By: Dominic Cadden
THERE’S A REASON the word “addiction” often comes hot on the heels of “running”.
You start running a couple of days a week and soon you set yourself the challenge of a race – maybe five or 10 kilometres. You’re on a high when you finish, but it’s not enough. You crave more, something packing a bigger wallop.
After years of sprinting on the wing in rugby and racing anything between 3000 metres and half-marathons, my big wallop came in the form of the TNF100, a 100km trail-running race through the Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. I completed it, despite being physically and mentally shattered. But afterwards, faced with weeks before I could even shuffle into a jog again, I was left with something more than smug satisfaction: the discovery that all my years of running proved nothing about my technique or efficiency.
During the race, battered feet and wrenched muscles had reduced me to a walk after 80km – leaving plenty of time to contemplate that even the slightest technical flaw or waste of energy while rapidly putting one foot in front of the other becomes grossly exaggerated if you’re doing it 100,000 times in a day. Meanwhile, other runners flowed past me with little apparent distress. Clearly they knew something I didn’t.
In time, my body rebuilt itself. What I now wanted to know, though, was whether it was possible to completely remodel how I ran. I wasn’t thinking about a lifetime project. I had only 10 weeks until the next TNF100, and I wanted to be there at the starting line, injury-free and sporting a new running technique that would have me loping effortlessly up hill and down dale.
And if I could do that, I figured there was hope for every runner seeking his own rush. Like me, I imagined them as having had attentive trainers (aka parents) oversee their efforts to learn to walk – someone to adjust their posture and moderate their stride length. But when it came to running, we’d had to figure it all out ourselves. In my case, I’d obviously missed something. I just hoped it wasn’t the boat.
Leading up to my first TNF100, the problems began well before the race. In trying to play catch-up-quick with my fitness, I ran up the steepest hills I could find around the streets and pavements where I lived, while loaded with a 4-6-kilogram backpack. Then I slammed back down them. The uphills were tough, but it was probably the downhills that did the damage. Heel came down on road, shoe clumped down flat on road, shoe stuck to road while foot flew forward in shoe, smashing toes against the front end like a car repeatedly crumpling into a wall. So my feet were damaged even before the starter’s gun went off. The jarring through my back and shins didn’t make me feel like a winner, either.
It could have been worse – several entrants didn’t even make it to the starting line, proving that when it comes to running long distances, there’s a fine line between training enough and overtraining. (Check out how the Kenyans manage to run such lost distances so effortlessly) Indeed, the longer the run, the more self-preservation plays a part, like a boxer needing a good defence if he expects to go the distance.
The question was: did I have a solid defence or was I delivering a knockout blow to my chances before I even stepped in the ring?
To find out, I make my way to Canberra now to put myself in the hands of the Australian Institute of Sport’s (AIS) physiology laboratory for a motion analysis.
Running on a treadmill, I’m filmed by super-slow-motion cameras from the rear and side, before being led into a small room wallpapered with TV screens. I am everywhere.
Beside me is the head of biomechanics at the institute, Dr Nick Brown. He has a few key markers to check on my form, beginning with noting whether my shoulders are level, my hips don’t rock up and down and there’s a bend in the knee when my foot hits the ground.
It’s all fine . . . until he gets to my feet. I land on my heels, with them out in front of my hips instead of under them. Then there’s the pronation, a big roll from the outside of my flat foot across to my arch – or at least where my arch should be. The super-slow footage shows that it’s worse on my left leg because it’s a smidgen shorter, which may explain why my hamstring on that side gets so sore. What’s interesting is that the slower I run, the worse all these glitches are.
“There’s a bell-shaped curve to running efficiency,” explains Brown. “There’s a speed at which you’re most efficient, then above or below that, it falls away.”
Brown says that while several elite runners heel-strike, the action greatly increases the impact-forces up through the body. He suggests moving to a mid-foot strike, so that the part of my foot that hits the ground first is just behind the ball.
“People say, ‘Try to run on your toes’,” says Brown, “but that’s a coaching tip to get you off your heels – it doesn’t necessarily mean move all the way onto your toes. You really only see runners get on their forefoot for faster running, starting from 1500m or 800m.”
With less than three months before my next big race, I have to decide whether to suddenly change the very root of the running motion I’ve had for 35 years.
In need of a second opinion, I set up a meeting with Lindsay Watson, one of the track coaches at the NSW Institute of Sport (NSWIS) in Sydney. After studying my form, Watson wastes no time making the decision for me. All things considered, I end up feeling like it’s a medical miracle that I’m still walking.
“There is an ideal foot strike,” explains Watson, who coaches 3000m steeplechase Olympian Youcef Abdi. “You hit the ground on the outside of your foot, roll in, and then roll back out again.”
So while a little bit of pronation is actually desirable, says Watson, “what you don’t want is the heel hitting first and out in front of the body”. Unfortunately, that’s exactly what I do, and it’s a recipe for shin splints and knee problems. Somehow, I’ve avoided knee problems so far because, unlike most overstriding heel-strikers, my leg is not straight at the knee when my foot hits the ground. Shin splints, however, are a pain I’m all too familiar with. It’s time to begin the makeover.
Since my heel-striking is related to overstriding, the first thing I do is aim to land my foot underneath my hips instead of in front of them, and this alone takes weight off my heels.
Next, I change the way I picture my stride in my head. Being short, maybe I’ve always aimed to thrust my legs out forward to get a stride as long as the next bloke. Now I try to think of my stride in the same arc, but shifted back, so that it starts underneath me before my feet kick back further behind. This will help my endurance because it means I’ll use my glutes and hamstrings more and my smaller, faster-twitch quad muscles less.
I begin with a common footy drill: jogging while kicking my heels back to my bum and landing on my toes, feet landing under my hips. Since I’m planning to do a lot more than run up and down a footy field a few times, I soon realise I need to take more drastic action to condition my calf and foot muscles.
My plan is total overcompensation. On a 10km run, I aim to land on my forefoot and never let my heel touch the ground. My arches and calves are screaming after 4km and I have to change back to my old-style stride. The next time out, I make it to 6km. The time after it’s seven, then eight. It’s a painful process, but after three weeks, changing to running with a mid-foot strike seems easy.
Coach Watson also helps me with my uphill struggle – and my downhill pain.
As an overstrider, I tend to plonk my feet out in front of my hips on the uphills and then drag myself up like a conveyor belt. I’d been getting away with it and held good speed because of my leg strength, but I’d used up way more energy than I needed to. Plus, I tended to lean forward and make an acute angle between leg and foot that stressed my shins.
Now my aim is to get my feet hitting the ground under me, use shorter, choppier strides and visualise my hips over my feet so I don’t lean into the hill.
Running downhill is a similar story: aiming to land on the mid-foot with my feet underneath me and keeping my hips over my feet instead of leaning back. I also try to reduce the impact by stepping as lightly as possible, like I’m running over hot coals. Keeping my feet significantly lower also helps, which is a world away from my old antelope-bounding style.
I’ll be honest – my antelope-bounding style would usually be quicker in a short run, but on a long hill my teeth and vertebrae would be rattling after a while. Now I’m happy to stick to the slightly slower hot-coals downhill running method if it means I can run 20km further and don’t barrel over and crash into trees.
At Watson’s advice, I make other fundamental tweaks. I ran with my arms nice and low, but they just sort of dangled there, not doing anything, so now I get them swinging across my hips to add more drive to my stride. I’ve also been raising my feet over halfway up my calves during my backstride. This is great for a middle-distance runner (or an antelope), but over longer distances it just becomes a waste of energy and a repetitive strain on the hamstrings, so I bring my feet down closer to ankle height. As my training volume increases, it’s time to enlist a physio in the battle to be injury free.
”If you’re doing more than your body can cope with, then you’re more likely to get injured,” warns Brent Kirkbride, NSWIS physiotherapy coordinator and national physiotherapist to Athletics Australia. In other words, there’s no magic answer to how often or how far you should run, except to say you need what Kirkbride calls “a logical, step-by-step graduation in intensity, frequency and distance”.
Kirkbride explains that overtraining can increase the likelihood of a tendon overuse injury or a stress fracture in the foot, toes or shin. A quick check through the other common causes of shin splints (a grab-all term for some half-dozen conditions that cause shin pain) leads him to conclude that in my case the pain is more likely caused by overstriding and maybe excessive pronation of the foot. Other common causes are a lack of calf strength and not enough range of movement through the ankle.
Another common injury for male distance runners is ITB friction syndrome, where the ITB (iliotibial band) tightens up and rubs along the side of the knee, often producing a burning pain on the outer part of the knee and/or pain when climbing and/or descending stairs. I’m not there yet, but it describes a common complaint I hear from friends I run with, even some who are in their twenties.
Kirkbride warns that keeping the pelvis stable is do or die for runners, so you need the strength and coordination to activate your core and gluteal muscles. Without that, you tend to rely more on your ITB and your lateral quads to stabilise your pelvis, so they overwork and get tighter, which increases the risk of thigh/knee-joint problems.
A good test of your ITB is to see how well you do an assisted one-legged squat (ie, holding onto something). Kirkbride says the aim is to check the mirror for hips rolling side-to-side or front-to-back and the leg turning in at the knee. I manage to do a one-legged squat without any assistance and next day my bum is sore – bullseye. Years of powerlifting and Olympic lifts have probably helped my strength around my hips. I’ve also worked in some bum-to-heels squats every couple of weeks for glute flexibility (although this is something for advanced trainers with okay knees), but now I notice that the more I run and the less I squat, the tighter I’m getting through the bum. I start stretching my glutes and ITBs for 10-15 minutes after every run and reduce weight training to do more running, plus I stick in a couple of home exercises for core stability. A favourite is holding a medicine ball with arms outstretched over my head while I do walking lunges.
With my technical glitches on the way to being patched up, it’s time to check the progress of my overall fitness, so I get back on the AIS physiology lab treadmill. This time I’m having a VO2 max test combined with a lactate threshold test to determine my fitness and training levels.
Under the direction of AIS senior physiologist Dr David Pyne, my nostrils are clipped shut and my mouth is sealed off with a big pipe so that all my breath is expelled into a bag that looks like the bladder of a 100-litre wine cask. My finger is pricked so a drop of blood can be taken every four minutes to test my lactate level.
I run four minutes each at eight, 10 and 12km/h, with just enough time for the blood to be taken in-between (elite-level male distance runners do the test at 14, 16 and 18km/h). This part helps establish where my heart rate is for aerobic training, moderate-intensity aerobic training and lactate threshold training (formerly known as anaerobic threshold). That’s the easy part. The VO2 max test involves simply pushing up the speed and the incline every minute until I hit the wall . . . or, rather, the crash mat lying on the floor behind the treadmill.
I score well in the VO2 max test, but my upper lactate threshold isn’t brilliant – no real surprise since until recently I’ve been doing powerlifting training and 70-90 minute runs, with no real interval training filling the yawning gap in-between.
“Top runners do a variety of low speeds, moderate speeds and flat-out interval work,” explains Pyne. This is where the lactate measurements from my blood provide a precise indicator. When lactate is 2µmol/ml (micromoles per millilitre), you’re just jogging and can chat with your mates. It’s a pace you can sustain for about an hour, maybe more.
“If all you do is that level of jogging, you get a little bit fitter, but not that much fitter,” says Pyne. “You get good conditioning at 4µmol/ml, which is where you’re starting to breathe too hard to hold a conversation. You could do that as 30 minutes continuous training or break it up into shorter runs like interval training – that could be a fartlek (running at different paces “as you feel”) or running around a track or something else you’ve measured out.”
For me, a 2µmol/ml pace puts my heart rate at about 140 beats per minute, and the 4µmol/ml pace is more like 160-170bpm. Even though I’m training for a 100km race – not exactly a sprint – there are two good reasons for me to launch into interval training that pushes my heart rate to 170bpm. First, the fitter I am at that threshold, the faster I will be able to run at a 2µmol/ml level. Secondly, it’s a mountain race – some of the climbs are so long, steep and rough that you have to claw your way up with your hands and your heart rate rockets up.
There’s just one catch.
“Most distance runners your height are a good 10kg lighter than you,” says Pyne, pointing out that if I was 10kg lighter, that alone would push up my VO2 max about 18 per cent.
Simply losing weight isn’t the answer for everyone. Some people actually need a bit of weight for their sport, and I don’t want to fade down to the light end of my weight division for powerlifting. Besides, when you work so hard to put on a bit of muscle, who wants to let it go?
“In that case, your focus should really be on improving fitness, because you can be really fit even if you’re carrying a bit of weight,” says Pyne.
Armed with this knowledge, I start running timed intervals in streets and parks near my home, resting in-between. Next I progress to long, steep hills that take up to two minutes 30 seconds to run up, stopping to check my pulse rate is up to or over 170 at the top before I have an “active rest” running down the hill before the next interval. I work up to a hill that takes over four minutes to climb, and then, finally, I’m running up the same hill with a loaded pack.
In the last few weeks before my second TNF100, I do 23-28km runs with a fully loaded pack, either on the Blue Mountains course or in similar bush conditions. It’s going well, but after an easier, and therefore faster, bush run, my shins and the muscles in the soles of my feet flare up. With less than two weeks to go, I take Kirkbride’s advice and give orthotics a go. They’re nothing fancy – a pharmacy brand that cost about $30. My next run is an arduous stretch of bush on the course, so I take the plunge. The orthotics feel foreign, like aliens trying to erupt from my arches, but despite nearly four hours of pounding and slipping on loose rocks and gravel, my shins feel fine. They must be doing their job.
Race day comes and, apart from a little leftover shin soreness, I’m in good shape. I have a strategy for the race, but there are two points that override everything: 1) forget all the other runners to concentrate on the pace that’s most efficient for me and; 2) keep focused on strong technique to protect my body.
With the number of entrants doubling from the previous TNF100, there are a lot more runners to ignore. Sometimes as fatigue and the steep climbs sap my energy, I feel my feet falling flat again, so I settle into a fast walk until I get it together, rather than losing technique and tempting injury. This leads to the comical sight of me overtaking runners who have the endless plod-run down pat, then they overtake me, then I overtake them again.The best part is the last leg of the race – I’m not only running, but I’m really attacking the course, or at least as much as is possible in rocky, undulating bush after midnight.
In the end, I slash three hours and 37 minutes off my time from last year. That’s time that could be spent watching Apocalypse Now Redux instead of staggering through the bush in the dark with smashed-up feet (“the horror, the horror!”). I’m tired, a bit tender, but walking tall. After a week, I’m even running again – and with all 10 toenails.
So, can your running be rebuilt faster, better, stronger? Bet you six million dollars it can.