Dathan Ritzenhein is considered the “future of American distance running.” His career, earmarked for greatness, has followed an inconsistent trajectory. Having won championships and setting records in distances from 3,000 meters to the 1/2 marathon (for a complete bio and race results history click on the following link: http://www.usatf.org/athletes/bios/Ritzenhein_Dathan.asp), Ritzenhein has fought innumerous injuries while dedicating himself to becoming the world’s best marathoner. Frustrated by a ninth-place finish in the 2008 London Marathon (and plagued by calf pains), he left his coach of five years, Brad Hudson, and joined Alberto Salazar and the Nike Project in Oregon. (Salazar, now with cross-country coach Jerry Schumacher, is employed by Nike to oversee and coach a coterie of elite runners including Ritzenheim, Kara Goucher, Matt Tegenkamp, Amy Yoder Begley and Alan Webb).
Ritzenhein has been most susceptible to stress reactions and fractures of his metatarsals. These issues have led to inconsistencies in his training and racing. I can remember a blurb in ESPN the Magazine (2008) describing the G-Trainer antigravity treadmill he used to accumulate “130 miles per week during his rehab.” Supposedly, an elite racer’s running form is an individual thing. Writes Jennifer Kahn, in the New Yorker piece The Perfect Stride: Can Alberto Salazar Straighten Out American Distance Running?, “Many top distance runners have idiosyncratic form, and adjusting even a minor detail of a racer’s alignment can trigger a cascade of changes: subtle shifts in knee or foot position that can make a runner vulnerable to injury.” Consequently, when Salazar “tinkered” with Ritzenhein’s form, more than one eyebrow was raised. Salazar, winner of the Boston Marathon and three-time winner of the New York equivalent, was known for an inelegant stride and, plagued by the injury bug himself, forced to retire in his prime. He first addressed Ritzenhein’s “near horizontal arm carriage”, emphasizing the fists being held higher up, in what he termed the “nipple to nipple” position. “According to Salazar, this strained the forearm, and thus, through a long chain of physiological connections, the leg muscles,” Kahn commented. After a great start under Salazar’s watchful eye (an American record in the 5,000m in Zurich and a blistering 3rd place finish in Birmingham, England for the World Half-Marathon Championships), Ritzenhein again fell prey to injuries that curtailed his 2010 NYC Marathon preparation. Here, he finished a disappointing 8th overall in a time (2:13:33), his slowest in years. Strained tendons in his left ankle caused him to pull out of the recent Bupa Great Edinburg XC Race. His preparation now is for the 2011 Virgin London Marathon.
Salazar has argued that for Ritzenhein to compete for the top echelon, he would need a more radical overhaul of his running form. “To compete against the best you’ve got to fix this…But there’s a risk. We may injure you.” Such absurd comments are what perpetuates this myth that there is no correct running technique. Whatever you have is God-given, argues Kip Keino, Kenyan Olympic champion. Clearly, the plethora of injuries in Ritzenhein career have pointed to some sort of biomechanical malfunction. Salazar has noted (in a Q & A piece in Runner’s World July 7, 2010) that “Gordon Valiant – the head of biomechanics for Nike – did an evaluation of Dathan and was able to find some things that are unique to Dathan with the way he runs and strikes the foot. With that (study completed), we now have some modified inserts. I wouldn’t call them orthotics – just an insert into the shoe where he has an abnormal amount of force near his third metatarsal. It seems to have alleviated his symptoms completely and we’ve retested him in the lab and shown those forces have been lessened tremendously.” In the same article, Ritzenhein admits that he “was definitely more of a heel-striker” and is “getting to his mid-foot more…”
It amazes me, when looking at the photo stills of Ritzenhein running, that Salazar, Valiant, Lance Walker (Michael Johnson’s Director of Performance) and even Ritzenhein himself (!) fail to grasp the concept of movement. As I’ve discussed in previous blogs, all movement is a result of a pivoting from a fixed point. We reference this as falling. We are propelled in running by falling forward from the axis of ball of foot when it’s connected to the ground. During this brief period of support, the Center of Mass (COM) of our bodies is allowed rotate via the vector resultant of gravitational torque. Gravity is essentially pulling us toward the earth. To avoid a complete plunge – and redirect ourselves horizontally – we must change our foot support in a timely manner. Any delay in this process (support-fall-pull-support), induces more stress on our joints and connective structures. Instead of a uniquely orchestrated confluence of gravity, ground reaction force, friction, muscle elasticity and contraction, an inefficient runner must use more effort and absorb more impact. The position of the initial footstrike is decisive for determining the stride efficiency.
From the first image of Ritzenhein (S1, moving left to right), you can see that his left foot is landing ahead of his COM. This causes the bent “K” posture you see in S1: head and chest forward, hips back (Salazar has been critical of the cant of Ritzenhein’s pelvis). It’s not until S3 that Ritzenhein achieves the falling stance (Pose Method) – prior to that he’s just “catching” his body up to the point of ground support on his left foot. Now here’s the moment of choice: Ritzenhein can either allow forward momentum to continue or he can interrupt it. He doesn’t and his body drifts vertically. In S4 you can see that he’s making the common mistake of “toeing-off,” trying to propel himself through the multi-joint extension of his ankle, knee and hips. It is misunderstood that the toe-off is necessary to create propulsive force (“sprinter’s slap” as Salazar has interpreted). Obviously, with Ritzenhein’s bodyweight ahead of the pivot point of his left foot (S3), the push-off phase in S4 redundant. Subsequently, this makes his right leg extend, right foot dorsiflex and over supinate and left leg recover late (S5-S6). He remains a heel-striker.
The domino effect from improperly landing is rehashed over 26,000 steps in a marathon. What’s not understood in Ritzenhein’s circle of influence can be summed up by a quote I have of Dr. Nicholas Romanov’s:
Nature doesn’t care about fitness or high performance. We are equal facing gravity. It is about how much gravity we want to consume, both in time and space. This is what develops our body and mind. Injuries occur from losing the fight with gravity.