Why does Alberto Salazar sound like a TI Coach?
by Terry Laughlin

Posted on November 21st, 2010
If you’re interested in the link between athletic form and athletic performance, you’ll thoroughly enjoy The Perfect Stride: Can Alberto Salazar straighten out American distance running from the Nov. 2 New Yorker.

Mindful Marathon Coach Alberto Salazar

The article profiles American marathoner Dathan Ritzenhein and his coach Alberto Salazar, possibly the greatest American marathoner ever. It reminded me, in eloquence and interest, of  this article on Roger Federer by the late, great David Foster Wallace.
There are some uncanny similarities between Salazar’s thoughts about running technique and TI thoughts about swimming technique. Not just that both are  nontraditional and bring a level of granular attention to details we think are consequential, but few others notice. Even more striking is how similar they sound, while describing two radically different activities. Two examples:
Salazar criticized Ritzenhein for his tendency to run with his thumbs pointing up, rather than curled over in a fist. According to Salazar, this strained the forearm, and thus, through a long chain of physiological connections, the leg muscles.
Lesson 2 of the Self-Coached Workshop teaches that relaxing, not stiffening, the hands on extension and catch are critical to balance. Tense hands scoop up causing legs to sink. Relaxed hand arc down, causing legs to lift. No one else recognizes that; indeed swim coaches and instructors have almost universally said you should stiffen the hand to hold water. (Even that isn’t so: A relaxed hand with loosely-separated fingers can achieve equal purchase to a hand held stiffly in a paddle shape.)

Relaxed hand with loosely-separated fingers

And this:
Scrutinizing Bekele’s body on the screen, Salazar noticed that he didn’t arc his back leg up slowly between strides but instead retracted it sharply, like a piston. “While all these other runners had long, trailing legs, his foot was coming right up to his butt,” Salazar recalled. “I thought, Is that just coincidence? Or could that perhaps be part of why he’s so good?”
Salazar called retired sprinter Michael Johnson, a four-time Olympic gold medalist who now heads the Michael Johnson Performance Center, in Dallas. “I told him, ‘Hey, Michael, I’m watching this race . . . ’ And when he heard what I was saying he laughed. He said, ‘Alberto, that’s Sprint 101 biomechanics!’ ”
According to Johnson, sprinters retract their trailing leg quickly for two reasons: it generates power, and it means that the foot has a shorter distance to travel before it arrives back in position for another stride.
Lesson 7 of Self-Coached Workshop teaches almost exactly the same thing for the freestyle arm recovery that Salazar is teaching for the leg recovery: Travel from exit to entry via a laser-line – both as close to the surface and as straight a path as possible. Everyone else both lifts the hand excessively and returns to the front via a circular (wide-swinging) path. Not only does it waste time, but it destablizes the body and diverts momentum/energy.

Rehearsing a straight-line recovery

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7 Responses to “Why does Alberto Salazar sound like a TI Coach?”

  1. Bill Garelick says:

    Hi Terry,

    It sounds like you have a whole new appreciation for running and what beautiful running is! I remember you saying one time that swimming is an art and running is…well….a sport.

    Watching elite African runners run, is to me, as beautiful and mesmerizing as beautiful freestyle swimming. Just as there are so many little (but important) parts to swimming that makes it fluid, smooth and efficient, the same applies to running or any other activity. To me, running is nothing but dancing. Each type of dance has it’s own unique style, posture, foot placement, rhythm and requires a tremendous amount of concentration. When a dance is performed well, it is pleasing to watch and looks easy, although there was quite a bit of time invested practicing (programing the nervous system to ingrain it). Running is a dance that consists absolute perfect posturing, two very important steps that need to be perfected and rhythm / cadence of 176 to 180 foot strikes per minute. When performed by a highly skilled runner, it is the equivalent to TI Swimming by a highly skilled swimmer.

    Alberto Salazar is a breath of fresh air to endurance sports! :-)

    Thank you for sharing this article!

    Fellow TI Coach,

    Bill Garelick

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  2. James says:

    Here’s an incredible technical article on Federer’s footwork
    that goes into detail of his “Kinetic Chain.”

    http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/08/31/sports/tennis/20090831-roger-graphic.html

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  3. James, thanks for sharing that link. It inspires me to look into how we can produce similar animations for swimming.

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  4. Bill My main appreciation about this article was Alberto’s singularity as a former great athlete and present great coach. Few athletes who were as successful as he seem to be able to successfully adapt to the very different demands of coaching, partly because it’s a rare athlete who will be able to match the success you had, leading to frustration. Partly because many who try coaching feel that what worked best for them should work well for everyone. Salazar has been unsparingly self-critical about his own career.
    Second, he’s also flexible-yet-methodical in his coaching belief system. Willing to recognize when one approach isn’t working and adapt to another, quickly becoming incredibly perceptive as he does.
    As for aesthetic appreciation of the grace of a great runner, a big yes to that.

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  5. Jared Hawes says:

    Occasionally our regular masters coach will be out of town and asks me to get out f the water and fill in for him in running the class. Today was one of those days, and I think by the end of our practice some of our group were getting a little tired of how often I asked them to relax their hands downward, allow their fingers to separate and pick their recovering arms up earlier to help keep it in line with their direction of travel while moving forward. However, one who is fairly new to the class called me over to say how much smoother, faster and in control of his stroke he felt when he really paid attention to it.

    Thanks for the post Terry. Interesting read, although I must admit I’m still of the opinion that ‘running is for criminals’ and will stick with swimming for my exercise.

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  6. Jared
    That kind of feedback is affirming, even exciting, to get. Have you given any thought to becoming a TI Coach?

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  7. Jared Hawes says:

    Terry,

    Yes I have. I should probably attend some classes myself first. One of these days I’ll fit it in. I do enjoy my sporadic “coaching” opportunities whenever they happen, it is fun to help someone improve.

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