Kinesiology researcher wants to keep runners on track

Mike Jones and senior student running on a treadmill behind him

Mike Jones puts athletes on a treadmill to help them avoid injury. “Is there an optimal running style? No — there’s an optimal running style for you,” he says.  Photo: Roberta Dupuis-Devlin/UIC Photo Services

For Mike Jones, variety is the spice of making a living.

He was a massage therapist and instructor for more than a decade. Before that, he was a professional singer trained by Michael Jackson’s vocal coach. Now he’s a clinical assistant professor of kinesiology and nutrition in the College of Applied Health Sciences, helping runners stay on their feet by avoiding injury.

“I’m looking at the correlates of injury risk in runners with iliotibial band syndrome,” which causes pain on the outside of the knee, Jones said. “ITBS seems to be a pest for runners. It’s the No. 2 injury at the knee, after runner’s knee, which is more in the front.”

Jones puts athletes on a treadmill and uses a camera system to track how they’re moving. “How much does the knee, ankle bend?” he said. “Everyone has their own running style. One of the big questions is, ‘Is there an optimal running style?’ No — there is an optimal running style for you.”

He specified that he’s talking about an optimal style for reducing injury, not for performance. “I have a unique wrinkle that other investigators of ITBS haven’t looked at — the sensation piece,” he said. “I test the ability of a subject to detect vibration at different locations on their legs.”

A runner’s visit for Jones’ research study lasts two hours. “That’s including a consultation, which is the cookie they get out of it,” Jones said. “The system spits out a report on how they’re moving, and I sit down with them with the results.” His consultation, which may include suggestions for improvement, would have a market value of  $200 to $400, he said.

Jones began studying two groups of runners, injured and uninjured, in fall 2013. So far he’s looked at 25 runners, with a goal of 60 in the next year. He also pays attention to gender differences. “For example, we’ll see a knee angle in some female runners that increases injury risk, that’s not in males.”

Jones said the “take-home” is that “we’re hoping to answer questions about what contributes to an injury so we can design more effective treatments.”

He co-teaches a dissection course with Jane Marone, clinical professor of kinesiology and nutrition. “It’s a marvelous thing on a Wednesday morning to hold a person’s personality in your hands — the brain, with all its memories and thoughts,” he said.

Jones grew up in Fresno, California, where one of his classmates at its performing arts high school was Audra McDonald, who went on to win six Tony Awards on Broadway. He attended Long Beach State University but flunked out after five years. However, he was cast in the first national tour of the Disney musical “Beauty and the Beast.” He was an understudy for six different roles.

“But day in and day out, I would sing a high note from offstage,” he said. “The people onstage were dancing and out of breath and couldn’t hit the note. The kid screaming his lungs out is me.”

His vocal teacher in Los Angeles was Seth Riggs, who also coached Ray Charles, Josh Groban, Dusty Springfield and Madonna. “In the middle of my voice lesson he would pick up the phone and say, ‘Hi, Michael.’ It was Michael Jackson. Then he would put the phone on speaker and play the piano while Michael warmed up before going onstage.” Waiting for their lesson after Jones? Jennifer Lopez and the Fly Girls.

After a year-and-a-half on tour, he landed in Chicago, where he became a massage therapist at the Soma Institute. “I wound up teaching for them for 13 years,” he said.

Finally Jones returned to school, coming to UIC in 2008 to study kinesiology. He earned a master’s degree, then a Ph.D. in physical therapy in 2013. He was a lab coordinator in the department when his predecessor, a clinical assistant professor, retired, and Jones got the job.

He and his wife, Tiffany Saltzman-Jones, a lawyer, live in the Galewood neighborhood. They’re avid animal rescuers and have three cats and three dogs.

“I’m a full-blown sci-fi fantasy nerd and gamer,” Jones said.

He’s also a foodie. “I like to support food as art,” he said. “My wife and I go in for three- to five-hour extravaganzas with 26 courses. We try to travel somewhere each year.” Last May it was to Copenhagen, Denmark, home of Noma, rated the No. 1 restaurant in the world by Diners Club International.

But without longstanding reservations, Jones said, “a selfie of me at the restaurant was as far as I got.”


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