Friday, August 6, 2010

Pain-Free Running, Part V

Much of the stuff in my prior running posts (here, here, here and here) went out the window when my back gave out on me almost exactly a year ago. This year (2010) has been a rebuilding year for me: Once my back recovered (see my back injury post here), I had to completely change my run and bike, both equipment and technique.

If you've read my posts about TitanFlex bikes (here, here, here, here and here), you know what I did: I got a TitanFlex Veteran bike. A future post will discuss the details of the bike changes: This post is about running.

As my back injury post mentioned, I've had to become a toe runner. When I began triathlon, my running technique started with me as a hard heel-striker. Early pain caused me to become a mid-sole runner with a strong arm-swing. When I tried to run after my back recovered, even the impact of a mid-sole strike was more than I could tolerate.

I had to find a way to keep the impact of my feet hitting the ground from reaching my lower back. I was already wearing some of the most advanced shoes available, and adding more cushioning would mean reducing the stability I needed. I didn't need cushioning: I needed suspension.

When I had my carbon bike, the saddle soreness issues I had were handled by switching to a seat with a better design and more cushioning. My running shoes already had the best design with the most cushioning I could find. When my back problems persisted, I was certain a TitanFlex was in my future, because I knew I could add suspension via the TitanFlex titanium boom. Could I add something similar to my run?

The only things I could think of were either to run with my knees bent, or switch to toe-running. Since running in a squat didn't seem practical, that meant toe-running was my only viable option. Toe-running would permit my foot to flex up and down to absorb more of the running impact before it got to my knees, hips and then to my low back. From a kinematics perspective, it was an elegant solution.

From the perspective of my body, it seemed to be an impossible goal. I have always had plantar fascia (PF) issues related to my extraordinarily flat feet, something handled by orthotics (to provide PF support) combined with reducing toe/calf use (to minimize PF stress). While running on my toes would reduce impact, it would cause a massive increase in PF stress. It would also mean my heel-stabilized running shoe would no longer be able to help keep my feet and knees aligned, meaning more torque could be delivered to my knees, and I already had a history of minor knee problems.

Things did not look good at that point. I was very worried that I would have to stop running, which would mean no more triathlons for me. Which meant I had nothing to lose by trying toe-running, even if it did cause additional damage. The irony of the situation is that I had spent the prior year learning to reduce calf muscle use in both my run and bike techniques.

I started toe-running during the last part of the physical therapy (PT) I was receiving from Rehab United for my back. I started with slow toe-jogging for 1/4 mile, gradually building my calf strength. The first thing I noticed was that the thick heels of my 'motion-control' running shoe were getting in the way, allowing my heel to strike before the calf had finished its job. So I went and bought some running shoes with thinner heels. I didn't really care about what shoe I got, since I had no idea how to tell a good toe-running shoe from a bad one. All I knew was that I wanted a shoe with a lower heel and a good fit. I wound up with and pair of last-year Asics that were on sale for dirt cheap.

By the end of my PT I could toe-run for a mile on a treadmill at a 10-minute pace. And I was doing it pain-free! There was one very odd thing about this: I had never before been able to comfortably run on a treadmill! My bowed legs meant I needed to do a bit of heel pivoting between my heel strike and the rest of my foot coming down, which the rubber treadmill resisted, meaning that treadmill running always gave me knee pain. What was going on here?

Moving from the treadmill back to the street had its own issues. When I started to run more often and at longer distances, my knees started to hurt again. This time, I knew it wasn't ITB Syndrome; It had to be something related to the foot and/or ankle. The only thing I could figure was that errors in toe placement and/or foot angle were adding torque to my knees. I needed to control both where I put my toe down, and ensure my foot angle was correct.

Since the biggest kinematic change was that my heel was no longer touching the ground, I adjusted my stride to allow my heel to barely touch before I pushed off. No impact, just a touch, to make it easier for me to tell what my foot angle really was. The thing is, when I made that change, the knee pain went away! I had no conscious awareness of my foot ever being at the wrong angle, so I wasn't sure what was going on. My best guess is that touching the heel gave enough feedback for me to intuitively (sub-consciously) adjust my stride to keep things in alignment.

As for the rest of my running gait, everything I had learned before about arm swing and body position still applied, though one minor change was needed: When going uphill, my calves really took a beating (remember that I touch my heel every time), so I needed much more assistance from my arms than my normal swing could provide. I first tried to simply swing my arms harder, but I soon reached the limit of useful motion. At the suggestion of a friend, I added some elbow-flexing during each stride (previously I had adjusted elbow angle only slowly, to account for the terrain, and not during each step). On steep hills, during each stride my arm swing starts with my arm straight at the bottom, and finishes with my elbow fully bent at the top. I use less elbow motion on medium hills, and none at all otherwise.

I soon was back to running my regular 2-mile run pain-free, though at a slower pace. I decided to try to pick up the pace, and found that the extra energy used by the calf was really costing me: I'd suddenly get exhausted, and have to walk for a minute before I could resume running (at my slowest pace). I assumed this was due not only to the increased calf use, but was also due to poor conditioning, and that I needed to improve in that area too.

It is common knowledge that to improve speed and conditioning, we must do intervals. In biking, hill-climbing is often the interval of choice, with timed sprints also included (often in the form of pace-line drills). In running, you can run hills too, but they generally take too long to be short enough to be effective for interval training. That left timed sprints, which in running are included in "wind sprints" and "fartleks".

OK, so I was going to do some intervals, which meant I had to run very fast over short distances. Which led to the question: How fast could I run as a toe-runner? Did toe-running have a kinematic speed limit? Since starting to run mile+ distances as a toe-runner, I had tried to slowly increase my speed, but only over a long-ish distance, which I had found was initially limited by my calf development, and was later limited by my conditioning.

Time for some test sprints. After warming up, I first sprinted for only about 20 steps, to see if anything felt obviously wrong. After briefly recovering at a slower pace, I upped the distance of each subsequent sprint, going flat-out each time. By the time I was too tired to extend the sprint distance, I had covered about a mile, all of which was done with no pain at all.

During the sprints, I didn't pay any attention to my Garmin, since I was totally focused on how the fast pace felt, and to try to maintain a very uniform and controlled stride. And my stride felt very smooth: I remembered what wind sprints felt like 20 years ago, when I was training to improve my 10K speed, and I recalled that they felt very jarring and uncomfortable. Now my fast stride felt like I was gliding over the ground, rather than trying to beat it to death with my feet.

When I got home and downloaded the Garmin data, I was astounded to find that some of my sprints were at a 5:30 pace, and all of them were faster than a 6:30 pace! I don't recall ever having run that fast before. And I did this while running as smooth as silk.

I started alternating my training runs between interval runs and distance runs. I've been seeing improvements in speed over my traditional 2-mile run, and I've been able to extend my distance to include 10K (6.2 miles), all without pain during the run. I've had some minor knee pain after the longer/faster runs, but it is in a new place, just above and below the knee cap (instead of under it), and the pain always fades within an hour or so. I've also had some hamstring weakness, so I've added exercises to my strength training to address that issue. And I've had some ball-of-the-foot discomfort too, so I suppose it is time to go shopping for 'real' toe-running shoes.

The oddest thing is that during this entire process I have had no PF pain, or even discomfort, at all! I'm at a loss to explain this. I did start out gradually, and I'm sure that helped, but it can't be the full explanation. Could it be that toe-running has helped my feet to become better than they were? I've been experimenting with removing the orthotics from my shoes, and so far I see no difference. They still hurt when I stand still for a while, but no worse than before. Yes, my feet are still flat, but they seem to be working just fine that way, with extra support no longer being needed.

That's about where I am today, still working on the sprints and distance. I've equaled my prior PR of 16 minutes for my 2-mile run, and I expect to get faster. My 10K time is approaching an hour, and I expect that to improve as well. It has to! I'll be doing my first-ever Olympic distance race in the Tri Classic in 6 weeks, on September 18th, and I want to finish in under 3:30, hopefully under 3:00!

But to get under 3:00, my bike time has to improve too. Evidently, I need to do more hills and pace-lines.

Thursday, August 5, 2010

The Frugal Triathlete

The first thing a new triathlete gets is a list of equipment needed to start training, which typically includes the following (minor generic items and consumables have been left off):

General Stuff:
  • TCSD Membership (required to get discounts from club sponsors)
  • TCSD timing chip (highly recommended: helps for the free club races)
  • Tri-kit (two-piece top/shorts pair) or trisuit (one-piece) (highly recommended)
  • Sports GPS (monitor and track run/bike/swim, recommended)
  • Heart monitor (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Gear bag (recommended) or Transition bag (optional)
Run Stuff:
  • Running shoes (highly recommended if you don't go barefoot)
  • Elastic laces (recommended)
  • Race belt (recommended)
  • Fuel belt (optional)
  • Hydration pack (optional)
Swim Stuff:
  • Triathlon swimming wetsuit (long-sleeved and/or sleeveless, highly recommended)
  • Latex swim cap (freely available)
  • BodyGlide and/or TriSlide (skin/wetsuit lubricant, highly recommended)
  • Open-water swim goggles (highly recommended)
  • Nose/ear plugs (as needed)
  • Neoprene swim cap (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim booties (recommended for cold swim conditions)
  • Swim suit (optional)
  • Pull buoy (optional)
Bike Stuff:
  • Road bike (required for beginners)
  • Bike shoes (highly recommended)
  • Tri/TT bike (optional)
  • Tri-shoes (optional)
  • Clipless (cleat) pedals (highly recommended)
  • Clip-on aero bars for road bike (optional)
  • Bike computer (recommended if no Sports GPS)
  • Spare tire (recommended)
  • Spare tubes (highly recommended)
  • Chain lube (required)
  • Tube repair kit (highly recommended)
  • Tire levers (if using clinchers, highly recommended)
  • Sew-up glue (if using sew-up tires - not for beginners!)
  • Floor pump (required)
  • Hand pump and/or CO2 inflater + cylinders (highly recommended)
  • Allen wrenches (highly recommended)
  • Under-seat tool bag or tail mount (highly recommended)
  • Food box ('speed/bento box', recommended)
  • Water bottles and cages (at least 1 of each highly recommended)
Whew! If you walk into local stores and try to buy all of the required and highly-recommended items above, it is impossible to get minimally 'decent' equipment for less than $2000, even if you make full use of all available TCSD discounts. Even $3000 would still be near the low end. I've seen new triathletes with money to burn easily spend $5000. And there is no limit: Some triathlon addicts spend over $10,000 on their gear!

There is an important saying in triathlon, something I call the 'Comfort Rule': Everything that touches your body must be comfortable. And, unfortunately, low-end gear is seldom comfortable.

Does this mean you should take on debt or liquidate a large chunk of your savings just to get into triathlon? What can you do if your budget is more in the range of around $1000? What trade-offs are available? Let's look at the more expensive items one at a time.

First, the bike: The obvious cost-saving measure would be to get a good used bike. When it comes to value, a good used bike will have higher-quality components than a low-end new bike. The 'Comfort Rule' above absolutely applies, which means you must get a bike that fits you, and is comfortable to ride for hours at a time.

What does it mean for a bike to 'fit' you? It means the fundamental dimensions of the bike frame, stem, bars and seat-post are compatible with your body, and the bike bars and seat have been adjusted to maximize your riding comfort, power and efficiency. Getting all this done is called a 'bike fit'. When buying a new bike from a local bike shop, a bike fit is included in the cost of the bike. It is not uncommon for the stem to have to be replaced as part of the bike fit process, and occasionally even the seat-post and/or bars.

If you choose to get a used bike, plan to spend additional money for a good bike fit at your local bike shop. However, most bike fits are done after the bike is purchased. How can you tell if a specific used bike will fit you before you buy it? I know of only one solution to this problem: Buy your bike fit first, then go shopping for your used bike!

Unfortunately, there are very few bike shops in the nation that will sell you a bike fit without either buying a bike from them or already owning a bike. Fortunately, we have one bike shop in San Diego that provides this service as a separate product: TCSD sponsor Moment Cycle Sport in Point Loma offers their 'Fit First' service, which puts you on a 'fit bike' that is adjusted until a good fit is obtained. A set of numbers describing the fit are given to you at the end, along with a thorough explanation. They charge about $200 for this service, though they do offer a substantial discount to TCSD members. (It is possible that other bike shops will provide a similar service in the near future, so be sure to ask around.)

So, you got your bike fit numbers, and now you're ready to buy a good used bike. The first place to shop is the TCSD Classified Ads, on the TCSD website. I've seen many truly excellent bikes listed there for around $400. Then check Craigslist, eBay (local only), local bike club sites, and the classified listings at local newspaper sites. You should be able to quickly find a decent bike that's within your budget. The goal is not to get 'the perfect bike', but instead to get a bike that won't hinder your first year of triathlon training and racing. The good thing about a $400 bike is that you'll probably be able to sell it in a year for the same price you paid, assuming you take good care of it. Think of it as a only a 'first bike', and not a lifetime commitment.

After you buy your bike, you may be able to adjust it to your fit numbers on your own, though if you have problems, a local bike shop may make the adjustments for a small fee (or possibly for free).

Now, I've talked only about getting a road bike. You could get a tri/TT bike, but that is certainly not recommended starting out, though you may well want to get one eventually as a second bike.

A side note: When shopping for used triathlon gear, it very much matters when you shop! Many triathletes get the urge to upgrade in the late winter or early spring, and will sell their old gear for whatever they can get in order to help fund their new gear. Another thing to keep in mind is to maximize the use of coupons, sales, and your TCSD discounts. There are several local vendors who, even though they are not TCSD sponsors, will still offer impressive discounts to TCSD members. And remember, REI annual member rebates are usually 8-10% of the price paid, so combining that with an REI sale can sometimes yield an unbeatable price.

So far we've spent under $200 for a bike fit, and about $400 for a decent used bike, for a total of $600 spent. Can we get everything else we need for just $400 more?

The next most expensive item is typically the swim wetsuit. A new one can range in price from $150 to $800. There certainly are used wetsuits available, but many of these will have some degree of damage that may be expensive to repair. Another option is to get a 'seconds' or 'demo' or 'return' wetsuit from a local manufacturer (of which there are at least 3 in San Diego, and at least 1 of them is a TCSD Sponsor). If you shop carefully, you should be able to find a quality wetsuit that fits very well for no more than $100. If you ask around, you may be able to get a perfectly serviceable wetsuit for free. I would recommend getting a long-sleeve wetsuit first, since sleeveless wetsuits can have several disadvantages for beginners.

One important note: Be sure to swim in your wetsuit before you buy it, or ensure you can return it. A wetsuit that fits well on land can have serious friction spots when worn in the water. Be sure to use BodyGlide around the neck when wearing a long-sleeve wetsuit. TCSD has a free Wetsuit Loaner Program (no link available) that lets you easily try many different wetsuits, and the Thursday evening TCSD Open Water Bay Swim clinic (see the TCSD Calendar) has its own inventory of free loaner wetsuits provided by clinic sponsor

Let's say you got lucky and found a comfortable wetsuit for free (it isn't really all that hard - just ask around on the TCSD email list), so we still about $400 left to spend.

The next most expensive must-have item brings us back to the bike: Bike shoes and pedals. It is almost impossible to find road shoes + pedals for less than $200 new, and tri-specific bike shoes and 'cool' pedals can add much more to the cost. Getting them used is difficult. And remember, the 'Comfort Rule' certainly applies here!

Fortunately, you can get new mountain bike (MTB) shoes + MTB clipless pedals (clone of Shimano SPD) for well under $100 (as low as $50 is you shop hard). Mechanically they work just as well as fancier road-specific shoes and pedals, and they even have some advantages for beginners. If you go this route, get MTB shoes with non-flexible soles that have laces with a single velcro strap over the instep (such as the Shimano MT31), then replace the laces with elastic laces. You will get most of the convenience and functionality of tri-shoes for a fraction of the price. Plus, the stationary spin bikes in many gyms are SPD-compatible.

That gets the total spent so far up near $700, leaving at least $300 to get everything else. If you shop carefully, you can get all the non-electronic items remaining on the list for under $300. For your apparel, be sure to check the TCSD Online Store, which has the best-looking and highest-quality stuff for great prices.

A note about electronics: This is one area where I urge beginners to either splurge a little, or have a serious talk with Santa. Rather than get a separate bike computer, heart monitor, pedometer and sports GPS, I'd recommend getting them combined in a single multi-sport unit. If you shop carefully, you can get a Garmin Forerunner 305 with heart monitor, bike pod, shoe pod (optional), and bike mount kit (which also includes a velcro wrist-band) all for under $300. Having this unit, and using its features as part of your training and racing, will pay significant dividends. And the bang-for-the-buck for this specific model is huge, since it can give you detailed performance data for all 3 sports: Run, bike and even swim.

So, if you do get the Garmin, then we've blown the $1000 budget. But you'll certainly be under $1500, even if you have to pay for your wetsuit.

Another important item to consider spending extra on is your bike saddle. This is where the 'Comfort Rule' really matters. If you have any discomfort or numbness after your first 10 hours of riding, consider getting an ISM Adamo Road saddle. It costs under $150, and even elite competitors use it. When I got mine, it changed everything for me.

Finally, a note about online shopping (other than at the TCSD Store): I'm against it, particularly for beginners. You will very much need the support and wisdom of local vendors, since you will have a million questions, need some fast returns, and quick service. They are well worth it, and deserve to be supported, especially if they are one of our amazing TCSD club sponsors! The only possible exception would be for the electronics.