From cerebral palsy to a lifetime of running

By May 17, 2015 November 24th, 2015 Exercise
ivan running

Ivan Rivera casts off brain injury on his way to becoming a running gait coach.

Ivan Rivera is training for a lifetime of running, but there was a time when doctors said he would live out his days watching television from a wheelchair. The 26-year-old aspiring running gait coach began his life with a difficult birth that left him with a cervical injury, brain damage, twisted spine and an array of motor and cognitive impairments, resulting in cerebral palsy. From the time he was 18 months to four years old, Ivan needed 24/7 therapy. Because his brain was unable to properly regulate his own breathing he was at great risk for Sudden Infant Death Syndrome, and his senses were so skewed he could not process the feeling, for example, of sticking his right hand into very hot water.

For several years, one of Ivan’s doctors was Dr. Coralee Thompson. Ivan spent many years of painfully learning to move better, walk and eventually run, overcoming a body with both spastic and very weak muscles. In addition, he faced years of intellectual catch-up, developing speech skills and ultimately turning to writing. He graduated from Tecnologico de Monterrey Prep in Mexico, then went on to earn a degree in linguistics, with a specialty in psycholinguistic research, from Reed College in Portland.

Throughout his road to recovery, Ivan has been fascinated with the notion of the human body’s interaction with gravity. So much so that he is working toward the goal of becoming a running coach — specifically a coach that focuses on improving a person’s natural running gait.

When Ivan took up running himself, he did so in the most minimal shoes available — Vibram Five Fingers — and to this day he advocates a natural running style that strengthens the body from the ground up. “I’ve been a minimalist runner since I started,” says Ivan. “I can’t see a reason to stop.”

Perhaps most amazing about his entire physical recovery process has been Ivan’s success at literally untwisting his own spine through the process of learning to run properly — correcting his own gait. The process required an extreme focus on muscle function, body posture, level eye-gaze and foot placement — not an easy task even for the most physiologically gifted of runners.

“I realized that by focusing mentally on particular muscles — say the calf muscles on my right foot — I could quickly get them working,” says Ivan, explaining that the resulting foot strike also helped bring his hips back into alignment. Meanwhile, to improve balance and keep his eyes level with the horizon, Ivan is correcting his right shoulder and scapula posture, eventually changing the orientation of his spine and addressing the problem in the cervical area, the source of the spinal twisting.

As Ivan continues to build strength in his right side, he’s incorporated jumping rope and squats, as well as a variety of other functional exercises, into his routine. In recent years, Ivan has become familiar with Dr. Phil Maffetone’s philosophies, and has also begun to incorporate many of these into his own training program.

“A big part of what I like about Phil’s program is it’s a lot of common sense,” he says. “It filters research and science through common sense and puts it all into a digestible format.”

In addition to running ultra distances, Ivan recently clocked a 17:35 5K race. Ivan is a firm believer in the idea of building a strong aerobic base, adequate recovery from workouts and less-is-more footwear. He also adheres to the balanced real-food dietary principles promoted through the MAF Program.

While Ivan participates in an occasional running race and trains with a local ultramarathon club in Portland, he’s really more focused on training for a lifetime of running — and helping others to improve their running gait through coaching as well. He is also writing and editing articles for the MAF website and helping with research projects for Dr. Maffetone.

Check out his blog at

By Hal Walter
MAF Senior Editor


  • Robert:

    Thanks. It’s always good to know that my story can help and inspire people. While it’s been difficult, my current struggles (as well as the knowledge I’ve acquired) are due to my insistence on taking my body to competitive levels of endurance. My cognitive troubles with cerebral palsy are a thing of decades past. Training by MAF standards has been extremely helpful: I can manage a good training load (6 hours a week of aerobic development, 4 hours a week of correctives, 6 hours a week of strength). Basically, I can be developing my endurance abilities quite effectively while still doing the work to bring my body into alignment.

    • Kathy says:

      Wow! This is all very new and interesting to me. I have cerebral palsy as well and came across this page due to me googling if Vibrams would be good for my feet… If I’m reading clearly, are you saying, you’ve been able to correct your gait? I’d like to see how you look running..

      • Kathy:

        My gait is pretty dialed in. You’d need to know a lot about biomechanics to know that anything’s amiss—and I’m ironing out the few things that are left to work on. I guess the best way to say it is I have exactly the gait you’d expect from anyone else who runs at my speed…

  • Ivan, your story is just something else. Wonderful. As a body/mind practitioner of the Alexander technique, I can really appreciate a journey like yours. I love the connections that you had to make to get to your win position. Yet I am working with normal people with normal problems and I so admire your success. If any one on earth rose to their life challenge it must have been you.
    Do I sound too effusive… well you personally know that I am not. Great.

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