I live down the street from one of the many crossfit studios that are springing up like autumn mushrooms here in Seattle. I’m not a fan of crossfit. In this regard, I agree with Steve Magness’s strong criticism of the crossfit movement. Nevertheless, I do have profound respect for Kelly Starrett, a doctor of physical therapy and self-professed avid runner, who is at the core of the crossfit movement. This review is about two of his books: Becoming a Supple Leopard and Ready to Run, which I think belong on every endurance athlete’s bookshelf.
Kelly Starrett is a contradiction. While he is a self-professed running junkie with at least one ultra under his belt, he hardly looks the role. He looks more like a guy you would call to help you move your refrigerator than to be part of your Ragnar team. Chalk that muscular appearance up to crossfit, which is Kelly’s other obsession. But he isn’t a run-of-the-mill crossfit guy– he is a genius of human movement armed with a degree as a doctor of physical therapy (so it would be a mistake to not include Kelly as part of your Ragnar team– not only can he run, but he can fix your body as you’re driving to the next checkpoint). His education and experience also enables him to understand the way the body is supposed to move in a way that most crossfit instructors will never understand.
With an instructor like Kelly, I’d feel perfectly safe doing Tabata sets of box jumps and flipping truck tires. I wouldn’t trust anyone else. Becoming a Supple Leopard, however, isn’t about such random, intense movements. Instead, the first half of Becoming a Supple Leopard is all about doing more basic movements– like squats and lunges– with the precision that a physical therapist wants to see in movements.
While that’s very useful information (particularly for us endurance athletes as we move indoors to the gym for the winter), it’s the second half of Becoming a Supple Leopard that really makes the book worth much more than the $35 price tag on Amazon. In the second half of the book, Kelly focuses on improving mobility and recovery in different locations of your body– and some of his techniques were completely new to me. For instance, by putting a heavy elastic band in my hip joint, I learned that I could make a basic hip flexor stretch 10x more effective than a regular hip flexor stretch. If you’re addicted to your foam roller, Kelly can show you different techniques that greatly targets and improves its effectiveness. You’ll also learn about a bunch of techniques, such as “flossing” with a lacrosse ball or using a “voodoo” band that may make you want to pitch out your old foam roller. These techniques can help you nail your injuries and hot spots as they flare up. And you’ll get better range of motion in critical areas like your hip flexors. Not every technique may become part of your arsenal, but even if you learn just one new and effective tool for your fitness and recovery arsenal, you’ll be glad you bought the book.
A few days ago, I blogged about Jay Dicharry’s book, Anatomy for Runners. Without hesitation, I maintain that Anatomy for Runners is the first book for improving your running that I would recommend. A fairly close second place, however, goes to Kelly Starrett’s Ready to Run. Following Jay’s lead of using a 10-test exam for your basic running strength, Kelly uses a 12-test exam (Kelly calls them “standards” instead of “tests”). While there are some basic overlaps (notably, hip extension– the cost of our modern sitting lifestyle), I think the two books have a different focus. First, Jay’s book is intended to make you a better, healthier runner, while Kelly’s book is intended to make you a better, healthier barefoot runner.
I’m a big fan of the barefoot/minimalist shoe movement, but I think the pendulum swung way too far in that direction too quickly. Thankfully, it is now swinging back. Sure, barefoot/minimalist running is the way that nature intended us to run. But nature also intended us to run on nice soft surfaces and to not work in the modern office setting where we sit for eight hours a day. Even if we could move to the Kalihari Desert and live like our ancestors, we might not be able to undo all the changes that were implanted in us since our early childhood (when most of our nervous system’s hardwiring was cast). To the extent that we can recapture some of our natural barefoot/minimalist running ability, I’m all for it– I just don’t think it’s reasonable to expect that the everyone (or even the majority of people in any modern western country) to be able to run that way. Some people will be able to completely readapt to barefoot/minimalist running while many others won’t be so lucky. But even for those who can readapt, it should be a very gradual process. Based on this thinking, I believe that the second standard (wear flat shoes) in Kelly’s Ready to Run might be a bit aggressive for some runners to immediately dive into. Some might only be able to do it for a few hours a day or a few days a week. Other than that, I’m fully onboard with Kelly’s twelve standards.
A second difference in focus between Jay’s book and Kelly’s book is the scope of what each book tries to correct. Jay’s book focuses on tests and corrective exercises/stretches. By contrast, some of Kelly’s standards aren’t really tests but instead are lifestyle changes (e.g. wear compression and hydrate properly). To me, the most valuable lifestyle change is Kelly’s first standard (neutral feet), which together with the corrective bracing exercise described in the same chapter, is already changing the way that I stand (opening up my hip flexors and activating my glutes) and walk (reducing my pronation). This difference in scope between the two books makes it relatively easy to combine Jay’s ten tests and Kelly’s twelve standards together into a superset that will definitely make you into a healthier, faster athlete.
Kelly’s Ready to Run includes many of the mobility strategies found in Becoming a Supple Leopard. I think of Becoming a Supple Leopard as a reference work on improving mobility in any of the dozens of key joints and muscles that make up the human body. As such, it can be a little confusing about where to begin. By contrast, Ready to Run, boils those countless routines down to the essential ones you’ll need for improving a specific running standard (e.g. hip flexion) in exactly the way to meet that standard. But you’ll still want Becoming a Supple Leopard around if the routines in Ready to Run don’t work for you. Plus, if you also bike and swim (or do anything other than run), Becoming a Supple Leopard will help you address your other problem areas in your body.
My chiropractor smiled when I told her that I was reading one of Kelly Starrett’s books and said, “he’s a knucklehead– but he’s a brilliant knucklehead.” She knew him from the humorous mobility.wod videos that he posts. But she also knew that those videos were brilliant and really contributing a lot to the field of injury prevention, strengthening, and recovery.
Kelly’s books are written with the same irreverent style as his videos. Don’t expect a boring read. Instead, expect a fair amount of hyperbole. For instance, adding an elastic band to Kelly’s famous “couch stretch” isn’t described by a bland word like “effective”– instead, it is the “DEFCON 5 version” of a couch stretch. Similarly, an “olympic wall squat” isn’t just a “highly effective way of stretching your hip adductors.” Instead, it is described as “like being in the sickest, deepest, most upright squat position possible.” It’s almost as if you were reading the journals of a brilliant doctor who wanted to be Eric Cartman on South Park.
I frankly love Kelly’s style. But even if you are a bit more prudish, do yourself a favor and check out these books. If you’re a serious athlete, I think you’ll want them on your bookshelf even if you have the prudish nature of a nun in a catechism class. Each time I flip through his books, I smile, think of my chiropractor, and find something new that usually translates into more strength and better range of motion.
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