Most runners don’t put much thought into their form, or the mechanics of what they are doing. Maybe you have a coach who provides advice, or you pick up tidbits from friends, blogs, or magazines. Pete Larson (aka Oblinkin, aka Runblogger) is unusual in his ability to combine his career as a professor teaching Biology, Anatomy, and Physiology with his personal passion for running. As such, he takes a unique perspective on such topics as shoe selection, foot strike, stride, and running form, and his blog is essential reading for anyone serious about their running. In fact, Pete’s work is so respected that he has even been honored with a guest post appearing on the Runner’s World Other Voices blog – An Evolutionary Runner. With a great personality and wonderful expanding family to boot, it has been a pleasure having the opportunity to get to know more about Pete – so I hope you enjoy doing so too.
Predawn Runner: Despite your obvious passion for running, you have mentioned that you actually came to the sport, at least in earnest, a bit later in life. Can you briefly explain your own history with the sport?
Pete Larson: I’ve been a runner off and on throughout my life, but prior to 3 years ago it was mostly something I did just as exercise or as preparation for another sport. I played soccer and tennis in high school (neither very well!), and I vividly remember having to pass the 3 mile run in less than 21 minutes in order to make the varsity soccer team in my senior year – it was a struggle to make it through, but it was a very memorable experience. College saw me put on some weight (freshman 15 plus some) since I pretty much stopped exercising, but I started hitting the road and gym again in graduate school in Ohio (Ohio University), and I managed to drop most of the excess pounds.
The birth of my son, which coincided with the stress of starting my job as a college professor, once again knocked out my motivation to exercise, and by early 2007 I was pushing 190 lbs and in probably the worst physical condition of my life. I was ashamed of how badly I’d let myself go, so I decided to start running. The rest, as they say, is history.
PR: What drew you originally to the field of biology?
PL: I’ve always been interested in biology. Some of my fondest memories from my childhood are of catching critters in the brook (that’s a creek or stream to you Midwesterners and Southerners) across the street from my house. I had an aptitude for the subject in high school, and I entered college with the desire to ultimately become a doctor (like almost every other aspiring biology major).
I spent the summer after my sophomore year studying ecology in Australia, and that made me realize that there was more to biology than just pre-med material, and I decided to get some research experience with a faculty member in the Biology Department. I spent the next summer studying tadpole anatomy of all things, and met my wife in the process (we worked in the lab together that summer – how romantic!). The easiest path to graduate school was to keep doing the frog research, so I went to Ohio and got my Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, with a focus on evolutionary anatomy and biomechanics. I actually did my dissertation work in an animal locomotion lab, and was able to watch all kinds of animals running along on treadmills – I wasn’t into locomotion at the time, but in retrospect I wish I had paid more attention given my current interests.
I left Ohio to take a job at a small college in New Hampshire (Saint Anselm College), where I still work today teaching courses in Human Anatomy and Physiology, Developmental Biology, Comparative Anatomy, and Exercise Physiology. I’m much more a teacher than a researcher these days, though I have done OK with the latter for someone at a small college. My joy is being in the classroom and interacting with students, and being able to educate people about science is what makes me tick.
PR: What has motivated you to start shifting more and more of your focus to exercise physiology and the biomechanics of running?
PL: My professional research interests began migrating away from frogs a little over a year ago. I started my running blog (Runblogger) and began reading all manner of stuff about running. I discovered a really interesting series of papers about the evolution of running in humans by Daniel Lieberman from Harvard University. This stuff aligned directly with both my personal interest in running and my professional interests in anatomy and evolution, and I wrote a blog post on the subject just prior to the release of the book Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall.
Reading Born to Run got me thinking about evolution, footwear, and running biomechanics, and last year I had a group of students do a study on footstrike patterns in marathon runners. One of my goals this summer and fall is to get that published, which is a monumental challenge given that I have a ton of background literature reading to do – switching fields in academic science is difficult for this reason. I’m now fascinated by the biomechanics of running, and the interaction between footwear and running gait. I’ve also developed something of a shoe addiction in the process…
This past spring I taught Exercise Physiology for the first time. My reason for developing the class was that it had never been offered before at our college, and I thought that there might be some general interest in the subject since we have a very active student body. The class went very well, and I plan to now teach it every spring. I had several students in the class say that they planned to start running more after taking it, and that’s the best possible feedback that I could get! For anyone interested in hearing about some of what I do in this class, I’ve posted the audio from several of my lectures on my Runblogger Podcast.
PR: How has your research and knowledge of biomechanics impacted your own approach to running?
PL: I’d like to say that it has helped me a lot, but the reality is that I’m new to running research and am still trying to figure things out. However, obtaining a high-speed video camera for my student’s research project has allowed me to learn a lot about my running gait, and by experimenting on myself I have confirmed a lot of what I have read about regarding how gait changes when we take our shoes off. That has played a big role in my decision to start wearing more minimalist footwear like racing flats and the Vibram Fivefingers. All of my shoes now have relatively low heels and weigh in at under 10 oz.
I haven’t run a marathon since teaching Exercise Physiology in the spring, so my hope is that knowledge gained in that process will help me to perform better in my next big race. I’m desperately wanting a BQ, and I need all the help I can get!
PR: Runblogger has become one of the most successful blogs in a pretty crowded niche. What motivated you to start blogging, and to what do you attribute its success?
PL: Tough question! I started the blog on a total whim at about the same time I joined Facebook, Twitter and dailymile, and it was originally a place where I wrote about all kinds of stuff, from posts about my kids, to music reviews, to stories about my running. It’s hard for me to believe now, but I didn’t do any form of on-line social networking prior to January of 2009. The running-related stuff that I was posting started to take off a bit, and as my interest in running grew I renamed the blog to Runblogger in mid-2009 and narrowed the focus to running related material only.
Quite honestly, the success of the blog has totally shocked me, and I never expected the growth that I have seen. I essentially went from writing posts that were read only by myself and maybe my parents, to now having about 30,000 visitors per month. I did a ton of research at the outset on how to develop a successful blog, read some books and listened to lots of podcasts on the subject, and implemented much of what I learned. My nature is to jump into any new endeavor with full force, and I like to be as prepared as possible when doing so. Ultimately, success in blogging comes down to patience and perseverance. You need to be willing to post often, and to make time to do so (I work a lot at night after the rest of the family is asleep). This latter bit is critical to having your posts eventually rank highly in search engines like Google, to which I attribute much of my success in bringing in new readers. Meeting tons of new people has been the greatest benefit of starting the blog.
One of the other surprising things that started to happen as Runblogger grew was that companies started to send me gear to review. I’ll never forget receiving a giant box just prior to last Christmas and opening it up to find a ton of sample gear, including a couple of pairs of shoes. I have now worked with many companies to review products, and I try to do so as thoroughly and honestly as I can. My gear review posts have done very well, and they generate a considerable amount of the traffic that I currently get.
PR: You have finished five marathons. What kind of results have you seen, and do you experiment with your own approaches to training (you know, the whole “scientific method” thing) or do you stay pretty consistent in your programs?
PL: My training is a total mishmash of doing what I can, when I can. Having a growing family means that I have to grab runs whenever I can fit them in, so following a formal training plan is just not going to work. I generally shoot for a mileage goal each week, but don’t stress too much if I don’t hit it (I may be lying a bit with that last statement).
I do like to experiment with pacing and terrain, and I’ve found that doing speedwork provides a great deal of benefit to me. I think my body is better suited to the 5K than the marathon, but I just can’t seem to shake my fascination with the latter. I had a breakthrough marathon in Disney in January, and it was the first in which I never broke down and walked due to fatigue (I almost always walk quickly through water stops to stay hydrated). I’m pretty sure the improvement was due to smarter pacing, and I hope to apply the lessons learned in that race to my Fall marathons and see where it takes me (hopefully to Boston, but we’ll see how the training goes with the baby in the house).
Currently, I’ve been reading a ton about running form and have been experimenting a lot with my stride and footstrike. I like to try new ideas out, so I’ve been running a lot in Vibram Fivefingers lately, and have even done a few runs fully barefoot. I’d like to see if I can move away from a mild heel strike to a more midfoot/forefoot type of gait, and see what type of benefit, if any, it might bring to my running. I’ve never really been injured, and therefore some might think I’m crazy to mess with what has been working for me, but my scientific curiosity leads me to constantly experiment on myself. I have a lot of fun trying out new shoes and new techniques.
PR: What running accomplishments are you most proud of?
PL: I’m proud of the marathon that I ran in Disney in January 2010 – that was a high for me in many ways. However, moreso than any race result, I’m simply proud that I started running and have kept it up. I’m a big believer that we humans are meant to be active, and every time that I lace up my shoes and hit the road is a moment to be proud of. I also enjoyed organizing a Relay for Life event at my college this past Spring. I managed to put together a team of students and we ran a relay around our college green for 12 hours straight while raising a bit of money for the American Cancer Society. I did over 28 miles in the form of laps around the green, and it felt great to see some of my students out there racking up the longest runs of their lives to that point.
PR: With an upcoming sabbatical but, at the same time, a recently expanded family, how do you see your running goals and training adjusting?
PL: My wife and I have been very good at making time for each other to pursue our respective fitness habits. She runs shorter distances and does Yoga, whereas I’m pretty much just a higher mileage runner. I take the kids while she does her thing, and she takes them so I can do mine. Works out perfectly for us, and we’ve managed to stay pretty active even with the baby in the house.
My summer and upcoming sabbatical allow me to spend a lot of time at home with my family, which is one of the great things about my job. I can do a lot of my non-teaching work from home, which right now consists mostly of reading journal articles and working on a few publications, so I expect that things will continue pretty much as they are now until I get back in the classroom in January.
PR: What is your long-term vision for both your career and running?
PL: Professionally, my main goal is to continue to pursue my interests in running research. I’ll never be a big-time researcher, nor do I have any desire to be one, but I’d like to contribute a bit here and there if I can. I also am interested in trying to make blogging a more accepted practice in academics. I see a lot of value in blogging as both an educational tool and as a means for dissemination of research, and plan to keep chugging along on that front.
As far as running goes, my main long term goals are to get to Boston and to run an Ultra. Not sure when Boston will happen, but it looks like my first Ultra will come in 2011.
PR: And finally, where does the “Oblinkin” handle come from? Forgive me if I sometimes don’t have a penchant for the obvious.
PL: Ahh, that’s an easy one. It’s a silly word my daughter made up when she was 3 that is a mashup of the name Abraham Lincoln. That’s the origin of this picture of me from dailymile.