Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Running Form - from Injury Woes to Injury Goes

Ok, first things first; you'll notice I didn't title this "Injury Gone", but "Injury Goes". Admittedly this is partly because it rhymes, but primarily it's because I don't think that many runners ever totally get rid of their injuries - particularly not those caused by running form - but instead, they learn to manage them so that they don't ruin their running. I also don't want to tempt fate, as I'm very glad to say that at the moment, I'm one of those lucky runners whose injuries are under control, so I thought I'd share a bit about how I've managed that.

Ok, now that's out of the way, I think it's best that I talk about what I think is the key to running injury management - running form.

Everyone has their own running form, pretty much unique to them. If you look at Paula Radcliffe at her peak, her running form was entirely different to that of Kenenise Bekele, or even of Mo Farah, let alone how different it was from the average Joe Public runner (and still is based on her performance at this year's London Marathon). There are hundreds of articles, blogs, forums and even entire books about running form, and I'm no expert, but I thought it would be good to share what I have learned about it from my own personal experience, and how understanding it has helped me to manage my injuries.

When I first started running back in 2005 I did what most new runners do and went out and bought myself a pair of cheap Asics running shoes from Sports Direct or somewhere similar. I mean, how hard can it be? We've all been running since we were children and we never needed special shoes then! I ran my first half marathon in them without any major incident (other than a horrific lack of fitness and race preparedness!) and then went back to university for my final year, which was spent primarily drinking and only doing a very short run on a very infrequent basis.

On graduation in 2006, I moved in with my super-fit and running-obsessed girlfriend (now my super-fit and running-obsessed wife!) and it became clear that I was going to be doing more running in the future, so I thought it would be sensible to get someone to look at my running style to see what type of shoes I should wear. We went to a running shop down near my sister's place in Brighton and the owner watched me run up and down the street in front of the shop in various different shoes while asking me how they felt and talking to me about what should work for me. To this day, this is the best gait analysis I have ever had (and I've had a hell of a lot, using some ridiculously high-tech equipment) as he fully understood my stride pattern, how the different shoes would affect it and me, and what should work for me in the long run. He pointed out that, probably due to my very low arches, I was an over-pronator (entirely new language to me at the time) which meant that my foot was landing pointing slightly outwards, on the outside of the foot and then rolling towards the inside of the foot as it went under my body and I pushed off. The chosen shoe to help stop this causing me too many issues was the Brooks Adrenaline GTS - a shoe that I still have one pair of sat in my wardrobe.

A few examples of my over-pronation and over-striding from events between about 2006 and 2012

For the next two years or so, I had pairs of Brooks Adrenalines as I worked my way up from half-marathons to off-road adventure challenges, Tough Guy challenges, Hellrunner races, and up to the London Marathon in 2008. I remained fairly injury-free and thoroughly enjoyed my running (barring the last couple of miles of the marathon, during which I wanted to be anywhere else in the world but in London!) However, in September 2008, my wife and I both decided to try some new shoes which had just come out on the market; the Nike Lunarglide. The shoe was billed as having an "adaptive midsole" which adapted to your feet and your stride in order to provide the support where you needed it.

Now, I should point out now that my wife has a pretty-much perfect foot-strike, with high arches, a nice mid foot strike and a neutral running gait. Not that I'm jealous or anything you understand... Except that I clearly am, and especially that this meant that the gorgeous-feeling Lunarglides were absolutely great for her.

My running form on the other hand, was at least one step beyond what the Lunarglide was designed to cope with, and I found that out the painful way. Within the first couple of months of running in them, I got my first 'proper' running injury, the classic nemesis of over-promotors; runner's knee.

A quick trip to the physio soon identified my issue as being related to my running form and that my new shoes didn't provide the support I needed. A month or two of additional physio exercises combined with a pair of off-the-shelf orthotic insoles seemed to do the trick though, and I was soon out blasting the miles out in my Brooks Adrenalines again.

This approach kept me going for a year or so of running back up to about half-marathon distance, but at the end of 2009, things started to go badly wrong. It started with tightness in my glutes and quickly spread to pain in what felt like my lower back. I went to the physio and was told that I had issues with my sacroiliac joint (the little joint joining your sacrum at the base of your spine to the ilium - the main bones of your pelvis). Basically, due to a muscular imbalance caused partially by my running style, the joint wasn't moving very freely and this was leading to a lot of pain.

When I say "a lot of pain", over the following 18 months it progressed from being an annoyance when I ran through to something that woke me up at night - I was literally dreading going to bed at one point because I knew what was coming. In spite of a lot of physio, lots of trigger-point dry-needling, some custom-made orthotics and the world's supply of stretching, the pain continued in one form or another, no matter what I did, through my "three ultra-marathons in three days" challenge along Hadrian's wall in 2010 and on to the Manchester Marathon, Sandstone Trail 50K and Classic Quarter 45-miler in 2012.

It was after finishing this that I decided that enough was enough, and that I would take matters into my own hands. Back in 2009 I had read Chris McDougall's book "Born to Run" - what runner hasn't read it?! - and had become interested in the concept that we weren't evolved to run in the way that chunky, foam-soled shoes allow us to. So, like any enthusiastic amateur, I decided to invest in some Vibram FiveFingers barefoot shoes (review to follow) and give the whole barefoot running thing a try.

Needless to say, it was brutal and was a hell of a re-introduction to running; effectively having to re-learn how to run in a totally different way. With barefoot shoes on (or even totally barefoot as I tried once for about half a mile, generating 5 blisters!) you simply can't land on your heels with each step, because there's no padding there and it hurts! Instead, you learn to land on the ball of your foot, using the extension of your calf muscle and the muscles in your feet to absorb the impact. This, in turn, shortens your stride, as you need your foot to land nearer to underneath your body in order to foot-strike in this way, which lessens the amount of pronation your foot can carry out before it lands. That's the good side - the bad side is that you suddenly realise how little you used to use your calves with your old running style, and find that your calf muscles are burning and close to cramp within about a mile! Well that's what I found at first anyway.
However, it is worth persevering with this new style of running, because over time I found that my calves got stronger (or at least more used to the pain!) and I could go further, without having my normal sacroiliac joint problems.

Unfortunately though, I also realised that this wasn't going to get me back up to the sorts of I distances that I wanted to cover to run ultra marathons - my feet simply wouldn't have coped with that without some padding of some description, so I had to gradually migrate to wearing shoes, without losing all of my new hard-won change of running style.

This turned out to be surprisingly easy, as I bought some 'minimalist' running trainers and then gradually tried different pairs of shoes until I found ones that I could maintain my running style while also having some decent padding under the balls of my feet. This took some doing, and involved buying a few different pairs of shoes, but I figured that it was still costing less than physio every week would have done - plus, who doesn't like buying new shoes??

So now I run with my new style, but in fairly 'normal' trainers and - touch wood - all of my old over-use injuries are under control. This in spite of having trained for and run a 50K trail race and now being at the end of my training for a 45-mile run in a few weeks' time. Don't get me wrong, my new running form isn't perfect, and when I get very tired or am going down steep hills, I know that it gets worse, but it keeps a crippling injury at bay while allowing me to do what I love doing, and that's what matters.

A few shots of my "new" running form from the St Oswald's Way 50K Ultra Marathon in September 2014

So below are my compressed pieces of advice for trying to overcome injuries associated with running form:

1. Analyse your own running form.
I had lots of analysis of my running gait by all sorts of different experts, but what really showed me what I needed to change was looking at photos of me running, and looking at the soles of my shoes. These give really good clues as to how your feet are landing with each step. What you're aiming for is a forefoot to mid-foot strike, and this is where the majority of the wear will be, so the wear on the soles of your trainers is a really good clue as to how you're running.

A trainer from my "old" running form (left) and my "new" running form (right) - note the difference in wear to the outside of the heel.

2. If you're over-striding and heel-striking, try running barefoot.
A change to barefoot running will very quickly show your body how different it feels to forefoot/mid-foot strike. Don't expect it to be the final solution though, because it's not easy even for short distances, but it's a great training tool. Once you're back in normal trainers again, remember that feeling and keep your stride short to keep the best bits of both running worlds.

3. Take it slow.
You're trying to recover from an injury, so while changing your running style might help to fix yourself in the long run, don't think that it'll happen overnight, so take your time and enjoy being able to run again, no matter how long or short each run is.

4. Vary your running surfaces.
I firmly believe that changing my runs from being primarily on Tarmac to including various different surfaces including trails and hills has made a big difference to my running injuries. The variety of surfaces helps to force you to change your running style even throughout a run, helping to prevent repetition injuries.

5. Vary your shoes.
As a result of my trying of lots of different running trainers, I still have lots of trainers that I can wear at different times. I try to make sure that I wear different shoes for different surfaces, or for different runs within a week, so that my feet don't get complacent and I help to reduce my own overuse injuries.

I like a bit of variety!

6. Enjoy yourself.
That's why we all run after all isn't it? So try and find a way of running that both you and your body can enjoy, then go out and do it!

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

First post - and first race review

Welcome to my new blog - this is something I've considered doing for a long time, but have never got round to starting. So now that I've got a toddler, a house that needs lots of work, an ultra-marathon to train for and a hectic job, I figured it was the best time to find yet another distraction!

This first post is a bit of a post-race review of my most recent event - the Hardmoors Wainstones Half Marathon, which took place in North Yorkshire on Sunday April 12th. Apologies that this first post is a bit long; promise later ones will be more brief!
Now, any of you who happened to be in North Yorkshire on that Sunday will no doubt now be thinking "but it was bloody horrible, what were people out doing a half marathon for?!" Well, I can tell you that not only would it have been brutal conditions for completing a road half marathon on Sunday, but it was most definitely brutal up on the tops where we were completing one which included bigger hills than most hikers fancy covering in a full day - and don't get me started on the guys who were running a full marathon in the same conditions!

It's probably best that I start at the beginning; which for this race was back in about December when I entered the race as I knew it would fall at a decent point in my current training plan for the Classic Quarter Ultra Marathon in June. I figured it would be a good opportunity to run a decent distance in an event along with getting some much-needed hills in my legs. "Plus it'll be nice to see a bit of the scenery" I said to my wife... Oh how wrong I was on that front!

My training has been going pretty well, considering all of my other commitments at the moment, having done a 10-miler, 15-miler combo weekend the weekend before, so I was fairly confident I had the distance in my legs - I was just a little concerned about all the hills.

Now I'm not going to lie and say I did lots of prep for this race; I printed the maps out the night before and had a look at them briefly with my Dad (who I'd just spent the day tiling our kitchen with - more good race prep, going up and down stairs to our garage to cut all the tiles!), and then threw them in a plastic bag in case I needed them for navigation during the race (although I was also relying on my mapping app on my phone if I got really stuck).

On the morning of the race I bombed the 120 miles across to Chop Gate - a tiny village in North Yorkshire - and parked up in the field next to the village hall where registration took place. "Nice field" I thought as I got out of my car "but it's on a bit of a slope, I wonder what my car's like on slippery hills." Thinking no more about it, I got registered, had my kit checked (mandatory route map, waterproof, hat and gloves) and then hung around while we waited for the briefing and the off.

The briefing consisted primarily of Jon telling us all not to die anywhere we'd be in the way of other people and to try not to use the toilets part-way round, as these belonged to someone else. This was my first Hardmoors event, so I'm not used to Jon's briefing approach, but it all made sense to me, so was happy to be ready to set off... Until we saw that it had begun to rain in the meantime. "Ah well, that's why I've got my waterproof, a bit of rain never hurt anyone anyway" I thought as we all stood on the start line for the countdown; how wrong I was.

Once we started it was pretty clear that this really was going to be a bit of an endurance race (something you don't normally hear about half marathons!) as we immediately started to very slowly climb the single-track route up the steep hill towards Osmotherly Stones. I was happy though; I'd known it started uphill, and figured once we were at the top, we'd roughly follow a ridge-line around the rest of the route, so we were getting all the climbing out of the way early - naive, or just wishful thinking?!

As we made it to the top of the hill I fell in step alongside a lad running in Vibram FiveFingers. As someone who's got a couple of pairs of these myself and having trained in them a fair amount, it seemed a good starting point for a chat (I should point out now that I'm an ultra-runner who talks as a distraction from the pain; just ask my wife who I annoyed over the walkie-talkie for most of the last day of our Hadrian's Wall Challenge run a few years ago when I was running alone!) 

We struck up a conversation and the next couple of miles flew by as he told me about how he broke his ankle, fibula and tibia when he was in the Paras and now that he's out on civvy street he keeps his running going to keep fit. I was amazed that his recovery was that strong from such a horrific injury that he could skip almost barefoot across the slippery trail in the rain alongside me.

Unfortunately I was soon watching that skipping style from behind, as it was clear that in spite of his comment that he didn't want to go out too hard like he had on his previous Hardmoors outing, he was clearly going out harder than I was. This was fine though, I know that all races are made up of short sections, and if one of them passes in good company, it just all helps towards the finish.

And anyway, I had another distraction to concentrate on now; the weather. It had already taken a turn for the worse, with the wind having picked up dramatically and the rain now lashing across the path. It was also at about this point that I realised that maybe my OMM Kamleika jacket would've been a better call than my New Balance Shadow jacket - which I later found out is only rated as water-resistant and wind proof. But to be honest, it didn't bother me that much, I was moving enough to keep warm and my legs felt good. I took on board the first of my salt capsules which I was trying to see if they might hold off the dreaded cramps, had a few sips of water, an energy chew and dug in against the conditions.

Brutal wind, rain and hail on the up-hills and ridges

Over the next couple of miles, I found myself playing the typical leapfrog game with a few other runners, as we each either sped up or slowed down on our relative strengths and weaknesses of up-hills, down-hills and relative flats. I was always keen to pass an inane comment of some description ("nice November day they chose for this April race", "how stupid do I look wearing my buff like this?" or similar) and I was really pleased to find that almost without fail, the others seemed just as keen to chat as I was.

As we continued, towards around the six to seven mile mark, the weather got quite seriously worse. Whenever we were up high on the ridge, the wind was absolutely battering across our path, blasting a combination of enormous rain drops and tiny, sharp little ice-balls straight across us and threatening to blow us over one or two precipitous drops.

Strangely though, it was at about this point, just as I was heading up yet another enormous climb, that I realised just how good I was feeling. I mean, the weather was ridiculous, the up-hills were steep, the down-hills were soaking wet, slippery and very technical and I could wring the water out of my gloves just by clenching my fingers, but I actually felt really good. My legs felt strong, my kit was holding up well, my shoes were coping with the wet conditions and I was starting to pass people. That was what really made me realise how good I was feeling; suddenly I was only passing people, nobody seemed to be leapfrogging back past me anymore - even my friend in the FiveFingers got reeled in at about this point, so I knew I was doing ok.

Yes, I really did look silly with my buff up like that, but at least some of my skin remained attached to my face, rather than being blasted off by the hail!
This continued for a couple of miles until I caught up with a couple of guys who were on the full marathon route. The three of us ran together and joked about the conditions for about half a mile as we headed into a head wind and discussed how long it would be until we managed to make it off the ridge. I was glad to know that I'd be dropping down considerably earlier than the poor two lads I was running with and after a short time running together, I once again felt that I was running slightly stronger than expected and so I decided to take advantage of it and slowly worked my way ahead.

For once, I was really enjoying running on my own; it wasn't about it being me against my body, me against other runners, or even me against the course; this was entirely about me against the elements, and the best way for me to beat them was to go quicker and get down quicker, so I pushed on again.

Miles 10-12 went well, with me literally laughing whenever yet another hill came along, the conditions had gone from the ridiculous to the downright crazy, but now I knew how close I was to the finish and I knew I'd beat the weather and the course.

However, as I made it to the top of the last climb, the route levelled out and I saw the drop in the distance, I caught up with someone who wasn't in quite such a positive place as me. I ran alongside the guy who was walking a little. As I passed him slowly, I asked how his day was going and rather than getting the normal "oh brilliant mate, loving this weather" or similar, I heard "not all that good to be honest" so I immediately slowed down and asked him what was up. It turned out he was struggling a little and was feeling a bit dizzy. I asked if he'd been taking on enough fluids, to which he said he had, and that he had more with him. So I asked if he'd got anything with sugar in it. He mentioned that he had some jelly babies, so I told him to get some of them inside him as quickly as possible to see if the energy boost and a bit of a kick to his blood-sugar would help. Once I'd seen that he had got them out and was about to eat them he told me to get going and that he'd see me at the bottom. As I was about to argue I looked up and saw the marshall's jacket marking the point at which the path turned right to drop down the side of the valley towards the finish and so I told him how close it was and that once he got there he was as good as home.

I felt guilty about leaving him, but I justified it to myself that the only way I was keeping warm in my shorts and not-totally-waterproof jacket was by keeping moving. I'm not sure I'd do the same again, but the closeness of the marshall reassured me.

In a couple of minutes I'd reached the marshall myself and promptly turned right, heading onto the narrow path leading down the side of the valley. Dropping off the ridge and out of the wind was an amazing feeling and I have to admit I got a bit giddy as I started racing down the narrow, deep track with its high grassy banks, trying to catch the last three runners I could see ahead of me before the finish. Needless to say, I soon regretted my giddiness as my right foot caught a thick tussock of grass and I found myself heading downwards in a slightly more direct route to the ground than I was aiming for! Fortunately it was only a fairly minor slip, and barring a bit of a scrape to my shins from a rock or two and a couple of bumps that I was sure would make impressive bruises later, all was well, so I carried on.

Enjoying the down-hills!
Racing down the hill, I managed to catch the last runners I could see ahead of me and hared through William Beck Farm and down the track on my way down towards the finish. Having averaged around 11 minutes per mile up to this point, I suddenly found myself doing under 7-minutes for the final mile... I mean, obviously the hill helped, but I think the sheer joy of how good I was feeling and how much less windy it was were really powering me along.

As I ran through the final field (where the cars were parked) towards the finish line the rain was still pelting down, but I didn't care and almost sprinted towards the village hall to finish in a time of 2:32:36 - officially my slowest ever half marathon, but also not only my hilliest, but the one in the most brutal conditions!

As soon as I'd signed in and picked up my finishers medal and t-shirt, I headed to my car to grab my recovery shake and towel - fully intending to join the other finishers in the village hall. Unfortunately, my body decided otherwise once it had slid into the passenger seat of my gloriously dry car interior, and instead I found myself sat there drinking my recovery shake, eating my sandwich and watching the other runners coming in, running past my car as they headed for the finish.

I can't describe how happy I was to see the guy I'd seen struggling a little and feeling dizzy up on the ridge as he jogged past my car, looking fairly strong. I hope he managed to enjoy his last mile or so, but to be honest I couldn't get out to ask him, because that would have meant opening my car door, and the heater was finally making my fingers feel good again by this point!

After about fifteen minutes of slowly recovering, getting myself changed and getting some food in me, I decided it was time to make the 120 mile journey home to be jumped on by my toddler and help my dad with the last of the kitchen tiling. I got in the driver's seat and looked up towards the exit from the car park field, where I saw quite an impressive spectacle; a very large white Lexus wheel-spinning away as it tried desperately to get out of the field. "Ah," I thought "that's always the disadvantage of heavy rear-wheel-drive cars. Lucky I'm in a light, front-wheel-drive car with a puny Diesel engine." You'd have thought I'd have learned about feeling smug by this point, but it would seem not!

Long story short, it took 25 minutes for me to make it the 75 yards to and out of the exit from the field. During that time I did about three laps of the field looking for momentum to get up to the exit (90% of which were spent wheel-spinning), got out to help push the Lexus out (cue large sprays of mud up my freshly donned clean, dry clothes and shoes) and desperately tried to learn from the various mistakes and failures of everyone else trying the same things!

Having eventually got out, I had the 2-hour drive home to think about the race. What were my conclusions?
Well, it was brilliant... The marshalls, checkpoint volunteers and fellow runners were all friendly, the route was challenging, but enjoyable and well marked, the scenery that I saw was beautiful (admittedly all of that was within about 5 yards of my face due to the visibility!) and I genuinely felt good the whole way around.

Race Summary:
Distance covered: 13.54 miles
Elevation gain: 2,508 feet (though it felt double that!)
Gun time: 2:32:55
Watch time: 2:32:36
Overall position: 23rd
Category position: 7th
Garmin link:

Nutrition taken in (reviews to follow in later blog entries):
3 x SaltStick caps
1/2 packet Powerbar Cola Chews
1/2 packet Clif chews
2 Haribo sweets
Around 500ml water

Kit worn (reviews to follow in later blog entries):
Shoes: Brooks Cascadia 9
Socks: More Mile London
Shorts: Salomon S-Lab Exo Compression Wings Twinskin
Top: Compressport Trail Running Top
Jacket: New Balance Shadow
Race Vest: Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra set
Hat: Adidas running cap
Buff: Original Runners Buff
Gloves: Ronhill Switch Running Gloves