brother’s uniform for that JV half mile. If the coach was peeved, he didn’t say, so I suppose the second place put it out of his mind. Having the school name on my chest made a difference in my outlook that day, and I was determined to earn my own uniform for the next track season.


Varsity Blue and Gold, And Another Road Race

I was ready for another big summer of training in hopes of making the varsity in my second season of cross country in the fall, when I would be a junior. By this time I dared to dream I might actually earn a varsity letterman’s jacket, something unthinkable back in my awkward youth. I had also lost nearly all of the extra body fat and was developing the coveted runner’s legs. By the fall I was 5’ 9” tall and weighed around 145 pounds, nearly the same weight as when I was a 5’ tall husky kid. I actually started to look like an endurance athlete, though by this time I was more concerned about running fast than looking good. Four months before my 17th birthday I had surpassed the original goals set at age 13 without taking much notice.

Rolling into that junior season, I was still being pretty tough on myself. My log book notes a season goal of running under 17 minutes and finishing in the top 10 in the region. There was nothing in my running resume to indicate those marks as attainable, but I suppose an enthusiastic 16 year-old can be forgiven for having grandiose goals. Heck, I once thought I could make a state championship caliber basketball team, too. But I had put in a lot of miles over the summer and kept up the weight training (and unfortunately the obsessive stretching).

I surprised my coach and teammates by finishing 4th in a team time trial race to kick off our fall training campaign, running a new personal best of 20:32 on our lumpy home course. Given that the season before I was running at the tail end of the B team, this was a good start. Even though I was less than pleased at how far I was from my goal time, I realized a top 7 varsity spot was realistic. Three days later, our coach once again entered us in the Tobacco Festival road race, this time adding an official high school division and declaring the race as our “cross country” invitational.

That 1979 Tobacco Festival Run in Shelbyville, Kentucky proved to be the next major milestone in my running career. For a change, my log book note was positive; “A great race for me. I felt very strong and am looking forward to next year’s race.” I felt like I was flying that day. I caught and passed our top runners, and one of my favorite middle school teachers, about half way through the run and pulled away. I had my first experience with what I now would call a “flow state”,, feeling like a running machine. I had read about visualization techniques, and I knew the course so well it was easy to run the perfect race in my head in the days leading up to it. On race day, I simply executed the program I had written in my mind.


Fig. 1 Coach Wingfeld ready to start the 1980 Tobacco Festival run. I'm about 6th from picture right, no socks.
Coach Wingfeld ready to start the 1980 Tobacco Festival run. I’m about 6th from picture right, no socks. Photo by Joyce Ford, The Sentinel News


For the first time I was the number 1 runner on my team. I finished 6th in the high school division (11th overall in a field of 120), running 34:02 (6:05 pace, if the course is accurate), took 5 minutes off my time from the previous year, and led my team to a second place finish. My home from college brother, whom I’d never beaten at anything athletic, finished a minute and a half behind me. I earned my first running awards that day – a medal for the high school race and a trophy for the overall race – along with an announcement from the coach to the team that I was the man to beat that season. I really wish he hadn’t put that target on my back, but at the time I was happy to be in the spotlight.

Following the road race, I had a better cross country season than the previous year, despite having multiple ankle sprains necessitating running with support tape about half the time. Even the first running trophy I earned at the road race had a broken ankle. Though I still wasn’t nearly as fast on the grass as I was on the roads, I was consistent enough to keep my place on the varsity for all but one meet, and my days of finishing last were over. Unfortunately, in my first regional championship, held on our lumpy home course, I sprained my ankle again and had to drop out. But that season saw a big breakthrough, my first running award, and my first varsity letterman’s jacket, which I wore to school with pride nearly every day until graduation. Imagine, the husky pants wearing weird kid in the orthopedic shoes, the uncoordinated “fatso” picked last for everything, had earned a varsity jacket.

The rest of the high school career – always in the blue and gold team uniform – involved some steady improvement, with mile times in the low 5 minute range, a 2:17 half-mile, and low 12 minutes for 2 miles during the junior year track season. In the senior year of cross country I continued my slow and steady improvement, getting under 20 minutes a few times, including during the regional championship in which I did not sprain my ankle. It wasn’t great, but I held a solid spot in the top 7 throughout the season, had another good run at the Tobacco Festival, and earned another varsity letter.

The allergies contributed to a bout of chronic bronchitis that wiped out most of my last season of track, so there was no improvement on my times. I never finished high enough to score points in a varsity track meet. While I might have scored a few my senior year had I not been so ill, clearly these lung-searing middle distance races around the oval were not my forte.


Those Road Races, Though

There was little in my high school running career that indicated I should try to run in college, and in fact there was a lot to indicate I should not. Only a very small percentage of the many thousands of high school runners go on to run in college. Most runners considering walking on to collegiate teams have at least run around 10 minutes for 2 miles, 4:30 or so for the mile, not much over 2 minutes in the half mile, and low-to-mid 17s in cross country. Scholarship runners of course have run much faster and usually finished at or near the top in championship races. But you know me by now; I had to try. I looked to my road races to convince myself that I might have a chance at that level. I already knew I was better at longer races, and in college cross country races were either 8K (5 miles) or 10K (6.2 miles). On the track, distances races were 5K and 10K. The longer races probably just meant prolonged suffering for me compared to the shorter ones, but I did a good job putting that out of my mind.


High School BG10k maybe 001 (2)
A hot and humid 4th of July 10k. The chin up running style and my other form flaws have greatly improved since high school.


As in the previous cross country seasons, we kicked off my senior year of high school with the Tobacco Festival race, which had been lengthened to 10K. I was never sure of the exact distance of the old course; the newspaper reported it as 5.6 miles, an odd distance that makes comparisons to other races difficult. With the race now a legitimate 10,000 meters, I had something better to go by. I had run my first 10k on the Fourth of July after my sophomore year in sweltering heat and humidity, gone out way too fast and staggered to the finish in 48:18. The next summer, after the junior year, I raced a 43:04 as “practice” one week, and returned to the July 4 race the next to run 41:51. I had gone all out that summer, putting in over 80 miles of running most weeks, and finishing with three ill advised 100 mile weeks like the running magazines said world class runners were doing. I also pushed for new uniforms, so to pay for them we had a fund raising “runathon” shortly before our first race, during which I ran 24 miles. We really should have just had a bake sale. It took me a while to recover from that run and over-doing the summer mileage, but despite the leg fatigue I set a new personal best of 40:44 in the Tobacco Festival race, finishing 11th in the high school division and 20th overall. (More open runners will come out for a standard distance race, so the field was deeper, and my two all-state teammates got me back for the previous year.) In the fall and winter after cross country season, I gained more confidence by running three more road races, including a 40:20 and a 39:36 10K, and a very hilly 39:27 6-Mile. I also ran my first 10-Mile race that winter on a hilly course in bitterly cold and windy conditions. My time was not great (70:48), but I would return years later and take my revenge.



Fig. Mugging for the newspaper during a 24 mile mile
Husky no more. Mugging for the newspaper camera during a 24 mile run. Photo by Alan Butler, The Sentinel News. 


During the running boom of the 70s and 80s, breaking 40 minutes for 10k was the major goal for most male runners, at least the ones that hadn’t gone down the ‘jogging for health’ path that I first took up, but for a collegiate runner that was still very pedestrian. Be that as it may, my 39:36 was the best mark I had from high school, so with that in hand I began looking for a team that would have me.


In the next installment, I relate how I talked my way onto a collegiate team despite a lack of talent, and how the collegiate career evolved.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part II – Jogger, Runner, Revelation

Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown.
Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown. 


In the last post [Part I – The Weird Kid], I discussed my early childhood quirks, weight issues, orthopedic shoes, lack of coordination, being picked last for every team, and my early awakening to the possibility of something better. In this post, I continue the story, including my embarrassing attempts to play big time basketball, designing my first workout sessions, my inauspicious entry into high school track, and a life changing revelation..


Bad Basketball

I formally began my health fitness journey in 1976 as an overweight 13 year old 7th grader. I was somewhat less physically awkward than I had been in grade school, thanks to physical education class (absent from the grade school curriculum), my discovery of softball, and by this time basketball. Regarding the latter, I learned to shoot pretty well, as long as no one was guarding me. In other words, I was an okay H.O.R.S.E. player on the hoop above the garage door. I would sometimes spend hours by myself just taking shots when I had no H.O.R.S.E. opponent, or my brother wasn’t beating me in a lopsided game of one-on-one.

We had a gravel driveway at the farm, so quite often the ball would ricochet off a rock and go careening down the big hill. My brother and I would nearly always fight over whose turn it was to run after the ball before it ended up a quarter mile away. I’m pretty sure this was not the way Michael Jordan’s basketball career began. I did learn to dribble the ball using the concrete floor in the garage or in the basement. As with shooting, I was pretty good as long as no one was guarding me. However, with the gravel driveway situation, I rarely was able to effectively practice coordinating my dribbling and shooting. I did try, and have the scars on my knees to show for it. 

In keeping with what would become a lifelong theme for me, I did not let my near total lack of skills keep me from trying out for the 7th grade team. The state religion of Kentucky is, after all, Southern Basketball, so I was convinced my life would only be complete if I could become a big star, win a high school state championship, and play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Or the Louisville Cardinals; I was conflicted about which team I liked best. Indiana was right out, though.

Not surprisingly, at tryouts when I got my turn to play one-on-one in front of the coaches, all I could do was turn my back on the other player and keep dribbling in a feeble attempt to back up towards the basket like I had seen real players do on TV. This would continue until the opponent either knocked the ball away, I dribbled off my foot, or the coach got frustrated and ended the drill. On my turn to play defense, the other player either was as bad as me and we had another dribbling stalemate, or he was much better and just dribbled past me to the basket. I appreciated the coaches’ ability to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum.

The next day, the head coach posted a list of the 30 or so players that had not yet been cut. Needless to say, my name was not on that list. At the time, I thought this was a great injustice; “they’re just going to cut me instead of teaching me to play basketball?” I remembered the feeling from grade school of not being picked at all for schoolyard games, only this time it was adults letting me know I wasn’t good enough. This being the first real sports team I had tried out for, I didn’t fully grasp that the purpose was to pick the best players and teach them how to win against other schools. This was serious business in Kentucky, a state which has only one boys’ and one girls’ state champion each year (the plot to Hoosiers occasionally plays out in Kentucky.) 

Given that nearly every boy in the class had tried out, and nearly all were cut, an intramural basketball league was formed, with some very nice teachers giving their own time to “coach”. Coaching in this context simply meant being sure every boy got a chance to play in each game, and with only three teams there were a lot of us on the bench. The games themselves were unorganized free-for-alls, but I got a couple of rebounds and shot the ball once or twice, despite my own teammates’ attempts to wrestle the ball away from me. These were low-scoring affairs, usually something like 10 – 8, but my team won the tournament and I received my first blue ribbon for something other than an art contest.

Part of my motivation for getting fit now involved making the basketball team, but I did not try out again until high school. The largest part of my fitness plan motivation remained to lose weight and improve my health. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t very gifted in terms of sports, and unlikely to actually make the basketball team. I briefly considered trying out for football, thinking my extra heft might be an advantage, but my mother refused to let me break my neck playing that foolish game. My father made only a faint hearted attempt to intervene. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, so they had no time for something as frivolous as sports; if it didn’t put food on the table then what was the point? Ironically, they did later convert to the state religion and become college basketball fans, after my brother and I started regularly watching games on TV.


The Jogger

I was a bookworm, so once I decided I needed to get fit I absorbed everything I could find on the topics of diet and exercise. There was no internet in those days, so most of my information came from health and fitness articles in newspapers and magazines, books from the school library, and the occasional fitness segment on the local TV news. One great resource was a weekly newspaper column by an exercise science professor from the University of Louisville.

The first “running boom” was underway in America in the mid-1970s, which brought along a great deal of advice on how to be a “jogger” and all the benefits it would bring. So, naturally, I made jogging a part of my exercise program, with no thought yet of becoming a “runner”. Jogging was just part of a well-balanced routine. I learned that one was never to get out of breath while jogging, but rather one should go at a pace to be able to carry on a conversation. (This is still good advice, in regards to running for health and for ‘easy pace’ training runs.)

Jogging was such a craze that People Magazine ran a feature story on celebrity joggers, including the likes of country singer and actor Jerry Reed, 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson, Batman’s “Penguin”, Burgess Meredith, and even crusty old Senator Strom Thurmond, then age 75 (1). The cover featured 1970s power couple Farrah Fawcett and (Eastern Kentucky alum and Six Million Dollar Man ) Lee Majors in jaunty jogging togs (fig. 1). These celebrities spoke of  jogging as a means to look and feel better, and while the word ‘running’ was used interchangeably with ‘jogging’, the word ‘racing’ never appeared. This information will be useful to you later in my story.


Fig 1. Farrah and Lee People Magazine Cover, 1977
Fig 1. Farrah and Lee Looking Jaunty, People  Magazine, 1977


As an aside, let me clarify the actual difference between “jogging” and “running”. In the broadest sense, there is none. From a biomechanical standpoint, if you are ambulating on foot, you are either walking or running (or skipping, hopping, or galloping, which most of us don’t do often in adulthood). In walking, one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times, and at one point in the gate cycle both feet are in contact with the ground. When a race walker is disqualified, it is nearly always because he or she was seen multiple times with both feet off the ground at the same time, which is defined as running. The running gait cycle has a “flight” phase in which both feet are off the ground; also, unlike in walking, both feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time.

From a practical standpoint, the difference between jogging and running is in the eye of the beholder. Jogging and “easy paced running” for a given individual are probably conducted at the same pace. The difference, then, is merely one of intention; people that say they are joggers are usually doing it only for health fitness reasons, while people that say they are runners are doing it for something beyond health, usually to prepare for a race or to otherwise improve their running ability. This dichotomy was quite strong in the 1970s, but one very rarely hears people refer to themselves as joggers anymore. It is very well accepted today that if you run, even if you don’t race or run fast, you are a runner.


Dynamic Tension and The Exercise Plan

Part of what I had learned in my early study of exercise was the importance of strength training. In addition to the jogging craze, body building had entered the mainstream. Prodded by a comic book advertisement featuring a skinny dude getting sand kicked in his face by a bully (fig 2), I sent away for more information on the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program (which is apparently still a thing). I found the description of the program seemed kind of silly, and not much in keeping with what I had been reading, so I put it aside. I did first take a good teasing from my Dad and my brother about my apparent Mr. Universe aspirations when they saw the envelope on which Atlas’s brawny 1950s Speedo-clad picture appeared. I was still primarily interested in what strength training could do for my health, my weight loss goal, and possibly my basketball abilities. If I happened to get all muscled up, that would be a bonus. (I wasn’t yet familiar with the difficulty and specificity of muscle hypertrophy training.) I bought a 110-pound plastic coated concrete weight set with a $20 gift certificate I had won in a K-Mart coloring contest (the solid bar from that set is still in my arsenal). My father had purchased several rough hewn wooden benches when a Ponderosa Steak House closed down, so one of those became my weight bench. With these tools and my exercise knowledge in hand, I set about designing my own workout program.


Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a man out of you!
Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a real man out of you!


I recently found some of the papers on which I had sketched out my program tucked away in a running memorabilia box. The list includes such items as “lift weights” (using the basic exercises described in a booklet that came with the weight set), “jog to the barn and back” (about one mile total, sometimes making multiple trips), “ride bike to end of road” (still amazed my Stingray and I didn’t get crushed on the one lane country road), and “do exercises”, by which I meant static stretching (I became quite a contortionist, a topic for another post), and some P.E. class style calisthenics. By high school I had added jumping rope, and became pretty good at doing cross-overs, single leg hops, and other tricks I had seen fellow Louisvillian Mohammed Ali doing on TV.

I dutifully recorded my weight on 3 x 5 cards and watched it go down a little at a time, which I had read was (quite correctly) the healthy way to do it. I also limited my dates with Little Debbie and her friends, and began seeing more of her neighbors, fruits and veggies. After a while I didn’t miss the sweet treats, but I did have one occasionally. I had read that moderation was the key to good diet, and an occasional indulgence is fine, which is as true today as it was then. And while I didn’t crave those snacks, I still liked them. With all the fad diets I have seen come and go and come again over the last 40 years, I realize that having learned this dietary wisdom early on prevented a lot of heartache and yo-yo dieting.


A Little More Bad Basketball

I had kept to my new healthy lifestyle through middle school, and continued playing lunch time softball and bad gravel driveway basketball. While I was fitter, I was still a bit chubby when I entered high school, and I had not specifically trained for basketball. I was about average in height for my age and had, probably, an 8-inch vertical leap at best (indicating very little fast twitch muscle fiber, I now know), so not exactly the raw tools for basketball stardom. But you know me; I went out for the basketball team anyway, having decided once again that the path to Nirvana passed through a high school championship, and then either the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. My high school did win the state championship that year, and had a player win a scholarship to Kentucky, but of course I was not on the team. My freshman basketball team tryout went pretty much the same as 7th grade tryouts, with the exasperated coach calling time on my dribbling stalemate with another not very talented player. A student sitting in the nearby bleachers, there to volunteer as team manager in order to get a varsity jacket, no doubt, smirked, shook his head and asked me why I had even tried out. “Why are you just sitting there”, I replied as I walked away.

One thing was very different this time, however, for which I am grateful to the coach. At the end of the tryouts, after stating that most of us would not be moving forward in the process, he gave a pep talk reminding us that there was more to life than basketball (a heretical statement if ever one was uttered in the state of Kentucky). He told us that in just a few weeks time, there would also be baseball, golf, tennis, and track & field (and probably that we should study hard and become good citizens or something). He noted that, in particular, the track team usually allowed anyone that came to practice every day to stay on the team. He also indicated that many of the events didn’t require the types of skills one would need for basketball, a polite way of saying we uncoordinated kids could probably at least run without falling down too much.


The Runner

After the pep talk from the basketball coach, I gave up the hoop dreams and decided to join the school track team. I approached the first day of practice with great trepidation. I had never been on a real sports team before, and in my mind all coaches were mean Army drill sergeants that yelled and made you drop and give them twenty. It didn’t help that my brother was also on the team, and had been for a couple of years. He inherited any athletic skills that were to be had in our family, and I sensed he might not want his “tag along” little brother embarrassing him at practice. Whether that was true or not, it was in my mind, along with the idea that the other kids were going to think I didn’t belong on the team.

But that first day I put on my jock strap, my P.E. uniform, and my Sears The Winner™  jogging shoes (fig 3) and went nervously to the track. (Those were some really terrible, rock hard, stiff shoes, by the way, and helped me learn all about “shin splints”.) I had reasoned I was already jogging several miles per week, so I wasn’t completely out of my element. I also remembered having watched the ‘76 Olympics, and thinking that distance running thing didn’t look too hard. It surely didn’t require much agility or coordination, as the basketball coach had insinuated. In addition, as a kid with chubby thighs, I was amazed you could see the runners’ sinewy leg muscles. I decided I wanted legs like that, not like those of Charles Atlas. Of course I had no idea just how fast those runners were moving or how much training they did. I had been learning about exercise and jogging for health and fitness, not for competition.


Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.
Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.


Believe it or not, I briefly gave thought to throwing the shot that first day, using the same faulty logic as I did for middle school football; that my extra weight would be useful. After all, shot putters were really big, and most of them looked pretty fat. But once I saw the older guys throwing I knew that would be folly for me; I had neither the strength nor agility to do more than drop the shot on my foot. The coach was experienced and knew better anyway. He sized me up and did what coaches do with most kids with no signs of sprint speed or the agility needed for field events; he put me in the mile. I assume this was because the race was long enough for the non-sprinters to have a chance, while being short enough that the slow pokes wouldn’t hold up the track meet’s rolling schedule too much. After a couple of weeks of practice, with me falling behind on every training run, I was allowed to run the junior varsity mile in our first home meet. This was an over-crowded affair, with all the kids that had yet to quit their respective teams piled into one massive heat. I was nervous but ready, because I had read all that literature on jogging. The gun went off and … 


The Revelation

I finished last in every race that first season, and was actually lapped by most of the field  during each of these four lap events. It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realized I was supposed to run as fast as I could. As ridiculous as that sounds, I had read so many books and articles about proper “jogging for health”, I thought the guys running all out and getting out of breath were “doing it wrong”. I was still kind of a weird kid.

At a practice just before the last meet of the season, one of my sprinter friends asked me to run some of his 220 yard (half lap) repeat sprints with him. I doubt he thought I would be of much help with his pacing, but he had come to practice late and didn’t want to do his workout alone. I was nearly finished with my assigned workout, so I agreed. I still don’t know what triggered this response, but somehow when he took off I decided to stay right on his shoulder most of the way. I mentally locked on to him and let him “pull” me around the curve and down the home stretch. I did a few of the sprints with him and managed to run them all just a few seconds behind him, and this was a sprinter. Not that he was running all out, but still, a sprinter! This was the first time since that relay race in grade school, the one in which I was shed of the orthopedic shoes, that I understood what it was to run as fast as I could. It hurt, but in a good way. During one of those sprints the epiphany hit; “I’m supposed to be running the mile like this, at the fastest pace I can for that distance!” I wasn’t just jogging for health anymore; I was a runner.

While I would like to tell you I tore up my final mile race of the season, the truth is I was over a hill behind the track helping with a field event and did not hear the calls for my race. I looked up at the track and saw my race was underway and my heart sank. I had blown my chance at redemption. That was the end of my freshman track season; three last place finishes and a DNS (did not start).

The next opportunity I had to try out my new strategy was in P.E. class. We were doing a module on track and field, and while I was pretty bad at most of the events we had to try – falling over hurdles, tossing the discus into the cage, long jumping short of the sand pit – the final event was the mile run. It was my opportunity to finally see how fast I could go. I did not record my time for any of my mile races, and I’m not sure I even knew that was done or what a good time would be. The best I can estimate is that, having been lapped by people running anywhere from under 5 minutes to about 6 minutes, I probably ran 9 or 10 minutes at best.

The P.E. class mile was perhaps the most dreaded activity of the entire school year for nearly every freshman, but of course I was ready to show everyone what a member of the track team could do. The mile was my specialty, you know. It didn’t hurt that the teacher was also the girls’ track coach, so it was my chance to show her that what she had seen out of me at our meets was no longer the runner I had become. It was a chance to undo some of the embarrassment I now felt over my athletic naivety. Once we were underway several boys took off like it was the 100 yard dash. These boys flamed out by the end of the first lap. Most of the other students quickly became red-faced and began panting for air, and many began walking. I and another member of the track team, a pole-vault specialist and sometimes sprinter, went to the front of the pack in the second lap and pulled away from the few students left that were still focused on running instead of puking. This pace hurt, and my legs were burning over the last lap and a half, but I realized this is what it’s like to race the mile. My pole-vaulter friend beat me to the line, but finishing a close second to a very good athlete was no shame, and certainly better than getting lapped. I don’t exactly remember my time, but I think it was around 6 minutes or 6:15, and considering nearly all my training had been at “jogging” pace, that wasn’t too bad.

Despite the minor redemption of the P.E. class mile, I was still peeved about missing the last race of my freshman track season. I remember the emotions that welled up the day of the last meet as I realized I had missed my chance to put my new found knowledge and motivation to the test in front of my coaches and teammates. But I soon realized that I had the entire summer to train for fall cross country season, and I was determined to make the most of it. By this time I was beginning to think that I might be better at longer distances, and cross country races were 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

The fuse was lit.

In the next post, I will continue the amazing true story of my metamorphosis through high school In the meantime, feel free to send me any running questions you would like me to address in future posts.


1. Jogging for Joy. Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett and Other Stars (Huff, Pant) Are Latching (Wheeze) Onto the Great American Joggernaut. People Magazine, July 4, 1977, Vol 8, No 1.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part I – The Weird Kid

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.



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Today’s post contains the first part of the story of how an awkward, uncoordinated, sedentary, overweight, slowest kid in his class became a collegiate cross country and track athlete, and beyond. The moral of the story is, “if this kid can do it, you can do it”, or perhaps, “don’t let fear and a lack of talent keep you from trying things”.

In the near future I will write more about running science, but first I hope sharing my story provides some motivation, especially for those contemplating taking that first step out the door.


Orthopedic Shoes, Coloring Contests, and Ding Dongs

In my early grade school years, I was put into just what every child wants; clunky, stiff “Thomas heel” orthopedic shoes (fig. 1). The intention was to correct my flat feet and duck-walk gait. I don’t know if it was the shoes, my poor coordination, or both, but I sprained my ankles frequently, so I usually had a slight limp. I was later fitted for some super cool over-sized plastic framed glasses, which perpetually slid down my nose. Metal-framed glasses were in vogue at the time, but my mother knew I would just break those (by 6th grade she relented). Debonair I was not.


Fig 1. These are similar to the Thomas heel orthopedic shoes I wore. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).
Fig 1. Thomas heel orthopedic shoes. I wore these from preschool through 3rd grade. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).


The regular hobbies of my youth included reading, drawing, arts & crafts, fishing, and competing in the Sunday Cappy Dick newspaper cartoon coloring contest (fig. 2). I also watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Nutty Buddies, and other treats. The combination of too much sedentary play time and too many dates with Little Debbie resulted in my becoming quite fat early in life, and sometimes enduring taunts of “fatso” from other kids. I suffered the indignity of wearing euphemistically labeled “husky” sized clothing, and I tended to outgrow them quickly. My older brother sometimes got the bum deal of having to wear my JC Penney “hand-me-ups”, which fit in the waist but not in the length. This did come in handy for him during rain storms. You’re welcome, big brother.


It should come as no surprise that the husky, klutzy kid with the orthopedic shoes and thick glasses was picked last for every schoolyard game, usually kickball, tag, or shuttle relay races. Illustrative of my social awkwardness, I didn’t even realize that I had been picked last; since no one ever called my name I just dejectedly concluded that they didn’t want me to play at all. Somehow, the default nature of the last one left going to the team with the last pick had eluded me. Eventually, I became upset enough at this perceived slight that I just put myself on one of the teams. About half the time that team would, of course, tell me to go to the other team. It took me a while to put the clues together.


Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.
Fig 2. Husky Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning a national coloring contest.


The Relay Race, Softball, and an Amazing Discovery

The relay races were especially difficult in the orthopedic shoes, which were ridged, heavy, and made the distinctive clopping sound of a herd of Clydesdales. One day, perhaps because the orthopedic shoes were muddy, or perhaps because I begged mercilessly, my mother let me wear a pair of my brother’s gum-soled suede leather chukkas to school. They were a little too big, but oh so comfortable and flexible. I rarely got into trouble at school (I saved my little hellion routine for home), so I was mortified when the teacher scolded me for putting my feet on the wall. She had no idea I was simply marveling at the lack of orthopedic-ness of the shoes, which seemed magical to me. Later at recess, it was relay race time and I was anxious to see what I could do in these magic shoes. Before that day, my relay leg always went one of three ways; my team was behind and I got us further behind, my team was even and I got us behind, or my team was ahead and I got us behind, all while my teammates loudly scolded me for being so slow. This day would be different. When my teammate slapped my hand both teams were dead even, and I took off running as hard as I could. For the first time ever, I ran side-by-side with the other kid all the way to the next exchange, all the while my amazed teammates cheering wildly. That was the first time I felt the rush of running fast, and of being competitive in something physical. A seed was planted, but it would be a few years before it sprouted. 


Before my fourth grade year, my father decided that Green Acres was the place to be, so we moved from the suburbs of Louisville to a small farm in a neighboring county. The rural public school was 25 miles and a world apart from the suburban parochial school I had attended, and it took me a while to adjust. One of the adjustments was the realization that these kids had never heard of kickball or relay races, and instead spent recess playing an exotic game called “softball”. That first year I either went to the playground equipment or just sat and watched the others play the game, since I didn’t know what was going on. But the next year I decided to try it, and while I never learned to hit very well, I did learn to catch the ball (and then toss it to some other close-by kid who actually knew where to throw it next). By the middle school years I was playing softball well enough to not be picked last. By that time I was long rid of orthopedic shoes, and was instead wearing “tennis shoes” to school like almost every other boy.  My glasses were still sliding down my nose, though.

Having discovered during middle school that I could enjoy doing something sport-like, and also that girls did not, in fact, have cooties, led to the conclusion that it was time for me to lose the extra weight and get in shape. In the next post, I discuss how I did that, and the unlikely journey to becoming a competitive runner.


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Welcome to Sport Science Running and Fitness

Comrades Wall South Africa 2010




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With this brief introduction, and through upcoming posts, I hope to use my story to inspire you to learn more about the wonderful world of running, fitness, and health, and to apply that knowledge to your own story. I will write more about my improbable, and hopefully inspiring, rise from awkward, unathletic, overweight kid to collegiate runner and beyond in upcoming posts.


I chose Sport Science Running & Fitness as a title after considering many other ideas, some clever and some more straight forward and descriptive. I settled on the latter because, even though I (attempt to) use humor in my writing, the main focus will be to share insights from my 40 years and counting as a runner, my training in Sport Science, and my experience in exercise physiology, physical rehabilitation, and research. I hope you will be able to put this information to practical use, or at least find it interesting and entertaining.


I also plan to write about controversial issues and pseudoscience in an informative and educational manner, that will no doubt result in much wailing and gnashing of teeth among some ‘true believers’ in such things. In the internet age, purveyors of health and nutrition misinformation (usually with a profit motive) have gained wide audiences and do a lot of damage, and are experts at getting their victims to defend them. I will share the work of other science communicators that are dedicated to exposing con artists and quacks. 


If you spend any time in running forums, you have also no doubt seen virtual holy wars break out over topics such as ‘the best running shoes’, ‘the best diet’, or the ‘best training plan’, and the rules of the sport. Sometimes these fights even break out over some very silly and trivial issues. Much has changed during my four decades in the sport, and I find we are experiencing some growing pains with the much increased popularity of running. Hopefully I can help bring some sanity to these discussions. After all, running is important to us, but it’s also supposed to be fun.


I welcome any ideas you have for blog posts, any suggested corrections for my posts, and any running or fitness related questions. Please keep comments civil and PG-13 rated. Be sure to like the Facebook page, too 

Talk to you soon.



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