The puzzles of pain-free running

Fantastic morning light for trail running in the local woods #runwithstrava #Devon

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Really, how much technique can there be to running? The clues are there: top marathon runners do a whole marathon faster than I can run downhill for a mile. Top ultramarathoners run further in a race than I do in a week and their bodies cope with it.

Running leaves many bodies in its wake… People who get so injured that they turn to other sports. People who flip-flop between running hard and having injury lay-offs. I’ve been trying to avoid becoming one of those bodies that gets sucked into the wave of running, only to be left bobbing up and down – knees crepitating in the swell; turgid tendons swollen and useless. I’ve been trying to figure out how to ride that running wave unharmed.

It’s been a struggle and a puzzle and a learning experience.

At first there was the outright effort. Burning lungs and whole-body aches. No frewheeling, no easy miles. A great rush of exercise endorphins afterwards, but little to enjoy during the run.

Romping in the buttercups

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And then came Anuk, my Husky x German Shepherd running buddy. Suddenly, his joy for running became my joy for running. He is a rescue dog and had obviously not run much in his previous life. My concern for his joints made me more conservative in building up the mileage than I had ever been when it was just my own wellbeing in the balance. As we ran, the immediate suffering of running passed.

Emily and Anuk running on the coast path #stravaphoto #Exmoor

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I could enjoy a run, we could roam around the Coast Path and the moor. But pain was lurking. Shin splints were something I had encountered before, and never got past. So, I turned to the internet. Joe Uhan on iRunFar had an excellent article on basic running form that started to sort me out with two basic concepts:

  1. Lean forward
  2. Flex and extend the extremities

By leaning forward and shortening my strides, I was putting less strain on my legs and the shin splints went away. By keeping a lid on the distance I was allowing my joints and bones time to develop. By coincidence, I had been watching a documentary on BBC4 that showed how you could identify longbowmen from their bones because one arm would have denser, bigger bones to accommodate the muscle and bear the load of firing a great big longbow. I had moved from non-weight-bearing exercise on a bike, to the weight-bearing exercise of running. In a minor way, I could expect some adaptations in my own bones: as long as I gave them time.

For a while, then, there was no pain. I had solved running.

There was the minor puzzle of toe blisters on longer runs – simply solved by tugging the ends of my socks to give some wiggle room before putting on my shoes. There was the minor irritation of my heels getting pulled out of my shoes in mud – solved by lacing them the fancy way.

Then the achilles tendon pain came in. My achilles was getting swollen, less mobile, and quite painful in the mornings. It would loosen during a run, but I didn’t seem to be on a sustainable trajectory. I looked to Joe Uhan again. Which has turned my exaggerated forefoot landings into more of a wholefoot landing. Again, coincidence threw more evidence my way with this report on Kilian Jornet’s footstrikes (if you don’t know who he is, prepare to go down a rabbit hole of insane videos. You could start here). In retrospect, it seems obvious: variation is good. And different footstrikes are suitable for different situations. So I tried to be more varied and more adaptable. I tried to further increase my cadence and decrease my stride length. The pain got better, and I could run faster down hills.

When your feet can't get any more wet & muddy, you might as well stand in a river and make them just wet

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I don’t want to make a beautifully simple sport complicated, but I don’t want to blunder into doing myself harm. One thing I have learned about endurance sports is to listen to your body. Sometimes, the correct response is “Shut up legs!“. Sometimes, the correct response is to stop; figure out how to make it stop hurting; then go again, but with better technique. It makes a nice challenge that I had never even considered as part of running. Add that to the simple joys of bounding across the hills with a dog at your side, and there’s a lot of fun to be had in learning the ways of two feet.

Another one for the folder marked "Sunsets with Anuk"

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