mundane adventures in running
Cross fingers, I seem to have cracked running injury free. January was a heavy month for running. Since then I’ve slightly reduced my running load, but have been doing more cross training, and upping the distance on my long runs. It’s still largely injury free*, my pace is getting better and I’m enjoying it as much as ever.
Running advice in the public domain changes all the time, is confusing. The more trustworthy stuff tends to be reasonably scientific, published in journals, appropriately unhelpful (proper science tends not to give concrete advice) and impenetrably presented. The more accessible stuff tends to be nonsense written by magazines like Runners World (who are desperately trying to produce content and sell ad space).
Then there’s the added problem that the advice is aimed at different types of runners. It’s easy to read stuff about running and imagine it’s aimed at you. The chances are it’s not. Is the advice aimed at a park runner, at a long distance runner, at someone trying to lose weight, at someone trying to nail their billionth 5k? Running tips from Killian Jornet or Usain Bolt probably won’t help you much, these heroes are different to you and what they are trying to achieve is probably fairly different too.
Even the science of running isn’t really about you. For example, one of the big studies about the benefits of corrective footwear was conducted with a sample of american soldiers**. I can see how this tells a story, and how it’s useful… but I am not american soldier. I’m a not very muscle-y english guy in my late 30s who didn’t run in high school, drinks too much and is starting to get a pot belly.
And advice is often motivated by the interests of large corporations. Now, I like Nike, Asics, Brooks and the like. They’ve made a lot of great products which have really helped me. Despite this, I still know they are not to be completely trusted. Their very raison d’etre is to flog stuff, and attempts to flog stuff are often disguised as objective advice.Trainers only last 500km, you over-pronate, you need midsole flexion, our electrolytes hydrate better than water, gels are more effective than jam mixed with salt. All this just adds to the confusion, when actually they’re just trying to flog you crap you may or may not need.
On top of that, there’s the weird stuff, the crazy stuff. I really enjoy the bizarre outliers of running, but some of it just doesnt make sense. I remember when i first started trying to run barefoot being baffled by Ken Bob’s Cat Walk, being weirded out by Earth Runner sandals or by conflicting breathing techniques (Buteyko, vs this odd woman)
So, who should you listen to? You end up with questions: should i run barefoot or not? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯. Should I do static stretches before a run, ¯\_(ツ)_/¯, should I eat carbs ¯\_(ツ)_/¯ should i train at above or below my aerobic threshold \_(ツ)_/¯ , should I breath deep or shallow ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Unfortunately, the only way to work out what works best is to try stuff out and see what happens. You can make your running into a great experiment. For me, this is an unscientific process. Obvs if you were going to do it properly, you’d change one variable at a time and measure the change. I don’t do that. I don’t think it’s possible. There are too many variables in life which can affect running, it’s impossible to tell what’s actually making a difference. You change your running routine and start doing a set of high intensity hill reps once a week and you find that you start getting a twinge in your achilles. The month that you start, you’ve been woken up at 2 o’clock every night by your fractious two year old, you bought some new work shoes which are a little uncomfortable, it’s been summer so you’ve been eating lots of barbecue food. blah blah blah. Who knows what’s messing up your achilles? Anyone’s guess, but you are probably the best judge.
Anyway, without further ado and with the proviso that there’s no objective good advice for runners, here’s my deeply flawed and subjective list of FIVE WEIRD TIPS WHICH CAN HELP YOU RUN BETTER AND WITH FEWER INJURIES.
Running injury free is about intuition, not science.
There is probably a proper way to run injury free, but nobody knows what it is and nobody knows how it applies to you, so try different things and see what works best. Don’t slavishly follow advice, not even this advice.
It’s trite to say, but listen to your body. If you try something new and it feels natural, if the changes make you feel limber and strong, then keep it up. If you start to hurt, if you get the niggle of an injury, stop training, take a couple of days off, cross train, relax.
Listen to your intuition: the chances are you’ll know what’s doing good, what’s doing harm.
Little and often
Take it easy, build gently. I’ve come across a lot of people who need to commit to running in order to do it at all. They push themselves and punish themselves just to get started, and go from not running at all to “I need to run every other day to do it properly.” They normally hurt themselves or give up.
Running shouldn’t be horrible. If you make it horrible, you’re not going to do it consistently, so just take it easy, run a kilometre, run two, do whatever makes you happy and doesn’t put you off going out again.
Moreover, overdoing it is the surest way to hurt yourself. If you’re really motivated and you really want to improve, it can be hard to hold back, but do hold back or you will find yourself with a messed up knee.
If you really really must train more than your body says you should, just cross train, get on a turbo trainer, go for a swim. At least that way you’re diluting the way you fuck up your body.
For me, my body tolerates more when it has a bit more muscle. It’s as though by being stronger, my joints and tendons and what not are better protected. A lot of strength training can help with joint motility too, keeping your body nice and supple.
I love squats and calf rises, but that’s because I get really tight calves, and runner’s knee from tight quads. Other people have problems with hips, shins, with their lower back. Choose the strength training that works for you. Osteopaths are great at diagnosing weak spots and pointing you in the right direction to correct them.
For a more gentle approach to strength training, Ekhart Yoga’s workout for runners remains an amazing, far more meditative way to get a stronger, more agile runner’s body.
Not drinking, drinking in moderation
Normally I’m kind of a lifestyle alcoholic, and drink wine most evenings, way above the government guidelines, but not so much i’m incoherently drunk. This year, I’ve completely given up drinking alcohol for Lent. I hate the fact that it makes a difference, but for me, it really does, even after a couple of days of abstinence my running improved.
I’ve no idea why it has such a pronounced effect. I read somewhere that it can stifle the bodies product of human growth hormone, but I suspect it’s more likely to be something to do with hydration or sleeping better. Either way, I can run further and my recovery times are about a billion times better***.
Last year I was running hard sessions a few times a week, either hill reps or quick tempo runs. It really helped with my speed. I managed to get my 5k time down from 25m to a pretty consistent sub 20. For someone my age who’s never run competitively, this was pretty good. But it came at a cost. The speed work was where I’d get most injured, would leave me aching the most, would leave my calves tight and with shin splints like dried peas had been forced into my muscles.
Now i’m doing the opposite: all my runs are at a target heart rate of 140, with an upper limit of 145. I never go into anaerobic respiration and never sprint. On long runs, I sometimes even walk up hills.
It’s been amazing. Having a way to judge if I’m overdoing it means I don’t overdo it, and as a result don’t wind up hurting myself. Over time I’ve also found my pace on shorter runs starting to match what I could achieve going flat out and ruining my body****.
This really isn’t for everyone, if you want to win at Park Run, don’t try it, but if your goal is to run a lot, injury free, slowly and long distance, and if your body isn’t naturally super resilient, it’s worth a go.
A sizeable portion of leafy greens every day
This is the most stupid and least scientific part of my injury avoidance regime. Stupid and unscientific because it’s following advice from a mentally unstable fictitious character who only exists in the world of a quite pretentious and difficult to read novel. In Infinite Jest, the young tennis prodigy Hal is advised by his mother to eat a sizeable portion of leafy greens every day.
Since I read the novel, I’ve stuck to that, and it’s been great for me. Thus proving the a
rgument: advice is weird, it’s not to be trusted, even if it’s my advice.
In conclusion, I would like to refer you back to my first point: It’s about intuition, not science, if it makes sense to you, try it, and if it works, keep doing it. Otherwise, you can totally leave spinach to Popeye and kale to the cross-fitters.
*exceptions caused by specific trauma not by poor training technique
** this is the experiment, but described by the New York Times.
*** I don’t know how this is going to play out come Easter. I’m quite all or nothing and find moderation in anything quite difficult. I’m tempted to try drinking for one week a month, or maybe just on Fridays and Saturdays. I do know that my wife brought back a really nice bottle of bourbon from her last trip to the states and it’s lurking in the cupboard waiting for me to come off the wagon.
**** Seriously, it’s dropped from about 5.20 minutes per kilometre to a consistence sub 5 with no speed training at all, just plodding along at an even heart rate. Boring but effective.