Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Shoe Salespeople

Even the most expert salesperson can't possibly sell you your ideal shoe if the store doesn't carry it!  And no store carries every shoe.  Every salesperson knows this.  Unfortunately, not all customers do.  Salespeople know this as well, and the lesser ones take advantage of it.

One way to tell the best and very best salespeople from the second-best:  Only the best will tell you when no shoe they carry will work for you.  And only the VERY best will recommend you try specific shoes they don't carry, and will refer you to competitor's stores that do (though you may need to ask).

A lazy salesperson will initially bring out only one pair of running shoes for you to try.  A good salesperson will bring out 3-4 pairs, and a better one will bring out 6-7.  A truly dedicated (but non-expert) salesperson will keep bringing out shoes until you either buy a pair or leave (or they run out of shoes).  An expert will have a process for shoe fitting that will quickly find the best shoe in stock for your foot.  But only the best and the very best will know when to stop bringing out shoes, will know when no shoe they have will work for you, and will pass on the sale.

Specialty running store owners and managers will often have this level of insight, since they have to examine and consider lots of shoes before selecting the brands and models they will carry.  The typical running shoe salesperson will not.

Then there are the truly bad salespeople, the ones who will say anything to sell a pair of shoes.  The worst among them may mention giving running shoes "time to break-in".  This is a lie, a blatant attempt to persuade you to buy a shoe that doesn't fit.  Taking this bad advice means it will be your foot that 'breaks' (blisters and bleeds), not the shoe.

Long ago, when running shoe uppers were made of cotton canvas and/or leather, the shoe shape would change very noticeably during the first several hours of use, so you would buy them allowing for this behavior.  The upside was that every shoe would soon become custom-fit to the wearer's foot. 

Modern running shoes use synthetic materials that are much more stable:  It used to be that you discarded racing shoes if they got soaked:  Now we toss our shoes in the washer!

Modern shoe designs are a much closer match to the actual shape of the foot, so a better fit 'out-of-the-box' is possible, and should be expected.  The downside is that a modern shoe won't, can't, change shape much (not until it wears out), so it is more important now than it has ever been that the shoe be as perfect a fit as possible on the day you buy it.

Unfortunately, too many runners have no clue what their 'perfect' fit feels like, having never had one in their lives.  Even the most expert salesperson can only do so much in the face of such ignorance.  The best way forward is simply to try on and test-run lots of shoes at lots of stores, learning every step of the way.

While it is useful and instructive to listen to shoe salespeople, and it is worth your time to find the true experts, nothing can replace knowing for yourself when a shoe is best for you.  When you do buy a pair of running shoes, you must trust yourself above all others, and take full responsibility for the results.

Sunday, August 28, 2011

Podiatrist: "No, Bob, you didn't break your foot."

What?  When my podiatrist told me the above last week, I was very surprised, to say the least.

When I did the Camp Pendleton Sprint Triathlon three weeks ago, I re-injured my foot during the run from the surf to transition.  It felt just like my incident last October, only half as painful.  After promising myself I'd quit if it got worse, I completed the race anyway.  Being unable to push with my right foot, my left leg was cramping by the time I finished the 5K run, but my run was only 90 seconds slower than my goal!

I saw my primary physician two days later, and when nothing showed on the X-Rays (again), he gave me a podiatry referral. Since there aren't many podiatrists in my system, I had to wait two weeks for an appointment.

One thing about my X-Rays:  I was not surprised that my injury last October did not show up on my X-Rays, because stress fractures often don't.  But with a repeat injury at the same location, both my primary physician and I were puzzled to see no bone thickening associated with the healing of the prior stress fracture.  And the reduced pain level of the new injury did not fit with any kind bone fracture diagnosis.  Hence the podiatrist.

The podiatrist instantly saw I had never had any significant trauma to the bones of my foot, and he then proceeded to lecture me on the fine anatomy of the foot (unsurprisingly, it seemed to be a well-practiced topic for him).  Basically, the foot is criss-crossed by a large maze of muscles, tendons and ligaments.  And unlike most other parts of the body, where a single degree of motion involves only a single primary tendon and/or ligament, the foot has multiple layers of interlocking support.

The thing that confused me is that tendon and ligament damage I've had in other parts of my body still generally hurt after the load was removed: For my foot, both times the pain was completely eliminated when I simply lifted my foot from the ground.  I also have had a long history of ankle sprains, so I though I knew what a sprain felt like.

Not so, said my podiatrist:  When a tendon or ligament is dislodged from its place in the maze, intense pain is often the immediate result.  And since the tendon or ligament itself may have experienced minor or no damage, there will be little or no pain after the load is removed.  And so long as activity is limited, there will often be no visible swelling.

That diagnosis perfectly fit my symptoms.  It also explained why the re-injury hurt less than the original.  And, not surprisingly, the time needed to completely heal a sprain is about the same as to heal a stress fracture.

It also explains one other thing that puzzled me during my healing process: My foot always felt better in snugly laced shoes than it did in sandals, slippers or barefoot.  While compression is not generally helpful in healing fractures, it is often helpful in healing sprains (by limiting incidental loads).

And since my foot was more comfortable shod, I had been strictly limiting my barefoot activities to the absolute minimum.  Which meant my foot became easier to injure while unshod, which is exactly what happened during my swim exit at the triathlon!

What does that mean for my future in running? First, to help my current healing process, I will continue to limit my barefoot time.  But the moment my foot is healed, I plan to gradually increase my time spent out of shoes (in sandals and/or barefoot).

My current injury was primarily caused by the spreading of my unshod foot while under load, combined with the twisting associated with exaggerated barefoot pronation, plus running on an irregular surface.  My initial injury last October was more due to the pronation alone while wearing flimsy racing flats.  Over time, I need my foot to become better accustomed to and more tolerant of these motions, and greater activity without shoes is the only way to do so.

Toward the end of my visit with the podiatrist, I asked him: "Which ligaments or tendons were affected?"  His answer?  "I haven't a clue.  There are way too many of them to know for sure!"  (I think he did know, but didn't want to take the time to explain, since he had a bunch of appointments stacked up after mine.)

The identity of the culprits doesn't really matter: The recovery process will be the same.

I've been doing lots of research on foot sprains, and I'll summarize what I'm learning in a future post.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Arm Swing

I've been tinkering with all aspects of my stride for three years now, and if I were to pick the single most critical aspect of my stride, the part that both consumed the most time to develop and yielded the best results, it would be my arm swing.

I am convinced that arm swing is one of the most complex stride components to work on.  The length of the arm bones matters (both in an absolute sense, and relative to the leg and torso lengths).  The amount of arm muscle matters, as does the weight distribution between the upper and lower torso.  The arm swing that works best for one runner may not work at all for another runner, even if their body builds were nearly identical.

I have several very different arm swings I use, depending on the terrain (flat, uphill and downhill), the shoes I'm wearing (shoe weight has a great effect on the stride), and my fatigue level (my best speed under the conditions).

It took me about 6 months of experimentation to not only try many arm swing variations (range, symmetry, rate, forcefulness, elbow angle, etc.), but also to keep working with the 'best' ones until they became 'natural' to me.  I found it essential to record all my test runs on my Garmin Forerunner 305 so I could later compare apples-to-apples, independent of what or how I felt (except for joint discomfort).  Every new arm swing variation always felt worse, or at least strange, at the start.  But the numbers do not lie.

The most surprising thing I learned is that I run with my arms!  When using a metronome to train my turnover rate to a higher level (I train at 190 bpm), I found it was my arm swing I had to force to match the metronome, not my legs.  Whatever my arms do, my legs will follow (if they can).  The reverse did not work at all for me:  Trying to make my legs turn over faster was a pointless endeavor.  I've recently begun looking at my leg swing, and seeing if I can use my arms to help improve it, rather than focusing only on the legs.

I also had to incorporate stretching and some light strength training to help my arms become better at doing the swings that worked best for me.  In particular, my rearward swing increased quite a bit (especially uphill), and I had to increase my strength and range of motion to make it effective, comfortable and sustainable.

Right now, my best arm swing on level ground with fresh legs looks like this:
- Elbows at about 95 degrees (slightly open)
- Hands open and flat (making a fist ruins my arm swing)
- Arm swing does not cross the body (no torso twist)
- Rearward swing is slightly exaggerated (it helps me maintain my best forward lean and also helps me use my hamstrings better)
- Downward arm swing is forceful, return swing is relaxed (it basically matches what the opposite leg is doing)

Having minimal torso twist has proven to be a key component toward helping me go faster.  YMMV: Many runners require some torso twist to help obtain full leg extension.  I have long arms relative to my leg length (great for swimming) which seems to make torso twist unnecessary for me.  (I did try bending my arms more and adding torso twist, but it slowed me down.)

The thing is, this is beginning to feel like a never-ending cycle:  Every time I get faster, my stride lengthens (I keep a near-constant turnover rate), and I need to adapt my arm swing to work better with the increased range of leg motion.  If you already have great cardio conditioning and good speed, you may reach your potential sooner, with less experimentation and adaptation.

I'm still trying to work my way down to an 8 minute pace, one step at a time...

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Running and Music

I can't count how often I hear someone complain about earphones that don't stay put while running, often due to motion and/or sweat.  They will then ask: "What is the best kind of earphones to use while running?"

The correct answer is none.

The vast majority of runners do at least some running on or near roads.  Anywhere moving vehicles and people mix, collisions are sure to happen.  Runners are seldom hit from the front, since the eyes can provide enough warning to avoid a collision.

Most runners get hit from the back or side, where the ears are the main warning source.  Intentionally reducing ear sensitivity while running anywhere near traffic is literally suicidal.  Many communities understand this, and have passed laws restricting the use of earphones and music players near roads.

I have personal experience with this: Just over 25 years ago a runner wearing earphones was waiting for the light to change at an intersection, then proceeded to run across the wrong side of the intersection. I was just entering the intersection on my motorcycle, having timed the light perfectly, only to suddenly find that runner in front of me.

I hit the brakes and horn and veered to miss the runner, but she kept going, never hearing the huge amount of noise my horn and tires were making. I was unable to avoid slamming into her. I had a very rough landing, was knocked unconscious, and nearly slid into oncoming traffic.

When I woke in the hospital, two police officers were standing at the foot of my bed. They asked if I knew what had happened, and I told them everything I could remember. My memory abruptly ended an instant before the impact. I didn't remember the collision itself or anything after.

They next told me she was declared dead at the scene. My blood pressure crashed and I passed out for a few moments. When I came to again, they said something that's been burned into my memory ever since: "It was not your fault. The witnesses and the evidence at the scene make it clear you did everything possible to prevent the collision. The earphones she was wearing and the volume setting of her music player combined to make her completely unaware the danger she was in. She was negligent to the point that she essentially committed suicide, and used your motorcycle to do so." They said more after that, but my mind had locked up trying to process that last sentence.

Even now, a quarter of a century later, this memory still wakes me, my heart thumping and my hands shaking.

There is no safe way to combine music and traffic with running or bicycling.  Just being a runner or bicyclist on a road is hazardous enough without making it worse by adding music.

The music a road runner hears is often their own requiem.

I'm enough of a personal libertarian to believe that we each have the right to determine when and how we leave this world.  I also believe in personal and social responsibility, and we should not inflict needless trauma on others.

Wearing earphones while running or biking anywhere near a road is equivalent to intentionally making yourself a candidate for a Darwin Award.  But as you exit the gene pool, you should try to do so with minimal pain to loved ones and strangers alike.

Wearing only one earphone or keeping the volume down is not a viable solution:  Your attention will still be on the music, instead of on the hazards present in the world around you.

The same applies to using a phone while running.

If you must run with music, please stay well away from traffic, and consider these alternatives to roads and sidewalks:
  • Treadmills
  • Oval tracks
  • Paved paths
  • Trails

Update, 16 August:  I've received a fair amount of feedback about this post.  Some said they rely on music to keep their pace regular.  In that case, consider running with a metronome such as the inexpensive Seiko DM50.  The beep of the metronome will not prevent you from hearing approaching traffic.  I seldom run without mine!