Waterskiing With Jim Walmsley

Stay the CourseThere’s been a great deal of discussion about Jim Walmsley’s performance at Western States–and his overall dominance in ultrarunning in 2016. That he veered off course at Western States, precluding what seemed to be a near-definitive course-record performance, is almost overshadowed by how he ran: with a degree of dominance and tenacity (if not, at times, impatience) that has seldom been seen at the storied event.

It was, indeed, a near-transcendent performance. For me it was transcendent, but for a different reason: how he ran–in a literal, biomechanical sense–transcended conventional long-ultramarathon performance.

I first took notice of Walmsley’s running stride at the 2016 Lake Sonoma 50 Mile. In once again lowering the course record, he did what his predecessors–Alex Varner and Zach Miller–did: essentially bounding, if not sprinting, up the hills.

This wasn’t the first time I’d seen such running. The top runners at last years US Mountain Running Championships at Mount Bachelor, Oregon demonstrated the same form: high-knee-ed, hip-dominant sprint strides.

When I saw the same stride, yet again, as Walmsley dominated the first 92 miles of Western States, I pushed my own awe and envy aside, and began to think, How is this possible?

A typical response to seeing Walmsley run is that of, “Look how fast he is running… And he still looks good!”

Jim Walmsley - 2016 Western States 100 social media

Dominic Grossman’s Facebook update about Walmsley streaking through Foresthill. Image is a screenshot of Dominic Grossman’s Facebook page.

My perspective: “He is running that fast because he looks that good!”

Efficient running generates–and perpetuates–speed, and that’s what Walmsley did. But more than that, how he runs is actually easier–faster, stronger, more sustainable, and less stressful–than if he ran slower!

Faster is Easier: The Waterskiing Analogy

When running, the strongest, most efficient muscle groups are the gluteals and abdominals. The former drive the push-off and the latter the forward drive. When fully accessed, a couple interesting things occur:

  • The more forward hip drive, the stronger rearward push-off, and vice versa (a form of reciprocal facilitation).
  • The more the hips and abs are used, the less strain occurs in the rest of the leg–namely the quads.

Therefore, the implication is, any time a runner can consistently and powerfully access the glutes and abs, they can:

  • Go faster.
  • Go farther with less cumulative leg stress.

However, using the hips and core to a high degree isn’t easy. It takes a high degree of strength and athleticism. But once you do? It just may be easier to run that fast.

The best analogy I could come up with is something like waterskiing. At slow speeds, the skier stays deep, slow, and with heavy strain in the water. But when the boater applies a finite amount of additional throttle, the skier pops up to the water surface, and off he goes. Once above water, the engine torque required to maintain the skier on the surface is actually less (per unit speed) than to continue to bog through the deep water.

The same is true with running:

  • When ‘bogging along slowly,’ the runner fails to access the glutes and abs, and instead uses predominantly the lesser muscle groups: the quads and calves to push.
  • This technique is less energy taxing, but significantly slower.
  • Moreover, it is doubly straining to the legs. The quads and calves–which ideally function as stabilizers in efficient running–get overworked in propulsion. Then, because of the vital role that the hips and glutes play in efficiency, a quad-and-calf-driven stride often results in significant over-stride landing stress, thrashing a quickly fatiguing leg.

But, if a runner can consistently access the hips and glutes–in essence, ‘stay on the water surface,’ like Walmsley did (and both Varner and Miller did at Sonoma, before him), the result is a devastating combination of maximum velocity, minimal stress, and record-setting performances.

More on this concept and what it looks like can be found in this video:

So what can the rest of us–the elites chasing Walmsley, and the rest of the pack–do to ‘get above the water?’

This is a foundation of endurance training: practice quicker, over a short distance, what you wish to perform over the long haul!

  • ‘Run Like Jim.’ When out on the trails–in racing and in training–do your best Walmsley impression: look fast! Drive the knee higher upward, generate a strong hip push-off behind… even if you’re running slowly! For only a slightly greater energy investment, you will ‘get you to the water’s surface’–with enhanced speed, efficiency, and quad preservation.

We might not be able to run as fast as Jim Walmsley, but we should at least try!

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • What parts of your running stride do you think are efficient, and which elements are inefficient?
  • When your running mechanics fail during a long race like a 100 miler, what fails first? Your calves? Your quads? Something different?
Joe Uhan

is a physical therapist, coach, and ultrarunner in Eugene, Oregon. He is a Minnesota native and has been a competitive runner for over 20 years. He has a Master's Degree in Kinesiology, a Doctorate in Physical Therapy, and is a USATF Level II Certified Coach. Joe ran his first ultra at Autumn Leaves 50 Mile in October 2010, was 4th place at the 2015 USATF 100K Trail Championships (and 3rd in 2012), second at the 2014 Waldo 100K, and finished M9 at the 2012 Western States 100. Joe owns and operates Uhan Performance Physiotherapy in Eugene, Oregon, and offers online coaching and running analysis at uhanperformance.com.