Integrating Three-dimensional Movement into Two-dimensional Running

Curls and tucks on Pulley Tower.

Curls and tucks on Pulley Tower.

“Move, move! Stay light on your feet!” My father’s exhortations while we played tennis (he taught, I learned) during the summers of my college years are etched in my mind, his voice too cheerful for the 6:00 a.m. sessions, my frustration at missing lobbed balls evident. My tennis days were mostly practice, a time to be with Dad without competition or spectators, never expecting to be more than a casual player.

Today, I am a runner, sometimes moving with grace and ease, other times injured and side-lined, still other times, diligently reworking the mechanics of my body to allow me to continue this sport that I love so much.

I’ve spent more time during the past six years recovering from injuries (and never entirely) than actually running. Visits to academic sports medicine doctors, physical therapists, massage therapists, acupuncturists, and chiropractors are too numerous to count. Pilates sessions, swimming, bicycling, hiking, all alternative forms of exercise, all types of movement other than running, filled my calendar. Yet running is the movement that I most enjoy and have gone to great lengths to do. This spring, I decided to formally engage a running form coach to determine what, if anything, I needed to do to break the cycle of too many off days, weeks and months from running, and to gain a consistency that has been missing for too long. 

The coach captured my running form on videotape during our first session. Good news first: strong core seemed apparent (thank you, some of the tedious exercises worked!). But my body was “stiff,” my foot strikes heavy, my lateral movement, especially in my pelvic area, almost non-existent. Oh, Dad, I thought, I am still not light on my feet!

 And this is when I was introduced to GYROTONIC® training, a three-dimensional movement system taught on unique weight and pulley-based equipment. GYROTONIC® is a method of movement designed to lengthen and strengthen muscles while improving circulation, coordination, and joint mobility. The movements are made up of repeating circular, spiraling (from the tips of our toes to the top of our head, our natural movement should be to spiral), and three-dimensional flows on various pieces of equipment—or on the floor—that we coordinate with breathing.

Think about running or swimming or bicycling: all are basically two-dimensional movements forward in space and time. But our bodies are three-dimensional, bones, nerves, muscles, cardiovascular systems seeking balance and alignment. It makes sense, then, that we need to engage all of the body’s systems in a non-impactful way to decompress the spine, to fire the nerves and muscles, to reteach ourselves how to move naturally. This, then, should help prevent injuries, make us stronger, suppler, and more flexible—less stiff, in my case, or while running, dancing, playing tennis (Andy Murray), you pick your movement of choice. People of all ages, abilities, and levels, including many with physical disabilities such as scoliosis and Parkinson’s, can use this form of exercise.

"The Curtsy" stretching hamstrings and pelvic twist.

"The Curtsy" stretching hamstrings and pelvic twist.

I spoke with Jennifer DePalo-Peterson, a former principal with the Martha Graham Dance Company, who owns two GYROTONIC® studies, 212 GYROTONIC® in New York City and Gyrotonic Bodhi in Boulder, where I take lessons. She emphasizes the organize approach to movement, incorporating and integrating health and movement to elongate, stabilize and rejuvenate the mind and body. The essence of the “movement in motion” is using stabilization through oppositional forces to “dig deep” to connect muscle to bone, to decompress the spine, to stimulate organs and systems, to energize the nervous system. Think of being a marionette with an invisible string pulling one’s spine straight from your feet to the top of your head, opening up so many pathways and systems. Sit and stand tall, well-balanced, all systems synchronized.

Dominika Borovansky Gaines, a master trainer at Phoenix GYROTONIC® describes how the system can work to promote health and longevity:

 1.     Emphasize stability through contrast to decompress the spine and joints to counteract the effects of gravity;

2.     Mobilize the spine to stimulate the nervous system;

3.     Use gentle spiral motions to keep the fascia pliable;

4.     Move and stretch the entire body to stimulate the cardiovascular system;

5.     Stimulate the vestibular system to enhance balance;

6.     Coordinate breathing patterns to increase oxygen levels throughout the body; and

7.     Use safe, fluid movements to maintain and often enhance range of motion in joints.

As for the impact on my running? I have a history of misalignment of my pelvic bones, tightness in the hip flexors, a tendency for my left knee to turn inward, and a “stiff” torso. Over the past three months, I’ve increased my rotational ability, worked on spiraling from my feet to my head, opened my chest and shoulders, strengthened my abdominal muscles (lots of tucks and curls), and overall become more flexible (or maybe flexible as I wasn’t very supple when I started lessons). I savor the positive energy of the studio, men and women moving their bodies in circular, three-dimensional forms, reaching, stretching, and smiling. I often feel taller, lighter, looser, a “lightness of being” to paraphrase, somewhat incorrectly, from Milan Kundera’s novel.

The Arch, using deep abdominal muscles to lift body.

The Arch, using deep abdominal muscles to lift body.

Is this form of movement for you? Do you have access to GYROTONIC® trainers (certified by Juliu Horvath, the founder of this technique) in your area? Do you engage in two-dimensional physical activities? Do you want to capture the incredible feeling of freeing your body, becoming stronger, and developing long, lean muscles? Give it a try. You may be surprised as you walk out of the studio after even one session having that lightness of being, too.