Eight-time Winter Olympic speed-skating medalist Apolo Ohno has shown his athletic mastery on ice, then on the wooden dance floor when he won the 2007 “Dancing with the Stars” competition with Julianne Hough. In just a few months, it will once again be showtime for Apolo at the 2011 New York City Marathon. For months, he’s been training hard with a mix of long runs and speedwork to get in race shape, but as he acknowledged in an interview with Sports Illustrated last February, “People always say to me, you’re an Olympic athlete, you’re fit already…In some ways, yes, but it’s different. My longest race is 2 1/2 minutes and my shortest race is 40 seconds, so training for those is a little bit different. I’m not going to jump out of the starting gates like I’m doing the 500 (meters).”
Apolo’s short, heavily muscled body was well-suited for speed on the ice in amazing bursts of power and strength. But the marathon will demand the employment of an entirely different physical and mental mindset. So we asked the Gait Guys to look at some video footage of Apolo running. Their initial assessment focused on Apolo’s hips. Apolo had great hip extension when he was a skater. “Understanding the difference between hip flexion and hip extension is important to any runner. When you are standing upright and bring your thigh up, like to step over something, or when initiating a step, this is called flexion. You need at least 10 degrees of hip flexion to walk normally, and slightly more to run. If you bring your hip backward, so your thigh goes toward your buttocks, this is called extension. Many people lack the 30 degrees of hip extension necessary to walk or run normally, and make up for the range of motion by extending their lower back, shortening their stride, overusing their calves or all three.”
So how exactly do the hip flexors relate to the hip extensors? Gait Guys explain: “It’s about reciprocal inhibition. The concept, though observed in the nineteenth century, was not fully understood and accepted until it earned a Nobel prize for its creditor, Sir Charles Sherrington, in 1932. Simply put, when a muscle contracts, its antagonist is neurologically inhibited. So when your hip flexor contracts, your glute is inhibited; this limits hip extension. This holds true whether you actively contract the muscle or if the muscle is irritated (causing contraction). Remember that the glutes are one of our largest and shall we say, greatest assets (no pun intended) for providing hip extension. They are often underutilized and the more readily accessible hamstrings are usually substituted.”
Make sure to watch the video with the Gait Guys’ commentary on the multi-talented Apolo. (Betcha didn’t know he was an all-state swim champion in the breaststroke when he was 13 years old?) Also, go here for Dr. Mark Cucuzzella’s tips on how to improve hip flexibility and joint mobility.