Friday, December 4, 2009

Pain-Free Running, Part III

To recap the prior post: As I became fatigued while running, my feet started to slap the ground, which set off a whole cascade of pain. This confirmed that I would never again run as I did in my youth. It was clearly time to change my stride into something that would work better with the bones and muscles I had today.

This wasn't the first major change I had encountered on my path toward becoming a triathlete. While I had owned up-market road bikes for 35 years, I had never competed. When I started training for triathlon, I finally started to learn what competitive cycling was all about. It all comes down to two basic things: Minimize drag, and use muscles wisely. Some would add a third basic item: Get a power meter. But my budget hasn't made that possible.

When Joe Friel was the guest speaker at a TCSD meeting, I heard about "mid-sole cleat positioning". Since I have flat feet, I was already positioning my cleats just behind the ball of my foot, to provide some support to my plantar fascia. Joe showed that moving the cleats further back would greatly reduce the load on the calf muscle, freeing up energy that would then be available for propulsion.

My bike shoes have very long cleat slots, and I was able to move my cleats back a centimeter. The effect on my feet and calves was literally night-and-day: Since pressure on the ball of my foot was further reduced, my plantar fascia never hurt, no matter how hard I pedaled, and no matter how rough the road (bumps and corduroy used to hurt my feet). Even better, my calves stopped cramping when going up steep climbs.

I found it hard to believe that such a small adjustment could possibly have such a large impact on my riding. I wondered if something similar would be possible for my running.

I did lots of running research online. I found no sites dedicated to the "bad/broken runner". There were sites for doing physical therapy and rehab on injured and post-surgery runners, and lots of sites focused on making slow runners into faster runners, but none for those of us who just can't run any significant distance due to non-fitness issues.

The odd thing was, there were lots of sites for non-swimmers, and non-cyclists, but not for non-runners. The only advice I found, repeated over and over again, was this: "Start jogging. Then start running." Not exactly the advice I was looking for.

So I went offline and started looking a bit closer at other runners, particularly those with physical limitations of some kind. Two common limitations soon became clear: High weight, and great age. So I focused on watching very heavy and very old runners. And one thing was immediately obvious: The best runners in both groups tended to run with a rapid, short stride.

So I tried running with faster, shorter strides. And I felt as if I would shake myself apart. It wasn't a pretty sight, and I had trouble getting around a single block. And I still hurt when I finished, but in all-new places: My butt and lower back hurt.

When I went back online to research different running strides, I stepped into the endless discussions and religious wars concerning heel-strike versus toe-strike versus mid-sole strike. Google for them if you are curious. The one thing I did take from the discussions was that I did not, necessarily, have to strike so hard with my heel.

The mid-sole strike got me thinking about how mid-sole cleats had affected my biking. In particular, could I use my calves less while running?

So I tried an experiment, and replaced my toe-push with a heel-push. Using a heel-push wasn't new to me: When hiking with a 60 lb pack on my back, the only way to get up steep hills was to use a heel-push, never a toe-push. Use the big muscles instead of the little ones. And when the going was steeper, take shorter steps: Sometimes, my feet overlapped, moving only a few inches up and forward with each step. I've hiked up a few mountains that way, making it to the top with lots of energy.

Trying to run with a heel-push and a short stride is vastly different than walking with one. The running toe-push seems to be programmed in at almost a genetic level, and it was extremely difficult for me not to use my calf muscles. The resulting stride still lacked smoothness, but it was somewhat more comfortable than my prior short-stride test. Getting around the block was still a struggle, but it was much less uncomfortable.

Back to the net, where I found no discussions of heel-push running. Nada. Zilch. Bupkus. Oh, sure, people will rage about foot strike, but not the push. Obviously, it was too obvious to discuss. Obviously, I was on my own.

One thing was immediately clear: If I was going to run with a short stride, and if I ever wanted to run fast, I was going to have to make those short strides happen very quickly. In cycling this is your pedaling "cadence". In running, I learned it was called "turnover". The general consensus was that higher turnover was better, but that whatever your "natural" turnover was would be best.

I had no way to measure my turnover, so I purchased a shoe-pod for my Garmin 305. It goes well with the bike-pod, and serves a similar purpose. Some running web sites recommend using a metronome, but I also want to record my cadence during a run, and my Garmin 305 with the shoe-pod would that too.

On the bike, I had worked hard to get my normal cadence on the flats up from the low 70s to 90, and my speed improved with it. Should I try to run with a 90 cadence as well? I did some short test runs, and it seemed faster was actually better, since it made my shorter stride "flow" better. But holding a 90 pace was just about impossible.

My stride still needed more work.

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