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Running is our birthright—Kelly Starrett’s working to restore it.
If you’ve ever researched how to loosen up your tight hips so you can move better, then you’ve more than likely heard of Dr. Kelly Starrett. He could easily be named America’s Movement Coach. Starrett is a coach, physical therapist and author of three best-selling books, including “Becoming a Supple Leopard” (2nd Edition, Victory Belt Publishing, 2015); “Ready to Run” (Victory Belt Publishing, 2014), which revolutionized the conversation about running; and “Deskbound” (Victory Belt Publishing, 2016), a call to get us out of our chairs—and quickly.
Starrett also created MobilityWOD, also known as MWOD, a blog that’s revolutionized how athletes think about human movement and athletic performance. With his wife and business partner Juliet Starrett—a former elite rower and founder of award-winning nonprofits focused on kids and movement—Starrett has been unlocking the movement potential of top celebrities, sports teams and thought leaders from around the world. Together, “K-Star” and “J-Star,” as they affectionately refer to one another, are disrupting our understanding of what our bodies can do and making solutions for self-care available to every single person. They recently sat down with 24Life to discuss crafting a physical practice, running and owning one’s full potential.
24Life: What excites you about what you do?
Kelly Starrett (K-Star): I truly believe that all human beings should be able to perform basic maintenance on themselves. And I show up every day figuring out how I can make a difference and share that message with everyone I can reach. My philosophy is that we want to train our bodies to perform but also to last. If we’re not still exercising at age 100, we’ve been doing it all wrong.
Juliet Starrett (J-Star): One of the important pieces is that people see training as a real distinct component to a physical practice. What we’re trying to always remind people is, “Hey. How do you fit in and take care of this body in a 24-hour cycle?” and training hard, and training right, or being in a class, or learning a skill is part of a component to that physical practice, but so is your sleep. We can’t really even have a conversation about losing weight or having more energy if you’re being sleep-deprived and you’re not sleeping.
24Life: Tell us what you mean by launching a physical practice.
K-Star: A physical practice is the 24-hour cycle in which we live. It’s figuring out some morning routines that help you jump-start your day, and part of that is a self-check about whether you’ve gotten enough rest, whether you’re ready to go and ready to train. So for me, it’s not what sport I’m doing or how well I’m doing athletically. It’s sort of, “How many vegetables can I eat in a day? And can I get some little practices in on the sidelines of working so that I feel good and I’m productive?” Because for me, ultimately, that’s why I train and try to take care of my health. When I do and when I’m sleeping enough, and training, and taking care of my body, and eating some vegetables, I feel good and I’m more productive at work. It’s really about a 24-hour cycle.
I think sometimes we don’t realize that all the additional stresses—my child is sick, I have a deadline at work, I’ve got to call my mom, I’ve got to interact with my mother-in-law—all those are additional real-world stressors. And that is equivalent to your body as a heavy load on the barbell. Or a treadmill ramped up at 10. And what we’re not looking at is sort of what total stressors are on the human being.
J-Star: When we look at the physical practice in this 24-hour cycle, we’re always asking, “Well, what can I control?” So I know that before my kids get up, I can get a lot done. I can eat something, right? The second my kids wake up and we start rolling, it’s a lot harder to control my day. Once I am at the work, man, it may get away from me. So what I try to do then is say, “What are the places where I can always put some positive input back into the system?” Well, I can drink water during the day. … I can walk for 15 minutes during lunch. It’s easy to control that. … And so even if the day gets away from us, then we know then we’ve gotten some input.
24Life: Is this why you get so obsessed with technique and the mechanics?
K-Star: When we talk about position [mechanics], what we’re really thinking of is, “Hey, the human body, look, hasn’t really evolved much in the last 10,000 years.” I’m a little fatter, your femur is a little bit longer, but we look really the same.
When we start with the assumption that the human body is designed to last 110 years … your knees are designed to go that long … if you’ve worn a hole in your kneecap and you’re 22 years old, there’s something wrong with your mechanics. There’s something wrong with your lifestyle, and I think that’s what we want people to understand is that, “Hey, this body is robust and amazing, and it will put up with your crap for a long time until it won’t.”
24Life: So pain is not normal? Is this what you teach in MobilityWOD?
K-Star: No, it’s not. But pain is a part of the normal experience of being a human, so we shouldn’t fear pain. And let me be clear, suffering is not the same thing as pain. If I put you on an exercise bike, you are going to suffer, and it may hurt, but that’s not the same thing as pain. Pain is an excellent diagnostic indicator that something is going on. And there are crazy other pain conditions that are very difficult and need to be managed with a physician.
Chronic pain, it’s a little bit complicated, but common musculoskeletal pain is a nice indicator to tell me that I’m in a bad position, I’m not working efficiently or that my tissues can’t support these good positions. We call those lagging indicators. I move a certain way and then my body swells, I have numbness, tingling or I have pain. All right, those tell me about something after the fact.
What we want to do is stop reacting and move more into this proactive model. Can I identify a better position? Yes. Why is that position better? Because when I put you in that position, you’ll go faster. Your times decrease. Your [strength goes] up. And so we can use pain as a friend to say, “Hey, I’m not running well.”
24Life: What advice can you give the general fitness enthusiast to improve performance?
K-Star: The lessons we learn in the high levels of sport and performance, they have to translate back to the rest of us. So if I’m a busy dad who sits a lot because I travel, don’t eat right and don’t get to sleep, there’s no way I can handle that kind of training volume or that kind of workload without stepwise positioning. So what we want to do is make sure that the average person can benefit, and I mean average. No one is average, but the rest of us can benefit from the best concepts.
We believe that people need to be moving a lot and exercising, and what they actually do doesn’t matter as much to us. I mean, we of course think people should be learning skills and working on their movement and mechanics while they’re exercising. But I mean, at the very basic level, people are thinkers trying to get the message that they need to move more and include training in their life in order to be healthy, and there’s lot of ways to do that now.
J-Star: The idea here is, How do we get them in a ready-state position so they can actually spend those credits on the weekend? Going for a big hike, jumping in a 5K, racing, joining a new club so they’re not wrecked. We talked to so many middle-aged people, like ourselves, who end up doing something on the weekend, like a weekend warrior, and they get injured, blown out or sore.
We’ve been really focused on this sort of no-technology readiness assessment idea. It’s really simple. You wake up in the morning and you ask yourself, “Did I sleep at least seven and half hours? Yes or no,” and then, “How do I feel? What’s my mood on a 1 to 10 scale?” How do we feel? Do we feel like training today? It’s not to say we don’t move: We walk, we walk our kid to school, we still try to take walking meetings at work, but we will not train if we basically fail our no-technology readiness assessment.
24Life: What advice can you give athletes to improve performance?
K-Star: It’s the same advice really for all of us. It’s not enough to train. You have got to think about the full 24-hour cycle, and you have to sleep. You have got to drink enough water. You have got to develop a practice around maintenance of your body. You have got to learn how to move right. Flawed mechanics affects performance. To move forward, we need to deal with positional competencies. This is the true frontier [of better performance].
24Life: Tell us about your recent book “Ready to Run.”
K-Star: This book is a direct answer to the needs of the modern runner. It focuses on the essential standards for preparing your body for a lifetime of top-performance running and takes the conversation beyond what type of shoe you should wear.
Despite the promises of the growing minimalist shoe industry and a rush of new ideas on how to transform running form, more than three out of four runners continue to suffer at least one injury a year. Although we may indeed be born to run, life in the modern world has trashed and undercut the dedicated runner wishing to transform his or her running form. The harsh effects of too much sitting and too much time wearing the wrong shoes has left us shackled to lower-back problems, chronic knee injuries and debilitating foot pain.
24Life: Where to begin, then?
K-Star: When we look at how someone’s moving, it’s easy to really divide that into two big categories right away. One is, Do I have the skill? Do I have the technique? Then the other question is, Do I have just the requisite biomechanics? If I don’t have any ability to move my ankle much because I wear high-heel shoes and I sit and I’m stiff and I sprained my ankle in high school … my ankle can’t work like an ankle.
We want to make part of the training experience the notion that training is also a diagnostic tool, that good strength and conditioning, good fitness programming, exposes you regularly to all the things you should be able to do as a human being. So if you jump into a yoga class over a few weeks, your yoga teacher is going to take you through progressions that expose you to all the shapes that you should be able to be in as a human. And the ones that you find difficult, that’s either a technique problem because you can’t do it or you’ve found a mechanical restriction problem.
And what’s nice is that we know that your movement competency, your biomechanics, is a moving target. Why? Because you have kids, because you commute in a car, because you don’t move very much during the day. … When you finish training for a marathon, you should look like a marathoner. You should not look like a gymnast. And so the idea here is that that strength conditioning practice, that fitness practice, is a chance to be a stimulus for adaptation, a stimulus to become stronger and fitter and more powerful, but it’s also a diagnostic tool.
We are always constantly diagnosing our athletes with movement restrictions. And if they can move, we train. If not, we still protect them in available ranges. We don’t let them pay attention to only what’s going on in the bar or how fast it went. We always are looking at positional competency.
24Life: Any advice for the novice runner, like the beginning fitness enthusiasts?
K-Star: The first thing I would say is, “Hey, look. Let’s set a condition where you’re going to be successful” because already you’re going to get online [and expect to be able to run 12 miles immediately]. What we want to do is dose and response. And what we’ve tried to do in our book “Ready to Run” is lay out some really simple guidelines. For example, one of the easiest ways to make sure you have good, springy calves and healthy feet is to do this very, very technical, complex thing called jumping rope. They don’t cost anything, but show me you can jump on a single foot.
What you’re going to see is that people fry out. Why? Their feet are weak. They don’t have the elasticity. What we want people to do is make this about skill, be patient and enjoy the process. And then put a pin in the map. Don’t run a half marathon. Go run a 5K [first]. How’d that go? Did you feel great? Did you run the next day? Now we can get there.
24Life: You wrote three books, you’ve launched two movements, you own one gym. What’s next?
K-Star: The goal for us is to be able to show up for our kids and be engaged, positive, happy parents and to be able to kick ass in our work environment. And we have a big staff, so we have a lot of people relying on us. So we’re trying to show up at life and feel good and be productive.
J-Star: When I look into the future—we started this organization called StandUpKids where we’re trying to get all public-school kids into standing moving desks, and we think we have about 40,000 kids across the country standing. We’re just sort of ticking away, classroom by classroom. We’re really in this for the long haul. We think it’s a really simple structural change that can happen in schools that can really have a huge benefit for kids long term.
Photo credit: Darren Miller