“Do you hear that?” asks Pasquale Manocchia, his face contorting into an ugly wince. It’s as if he’s just heard fingernails screeching across a chalkboard. We’re seated in his office high above a 14,000-squarefoot gym called La Palestra—what the ancient Greeks and Romans called gymnasiums—where my attention strays between the pair of Chinese brass knuckles with one-inch spikes sitting on his desk and other rare fitness artifacts scattered across the glass-encased room: old wooden dumbbells, some fencing gear, Indian clubs, a pair of ancient hiking boots. The gym is located in an old ballroom of the former Hotel des Artistes on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, and the office has views of the people working out below us between Roman columns.
I give Manocchia a blank stare. All I hear is music and the faint thump thump thump of someone running, out of sight, on a treadmill. “No one should ever be striking the ground that hard,” says Manocchia, shaking his head. “There’s no question that more people are running than ever before, and more people are getting injured than ever before.”
While that may strike you as a touch dramatic, it’s actually not: In fact, each year, up to 80% of America’s 53 million runners get injured. That’s more than 42 million injured runners last year, which is an even more staggering number when you consider that the figure doesn’t include athletes who get hurt from running while playing other sports. And by injuries, we’re talking about everything from broken bones to insidious, slow-forming conditions like runner’s knee, Achilles tendinitis, plantar fasciitis, shin splints, iliotibial band syndrome, and stress fractures—the kind of painful stuff that drives runners mad and sends them screaming for the bike saddle in warmer months.
And these aren’t just hardcore dudes who crank out Tough Mudders and Warrior Dashes, either. We’re talking about weekend joggers, too. For the record: Last year, roughly 20 million people participated in road races, and adventure-race participation is up 211% over the last five years. It all begs the question: What are so many people doing so wrong?
For starters, conventional wisdom says that running isn’t something that requires coaching, and that the best way to improve as a runner is to simply run more. And we’re continually recommended any number of remedies for common ailments—usually in the form of a new pair of specialized shoes.
Manocchia emphatically disagrees. The gym owner, a former college hockey player who roomed with JFK Jr. at Brown University, is a disciple of Nicholas Romanov, Ph.D., a career coach for the Russian Olympic team whose unique thoughts about running, long overlooked on the margins of the sport, are finally going mainstream. In short: They firmly believe that running is a practiced skill, not a natural motion. And though some people are born with a talent for running, most are not. Which means that if you haven’t suffered through rigorous coaching on your technique, it’s likely you’re going about it all wrong.
It turns out that I fit squarely in that camp. Manocchia walks me down to the gym floor and puts me through a series of exercises. First, he instructs me to “move.” So I take a step forward, and before I make it two feet he says, “Stop! Did you see what you just did?” Huh? “Move again,” he says. I lift my leg. “Stop! Did you see that?” I draw a blank, and he explains that each time I take a step, I’m bracing my forward leg like a brake. To me I’m just walking, but to Manocchia my gait looks like a beat-up Oldsmobile clunking down the road. He says that I’m sending excessive force up the leg with each step, which will eventually lead to any number of long-term injuries.
He then asks me to write down five adjectives to describe how I feel about running. I explain that I like running while playing tennis but I hate running for running’s sake.
“Just write down the words,” he says. I scribble down “boring,” “redundant,” “jarring,” “unfun,” and “useless.”
“Now write down five words you associate with an elite runner blasting through the park,” he says.
I write down “grace,” “efficiency,” “stamina,” “relaxed,” and “fast.”
Manocchia points at my two lists: “It’s about getting from there to there.”
Yeah, this isn’t going to be so easy after all.