You’re probably doing it wrong: running lessons from Jean Dion

You’re probably doing it wrong: running lessons from Jean Dion

LiQM_Mar2017_CoverThis article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Life in Québec Magazine.

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By Jacquelyn Smith

It was a bitingly cold evening when I set out for the Coin des Coureurs on Avenue Cartier in Québec City, for Jean Dion’s weekly course on running technique.

I probably should have jogged, already being equipped for the occasion, but I thought I might overheat.

Dion has been running since he was a child. A 1,500-metre runner in his youth, he stopped running for many years because of the demands that his medical career placed on his time. He says he returned to running for pleasure about seven years ago. After sustaining several injuries, the emergency room physician, who works with trauma specialists at Québec City’s Hôpital de l’Enfant-Jésus, began researching how injuries could be prevented through better running technique.

“I had a colleague who was a specialist in sports medicine,” Dion says. “At some point, he changed specialties. I asked him why, and he said 60 to 80 per cent of the people who came into his clinic were runners. Running isn’t the most high-impact sport, but runners hurt themselves often and don’t let themselves heal, so they come back often. My colleague said he would rather work in psychiatry than with runners.”

“I love running, and everyone who runs is really motivated and encouraging,” Dion says. “But no one likes to warm up. No one wants to work on their technique. I once ran a clinic where I forced everyone to run slowly, with good technique, for three kilometres. At the third kilometre, everyone took off. They couldn’t handle running slow.”

That evening on Avenue Cartier, there were four of us nestled in the corner with our neon tights and woolly sweaters, listening to Dion’s spirited presentation. Dion’s passion for running is palpable. When I arrive, a little late, he is in the midst of covering two major goals of better technique: saving energy and preventing injury.

Good posture is essential. During his presentation, Dion demonstrates proper jogging form: back straight, shoulders back and head held high. He then contrasts good posture with bad: shoulders hunched, head down. A regal, upright posture while running helps oxygen flow in and out of the lungs. A slouch, as Dion demonstrates, inhibits oxygen flow by cramming the lungs and crowding the diaphragm. Keeping the head held high also helps runners see where they are going and avoid obstacles, thus preventing injury.

Good posture is also important for speed and fitness. “We run with our bodies, not with our legs,” he says. According to the coach, 15 to 20 per cent of our abdominal muscles are engaged when we run.

While demonstrating good posture, Dion declares, “Heels are useless,” changing his step running on the spot to slam down on his heels. His hips jut out and his movement loses grace – the opposite of what happens when you do the same thing in high heels. Running on the balls of your feet, as he demonstrates, works with the body’s natural mechanics to move with more grace and ease – again, the opposite of what happens when you do the same in high heels.

Here, Dion continues discussing the importance of a good stride : moving horizontally, not vertically. Many runners use their stride to leap, instead of extending their stride. This results in a harsher impact on the body. If you jump in the air, as your body hits the ground, it absorbs on average 540 pounds (245 kilos) of impact, Dion explains. To avoid jumping and encourage a wider stride, Dion suggests trying to keep your feet behind you. Imagine pedalling a foot scooter, the way you would reach your foot out far to use the ground as leverage to move forward. This is essentially the technique that will reduce the body’s contact with the ground while running.

The ABCS

After explaining why it might be necessary to tweak our running technique and touching on general ideas of how to do so, Dion introduces the ABCS of running. The ABCS are an acronym representing Agility, Balance, Co-ordination and Speed, with three principal postures to keep in mind: 1) lifting the knees to a 90-degree angle, 2) scratching the ground with the foot so as to accelerate and not jump, and 3) lifting the heels high so as to touch the buttocks.

After the presentation, it was time to practice.

A good warmup was essential, as Dion had said. Like many runners, I almost never warm up, a habit I should really change, according to Dion. I was also underdressed for the chilly minus-20-degree evening. Anticipating that we would be running, I wore my usual winter running gear, but since we were working on technique and not actually running, I was cold.

Starting by walking half a block, then running another half-block, using stoplights and streetlights as markers, we headed towards the Plains of Abraham.

“I like running here,” said Dion, who lives in Beauport. “The snow is always removed for the tourists, so you can actually use the sidewalks.”

Once we arrive at the Plains’ Joan of Arc Garden, we start practicing our technique.

Step one: 90-degree angles. Dion lines us up in a row. We walk, lifting our knees high, conscious of the straightness of our thighs, keeping our knees squared and our ankles squared. Lifting our arms up, elbows also squared at right angles, we march down Avenue Wilfrid-Laurier like a tiny army of tin men. “If we only had hearts,” I say to one of the other participants, who stares at me blankly.

Step two: scratching the ground. Turning around from where we ended our angular march, we take methodical scratches at the ground, extending our legs with our knees bent at a 90-degree angle. We paw the ground and sweep our legs back, looking like a group of trained ponies.

Step three: the backwards butt-kick. Walking, kicking our own asses. Enough said.

Step four: bringing it all together. Standing in a row, we start off marching, then scratching, then butt-kicking. At first, attempting to co-ordinate our strides by bringing the 90-degree angles and the scratching together, we look like a line of bungling Nazi recruits, goose-stepping out of sync.

“Now add in the C,” instructs Dion, meaning the co-ordination, the butt-kicking. Our goose-stepping is transformed into a slow-motion, exaggerated “running man” dance.

“We’re putting on quite the show for the neighbours,” one of the participants exclaims, which breaks our concentration and gives us a good laugh.

It’s cold. Dion decides we’ve worked enough, and we start to run back.

Going through the techniques in slow motion and building my muscle memory, I find myself running faster and with much more ease. Keeping the ABCS in mind while running and staying aware of my posture really makes a difference – I feel myself gliding through the air. It’s liberating and exciting. This is why people get addicted to running – and also why they don’t want to stop once they get injured!

Dion adds that it’s important to go through the motions slowly at first, to make sure your posture is correct and your technique is good, before integrating the new skills into your running. There are many videos on the technique, but it is highly recommended to take a course or practice with a partner, because it’s difficult to observe your own posture and see what you’re doing wrong by yourself.

After the class, I ask Dion for other tips to get motivated and stay that way.

  • Warm up. Start by alternating running and walking for about 15 minutes. If you only have 20 minutes to run, then warm up for 15 minutes. It will drastically reduce the risk of injury.
  • It always sucks to start. The first few minutes of running are uncomfortable, always, for everyone. It gets better, it always does.
  • Just run for 10 minutes. If you are feeling lazy, if it’s too cold, or whatever, just run for 10 minutes. If it doesn’t get better after 10 minutes, you can stop, but it always gets better.
  • Sexy swag. All you really need to run is shoes, and some people say it’s better to run without shoes – although probably not in minus-20-degree weather. Flashy kit is not essential to running. However, if you have some really awesome running tights that make you feel like a badass when you hit the pavement, or a watch that makes you feel like the bionic man, get the swag that makes you want to get up and run. It’s not necessary for the actual running, but it cultivates the desire to run.
  • Stick to your routine. If you do have to take it easy because of an injury, it is important to keep your routine. If you run for 30 minutes on the Plains every day at 7:30 p.m. and you hurt yourself, start walking on the Plains every day at 7:30 instead.

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About Author

Jacquelyn Smith

Jacquelyn Smith was born and raised in Hamilton. She holds a Bachelor’s Degree in International Developement from the University of Guelph and is currently studying Law at Université Laval. Jacquelyn Smith lives in Quebec City.

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