The 46th annual running of the Imogene Pass two weeks ago included 30 men and women from Montrose. Along with the other 1,619 who had signed up for it, they all had to train to be running and power hiking non-stop at altitude for several hours.
As with most years for this event, twenty one percent of the registered and paid participants did not show up at the starting line, due to training issues, injuries, or other elements.
While this year’s event had a warm temperature at the starting line in Ouray, rain began to fall ten minutes before the starter’s gun was fired. Luckily, it quit for most of the rest of the morning. While we cannot control the weather, we can control how we use our bodies to perform our best in the challenging breathing conditions at high altitude.
Imogene Pass is over 13,000 feet elevation above sea level. The mining road on the final mile up to the pass is over 20 percent gradient. When one foot is put in front of another on such a climb in the thin air, a few percent greater efficiency in breathing can make a big difference.
To make the most of your lung capacity in such a setting, hold your head and neck at level or higher. This can enable you to more rapidly move the fresh air in and the old air out.
Our magnificently designed cardiovascular systems work best when the spinal column and ribs create full expansion of the chest during each breath. Especially during such a steep climb, we must correct for the tendency to let our shoulders roll forward. Purposefully roll them back, as would an actor who strides onto a stage.
No matter how slow a runner we might be, we are not turtles. So we must not let the head project forward on the neck. Otherwise, the upper back and neck can develop spasm and chronic pain, much as happens when looking down too long at a phone screen in one’s hands.
Some forward trunk lean is appropriate on the uphills, and on a rocky mining road we must visually scan for stable foot placement. The challenge here is to keep our gaze and our carriage ahead but not far forward.
Over the years, many elderly patients have told me that, if they could turn back time, they would stand taller as a young adult, use their full height, and maximize their efforts at good posture. It is easier to develop this habit in our youth, they say, and they are so right.
From the spine outward
Many a runner who completes such an event reports being surprised by how much muscle soreness they experience in their chest muscles and biceps the next day, rather than just in the leg muscles. For our legs to propel us forward and upward, the upper limbs must provide equal and opposite force. Each arm swings to counter the torque on the trunk and abdominal muscles.
How about the lower limbs? Whether during the short stride going uphill or the longer stride downhill, we want to minimize the shock being transmitted up through our lower back’s discs.
Even the hips and knees are grateful when the shock of each footfall is properly dampened by the arch in the foot. A smooth transfer of ground-impact forces from arch to ankle to calf to thigh muscles occurs when each joint is moving to full range and with proper timing of its firing.
Open the chest muscles
Two simple and effective stretches we can use at home will counteract both the cyclist’s tendency to forward rolled shoulders, as well as that of the fatigued runner.
The Skydiver Stretch (also called the Door-frame Stretch), is done by standing in an open door-frame. Rest your forearms on the frame, allow yourself to lean in to it, and just hang there. The chest muscles and also the underside muscles of the shoulder blades will benefit and will thank you for it.
The second stretch has a similar effect. Sit on a large exercise ball, keeping both feet flat on the floor. Walk your feet away from the ball until your upper back is resting on it. Gently glide from side to side while your arms hang away from the body, allowing the chest muscles to ease open.
Of the 581 women and 666 men who finished this year’s Imogene Pass Run, many are likely to return again next year, more experienced at knowing what to expect.
Using the above techniques, you may find that your next run or ride feels a bit more coordinated and less tense, even at altitude. As in a fine race car, the systems making up our structural framework are quite interdependent.
Soon it will be time for steep trails in thin air amongst the reds and golds of autumn, before we trade our shoes for skis.
John T. Unger is a Diplomate of the American Chiropractic Board of Sports Physicians, with over twenty-five years of practice in Montrose. He is grateful for the high altitude trails at the headwaters of the Uncompahgre River. Ideas for future columns are welcomed at sportsdocunger.com.