Book review: Jay Dicharry, "Anatomy for Runners"

Anatomy for Runners: Unlocking Your Athletic Potential for Health, Speed, and Injury Prevention by Jay Dicharry, MPT, SCS (Skyhorse, 2012, $14.95) by Ian Landau

Running seems so simple. It’s the reason many people take up the sport in the first place. All you need is some shoes (or not, if that’s your thing) and you’re ready to hit the road.

Ian LandauWell, if running is so simple, why do as many as 75 percent of runners get injured each year? What are so many of us doing wrong?

Many of these injuries, as several readers can attest, don’t stem from falls or twisting an ankle, but from “overuse injuries” (e.g., IT band syndrome, plantar fasciitis, runner’s knee). But according to physical therapist Jay Dicharry, the real root of the problem often isn’t strictly overuse – it’s being underprepared.

“If you really are seeking to improve your performance and send running injuries walking the other direction,” writes Dicharry, “your body needs to be able to run as a mobile, strong, and stable spring.” In other words, the act of running may indeed be simple, but it also involves significant impact on your body's pulleys and levers, muscles, tendons, and other parts (or, in fancier terms, your “kinematic chain”). And, as Dicharry says, “High forces through unstable levers lead to breakdown.” You don't want this. Instead, Dicharry's goal throughout Anatomy for Runners is for you to understand exactly what makes up your body's “spring,” and then how to go about building it up given your unique biomechanical strengths and weaknesses.

First on the agenda is understanding “the mechanical nature of the body’s tissues,” and how these tissues are affected by the forces and stresses applied by running. It may sound boring, but Dicharry is a good teacher who makes the subject accessible. If you’re the type who likes to understand what’s happening under the hood when you run, you’ll undoubtedly know more than your primary care doc does about these matters after you finish the first chapters.

Anatomy for Runners coverDo you have to get the importance of collagen fiber alignment or the effects of neural stiffness in muscles to know how to work on your body’s weak links? No, not really. But understanding these details helps explain why those links are weak to begin with.

After the baby biomechanics lesson, Dicharry tackles soft tissue mobility (how much mobility you need, what limits it, and what to do about it), and neuromuscular strength (making muscles smarter to improve coordination and generate more force) before delving into two hot-button issues: footwear and running gait.

Dicharry points out that feet don't work in isolation, but are one important facet of the kinematic chain. To work at their best, feet need feedback – something thick, cushioned running shoes don't allow. “You want enough [shoe] to protect the foot and let it work,” Dicharry writes. “Anything else is a waste of your hard-earned dollars.” But given that most of us have been in feedback-deadening, cramped shoes forever, his goal isn't for us to quit them cold turkey; Dicharry recommends taking the time to “improve the function of your foot no matter what is laced on your foot.”

As for running gait, Dicharry writes that “good running form should play by a few rules.” These will be familiar to anyone who's read an article about running form lately: foremost, that your body must be stable to maximize the free elastic energy created as you run. If your hips are weak, for example, your muscles must compensate for the lost energy. (Get stable!) Over-striding causes an inefficient up and down motion, again causing muscles to work harder. And then there's cadence. While Dicharry says there is no magic number, he does subscribe to the idea that most runners should be at around 180 steps per minute.

Finally, Dicharry gets to the really good stuff: at-home mobility and stability assessments, and recommended exercises - with helpful pictures - to strengthen your weak parts. This isn’t simply about doing a ton of core workouts or adding a stretching routine to your training. In fact, doing these wrong could result in negative changes in your gait, leading to injury (as one of Dicharry's clients learned). The book teaches how to do a set of basic exercises - toe yoga, anyone? - with correct form and then offers more advanced ones to further develop your mobile, strong, and stable spring.

I read Anatomy for Runners back in December, and have referred back to it often over the past few months. I’ve added the basic exercises to my training program and I definitely feel that they have helped me build a more stable, stronger body and stay injury-free.

Ian Landau is a writer and editor with extensive experience in both print and online media. His book, The Hypochondriac’s Handbook: Syndromes, Diseases, and Ailments that Probably Should Have Killed You By Now, was published in 2010 by Skyhorse Publishing.

Keith Williams