It’s been almost two years since I was last grounded by injury, just two months before my second London marathon attempt. I was routinely hitting my target pace to clip the 3 hours 15 minute “good for age” target, but on 25th February 2015, 15km into a half marathon before work, everything ground to a standstill as my left heel felt like it was being ripped apart. I hobbled and then hopped for a few metres before realising I could simply go on no further.
Fortunately no-one in the NHS seemed to have any idea what the problem was. Fortunate in that it wasn’t an immediately obvious medical emergency like the dreaded plantar fasciitis, dislocation, torn ligaments or bone fracture. Nevertheless there was unexplained inflammation and a major lack of movement in my foot, and no noticeable improvement despite two weeks of rest. My GP simply advised me to stop running so much in the future, and to forget about the London marathon altogether “to be on the safe side”.
More helpful advice was to see a specialist running physiotherapist and an osteopath. It turns out my injury wasn’t caused by too much running, but by the cumulative impact of the wrong kind of running. I guess we all think running is a completely natural rather than a learnt behaviour, and for most of us that’s fine, but when you start covering around 40km a week or over 1 million steps per month those micromovements add up.
Like many runners, I’d been slightly heel striking, but the major issue was tension in my right shoulder aggravated by my habit of carrying my phone in my right hand whilst running (thanks to the complete absence of any runwear having suitable pockets for smartphones). Basically, I was running with my right arm relatively rigid, which meant my left leg had to work much harder to propel myself forward and introducing a microtwist in my foot upon every step and impact.
I was very lucky in that I didn’t suffer any major mechanical injury. I had some severe inflammation in an area of the body with minimal blood flow – something which was well treated by a combination of agonising acupuncture, sports massage and electrotherapy. After four weeks of rest I managed to slowly pick up my training from late March, and four weeks later completed London Marathon in 3 hours 9 minutes – the only damage being the most crippling DOMs of my life as my muscles were simply not prepared for that sort of lactic acid build up.
However, the experience of injury and subsequent holistic treatment gave me a much better appreciation of how to run with my body – helping me not only reduce the risk of further injury, but also helping me run faster and further than before using the same amount of effort. Whilst my main advice would be to spend some quality time with a specialist running physiotherapist, here’s some hopefully practical tips that I’ve learnt along the way:
Learn how to run with a forefoot strike. There are lots of ways you can practice this. Start by walking on your tiptoes for a few strides and then propel that into a run – notice how your posture leans forward and how more elastic your legs feel. This “toe running” where your heel doesn’t hit the ground is only suitable for short distances, so you want to learn to lead with your forefoot and then briefly kiss the ground with your heel. This technique means you run through the elastic parts of your legs, and minimise bone impact. If you can’t afford a PT then look at videos on YouTube. Run without music and listen to how your feet sound when they hit the ground, if you’re making noise then that’s mechanical impact which is inefficient and bad for you. Forefoot strikers have an almost silent sound, which can scare the life out of pedestrians when you sprint past them!
Run with your arms. You know how Tom Cruise runs? Maybe not so exaggerated, but be sure to stab your elbows backwards, like you’re elbowing your way forward. Believe it or not, the backwards motion of your arms helps propel the forward motion of the opposite leg. It also really helps develop your core which is great for running quicker and for developing runners abs!
Run at 175-180 steps per minute. Over striding is one of the major causes of running injury, and it’s also inefficient as your speed is driven by your feet being in contact with the ground not by flying through the air. Hit the right brisk tempo and run it continuously, varying your stride accordingly. Music can help act as a metronome, but only if it’s the right tempo. If you’ve got any sort of rhythm your body naturally connects to the music, which means those pumping house anthems at 140bpm aren’t going to help you run properly. Luckily I quite enjoy some drum and bass, but you might prefer hiphop or something at 90 bpm which you can run at ‘double time’ to.
Mix up your running with complementary exercise activity. Running intensively exercises a limited selection of muscles, making yoga and pilates a perfect complement to increase flexibility, mobility, and to stretch out muscle range. Muscle tension is the enemy of performance and the injury’s chief ally – sports massages, foam rolling and other dedicated stretching activity help loosen up the body and increase elasticity.
Make sure you invest in the right equipment. I’m amazed by how different shoes produce a completely different run. The most expensive trainers I bought were like running in gummy clogs, with the energy of every step being dissipated into the ground. Everyone’s feet and running style are different, but I’m a big fan of minimal shoes and also the Adidas Boost technology. I occasionally run with proper “barefoot” style shoes which is great for perfecting running technique, if not practical (or desirable) for regular training. Take advice from a proper running specialist shop, rather than your local Nike (or even Adidas) store. As I also found out, try and avoid ever carrying things in your hands. If like me you can’t stand those stupid armband phone holders or bouncy bumbags, search out sportswear with pockets in the right place for your phone and other essentials, or get a good lightweight rucksack – I’ve tried half a dozen different ones, the OMM12 is perfect for me in terms of size, holding tight to your back, and not rubbing on your neck.
Finally of course there’s nutrition. You’re blessed with a body just like the Wolverine, equipped with the most amazing self-healing powers! Every time you run you’re creating millions of micro tears and other movement. Your body is pretty good at finding the right proteins, fats and nutrients to continually rebuild, refresh and regenerate body tissue. Give your body a helping hand – for sure you need carbohydrates as a fuel source, but you need lean protein, fatty acids, calcium, vitamin D and lots of antioxidants to repair and strengthen cells and flush out oxidative stress caused by exercise. Eat plenty of healthy, fresh, real food, and try out some of my recipes, all of which are exactly what I cook when I get home from work, and should take no more than half an hour!