Wednesday, 20 July 2011

I'm a Runner (again)

I hope I'm not being like David Cameron's father should have been (premature) but I think I'm putting yesterday's mile down as a success.

It was only a nine minute mile jog along a straight stretch of canal towpath but it felt fine during the run. Mind you, jogging for even a mile felt shockingly difficult after so many weeks off.

Maybe more importantly than how it felt during the run, it felt no worse than normal after and the same can be said for this morning too - a little stiff, marginally sore but nothing that isn't there every morning. As I also did 80 minutes on a cross trainer and my additional achilles strengthening exercises yesterday its particularly pleasing.

So, rest day today (if a 6 hour drive and 2 hour meeting can be seen as rest) and only a swim in the evening. Tomorrow or Friday I'll push the boat out and go for 2 miles!

Tuesday, 19 July 2011

Physio's view on progress

Thanks for yesterday's comments. It seems you could work out the physio's advice before I got it - especially Jess's comment on the tendon being painful to squeeze for a long time after being able to run.

To cut a long story short she feels its 'making progress' but that it will be slow, so I need to keep reminding myself of what it was like 4/6 weeks previously. The exercises will continue for another 10 weeks minimum. I am to carry on with the current exercises but add in 2 different types of jumps from a step and carefully try gentle static hopping as long as it doesn't cause a notable increase in pain. The pinch test isn't deemed an important one as she warned that it might be that it will remain sore to the touch permanently.

In terms of running I can start...

...with one mile of straight line jogging (!), and if that feels okay during, after and the next day I can carefully progress; then go back again a week on Friday.

With the achilles taped up with garish blue and pink tape, I shall head out for my jog later on today.

Monday, 18 July 2011

A very pleasing week

One week down and sixteen to go.

After months of being able to do well for 2 days then blow it all (and then some) for the next 5/6, this last week has been surprisingly easy.

I've kept to within 100 kcals of target (either side) each day from Monday to Saturday, then yesterday we went for a family meal out and thanks to exercise and slight moderation during the meal I suspect I stayed within 200 of maintaining - though the nature of what I ate made it impossible to accurately capture.

I can't say that I have found it particularly challenging thus far either. Long may that continue.

On the exercise front its a similar story.

I went to the gym each day, doing a workout on 6/7 and just doing some gentle swimming on the other day. I've very much enjoyed what I've been doing and can see and feel the benefits very clearly already.

Achilles wise its not so clear cut.

On the plus side I've (mainly) been doing the concentric as well as eccentric strengthening, which puts me ahead on the achilles exercise front; and there's been no major aggravation from using the cross trainer. On the minus side it still feels a bit stiff and occasionally a little painful and is certainly still very sore if pinched even slightly.

One sobering moment was when I'd been doing some lunge walks on the running track. At the gym there is a small but useful indoor running track that I'd earmarked as perfect for running drills and plyometrics, so, flushed with endorphins I decided to try hopping along it on my uninjured side and then stupidly did the same on the left. Sore during and instantly very sore afterwards.

I think there's still some way to go.

Off to the physio this morning and it may well be that she'll tell me I'm OK to run. Part of me hopes she does but part of me is frightened that if she does I'll struggle and make the injury worse. Its not often I feel frightened to try something but this time its certainly there.

Tuesday, 12 July 2011

Explanation & gym programme

Its a two parter today - I'll give a bit of feedback on my (always appreciated) comments from the last blog entry, then I'll give a little account of the programme I was given (or at least my thoughts on it).

I've just had a quick look up of yesterday's comments so hopefully I won't miss any out!

Overall there is method (or methods) in my daily measurement madness.

I'm monitoring RHR daily, partly to establish the current level but then to watch for any hint of over training and alongside the RHR I get the blood pressure measurement so may as well record that.

I've tracked daily weight changes before and I'm very relaxed about how the numbers change: that there's never a uniform loss, and for me I'll often get several days staying the same or rising before a sudden large drop. Knowing that variance exists puts me off weekly weighing as the isolated figure is dubious without the context of the days that preceded it but also I can find that a weekly weight check can lead to my feeling tempted to switch off for a couple of days and try to play catch up before the date.

More importantly though, whilst the statto nerd in me wants a comprehensive body of data to analyse after the next 16 weeks I'm not setting myself any weight/measurements/RHR targets. Sure, I know the sort of level I'd like to get the weight to but I deliberately haven't worked out when I might expect to get there. My only commitment/target is to log my food intake and to exercise 6 times a week - I'm comfortable that if I concentrate on the process rather than the results all will work just fine. If I log food 90% of the time and exercise on 5.5 days a week then that's a success. That's how I'm defining it.

Regarding measurements though - spot on. My instinct is to measure monthly, but I do want to measure after one week solely because I suspect my belly will shrink through lower food volume and I'm curious to see if I'm right. Measuring after a week but then monthly disturbs the symmetry of the plan so I suspect I then went for weekly to maintain it (what would I psychologist make of that?). However, I'll tear myself away from weekly but reserve the right to use more colours in the plan to hide it!!

I definitely like the cross trainer. I could happily spend an hour or more on one whereas I cant do anything other than short intervals on a treadmill, and even that under duress. As for the exercise bike, I find that about as pleasant as repeatedly stabbing myself with a fork or watching a few minutes of Top Gear.

Anyway, yesterday I got my first programme from the gym.

Beforehand I was rather naively expecting to get something like 3 separate programmes based on 6 days training a week, a decent emphasis on cv work to supplement the shortfall in running, a very running specific set of weights and core exercises and a good running specific flexibility programme.

Hindsight tells me that was an unrealistic expectation from a gym instructor and that to get that I'd probably have to get something from a Personal Trainer or even a running coach.

Instead, what I got was what I suspect is a fairly generic programme: some upper body exercises on a Kinesis machine, body weight squats and lunges, 3 abdominal exercises, very basic stretches and a whole 10 minutes HIIT on the cross trainer.

I was disappointed.

However, I've done the programme twice and with some adaptations it actually works well enough for now. I've added on some extra core work, added more CV work in addition to 10 minutes HIIT, added more stretches. If I can start introducing some running in addition, having the odd swim (there's a heated outdoor pool as well as an indoor one) and continuing to add to the CV element to supplement running then it'll all work well enough.

Further down the line (as the achilles heals/strengthens more - and I feel it already has started) I can use the indoor running track for some drills to strengthen and injury proof my legs and there's a running club/group that run on Wednesday evenings.

Everything looks rosy. :-)

Monday, 11 July 2011

Like Verbal Kint: I'm the man with the plan

Well, part of a plan anyway.

Actually, its not so much a plan as an objective.

In fact, not so much an objective as some objectives, plural.

But I can measure progress. To some extent.

With me so far?

No, me neither.

Let me start again, as vague though this all seems I do feel quite enthused.

Last week's news from the physio wasn't too bad and whilst doing the exercises since has made the achilles periodically sore, I'm managing that okay with ice. I do think its already getting stronger and I'm very hopeful that a week from now I'll be given a cautious green light to return to running. Beyond that, though, I don't know how quickly mileage will build or even if I'll avoid any relapse. Its all a bit unknown.

Without running I've struggled. I've struggled to maintain much in the way of fitness. I've eaten very poorly and gained a lot of weight. I'm sure my mental well being has taken a knock too. Its not been easy.

Obviously a return to running will help all that but as the speed and certainty of return are a bit vague I decided I needed something more. As a result I joined a very swanky new gym on Saturday, initially on a 16 week membership, and got very excited at being able to use that 16 weeks to make a really concerted effort at achieving something.

So, I thought a little of what I could do and began to imagine what 16 weeks hence could look and feel like.

My initial thoughts were very much running focussed. By that time I will have needed to make a decision on whether a spring marathon is achievable, and realistically that means I'll need to be running 40-45 miles a week, pain free, and be including some form of speed training by the end of October.

That seemed a pretty decent, realistic, tangible objective, as even if I started at 12 miles a week a 10% increase weekly would still take me over 45 miles by the final week. I soon expanded this idea to wanting to be as injury proof as possible and very much ready for the ramp up in mileage marathon training would entail.

That all started leading me towards a gym based programme geared up to support the running based objective. I hope that will be fine but on the basis that I don't really know how quickly I'll be able to increase mileage (the physio could very easily suggest 3 x 2 miles a week for 2 weeks before increasing to 3 miles etc) it might not be achievable, so I decided I needed to widen or supplement the objectives.

Building on the theme of getting injury proof I then came up with a seemingly vague idea that I wanted to be as 'fit' as I was at the beginning of April. Naturally, even at 45 miles a week I wouldn't have the same endurance as I did in April but maybe I could still be as fit by being 'differently fit', in other words stronger or more flexible, as well as getting my weight down to a similar level. It might also mean that my methods and objectives need to be flexible in line with rate of progression and injury rehabilitation.

On that basis, and starting from today, I'm recording changes daily in:
  • Weight
  • BMI
  • Body composition
  • Resting heart rate
  • Blood pressure
Then weekly I'll be taking body measurements, and Sue has taken some Usual Suspects style pictures of me which we'll re-do monthly.

There's little more that I can measure, and whilst I recognise that figures will go up and down I'd hope that over the 16 weeks they will all have moved very clearly in the right direction. Its wooly perhaps, but I think its as precise as I can be in the circumstances.

In terms of process I'm committing to exercise 6 days a week wherever feasible (i.e. unless I'm ill or incapacitated!). With luck the running element will slowly increase but until then I'm looking to do a fair bit of work on the x-trainers* (3 different types at the gym) as well as core stability, flexibility and strengthening work. The what and when should be decided this week as I have an appointment with an instructor this evening where I'm hoping she'll have a few suggestions so we can develop something together for the next 4 weeks (then review and agree a new plan at the end of that time).

How does that sound?

* I've done 40 minutes on the cross trainer on each of the last 2 days and it doesn't seem to have aggravated the achilles.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Physio verdict:

I had my physio appointment on Monday.

She confirmed that I have an achilles tendonopathy on the left side but there didn't seem to be any partial tear. On examination I was surprised at just how painful it was when pinched though!

Underlying problem is something that comes on with age but that isn't necessarily the main or only cause. It wasn't a result of disparities in muscle length, calf tightness or restricted ankle mobility as they were all tested. It wasn't due to over pronation as she checked me out on a treadmill. It could be the change in shoes (so she advised me to ditch them just in case) but I'd been running in flat Innov8s for much of the winter with no problems so she was by no means certain that they played any part. Beyond that there was nothing obvious. On the downside I'd hoped for something concrete so that I could eliminate it but on the upside it didn't seem to bother the physio unduly.

Eccentric strengthening exercises, 2x20 morning and night for the next 2 weeks, with icing following, then go back again. If that's gone ok then she'll add in some more exercises and will allow a very slow, gradual and cautious return to running. The exercises will need to continue "not for days or weeks but for months".

Fair. She's hopeful that whilst fully repairing and strengthening the tendon will take months that during this time at least I'll be able to do some sort of running. Moreover she thinks this approach should make it manageable if not completely cured. However, as she can't see an obvious cause its still possible that there is some minor breakdown in my gait that has become inherent and can't be controlled in which case I'd need to go down the podiatrist route. Fingers crossed I don't.

Monday, 4 July 2011

I can make you run faster...


Lose weight, run intervals, run hills, do tempo runs, do higher mileage. They are probably the five most common pieces of advice on how to speed up your running. They all work too, either because they gradually get you physically and physiologically 'acclimatised' to faster running so you can maintain a faster pace on race day; make it easier for your body to propel you (in the same way that you could throw a cricket ball further than a shot put) or gradually improve your running form so you become more efficient.

Good though they are they are not what I'm advocating today though.

I'm going to suggest something that is mentioned in almost all running coaching books but that rarely gets more than a few sentences: stride rate, or how many steps you take each minute.

Put simply the speed we run at is a product of stride length and stride rate. Logically, if you increase either of these you run faster.

Maria has recently had some success using Audiofuel downloads. From what I can see they contain music that has set beats per minute in different intervals and that these beats drive differing stride rates, and that the faster stride rates equate to faster intervals.

There are a range of different plans that can be bought from Audiofuel and they look to have cleverly created a market niche for an aural training tool. I am certain that following their plans will deliver some improvement but only from the gradual physiological and psychological benefits that could be gained from any interval training or even doing the odd fartlek session.

Bob Glover, Danny Dreyer, Jack Daniels and Matt Fitzgerald, for example, will all tell you your stride rate should be as close to 180 strides per minute as possible. Audiofuel too, utilise that number but in a very different way.

The coaches tell us its the magic number for everyone, elite or not. Some people will run slightly faster (probably because they are shorter) and some a few less (if taller) but all will be as close as possible to this number irrespective of how fast they are running.

If you watch a race on TV the elite runners will all run at more or less the same stride rate of 180 per minute BUT they'll run at that rate regardless of whether they're running faster (e.g. 5k) or slower (e.g. a marathon), and they'll maintain the rate irrespective of whether they're doing a slower middle lap or a fast last lap.

So, coaches advocate (and elites demonstrate) that speed is increased by stride rate remaining constant while stride length varies. Audiofuel ostensibly encourages the opposite: that stride length stays constant while stride rate varies. I say ostensibly just because I suspect that in traditional intervals style the Audiofuel intervals will have an extremely gradual effect of speeding up base stride rate.

When an elite, or just an efficient runner, lengthens their strides they do it not by trying to reach further with their leading leg but by hitting the ground harder, getting more rebound energy, and floating in mid air for further between foot strikes. That's very different to many of us, who are encouraged by our footwear to run in a different way, but I'll come back to that later.

So far all I've done is ramble on about stride rate and elites, whilst raising a couple of doubts over what has become a popular product, when the title promised rather more.

So, here's what I propose, and like me its very simple:

  1. Order yourself a small plastic clip on metronome. They are about 3cm square, designed for clipping to music stands and can be set to beep at various rates. They cost less than £10 and can be bought from Amazon.
  2. Get your stopwatch and set it to bleep after counting down for one minute. Run this minute in the middle of a run and at your normal pace. As you do so count how many strides you take.
  3. Now you know your current stride rate and you know that you should be running at 180 so you need to close the gap.
  4. Set your metronome to a few bpm higher than your current rate and for the next week run to that rate. If you came in at 160 you might set it to 165 etc.
  5. The week after increase it again and keep doing this until you get to 180.
Don't try and run any faster though - you need to keep this up for the whole run and not just a short interval. To do that you need to shorten your stride not maintain its length. That's the key difference to Audiofuel.

This will result in your running at the same pace as normal but with a faster stride rate and it should mean you actually feel its far, far easier and not harder to run at that stride rate. It should feel like you're shuffling along. You won't be but it will feel like that at first. That's a good sign. If it feels tiring then you are trying to run faster and maintaining your old stride length - you must shorten it.

The reason it should feel easier is that many of us overstride - we use a bounding stride and reach forwards with the leading leg with the heel striking first, in front of the body. This has two big problems. Firstly there is a lot of wasted energy propelling us upwards rather than forwards, and secondly (as any GCSE Physics student would tell you) Newton's third law comes into play so that as the foot impacts with the ground in front of us there is an equal force pushing us backwards. So, each step has a braking effect - rather like trying to drive the car while repeatedly just touching the brake it'll limit your speed, limit your economy and 'components' might wear out more quickly.

A shorter stride, by contrast, encourages a footstrike beneath the body. This reduces wasted upwards motion and eliminates the braking effect. With a shorter stride achieving the optimum stride rate is pretty easy and it will leave you a faster, more efficient runner for what will certainly feel like less effort.

Not sold yet? Still think 180 sounds like it'll be too hard?

Let me give you a real world example: a (then) 40 year old who had been running for about 3 years; who couldn't run more than 20 miles/ 3 times a week without lower leg injuries, who had a (flat course and cool weather) 10k PB of 53:01. Me.

I was filmed by a coach and when she replayed the video she showed my slow, bounding, heel first gait and said this was the only thing holding me back. From memory I was running at somewhere in the upper 150s for stride rate. She advised the approach I've given above.

I did so and started to increase my stride rate. The very first time I did this I ran 10 miles and found had it been a race I'd have broken my 10 mile PB and afterwards didn't feel in any way out of breath and the next day felt none of the usual soreness or fatigue.

A few weeks later I had got up to 180 stride rate and ran a 10k on a humid day on a far from flat course that finished with a last mile that went relentlessly up hill. I ran 46:03.

That's seven minutes off the PB and all done quickly through shortening my stride and through doing so increasing my stride rate.

Give it a go!

Friday, 1 July 2011

Blackpool, dieting and my achillies heel

Into day 5 and all so far so good - despite the lack of exercise.

My stomach has shrunk dramatically (principally because it's containing a lower volume of food!), my face looks thiner (though that could be because I haven't shaved since Tuesday), and the scales say I'm 6.2lb lighter. Most importantly though, on 3 of the first 4 days I stuck very closely to my allowance and on the other - when faced with the unforeseen challenge of Sue returning from a school trip to Blackpool with an, ostensibly Irn Bru flavoured, stick of rock for me - I didn't let it lead to giving up for the day and stayed 550 under maintenance level.

The food types have been far better too with huge salads for each of the last 3 days. Its more difficult during the day as I have to limit myself to a very light breakfast and incredibly light dinner in order to leave myself the scope for a decent tea and some calories left over for a light snack in the evening. Even light running would make a big difference there.

Achillies still feels sore to the touch and occasionally a little sore/stiff during the day but nothing more. Unfortunately, getting a physio appointment has seemed about as easy as getting a plumber (a difficult task I faced last week). I emailed on Monday evening asking for a call back to make an appointment and expected a call Tuesday morning as its not like they will be inundated with requests each day. When no call came I tried calling them but in rang through to answer machine. So I tried again on Wednesday and once more yesterday, with the same result again. I'll try again today, but as I was working from home all week I'd been hopeful of getting an appointment this week. Never mind.