In a new book by the running coach from Born To Run, Erik Orton divulges his training philosophy and techniques
By Derrick Peterman
Eric Orton knows a thing or two about helping runners accomplish big goals. He transformed
author Christopher McDougall from an injury prone runner who could only handle runs of a
few miles into an ultra-marathoner.
Born to Run, McDougall’s book about his journey in the land of the reclusive Tarahumara Indians, became the bible of the minimalist running movement. Declaring, “Running shoes may be the most destructive force ever to 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.
Fans of the book will remember McDougall’s running coach Eric Orton, an iconoclast who brought a heavy dose of sports psychology to his methods. For this reason, I was eager to get my hands on a copy of Orton’s new book, The Cool Impossible. While McDougall’s Born To Run was a very entertaining story for me, it was not a “how-to” manual on running long distances.
By contrast, The Cool Impossible is densely packed with the nuts and bolts of training. When I first sat down to read it, I was hoping to learn exactly how Orton led McDougall to great heights in running.
In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll say right off the bat that Orton’s The Cool Impossible did not fully deliver the goods in this regard. In fact, I’ll even go so far as to say I disagree with some of
his training methods. But one of the strengths of the book is that there are pearls of training
wisdom for just about every runner.
Daydreaming and Creating
Just what does the title The Cool Impossible mean? 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 focuses on achieving this in running.
What Orton calls for is not so much a rethinking of what runners wear on their feet, but how runners run. Considering that swimmers, tennis players, golfers and even sprinters spend much of their training time perfecting their technique; this may not seem particularly radical. In fact, running form has been historically ignored on the assumption it’s just what comes to us naturally. Since each of our bodies are different, we naturally assume different running gaits based on our structural differences without considering how our individual running form creates inefficiencies 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.”
Despite all the groovy New Age rhetoric on things like “awareness” and “flow”, Orton’s program is really all about hard work, dedication and applied biomechanical science. He outlines a number of running drills and strengthening exercises designed to build the legs and the core to help runners achieve better form.
These exercises 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 called a slant board. Ski poles, walking sticks or even cut off broomsticks are also used to help keep your balance for some of these exercises.
Trying Out Orton’s Techniques
I was eager to try out Orton’s techniques myself and started working a few 20-30 minute workout sessions into my training schedule. My early attempts resulted in a lot of flopping and stumbling around in my living room. I will 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, and especially in the ankles and calves.
The inflatable exercise ball is used to develop muscles in the core by balancing on top while assuming different positions. Plenty of times, I lost control on the exercise ball and rolled into a giggling heap on the floor. 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.”
I saw the results in my running within a week. I found myself zipping right through patches of uneven ground I used to struggle through. 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 sets 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. Also, I wasn’t lifting my knees high enough and
so consciously worked on bringing higher knee action to my form.
Orton talks about visualizing 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 that 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 of running faster not by working the legs harder, but by using the mind to guide the body to make subtle changes in form.
Orton’s form and strengthening exercises are intended to supplement a nine-week “Strategic Running Foundation” training plan. This plan is individualized to each runner’s ability level using a 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.
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 are some good workouts buried in there. It’s too bad Orton didn’t present his Strategic Running Foundation plan in a more straightforward, simplified and accessible manner.
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 foods that dominate our grocery store shelves. This 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 your hand. 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 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 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, and awareness.”
I’m not planning a 20-day sugar detox or writing a nutritional mission statement. On the other hand, while I’ve heard everything Orton’s said before, 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 checkout 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.
After finishing The Cool Impossible, I found myself thinking about things I wanted to accomplish in running. The last marathon I completed was the 1994 Boston Marathon and I’ve always wanted to go back and run Boston again.
I’ve spent a lot of effort correcting the imbalances and weakness that have 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 or 12 miles. I discovered last fall that 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 experience. Like many first timers I was nervous and uptight, and I ended up going out too fast and then 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 thought about, but it never seemed realistic, given all the injury problems I’ve had. After reading The Cool Impossible, Boston doesn’t seem so far away anymore.