Discovering "The Cool Impossible" with Eric Orton

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

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

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

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

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

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

Trying Out Orton’s Techniques

Side Lift Position on the Slant Board

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

Knees to chest on the exercise ball
(my back should probably be straighter)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Return to Boston?

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

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

Bare Foot Reflections on "Born to Run" by Christopher McDougall

After thirty years of running, I’ve discovered plenty of people who have a hard time understanding why I find it so enjoyable. Maybe this skepticism isn’t too difficult to understand, since running is basically a continuous, repetitive motion which in the short term leads to shortness of breath, muscle soreness, and makes one smell rather nasty. Maybe I should simply be more tolerant of well intentioned, curious questions I get about running that seem motivated by a barely concealed incredulousness that someone could actually enjoy it, while simultaneously trying to unlock dark, elusive running secrets. While my mind registers snide answers to the usual questions like “What electrolytic rehydration drink do you use?” (“Water”), or “What advice do you have about running gadgets?” (“Throw them away”), and “What do you do when it rains?” (“I get wet”), to the ever popular, “Don’t you get bored running?” (“No, am I missing something?”), my rational side generally shapes these answers into something more diplomatic, unless I happen to be in a very bad, or very good mood.

In recently months, I found myself being asked “What do you think about barefoot running?”, so it seemed time to read the book often cited as a catalyst to this recent movement, “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. And while much to my dismay, this book did not inspire any smart-ass answers to questions about barefoot running, it was a fascinating read, weaving a lot of interesting research about running as it told an intriguing story about McDougall arranging an ultramarathon super-race between an elusive Indian tribe in Mexico and quirky menagerie of American endurance athletes.

The book itself started with McDougall asking himself a simple question, “Why does my foot hurt?”. The search for the answer lead him to the barren Copper Canyons of Mexico hunting for the elusive Tarahumara Indians, a tribe where members run hundreds of miles in rugged terrain and sun drenched conditions, fueled by a corn beer they brew, making them the most hard core beer runners on the planet. McDougall begins to investigate the history and secrets of the shadowy group, who display amazing feats of running endurance wearing light weight sandals, instead of modern running shoes.

McDougall finds plenty of biomechanical research to suggest modern running shoes have been a lot of the cause of running injuries, rather than the prevention. Extra cushiony shoes actually require more force to push off the ground with, forcing runners to modify their natural running gait to a more inefficient heel-toe stride, causing injuries as a result. At one point McDougall writes “running shoes may be the most destructive force to ever hit the human foot”, and he gives plenty of space in the book for an ultramarathoner known as Barefoot Ted, who’s running endurance is only exceeded by his tenacity to preach for hours on the virtues of running barefoot to anyone with the strength to listen to him. It’s this part of the book that he helped spark a bit of a barefoot running revolution, where barefoot running advocates claim we can break the shackles of running injuries and big nasty shoe companies, by simply taking off our running shoes, run barefoot, and reach a certain running nirvana.

The problem I have with these barefoot running advocates is that they take some perfectly good research and drive it right off a cliff that flies in the face of some actual historical facts about barefoot runners. For example, barefoot running advocates often mention that Ethiopian Abebe Bikila won the 1960 Olympic Marathon while running barefoot. I find it both highly amusing and highly suspicious that barefoot running advocates conveniently don’t mention Abebe Bikila came back four years later to win the 1964 Olympic Marathon wearing shoes on his feet. (In fact, Bikila decided to run the 1960 Marathon in his bare feet because the only available shoes for him didn’t fit.) We often hear so much about African children running miles to and from school each day in their bare feet, and indeed, this is probably a major reason why these African children grow up to be world class runners. What we don’t hear is that once these African children reach a certain level of running success, they start putting on running shoes and reach even greater heights. Now I ask you: Why do these runners, who fully appreciate the apparent advantages of running barefoot, choose to put on shoes once they have the opportunity to do so and continue to run even faster, rather than continue to run in their bare feet? Barefoot running advocates have absolutely no answer to this inconvenient question.

But McDougall makes a rather convincing case that with running shoes, less is often more. I never cease to be amazed of the performances of athletes in the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who ran in flimsy slipper-like shoes. And over time, I’ve found that the best running shoes are the stripped down models, with less overall cushioning. I considered running in lighter and thinner soled racing flats, but found they simply don’t provide enough support, and my legs feel pretty beat up if I wear them for too long. Understanding that running without shoes is less than a hindrance one might think, simply taking off your shoes can expose you to more injuries, and it is interesting to note that at the end of the book, Barefoot Ted nurses sore, bandaged feet after the end of the big ultramarathon showdown, while the rest of the athletes, even those that raced in lightweight sandals, were relatively injury free. Sure, the running shoe companies would love to sell everyone their high-end shoes with overhyped and overpriced gadgets, (as if that were a shocking revelation), but the main thing to take away from “Born to Run” is that simple running shoes are the best shoes.

I also found McDougall’s writing on benefits running form to be some most valuable information on running I’ve ever read. From the various passages on running form McDougall wrote, I’ve modified my running form to have a slight forward lean, with the ball of my foot landing directly below the hips, and my arms swinging either forward or backward without any wasteful side-to- side motion. Running with this form was a little awkward at first, creating the sensation of a continuous fall, with each foot plant catching me from landing smack on my face. But over time, it became natural and lead to an overall faster running pace, and less wear and tear on the body.

But perhaps the most notable chapter in the book describes research by University of Utah evolutionary biologist David Carrier and Dennis Bramble, who teamed up with Harvard evolutionary anthropologist Dan Lieberman, to discover the big evolutionary advantage early Homo sapiens had over Neanderthals because Homo sapiens were better adapted to distance running. It took South African Louis Lienberg, who spent a few years living with Kalahari Desert bushmen and joining them in hunts as they chased antelope until the tired animal collapsed from exhaustion after 3-5 hours. These hunts are a more efficient means of hunting than using crude arrows and other weapons available when both Homo sapiens and Neanderthals roamed the earth. So while Neanderthals had a number of physiological advantages over Homo sapiens, their inability to run down prey in packs is cited as a major reason why the Neanderthals eventually vanished from the face of the earth.

Which explains why the odd, modern day tribe of runners continue their strange habit. We’re only human.