Two weeks before I was planning to race the Pole Pedal Paddle solo, I was in bed, staring at a bulbous ankle my doctor friend feared broken. “You don’t need to do anything now, but you need an X-ray when you get home,” he told me the night after my botched attempt to swing off a nine-foot beam and dismount onto four-inch heels. (It was Mexico, a dear friend’s wedding, things got competitive.)
Yet, a few days later I was running at a pace I hadn’t seen since high school. It wasn’t a miracle, the healing powers of warm sea water or even cold tequila, but the anti-gravity effects of the AlterG treadmill. Therapeutic Associates Physical Therapy added this nifty piece of equipment to its eastside Bend clinic in March and, after ruling that my ankle wasn’t broken, offered to let me run on it in the days leading up to the Pole Pedal Paddle.
The AlterG resembles a regular treadmill but lets you run at less than your full body weight, adjusting in 1% increments from 100% down to 20%. It’s the running equivalent of a pull-up machine. To accomplish this feeling of near weightlessness, you wear a neoprene girdle that zips into a support system built into the treadmill. I started at 50% of my bodyweight – it felt like running on air – and eventually worked my way up to 85%.
Most endurance athletes know all too well that, all things being equal, body weight affects performance. Knowing is one thing; experiencing it instantly is another. At 85% of my bodyweight I had no trouble running 6 miles at a 6-minute-mile pace (versus a typical 7-minute-mile pace, on a good day) and might have gone faster if I wasn’t afraid of doing more damage to myself. The AlterG gave new meaning to “runners high,” and had me calculating what it would take to feel that way again, sans neoprene girdle, on terra firma.
Turns out, the AlterG has pretty broad applications. While I used it to try to squeeze in a couple of runs prior to race day, my XC Oregon teammate found it helpful in running through a nagging case of plantar fasciitis. Patients at Therapeutic Associates, meanwhile, are using the treadmill for rehabilitation after surgery or injury and even for chronic problems, such as arthritis.
It’s also an option for healthy runners who want to improve their leg turnover or increase training volume with less wear and tear. (Therapeutic Associates sells punch cards for 15-minute increments on its AlterG.) Clinic director Chuck Brockman has knocked 40 seconds off his mile pace running 5-minute miles at 70% of his bodyweight. In fact, it’s one of many devices used by Alberto Salazar at his Nike Oregon Project, and is becoming standard equipment at many university training centers, including at the University of Oregon
Going into the Pole Pedal Paddle, I knew the run wouldn’t be easy. Although running at my full weight didn’t really hurt my ankle, those forgotten 20 pounds were a shock to the rest of my body. Still, I likely wouldn’t have raced at all had I not had the opportunity to test my stride with an assist.
I’m eager to return to the trails, but I’m also looking forward to taking some more high-speed spins at Therapeutic Associates. It’s certainly a safer way to get my kicks than doing impromptu aerial acts.
Sarah Max is an elite Nordic skier with XC Oregon in Bend and three-time winner of the Pole Pedal Paddle.