One Step at a Time

In Features, Non-fiction on April 2, 2013 at 5:21 pm

Written by Alex Ashley

It’s no secret that Father Time takes his toll on the human body: Hair begins to gray, the finish begins to fade, and before long the person you’re looking at in the mirror every morning seems less and less like the you you’d expect, and more like an inauspicious reminder of the passage of time; the body begins reflecting years of use.

“They start to feel the ravages of time,” says Dr. PZ Pierce, M.D. of Spokane’s Champion Sports Medicine.  Of the baby boomer generation, he continues: “They start to realize that to preserve their fitness and lifestyle, they need to exercise more, that they have to work a little bit harder to stay fit than they used to, and that unfortunately it doesn’t come as naturally anymore.”

Dr. Pierce is also the Medical Director for the Rock and Roll Marathon Series, which hosts 28 races nationally, interacting with a lot of athletes.  And he makes an interesting observation: He is seeing more older runners.

“Fortunately,” he says, “we are seeing a lot of the baby boomer generation getting more and more active.  We see a lot of athletes and runners in the 55+ age group, which is very good.  They tend to be more set in life, perhaps even retired, and they have earned the time to exercise and be more physically active.” But as with any kind of athletic activity, complications can arise that will test the integrity of your body’s biomechanics.  What can you do?


     Gait analysis is a useful tool in the arsenal of a doctor for assessing the running style of an athlete, and using that information to diagnose any potential problems with his gait.  Essentially, it is the systematic study of locomotion and body mechanics.  In particular, video gait analysis seems most common: You run on a treadmill, and the doctor films it.  Subsequently, he can review your gait and discern any potential complications that may result.

This is a very practical procedure.

For one thing, it provides a runner with essential information regarding their running style; it studies your hierarchy of movement—your posture and rhythm—and how it affects your technique.  It also studies how your body reacts to the ground while engaging in strenuous physical activity.

“You can also use gait analysis to diagnose a problem with a runner’s style,” says Dr. Pierce.  “Then, you prescribe an intervention to try to fix the problem.  And finally, you quantify it to see if the intervention is having an effect on the issue you are looking at.”

Gait analysis is also an effective diagnostic tool when evaluating a repetitive motion injury, when you want to be able to determine the source.  “If you have an injury, it’s either a training problem, or a biomechanical problem,” states Pierce.  “Often, it is an issue with a runner’s gait that results in injury.  When we see the problem in slow motion using video gait analysis, we can see the precipitating factors that are contributing to the injury.”

Hence, the use of gait analysis is a diagnostic method that is highly relevant to complex gait problems and competitive runners of any age.  But it is also high effective in assisting older runners from, say, the 55-and-over crowd, to become more efficient athletes.

Complications Common in Older Runners

     Aside from the infirmities typical of any competitive athlete, Dr. Pierce says there are four basic physical complications that prove particularly relevant to the performance of baby boomer athletes, and seem to represent a consistent challenge for that age group.

Pronation: The arches of the foot begin to collapse, and roll toward the midline.  As a result, rather than your body weight being evenly distributed across the foot, more pressure is placed on the inside edge of the sole.  It is more commonly a problem with older runners because it is a cumulative effect, but it can cause shin splints, knee and hip pain.

Arthritis: “It is a common misconception that, if you have arthritis in your lower extremities, you shouldn’t exercise,” states Dr. Pierce.  “Clearly, cartilage loves intermittent compression.  It will actually help your arthritis to exercise!”

  Pelvic biomechanical issues: The pelvis is a moveable structure that is very important in the running gait.  As you get older, it tends to lock up, get stiffer and become less pliable.  When it doesn’t move appropriately, it often shortens the stride.  An asymmetrical stride often leads to repetitive motion injuries.

“The three most common things I look at as a doctor,” Pierce informs us, “are pelvic mechanics, stride length and whether or not you excessively pronate.  They probably encompass 80-90% of the injuries we see.”

Thankfully, gait analysis is proving successful in identifying and helping to treat such problems in athletes, one step at a time.

When the Shoe Fits {SIDEBAR}

Whether you’re a competitive athlete or a periodic pavement pounder, happy feet make all the difference

For runners and walkers, selecting athletic shoes is akin to purchasing a house or a car; you’re going to spend a lot of time in them, so you want something you really like. In addition to a

comfortable ride, properly fitting shoes can enhance performance and prevent injuries.

“With age, feet are often ignored, overlooked and basically put through the ringer.  And yet, our feet are really the only part of the entire kinetic chain of our bodies, other than the spine, that is

intended to provide suspension,” says Wade Pannell, owner of Spokane’s Fleet Feet Sports. “If our feet are not properly supported, it can have a negative effect on the entire body.”

Fleet Feet Sports has a unique fit process that takes into consideration the goals and circumstances of each individual—from someone who just wants to run pain free for a few miles a week, to someone who wants to run an Ironman or marathon at age 60.

“The fit process starts with an investigation and measurements of the foot, noting any range of motion issues or instabilities,” says Wade. “There are unique physical complications that a person might have. We look at the overall shape of the foot, and make sure the shoe fits their unique shape. For example, if someone is an excessive pronator, they’ll need more durability on the inside of the shoe, possibly a supportive insole, and so forth.”

Why is this so vital?

“It is very important to have the right shoe,” he continues, “or it can result in all sort of injury or discomfort, including soft tissue and nerve damage. On the other hand, our bones respond to exercise.

They want to be strong if we are using them correctly, because our bodies are built for exercise. Good physical exercise with the right support can relieve and offset all kinds of ailments from diabetes to even osteoporosis.”

Ultimately, Wade says the realm of athletic footwear is the only place where the complicated issues durability and support are truly addressed with stability and motion-control footwear.

“If a person receives an injury as a result of inadequate footwear or support of their feet, they become discouraged and stop the activity altogether; they feel they can’t continue, and so they lose hope. We want to inspire hope.”

And sometimes, all it takes is some forethought in the area of shoe fitting and selection.

Published in Prime magazine, April 2013.

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