Mark, Set, Go! Running Studio Opens This Month

REGION – If it appears there's a rise in the number of runners and cyclists on the roads and trails, and it seems more and more of your friends are talking about the next new race they're tackling, you're not imagining things-endurance sports are indeed increasingly popular, across the country and here in northern Michigan.

A quick count of what now takes place in a year's time just in the Grand Traverse region reveals some 30 different running-related events, from family-friendly 5Ks, half-marathons and marathons, to sprint and Olympic-distance triathlons and more unique activities such multi-discipline events that feature twists on the traditional triathlons and running races (think: mud-and-obstacle races and the popular M22 Challenge triathlon that involves climbing sand dunes and kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding).

There's been a definite running boom taking place in recent years, according to Running USA, a not-for-profit organization devoted to improving the status and experience of distance running and racing in the United States. In 2011, there was a record 13.9 million road race finishers in the U.S. compared to approximately 5.2 million in 1991-a 170 percent increase-according to the organization. 2011 marked the eighth consecutive year that a new U.S. finisher high was set.

The growth of running events is reflected in the region's increasingly active, outdoor-loving community, and it's also why Dena Johnson and Stephanie Walton are confident about the injury-prevention and treatment services they offer to athletes like themselves.

To meet the needs of this active community-and to mesh their own passion for running with their professions-Johnson and Walton, co-directors of EXCEL Rehabilitation Services of Traverse City, introduced EXCELerate, a program for runners of all levels and abilities. It offers a comprehensive running evaluation, video gait analysis, strength and flexibility assessment, and coaching services.

About 40 to 50 area runners have gone through the year-old program, says Walton, a physical therapist at Traverse City's EXCEL Rehab, where EXCELerate operates.

"We've had a really good response," she says. "There is a huge running community here, and we're trying to spread the word about this resource that we're offering … We're educating physicians and runners, including people who run as part of the sport they're in, whether it's soccer or they're triathletes."

EXCELerate, which offers both insurance-covered and private-pay options, also is gearing up to open its new "running studio," a space that gives the EXCELerate staff more room to work with runners. The studio, slated to open March 11 next door to the current EXCEL clinic on North Royal Drive, is part of an overall clinic expansion.

"We'll have the video analysis, strength and flexibility assessments, and also be able to sit down and talk more specifically about the tools we're using," Walton says of the space that's large enough to accommodate running groups and team clinics.

EXCEL Rehab's onsite pool will continued to be used, and with the expansion will allow for a larger wellness and aquatic center.

"It's a 97-degree, 10,000 gallon pool that's specifically for therapy," Walton says. "It's awesome."

While programs like EXCELerate aren't entirely new – big cities throughout the U.S. offer such services, often through partnerships with larger universities – it's a first for northern Michigan.

"I think it's really unique," says Lisa Taylor, a lifelong runner and longtime running coach who provides her coaching expertise to EXCELerate participants. "They want to help all the runners in the area. They don't have a preference toward this school or that school."

Taylor, who has played an integral role in advocating local running opportunities through the years, says Walton and Johnson are doing more than simply meeting a market need.

"They felt that the area needed something like this, but running is a passion. They love it and they live it," she says.

It is gratifying meeting runners, talking with them about their concerns, and helping them stay on the track of lifelong running, Walton says.

"We're having a lot of fun with it," she says.

A couple specific success stories: a patient who'd had heel surgery, went through the program and ran a half-marathon, and is now training for an Ironman; and a 60-something-year-old man who came in with hip pain who ultimately was able to run the Bayshore Marathon.

"There are a lot of people with lower leg pain, shin splits or plantar fasciitis, and in general they are told by their physician that they need to stop running. We hear that all the time," Walton says. "Instead of doing that, they may have to stop running for a short time but we get them back running. We are not going to sit here and tell you, 'You can't run,' or 'You have to stop running.'"

"Our success has been our ability to keep people running, or get back to running as soon as physically possible," she says. "That has given us so much pleasure. It's not the fault of the physician-it's sound advice-but for a lot a runners, then they choose to run anyway and then have other problems … we can get them back out there and they stay healthy."

Learn more about EXCELerate and EXCEL Rehabilitation services at or by calling (231) 929-0303. Find EXCELerate on Facebook at EXCELerate

EXCELerate offers free running injury assessments from 5 to 7 p.m. every third Thursday of the month at the Traverse City Running Fit on South Airport Road.