Monday 15 October 2012

Part 1: My Quest to Become a Better Runner - The Baseline

This will be the first post in a series considering changes that can be made to become a better runner. To set the scene I wanted to post about what I have tried already and how I plan to identify further improvements.

First of all what is a ‘better’ runner? I think from my perspective it includes the following factors, all of which in one way or another are closely linked:

  • reduced amount of running injuries,
  • greater enjoyment of the running experience,
  • a more efficient runner, and
  • improved race times.

The more of the above that can be achieved then obviously the better.

What have I done so far?

I remember reading about minimalist shoes in Runner’s World a few years back and didn't really take much notice at the time. To be honest I thought how odd it was to not run in heavily cushioned shoes, surely all that cushioning would protect against injury? How wrong could I be!

After suffering with a few niggly injuries in 2011 I decided to significantly change my approach to running in 2012. It was my running new year’s resolution! So more on a whim than any long term thought process I went and bought a pair of Nike Free V3s one weekend in January.I've got admit they felt odd at first and made the soles of my feet hurt (a sort of a dull pain across the arches of both feet).  Prior to wearing the Frees I had run in support shoes and in hindsight I guess by using the Nike I was exercising muscles in my foot that had not be used in a major way for many years. Anyway I persevered, phasing in the use of the shoes over a month or so.

I've got to admit as I got used to the Frees I really enjoyed running in them. I think this was a lot to do with their reduced weight and the liberating feeling of running in a shoe that doesn't constrict the foot like conventional shoes tend to. Since then I have bought three other pairs of minimalist running shoes (I have not run in my conventional running shoes since April 2012):
  • New Balance 730 (US version)
  • New Balance MR00 (road)
  • New Balance MT00(trail).

My Nike Free V3 Running Shoes

During this time I also started to do lots of research on the web as to how to improve my running technique. So I started to phase in some improvements this included:

  • landing on the mid foot rather than heel,
  • keeping my arms at a 90 degree angle,
  • not overstriding by keeping my feet behind the knee when they hit the ground,
  • making sure my head is looking into the distance not at my feet, and
  • keeping my back relatively straight and not leaning forward from my hips.

If you interested take a look at a short film on good running technique by Daniel Leiberman as it sums up the changes I made quite well.

What have been the problems?

The changes I have made haven't been without problems. I am a bit of an all or nothing type of a guy and as such my transition to a better running technique was in hindsight far too quick.

One of the first injuries I experienced was very sore calf muscles for the first few months. Both my Achilles tendons were also taking a battering. These are apparently common complaints of those changing from a heel strike to a mid-foot strike as previously when heel striking a significant amount of the impact is taken through the skeletal system. With a forefoot or mid-foot strike however the muscle and tendons tend to absorb most of the shock.  At this stage in my transition my calf muscles and Achilles tendons were not up to this task and so felt strained. 

Both Achilles are also likely to have been quite short due to previously wearing shoes with a significant heel rise. By wearing low drop minimalist shoes both Achilles will have been suddenly stretched. About a month or so after the change my calves and Achilles started to slowly feel less sore and at present they are back to feeling relatively pain free.

Another injury I noticed was pain along the top of my metatarsal joints(connecting the foot to the toe) on both feet. At first it wasn't particularly painful, but I could definitely feel a dull ache. This pain started to occur about four months following the transition when I had just begun to train for a marathon, so I had increased weekly mileage by quite a lot at this stage. After about a month or so later the pain seemed to subside.

My change to a midfoot strike is also not perfect. As can be seen in more detail in a post where I compared running shoe wear before and after the transition, I still tend to heel strike lightly on my left foot.

Relatively speaking the two transition injuries have been minor. But one the take home point for me is to gradually make change in running form rather than throw yourself into it like I did. The same I suppose goes for other changes that you make whether it is introducing speed or hill work or running long distances slowly phase them in as your body will adopt to the changes and you are less likely to get hurt as a result.

What about the benefits?

The positives of my transition definitely outweigh the negatives. These include:

  • no pain in my right hip when previously I would have a general soreness,
  • a big reduction in Achilles pain (eventually!),
  • a frequent back muscle strain that would normally strike about twice a year has not as yet reappeared,
  • it has been enjoyable to try something new that will hopefully lead to me being a healthy runner for many years to come.

What next?

So at the time of writing that is where I am currently at. Although I am reasonably happy with the changes I have made I still feel I have a long way to go. There are still a lot of improvements I can make to be a better runner.  In the next post in the series I plan to identify where I could improve further in comparison to current best practice and set out an action plan to plug any gaps I find. 

How have you found the transition to becoming a better runner?