Photo by Jay Paul
VCU Exercise Physiology Research Lab director Lee Franco monitors graduate student Rachel Verghis
Bringing runners and running scientists together has always been Blaise Williams’ dream. And when he moved to Richmond from North Carolina in August 2013, the biomechanics specialist and physical therapist grabbed his opportunity to do just that.
An assistant professor at VCU, Williams launched the VCU Run Lab in January 2014 with three main goals: to contribute to running research, to serve the Richmond running community and to provide an educational lab for kinesiology students. This fall, the lab is teaming up with Lee Franco, director of VCU’s Exercise Physiology Research Laboratory, and the Shady Grove YMCA to study how different training programs can enhance runners’ performance and curtail injuries. “I wake up every day and [ask myself], ‘How can we keep people on the road and keep them healthy?’ ” Williams says. “And this study goes a long way to try to answer that.”
That’s where coach Dan Blankenship comes in. Widely known as “Coach Dan,” Blankenship serves on the YMCA Board of Directors and is a USA Track and Field certified level 1 and level 2 endurance coach, and a certified personal trainer. As head coach of the Shady Grove YMCA’s first half-marathon training team, which began training July 19 to prepare runners for this month’s American Family Fitness Half Marathan, connected with the Anthem Richmond Marathon, he helped encourage 38 of his 100 training-team members to join VCU Run Lab’s collaborative study.
“I wanted to do something different,” says Blankenship, who reached out to Williams on a running website. “Blaise [Williams] was looking for some runners, and we thought, ‘Well, let’s put a program together.’ ”
The study will compare runners in two training programs to see how hitting the ground with their feet less often affects performance and injuries. The study asks all participants to exercise five days a week. Half of the group trains in a traditional format, running all five days. The other 19 participants run just three days a week. On their other two active days, participants exercise with circuit training, cycling, swimming and other non-foot-striking workouts.
Trish Farrar, a first-time half-marathoner, is one of those running three days a week for the study, and heard about the program through Blankenship. “I think it’s awesome what Dan’s trying to do for the community from the fitness perspective,” she says. “And the fact that VCU Run Lab is participating and giving back to the community — I can’t say enough.”
Before beginning to train, study participants visited the VCU Run Lab for baseline testing, including a 1-mile run, a 3-D biomechanical gait analysis, a physical musculoskeletal assessment and a maximal oxygen consumption test. According to Williams, this is the most comprehensive testing of average runners that has ever been done. The prospective approach of the testing is also rare — meaning that few studies have been able to gather baseline running data and look at performance change over time, specifically over a training period.
Based on the collected data, each study participant received an individualized goal chart. Unlike most training programs that simply prescribe runs of increasing lengths, Williams and Blankenship added time goals for each training run. For those with a competitive personality like Farrar’s, these prediction times provided additional motivation. “It’s really exciting to have benchmarks to try to reach,” she says.
As the race approaches, study participants will return to the lab for another round of tests to measure their progress. Williams, Franco and a team of doctoral and undergraduate students will also analyze training and injury data from daily surveys and each runner’s new half-marathon time to determine which training methods enhance performance and minimize injuries.
Williams’ efforts to earn grants have made Richmond one of only a few places where state-of-the-art equipment like that in the Run Lab is available to the general public. “Just having this as a resource available to the runners of Richmond is a phenomenal thing,” he says.
Blankenship credits the Monument Avenue 10K, which he says has made running more accessible and more popular, for the surge in Richmond’s running population over the past decade. If it meets its goal, the VCU Run Lab should have some additional recommendations to enable more people — of all abilities — to run, and run more healthily.