Cooler runnings

A Calgary team’s cutting-edge 3-D modelling system diagnoses, treats, and even predicts runners’ injuries

Cooler Running

Photograph by Chris Bolin

It was as if my body’s warranty had run out. I turned 40, and my left knee called it quits. After 25 years of running, I couldn’t do it anymore. Full stop. I’d had grand hopes this year of running a 10K race in under 40 minutes. I’d even coined a slogan: “Over 40, under 40!” But I couldn’t even walk or climb stairs without feeling pitchforks of pain.

My family doctor and physiotherapist agreed on the most likely culprit: patellofemoral pain syndrome—pain under the kneecap, a common running injury. For many it becomes recurrent, and some shelve their running shoes for good. By chance I discovered the existence of a cutting-edge 3-D biomechanical test for runners from a research team at the University of Calgary. Their 3-D gait analysis takes some of the guesswork out of injury treatment and prevention. It’s akin to having X-ray eyes to see what’s happening when your foot hits the pavement.

The test involves placing close to 40 markers at exact points on a runner’s feet, lower and upper legs, and pelvis. The subject walks and runs on a treadmill while three video cameras collect pictures—about 200 images a second. The gait information is then modelled into a three-dimensional stick figure. It’s the same motion-capture technology used to create the Lord of the Rings movies, says Reed Ferber, director of the University of Calgary’s Running Injury Clinic.

The clinic’s computer software then compares the findings to its massive database of more than 600 runners and 20,000 footfalls. “Most biomechanical studies involve between 20 and 40 runners,” says Ferber. “We have hundreds and hundreds of runners, so what you do with that data is up to the imagination.” The depth of the database—the world’s largest—means the technology could eventually be used to predict injuries, as well as help runners heal and become faster.

The Calgary team’s published research shows they can treat 92 per cent of runners’ injuries—without repeat visits. Basically, you take the gait test, the computer generates a detailed report comparing your results to the larger database, and you receive your homework from a physiotherapist. If you do your exercises, you could see injury resolution in just four to six weeks. In the past, 3-D gait technology was used only in research settings on hand-picked patients—elite runners chosen for research purposes. Ferber says he observed colleagues in the United States test just one runner per month. He was determined to bring this technology to the people. “This is all about healthy aging,” says Ferber, 40, a self-confessed plodder himself. “I really just want to keep people running and active until they’re 100. So that’s why you have to provide this to every single runner out there.”

In Canada, the $200 cost for 3-D gait analysis includes an hour-long biomechanical test, a report that provides an overall injury risk score, and graphs showing how variables such as knee flexion and peak pronation compare with typical values. The test is available in Calgary, Banff, Alta., Edmonton, Lethbridge, Alta., Nelson, B.C., and—happily for me—my hometown of Victoria. By this time next year, Ferber expects it to be available in private physiotherapy clinics across the country.

My test took place at Parkway Physiotherapy in nearby Langford. Clusters of markers were placed at precise points on my lower body. As I ran and walked in special neutral shoes, cameras captured my every move, and I felt like the Bionic Woman. The results brought me back to Earth. My injury risk score left a lot of room for improvement.

I’d chosen to undergo the more comprehensive full gait analysis, which, at $400, includes biomechanical testing plus three additional domains: strength, alignment and flexibility. The report, ready on the spot, suggested I have a muscle imbalance in one leg, and that, like many runners, I need to work on strengthening my hips. Apparently knee pain often isn’t really about the knee. Two common culprits in runners are weak hips and tight iliotibial bands—long flat tendons that run down the outer thigh. The prescription: a resistance band, to be used with three strengthening exercises and four stretches.

Marathoner Brenda Wesa, 47, has sought advice from Ferber to help resolve her previous problems with plantar fasciitis, and just underwent the 3-D assessment for the first time. She was injury-free, but wanted to improve her speed and running economy. The test showed weakness in her lateral hamstring and internal hip rotators. She’s doing her recommended exercises and going full speed ahead for her next marathon in May. “It makes the future brighter, that’s for sure, when you realize you can keep running and doing what you enjoy,” says the Calgarian. “I hope to run forever.”

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