Winter comes…

sunsetWinter is coming.  Heavy rain has taken most of the warmth from the end of the summer, and the trees are starting to turn. Windows have to be shut, and the evenings are getting darker. Summer off road running is soon going to give way to winter cross country, with mud and cold and wet being the main themes. For me, the summer season culminates in my main half marathon aim for this year, and a series of road races that comprise our club and county road racing championships.

It has been quite a good summer of running for me. I’ve set personal bests at 5 miles, 10 miles and 5k, and have been placed in both the cross country races that I’ve taken part in.  My aim is to go sub. 1:30 in the half marathon and feel that I’m on track for that. The hilly 10 mile race that I did at the weekend went well, but has left my legs feeling that they  need a bit of recovery time before the final push towards the half marathon in three weeks. The day before the race, I had quite a bit of heel pain, and have been having some niggles in my right calf. Icing and rolling kept the pain at bay and I ran without discomfort, but since then it has been painful and stiff. Like most runners, I struggle with the concept of rest, and running through niggles has been my main strategy, but even I acknowledge that if I ease off now, I’ll still be in a good position for the half marathon. So, this week I’ll do a few short easy runs, quite a bit of cycling, aim for a longer run at the weekend, and then back into it for next week. At least that is my plan.

Every year I dread the coming of winter. I love the heat, early summer mornings, sunshine and dust. I dread mud and darkness, and feel my body start to grow tired with the lack of light. I struggle to motivate myself in the dark times of the year. Some people love winter, but I hate the cold so much, I find myself struggling every year.  I remember last year trying to complete my weekly speed session on a track covered in sheet ice. I did a half marathon in driving, icy rain, and ended up sick and shivering in the car afterwards. I just don’t seem to be able to shake off the effects of the cold the way other people do. I wish I could just go out and get on with it, and I do, but I always end up icy cold, with white numb hands (extremely bad circulation and Reynaulds), and a sick stomach.

Enough misery. The rain has actually stopped now, so it is time for my short recovery run to try to test out my foot.

Regarding shoes

Running shoes, or, the holy grail that promise to make you run better, but probably will give you blisters, or plantar fascitis.

When I started running “properly” again after many years of not running at all, I dug out an old pair of Reebok trainers that I think I had worn at school. They were fine for what I was doing, which was basically attempting to run a maximum of around 5 miles, and simply get a bit more fit. After a few months, on discovering that I really enjoyed running, I went out and bought another pair of Reeboks off the shelf from Decathlon. I loved those shoes! I had no idea what they did, whether they were “stability” or “motion control” or “neutral” or whatever. They were comfortable and I ran in them.

After about a year I realised I probably needed new shoes. I was running consistently at this point, and had entered a few races. I went to a “proper running store”, had my “gait assessed” and was sold a pair of Asics, which, promptly gave me awful blisters on the inside of my feet. I never got on with those Asics, but persevered with them for another year. I even ran my first half marathon in them.

Next, I went to a well known specialist running shoe shop, got put on a treadmill, and was sold a pair of Saucony stability trainers to correct my so-called “over-pronation”. The first time I ran in them, my feet went numb. Within a few weeks I had terrible shin splints and calf pain. But I had been told that I did this awful thing called pronation, and that I really needed shoes to correct this awful thing, and without those shoes, well, my feet would surely fall off or something like that. I actually did my first marathon in those shoes, but I knew that they were not right for me.

At this point I had started getting more interested in the bio-mechanics of running, and had started to read up on theories behind running performance and shoe design. I became interested in the barefoot running trend that was extremely popular at the time. On a whim, I bought a pair of Vibram fivefingers at a marathon expo. Having been warned that you had to transition into them carefully, and that they could cause problems if you didn’t give them time, I, being me, took them out for a 5k run. I loved them straight away. They were like a revelation. No one had ever stopped to point out to me that I was a natural midfoot/forefoot runner, and that being in heavy, padded, raised heel trainers was forcing me into a running pattern that did not suit me at all, and was probably causing all my shin pain. The Vibrams felt free and natural, I flew along in them and never had any issue with the transition. I had spent a lot of time barefoot as a child, and as a youth we had raced barefoot on the track; perhaps that had been enough to condition my feet and allow me to wear a barefoot shoe without any problems. My only problem with the Vibrams was that I like to run off road and they simply didn’t protect my feet and I was getting stone bruises. But I was completely convinced that a minimalist shoe was the way forward for me.

Doing some research, I next bought a pair of Merrell Pacegloves, which are a very minimalist shoe, no cushioning, zero drop and very wide in the toe box, but with a tougher sole for more protection than the Vibrams.  I ran my second marathon in these, and didn’t have any problems, but I became aware that if I wanted to get faster at the marathon (and I most certainly did), the increased mileage that would be required, would put a lot of pressure on my feet in completely uncushioned shoes.

What I wanted was something that would give me the feel of a minimalist shoe, being quite firm, limited heel to toe drop, but with a bit of extra protection for my feet. I gravitated towards the Adidas range of racing flats aimed at marathon runners, the Adizero Adios. I’ve had three pairs of these now, one without their “Boost” midsole, two with. However, my all time favorite shoe is the Adidas Takumi Ren Boost, which is a super light racing shoe, with a bit of boost foam only under the forefoot, and a firm ride. It is a fantastic shoe, which I use for all racing from 5k to marathon on the roads. Most of my training is done in the Adios Boost, which has a bit more give and cushion than the Takumi, but is still quite a firm light shoe.

Off road, I wear a very old fashioned Walsh PB Elite fell running shoe. What I love about this shoe is that it is firm, and not cushioned, very flat, but with a fantastic studded sole for grip and traction. It is heavier than a road shoe, but very comfortable. Walsh made shoes for the British athletes who took part in the Olympics right up to Los Angeles, and their shoes are still typical of the type of running shoe worn back then: flat, uncushioned, no nonsense shoes.  They are fantastic.

I am extremely wary of adding too much softness between the foot and the road, as it completely changes the function of the foot and the way the forces transfer up the leg. I think that over cushioning can lead to tendon and ligament problems. However, lack of cushioning (such as the Merrells that I did my second marathon in) can cause bone problems, or even stress fractures. There is definitely a happy medium, and of course what suits one person may not suit another. But I am hugely wary of “stability” shoes, and think that treadmill gait analysis done in running shops can cause a whole host of problems. Pronation is a normal function of the human foot, and unless it is actually causing problems for a runner, correcting it can trigger a so many potential issues, as it is completely changing the bio-mechanics of the foot and lower leg. Running shops and shoe companies want to sell shoes, but a great number of these shoes are causing runners to be injured, and many of these runners simply give up as a result. adios takumi 1 walshmerrell vibram

Hills, trails, and other beautiful things

Road races and trail races are very different things. I get a lot of satisfaction from achieving a PB in a road race, but I feel true pleasure and joy from a tough run on the trails. I was placed 2nd in a 10 mile trail race this weekend, and enjoyed every minute of it. It announced itself immediately; within 600m of the start, we went straight up a 17% incline for over 1 kilometer. Ouch. I went off a bit quick, and soon realised I couldn’t quite get up the hill at that pace so  let the woman who would finish 1st go ahead of me. Very soon I found myself running completely alone. It was a strange feeling to be in a race, but have no one around you, and no idea how far away the other runners were. Once I settled into the rhythm of the run, I started to really enjoy myself. The scenery was fabulous; you would burst out from a stiff climb onto the top of a hill and see a fabulous vista laid out before you. Then plunge down a steep decent, back along some quite technical trails, before hitting the next ascent. The finish was back down the initial hill, and a last push around a playing field, before being greeted by some of the friendliest, welcoming race organisers I’ve ever experienced. Somehow, these low key off road or fell races are amazingly rewarding; runners of all abilities and strengths, plenty of tea, cakes and food at the finish, quickly presented prizes and results.

In terms of running, while the hills are tough, in a way they are easier than sustaining a PB pace for the entire length of a race. You have to slow down to climb them, especially when combined with technical terrain. It gives you a chance to bring your heart rate down, and although  you are expending energy to get up those hills, in reality you are moving at more of an endurance pace than the threshold effort required for a road race. Plus, the reward for climbing those hills is the fabulous scenery, and the pure joy of the descent. It has taken me a long time to learn how to run downhills properly. One key for me was getting proper fell running shoes, so I have the confidence in my grip and foot placement. I learned to lift my knees and allow my body to fall forwards. As a forefoot runner, I had to teach myself to land more on my midfoot or even heel going downhill, and that seems to help me to maintain my speed over the terrain. It is a relatively newly found pleasure and I hope to enjoy it more in the future.

The best runs…

I raced this past weekend, and felt awful from start until around 50 meters from the finish. My preparation had been poor: I was away visiting a friend in France, and had flown back the evening before the race. The timing of my flight was bad, and I had a long drive back from the airport. I missed dinner, instead eating a packet of cashews and raisins in the car on my way home. That, combined with having had a few more glasses of wine than usual over the weekend, brought me to the start line depleted and I struggled from the gun. My first few kilometers were ok, but as soon as I hit the slight uphill section, I dropped off and never really recovered. I got a stitch, my legs felt empty, and I wasn’t able to respond when passed in the last mile, where I am usually quite strong. I was relieved to finish.

Which made me think about my best runs. The ones where it all went right, for various reasons. And the really bad ones, which for me, are usually characterised by some form of gastro-intestinal distress.

My final long run before my spring marathon was a dream: 22 miles of easy, flowing running. I was able to pick up the pace and finish just under marathon pace, feeling good. The miles just flew by, I didn’t feel tired, just strong and almost trance-like, running easily along the familiar roads.

The week before that I had one of my worst runs. I had planned a 20 mile run along a disused railway line, and had set out feeling fine. 5k in, my stomach started to bother me. It got worse. I managed to run 9k out before realising that I had to turn back. My stomach was churning, and I had to stop numerous times, but I made it back – just. I had another one of these recently – I managed around 18k feeling fine, then out of the blue was forced into the forest, and ended up having to walk. I don’t know what triggers these stomach problems, but I dread them.

Another memorably good run was one I did over the Ridgeway one damp summer’s day. It is hilly and chalky, and I had my  beloved Walsh fell running shoes on. I ran around 40 minutes out, up and down three decent hills, before turning around and repeating in the other direction. It was a quiet day and hardly anyone was around, the sky was grey and the ground was damp and slippery, but it was a fabulous run through the ancient landscape of the Ridgeway, past the hill fort by the White Horse, and the hills where so many English myths were born.

Running allows you to see the landscape in a very different way to walking or driving. Unlike when you are walking, you have to concentrate on the ground. You raise your head to scan your surroundings fleetingly, giving brief glances at the horizon, rather than being fixed on a distant vista. You become very grounded in the moment of where your feet are for each individual stride. The world passes by with the rhythm of your footsteps, and certain instances become vivid as they briefly come into focus.

A few weeks ago I ran around the city I grew up in. I went on a tour of my old schools, amazed at how short the distances were, when as a child they felt so far away. The mix of the familiar and unchanged, with the new and unrecognisable, made for a memorable run. As a teenager, I walked those streets, now as a adult I ran them, amazed at my own changes and the transformation of the old city around me.