I’m Not as Broken As I Feared

As I increased my mileage for the fall marathon training cycle, a new pain arose in my right arch. It would go away a mile or two into each run, but would announce itself whenever the foot was otherwise rested. I assumed it was the dreaded plantar fasciitis because, well, that’s the most common thing that matched the symptoms.

Wrong.

A pair of my shoes got retired today, and as I deconstructed them for clean-up and a new life with “Back on My Feet”, I discovered a tiny spot on the inside of the shoe that matched the spot where my foot hurt. The lining material had torn and bunched into a small lump next to the sock liner that was continuously pressing into the arch.

Small spot causes big pain
There’s the rub!

Lesson – most things that hurt you have a simple cause. Take the time to look for it and save yourself a lot of grief!

Posturing

One of the great things about running is that just about anybody can do it, and (as anyone who has chased a toddler can attest) we begin running at a young age. However, there’s a difference between running, and running well, and virtually everyone who has ever put on a numbered bib has a desire to do better.

One of the keys to running better requires paying attention to your running posture – something that likely didn’t come naturally when you took your first running steps. I’ll discuss the “how” first, and then the “why”, so that even those with short attention spans can get the benefits!

Shortest answer: Your mother was right when she told you to stand up straight – even if Mom knew nothing about running! Some coaches will advise their athletes to “run tall”, or “swim long” (different orientations of the same basic concept.) But what does that mean in practice, and what does it feel like when you do this correctly?

First, I want you to calibrate yourself – get yourself into the correct position and pay attention to what it feels like. This is surprisingly easy: From a standing position, I want you to reach upwards like you’re retrieving something from a high shelf. Now – two changes; if you’re standing on your toes, let your feet get flat on the ground. Next, holding everything else the same, drop your arms to your side. This is your “tall” position. Notice that your hips are rotated forward, your back slightly arched and your shoulders squared and thrust back. This is the position your core and torso should be in when you run. Feel free to repeat the high reach whenever you need to remind yourself what it should feel like to run with good posture.

Several years ago I memorized a couplet – a brief poem – to remind myself to hold this posture whenever I ran. (I don’t claim authorship or this ditty, but don’t recall its origin to give proper credit.)

Hips forward,
Shoulders back,
Keep arms loose,
Now run relaxed.

I’ve found that running this way engages my core and gluteal muscles so, at least initially, you can expect some discomfort in your butt and lower back as you first start working those previously under-utilized muscles. I now feel rewarded when I have post-run soreness in these areas as an indication that I am running correctly!

The information above is the most important aspect to running with good posture – the remaining items help, but aren’t quite so critical.
The posture above should be accompanied by a slight leaning forward at the ankles. Quite often, when I share this with my trainees, they incorrectly bend forward at the waist instead. Not only does bending at the waist undo the proper forward tilt of the hips and pelvis, but it also compromises the diaphragm, making it more difficult to take deep breaths. So remember, any bending happens only at the ankles!
What to do with your arms? Your elbows should be bent at a 90 degree angle and your arms swing back and forth such that your fingertips (NOT clenched fists) just brush the top band of your running shorts. The motion should be entirely front and back, not swinging left and right across your torso.

All of this serves to move your body’s center of mass forward, so your feet spend more time beneath and behind you. Not only is this where you can generate the most power, and recruit your largest gluteal muscles to do it, but it also makes it less likely that you will overstride and land on your heels with each forward step. (The negative effects of heel striking are bad and will be covered in another post.)

So, much as it pains me to admit it, Mom was right. Stand up straight! Channel your inner Elvis!  The results will make you a more efficient runner. You can then decide whether to use that efficiency to run faster, farther, or just more comfortably.

Time to Come Clean

I generally pay attention to experts.  The advice of those “in the know” has often saved me from mistakes and injury.  There’s one area, though, where I believe the experts are wrong – in how to clean up your running shoes. Athletic shoe manufacturers almost universally advise that their products don’t need to be cleaned, or if they must be, that spraying a garden hose, or a brief soak in the kitchen sink is all that is required. In the shared wisdom of these experts, laundering shoes is a Cardinal sin, resulting in the premature and painful death of a beloved set of kicks, and the probable damnation of the offender.

Bah!

Over their normal lives, a pair of running shoes will be subject to over 500,000 impacts, each equal to several times the body weight of their owner.  They’ll be drenched in perspiration from within and, among those that leave the confines of a treadmill, soaked in precipitation and puddles from without.  Each one of those half-million foot strikes will raise dirt that will settle back on the shoes and their wearer.  Much of this dust, sand, and the salt crystals left by evaporated sweat, has sharp edges and can cause excessive wear of the shoe material.  The sweat and moisture provide a good environment for the growth of bacteria and permafunk.

If all of that is the natural environment of footwear, then an hour spent tumbling in cold soapy water with some towels seems downright benign!  Afterwards, stripped of their sharp-edged and corrosive contaminants, the shoe fabric can breathe. A few grams in weight reduction can provide a speed boost, and you can show your face in social runs again, freed from the burden of shoe stank, with sparkling footwear that no longer looks like a hand-me-down from Pigpen.

With those benefits in mind, I confess that I put my shoes in the washing machine.  I don’t do so often – generally once, halfway through the running life of the shoes, and again when I retire the shoes from running and either demote them to casual wear or donate them to some worthy charity.  I also have the benefit of a front-loading washer without an agitator.  If I had a conventional top-loading washer, I’m less certain that we would be having this conversation.

Finally, because the world is now run by lawyers, I need to stress that while this advice has worked for me dozens of times,  that in using this information, the risks to you, your shoes, laundry equipment and destruction of your home and neighborhood are entirely your own.
Still with me?  Here’s what you need to know:

1) These instructions apply ONLY to running shoes constructed with conventional man-made fabric.  If your shoes have leather, suede, nu-buck, or other special materials, check with the manufacturer for care instructions.

Insert Shoe Laces and Sock Liners into Lingerie Bag
Liners and Laces get Bagged

 

2) Remove shoelaces and inserts or sock liners before washing.  These items may be laundered separately in a lingerie bag.  Pay attention to the lacing pattern so you can duplicate it when you reassemble your shoes once they are clean.  Remove any electronic components, if present.

3) If you have any large chunks of dirt or rocks embedded in the tread, remove what you can BEFORE laundering.

4) Use a front loading washing machine.  If your washer is a top-load, or if your laundromat front-loader lacks a gentle or delicate setting, then all bets are off.   If this is you, stick with the manufacturer’s recommended hand-washing in your kitchen sink.

5) Do not use harsh detergents or chlorine bleach.  Regular HE laundry detergent is fine; an ounce of the sport-specific detergent seems to be better at de-funking, and a half-scoop of OxiClean  is a useful addition to banish grass and other stains.  Do NOT use fabric softener.

6) Add a towel or three to provide additional cushion and a scrubbing surface in the wash cycle.  The larger the towel, the fewer you need.  I generally put in two medium sized bath towels with each load.

7) Use a delicate setting and cold water.Washer Settings

8) I usually add an additional rinse cycle to make sure all trace of detergent is gone.

9) Air dry your shoes when they come out of the washer. DON’T EVEN THINK ABOUT PUTTING SHOES IN A DRYER! I live in a rather humid part of the world and, even in air conditioned space, it takes at least 24 hours before the shoes are dry enough for me to put them back together.

Air Dry Shoes
Air Dry Shoes

10) Re-assemble your shoes (restoring laces and sock liners) only after they are completely dry.

Run Smarter

There is a secret technique to running faster races that doesn’t require running any harder or training any longer; In fact, you can’t even practice this technique in most training runs!   It applies to any distance, and the longer or more convoluted the run, the more beneficial this technique becomes.

The nature of this secret will be obvious the moment I speak of it, yet when I watch races, the majority of runners seem unaware of it.  The secret: Don’t race any farther than you have to!

Before the “Duh!” reflex kicks in, allow me a bit of explanation.  Road courses are measured with a calibrated wheel that rolls along the shortest path that a runner can follow between any two points (while remaining within the traffic cones, on the route and/or roadway.)  A competitor on that course is taking extra steps, and extra time, whenever he or she deviates from the path traced by that calibrated wheel.  Sometimes those extra steps are necessary (as to avoid an obstacle or slower runner), sometimes they’re desirable (as when making use of a hydration station), but mostly, those extra steps are the result of habit, and of all of those training runs where you stayed on the path, sidewalk, or to one side of the road for safety.

On race day though, the full width of the lane or the full street may be available to you.  Do you make use of it?  It helps if you know every turn in the course route, but even without that knowledge, you can plan ahead rather than following a curving line in the middle of the road!  The smart runner can look up as far ahead on the course as can be seen, then plan to run a tangent — a straight line – towards that point.  At some point in that journey, you’ll be able to see a bit farther, and, at that point adjust your tangent to account for the new information.  Following this sequence of straight lines, you may find yourself going from one side of the street to the other as the route twists beneath you.  The more the road turns, the more time and effort this can save you.

tangent2

Even a course as deceptively simple as that for Atlanta’s Peachtree Road Race (just one left turn) will benefit from this technique.  If you need convincing, pull up a map (paper or on-line – either will do), and trace the route of staid, straight Peachtree Street from Lenox Square towards downtown.  By my count there’s a dozen turns in there before getting to 10th Street.  Each of those turns present an opportunity to take fewer steps, and save time over your less enlightened competitors.

 

Hello World

earth

In computer programming classes, the first assignment in learning new language is often an exercise wherein the goal is just to get the program to put “Hello World” on the display – electronic notice that something new is on the way.  I am appropriating that concept for the first entry of what I hope to be a new, useful, and entertaining blog loosely centered on running.  My name is Brian, I live in Roswell (near Atlanta,) Georgia, and after many years of running, nearly as many years helping other people run, a bit of writing and a lot of helping to build a vibrant local running community, I’m hoping to extend that community on-line.

There is no shortage of advice for runners and running.  Some of it is amusing, some useful, and some of it bad enough to be dangerous.  This is not new — over 100 years ago, Mark Twain opined “Be careful about reading health books.  You may die of a misprint.”  In my own running, I’ve made enough mistakes to last a lifetime.  If sharing those mistakes can save others from the same fate, this is effort well spent for both me and the reader.  One unique aspect you will discover is my emphasis on spending your time and money wisely.  I took up running partially because it took little more than a suitable pair of shoes, and was productive exercise from the moment I stepped off my front porch until I returned.  Over the years, the time and money I’ve spent have increased, but I still try to get the biggest bang from every buck and the healthiest return from every drop of sweat.  For those less constrained by time or income (I’ve heard such folks exist, but not sure that I know any of them), I hope the information will be good enough, and the writing entertaining enough, to keep you coming back also.

Over the last decade, I’ve served as a running coach, run leader and facility coordinator for several training programs, including those run by the Atlanta Track Club.  Though I didn’t rediscover running until I was in my mid-40s, I worked my way into running at the local elite level and earned a spot at the starting line for the Boston Marathon in 2010 and 2011.  In the process, I’ve done some stupid stuff, rubbed shoulders with and learned from some other outstanding athletes, coaches, and sports professionals.  The brilliance of these other folks has made me acutely aware of how much I don’t know, while informing a training philosophy that has served me well, and helped hundreds of other individuals that I’ve had the pleasure to work with.  In these training programs I’ve helped to lead, improving participants’ running was actually FOURTH on my list of priorities.  Ahead of that was 1) Keeping our trainees safe and uninjured, 2) Keeping it fun, and 3) Building a sense of belonging to a community that would persist after the training period was over.  The order of those goals recognizes that broken people can’t run and those that don’t enjoy it won’t want to!  It’s a poorly-kept secret that running can be hard work and can be responsible for varying degrees of discomfort.  (One of the shirts that I wear to inspire and challenge those new to running says “My sport is your sport’s punishment.”) The payback has to be sufficient to make that time, that exertion, and that discomfort all worthwhile.  Among my goals here is to minimize the pain and maximize the payback!

Although running has a place in my life, it would be a mistake to think that running is my life.  Like most of you, I have other interests and responsibilities.  I have a family, other interests (including home brewing beer, music, and DIY home repair), a job, and other volunteer positions that compete for my time and other resources.  Juggling those demands is a significant task, all by itself – one that all of us have in common.

While this note is mostly about introducing me and this blog, future entries are mostly about you – your goals, your needs, your growth and your progress so I can personalize this blog to those concerns.  I can’t do that unless you talk to me.  Use the link below to send me your comments and questions.  Make this a conversation.  Send me your mistakes too.  Heaven knows that while I’ve screwed up more than my share, there are more mistakes out there, and each one has its own lesson that we can discover and pass along.  Go ahead, caller, you’re on the air!