Sunday, 18 August 2013

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever

Keep your feet happy, and you can pretty much run forever.  That's my theory, anyway.  Forget runner's knee, ITB pain, sciatica, weak core muscles, and all the other things that get in the way of a good run.  If you can’t put weight on your feet, you’re scuppered, but if you can, then you can rehab all the other stuff.

Why am I writing about feet?  Well, for a start, my feet and ankles have been a mess for months, resulting in a couple of missed races this glorious Summer.  My feet are the weakest link in my running chain, and they have been for decades.  When I hit a plateau in my running, it’s my feet that give way first.  If I do too much hill work, my glutes and hamstrings burn, but my plantar fascia complain for days (weeks/months).  If I do too much speed work, I may well strain a calf, but if I really overdo it, it’s the feet that suffer for the longest.  This is pretty consistent regardless of my capabilities at any particular time.  So what have I learned about feet in the past few years, as I progressed from 10k to 100mi?  First, if you want to improve as a runner, remember the tiny muscles in and around your feet and ankles.  Second, if you want to run off road, strong feet and ankles are the difference between enjoying the scenery and enjoying the run.

Enjoy the short videos of my feet.  Sorry about the toenails, but I like to think they're in great shape for an ultra runner... You should see the other foot.  I took these videos shortly after my first 100 miler, when feet, ankles, and calves were still pretty hacked off and I was just starting to rebuild some strength and mobility.  As a result, you can see how a relatively weak foot fares with the exercises.

Stronger Feet

To get stronger feet, all you have to do is exercise them – simple, right?  For some runners, it’s as simple as going for a run.  For the rest of us, though, a little extra work is required.  Here are two exercises I use as the basis for all of my foot pre-hab and re-hab.  I'm a pretty simple guy, and I like simple exercises.

Toe Crunches
You’ll find a variety of descriptions of this exercise, which is the foot equivalent of making a fist.  I typically see things like “put your foot on a towel and scrunch it up with your toes”, or “pick up a pencil with your toes”.  That’s all well and good, but not particularly handy if you don’t have a pencil or towel to hand (like on the bus, train, or in that boring meeting while you read this, pretending to be looking up an important e-mail).  I tend to do this pretty much anywhere.  If you have shoes with a decent toe box, you don’t even need to take them off.

The key to the exercise is to isolate the movement, so keep your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still.  Then, you are working all the small muscles that support toe movement and stability.  You can see in the video that the simple motion of curling the toes works quite a lot of the foot.  Start with 10 and work your way up over several days.  When you can manage 100 (~90 seconds), it’s time to just drop them into daily life while you’re waiting, standing on the sidelines or sitting still.

Toe Raises
I find that the top of my feet can also suffer when I’m doing a lot of trail running.  Often, when you turn your ankle, it’s the soft tissue across the top of the foot that gets the long-term damage.  After an ankle sprain (my last one was about a monty ago), focusing on the little toe can really remobilize the muscles that got the tweek.

Again, by keeping your leg, heel, and ball of the foot still, you focus the movement on the micro-muscles that support your toes.  As with the toe crunches, start with a few and work your way up to 100.

Stronger Support Structure

Once your feet are a bit stronger than they were when you started (all of these things are relative), it’s time to think a bit more about how to keep your foot well supported.  Trail running in particular involves frequently landing on uneven ground.  To keep your foot right-side up, you need to build up the supporting musculature.

Standing Still
One thing I often notice is that runners are notoriously bad at standing still.  When we meet up before a race, at club runs, in the supermarket, etc., we fidget, stretch, pace, flex, and generally cause the non-runners in our lives to wish we would just stay in one place.  Why do we move about so much?  I suggest it’s at least partly because standing still puts a strain on a very small set of very small muscles that we tire out regularly when running.  So, how do we make them stronger?  Stand still.

More specifically, get barefoot and stand on one leg.  This isn’t really a convenient thing to do (yes, I have done it in the office while making a cuppa, no it wasn’t received as normal behaviour).  Fortunately, most of us have a particular activity in the day that is perfect for standing still.  Try this exercise while brushing your teeth.  Why while brushing your teeth?

  1. you have top teeth, you have bottom teeth, you have two feet – left foot, top teeth, right foot bottom teeth is a really simple way to work; 
  2. nobody cares if you’re not wearing shoes when you brush your teeth;
  3. the amount of time is suitably short for when you’re starting out and suitably difficult to give you some benefit;
  4. and this is probably the key benefit of the tooth brushing activity – there’s just enough movement in your upper body to make you work to keep your balance.

The joy of this exercise is that not only does it require no additional equipment, but it works your entire body as you maintain your balance.  From your toes to your neck, you are working the whole chain that you need to work well when you step on one of those nasty rabbit holes as you run through a grassy field.  When it’s all strong and working together, you have a chance of remaining upright.  When it’s not, you may well find yourself looking up and hoping you didn’t land in that big cow pat you had been trying to avoid when you found the rabbit hole.

Once you find this to be nice and easy, splash out and find something uneven (wobble cushion, bosu ball, dog toys) to stand on and keep developing that support structure.

With these basic, low-maintenance exercises, you will quickly build/rebuild strength in your foundation, making all things running just that little bit easier.  You can add more reps, more time, more wobble, or more difficulty (try standing on one foot and then lifting your heel).  A few minutes here and there during your normal day will make hours, days, or weeks of difference in your uninjured training time.

Wednesday, 14 August 2013

Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon: It had moors. It was hard

Nic's review of the Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon

Moors.  Beautiful moors. Hard moors.

We entered the Hardmoors Saltburn Marathon at the start of the year, after I said I wanted a trail marathon to look forward to.  We like to use races as an excuse to visit new places, and Kurt had never been to North Yorkshire.  Then, a couple of months later, we entered Endure 24, and this marathon became something of an afterthought.

I had been struggling to recover after Endure 24, finding that I tired really easily and feeling like I’d lost strength and power when trying to run hills.  The first couple of runs after our Georgia trip were hideous.   I doubted I’d be marathon-fit by August 11th, and contemplated dropping to the half.  We’d already booked the hotel room, or we probably would have pulled out altogether, as Kurt was injured.  But then I suddenly found my mojo again at the end of July, while out trail-running with a friend.  It was like a switch had been flicked – I felt full of energy and running was enjoyable again – phew!  I was also loving running the Cotswold Way, recceing it in preparation for the Cotswold Way Century race in September.  With Kurt injured, the task of running the trails, map in hand, checking out the tricky bits, fell to me.  I ran the final leg of it, into Bath, last Wednesday.  We thought it was about 13-14 miles, but I went wrong big-style in the last few miles and added a couple of extras, eventually doing 17 miles.  I wasn’t too worried about this.  I wasn’t that tired at the end, I was uninjured and still full of energy.  I actually felt pretty confident about the marathon, I just needed to take it easy and make sure I ate regularly.

The weekend came and we made our way North.  After a pleasant evening, a nice Italian meal and a good sleep, we made the short drive to Saltburn by the Sea.  It was a beautiful morning – sunny and fresh, and the scenery looked very promising.  I didn’t feel particularly ‘up for it’ but that’s not unusual – I put it down to nerves.  In fact, I think I was the most nervous I’ve been about any race in the last few years.  The following few hours did not go well.

The route took a short road section out of Saltburn and before long hit the trails.  There was plenty of uphill in the first few miles, which I quite happily hiked.  I was keeping an eye on my average pace though, as I really wanted this race over and done with in around six hours.  I didn’t really feel all that good, but it has been taking me ages to warm up lately.  I figured I could always turn off at the half marathon split if I felt that bad, but it came after less than three miles, which was a bit soon to be making a decision to bail really!  I had some jelly babies at the checkpoint and carried on.  The trail was pleasant, very firm underfoot with some lovely views out to sea.  I was starting to feel a bit better as I loosened up and enjoyed the scenery.  The going started to get very hard at Guisborough woods, as the trail took a very steep gradient up the side of a hill, through some very overgrown (and sharp) vegetation.  This was really tough and unpleasant.  We continued to climb, eventually coming out on Stanghow Moor.  It was beautiful.  The heather was in full flower and the views were magnificent.

The calm before the storm

Running through a very narrow trail though bushy heather brought its own challenges though.  The trail was too narrow to run naturally, I had to trot along putting one foot very firmly in front of the other to avoid tripping on heather roots.  This took a great deal of concentration and didn’t feel good at all.  And, I was still going uphill.  I did however discover that heather is an excellent exfoliator.  Eventually, the downhill came.  Were it not for such a narrow trail, the downhill would have been a delight, as the trail was firm and the gradient was pleasant.

Lovely heather, narrow single track

Ten miles in was the next checkpoint.  All the checkpoint volunteers and marshals were so lovely and there was a nice array of snacks.  I had a couple of cups of coke (heavenly) and a chocolate cornflake crispy thing before hiking up a steep road and coming to the next section, uphill again on Skelderskew Moor.  I was really starting to fade at this point.  I felt exhausted and had no idea how I was going to complete.  The hills felt brutal.  At the high point on Skelderskew Moor, the heavens opened with some proper Yorkshire rain – cold and horizontal.  I pulled on my waterproof and ploughed on, grateful to find some downhill.  The trail here was made up of hard rock – it looked like slabs of rock had been laid to make a trail.  It made a change from fighting with the heather, but it was hell on tired sore feet.  After a mile or so of this, it was back to the heather.  I can’t tell you how many times I tripped and stumbled and almost fell down.  I was really struggling and as I reached the checkpoint at fourteen miles, three hours in, I phoned Kurt and said I wanted to stop.  He was busy at the finish, helping with timing, so I decided to keep going.  I really didn’t want to quit but I had no confidence of finishing without killing myself – either through falling down or plain exhaustion.  Another three hours felt out of the question.  Thankfully, the route did get a little easier over the next couple of miles, but I felt awful and after a couple more conversations with Kurt on the phone, I told him just to come and find me at a road crossing.  I’d had enough.  In those last few miles, I really tortured myself trying to make the final decision as to whether or not to quit.  I’d never quit a race before.  But I don’t think I’ve ever felt so bad in a race before.  Kurt picked me up at 17 miles in, four hours after the start.  I cried and cried but I’ve never been so relieved to stop running.

So what happened?  Simply, I failed to prepare properly.  I got a few things wrong.  I don’t know how much impact the 17 miles four days before had, but I don’t think that was the cause.  My legs didn’t feel tired after that run, and I felt physically fresh on the morning of the race.  But I suppose it could have had some impact. I had eaten well in the run up to it, but I did get my food strategy all wrong on the day.  In my other marathons, I’ve eaten things like Clif Bars in the first couple of hours, which has worked well.  In this race, I went straight to sugar, eating Shot Bloks, gels and jelly babies instead.  I just didn’t think about it enough, reaching for what was convenient rather than thinking about what works for me best.  So I sugar-crashed.  Not good.  The other thing I failed to do was actually look closely at the route map and the elevation profile.  If I had, I would have realised that the first 13 miles of the route are uphill and I would have paced myself better.  Instead, I was so worried about keeping my average pace around 13 min/miles, I pushed too hard and blew up.  I should have taken it much easier in the first half, knowing the second half was so much easier, and I could have made up time then.  But I failed to avail myself of this information and I paid for it.  I also think I am probably not fully recovered from Endure 24.  I do wonder what I would have done if Kurt had also been running, and unable to rescue me from my hell.  I probably would have plodded on and ‘deathmarched’ to the end.  It would not have been pretty and I probably would not have been able to run the lovely little trail run I did today.  So all in all, bailing out was a sensible decision.  My friend Roy says I must find myself another marathon to run so I can get rid of the demons – I think he is right – onward and upward is the only way!

Friday, 9 August 2013

Gear Review: Osprey Verve 5 Hydration Pack

Proof, if proof were needed, that wandering through an outdoor store is fraught with hazards.  Here's Nic's review of her new spontaneous purchase, the Osprey Verve 5 Hydration Pack.

For a long time now, I’ve been searching for the perfect running pack.  I’ve tried out several backpacks and a couple of waistpacks, with mixed results.  I am very short and fairly small-built, at only just 5ft tall.  Apparently I have a particularly short body, as I could not find a backpack with straps that were adjustable enough to pull tightly and avoid bounce.  I tried Inov-8, Deuter and Salomon packs, and none of them were good enough.  My Inov-8 RacePro 4 waistpack was an adequate compromise, as it obviously didn't bounce on my shoulders.  However, when the bladder is full, the bounce on my hips is uncomfortable and messes with my centre of gravity.  It occurred to me that there might be such a thing as a ladies’ fit backpack and I hit upon the Osprey Sirrus 24 pack.  As well as being pleasingly purple, it is extremely adjustable and comfortable to wear – for once I could tighten the straps enough to eliminate bouncing on my shoulders.  My favourite feature is that it is built on a frame, so the fabric of the pack sits away from one’s back, so sweat can evaporate.  Unfortunately, this pack is big.  Nearly as big as me, according to comments from other runners.  I was carrying around a large pack which was mostly empty, even with all the required kit, food and water for a trail marathon.  You could probably happily use this pack for a mountain marathon!

The Osprey Sirrus - more than enough pack for a coastal marathon. It did rather catch the wind, though.

I had given up on finding the perfect pack, accepting a compromise with a too-big but incredibly comfy backpack.  Then, during a browse around an outdoor shop, I saw the Osprey Verve 5  pack.  I was immediately excited as this seemed to be everything I’d been looking for, for at least two years.  A ladies-fit pack, the Verve is a deep purple in colour.  It is small and compact, with 5 litre capacity.  It has a large bladder pouch, which contains an Osprey Hydraulics bladder; a small waterproof pocket, which is big enough for phone, keys and Vaseline and probably a few other small items; a larger pocket on the front, which is big enough for quite a lot of snacks; and a mesh pouch between the front and back pockets, which is ideal for stuffing extra layers or a waterproof into.

The Verve 5 on a hot and sweaty trail run.

In terms of space, it is plenty for my requirements for most training runs and races.  The small first-aid kit and foil blanket that I normally carry will easily fit into the bladder pouch.  The only thing it lacks is a side pocket, which is really handy for easy-access to food.  It does have a small elasticated mesh pouch on the left hand shoulder strap – perfect for a phone, camera or a gel or two.

Main pocket on the outer, small pocket with zip at the top, big expandable open pouch in between.  Note the snazzy bike helmet clip.

The first few times I used it, I struggled with the Osprey Hydraulics bladder system.  I had a few leaks after failing to close the screw top.  It is a little fiddly and requires a bit more care than other bladders I’ve used when closing it up.  The feature I particularly love is that the bladder pipe has a magnet on the end, which fixes it neatly to the shoulder strap – no tubing dangling around while you run, you just clip it in place – very easy and very cool!

Magnet for the bite valve.  Not ideal for pacemakers, but otherwise very cool.

Bite valve just snaps on and off - sooo easy.

I’ve worn my pack for a few long runs and hikes now, and it is very comfy.  I usually wear a backpack with a vest which has a collar, to avoid neck-chafing.  I tried it earlier this week with a normal vest, just to see how much chafing I ended up with.  After nearly four hours of running, I had no chafing.  I certainly can’t say this about the Osprey Sirrus or any other backpack I’ve ever run with.  It did get pretty hot on my back, as there is no frame with this one, just a vented pad.  I think this is a compromise I can cope with, given the total comfort of this pack.  A few runs and hikes in the Appalachians this Summer were certainly hot and sweaty, but the pack remained comfortable in spite of the lack of a fully vented frame.

Vented straps and back pad - cooler than no vents.  Better than many.

Overall, I’m really pleased with the Osprey Verve 5.  It is aesthetically pleasing, compact, and comfy with a few added extra clever features.  For anything up to 50km, it will certainly do the job in most weather.