Ultramarathons. What , why and how are the questions I'm most commonly asked. Hopefully you find some answers here from my own personal perspective. My other blog at www.mile27.com.au/blog is full of information on running and health and fitness in general.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

World 100km Championships

Five weeks ago I was in some of the best running from of my life. A typical training week was a 2 hour run Tuesday including an hour of sprinting up and down hills, Wednesday a marathon in under 3 hours, Friday 45-60km hilly run and Saturday 30km in just over 2 hours. My legs although tired weren’t sore at all from all this mileage and I felt great. Unfortunately that was five weeks ago and the race was yesterday.
Since then I’ve been on a 2 week holiday in Morocco where I had planned to run but a combination of a trek that was far more difficult than first thought, a stomach bug that meant eating very little for 4 days and then 3 days in Marrakesh where running was as practical as running down Oxford street during the Xmas sales meant I didn’t manage to run at all.

Once back from Morocco I went out for my usual runs on Tuesday and Wednesday hoping I hadn’t lost too much and was surprised by two things. First of all my times for my hill sprints were if anything quicker than before which I took some confidence from and secondly how sore my legs were after the two days which was not so good. Legs were too sore run on Friday, Saturdays run felt horrible, my calves felt like they were going to tear with every step and my right thigh was significantly tighter than my left and also felt is was about to tear with every stride. I had a couple of days off and tried again on Tuesday and was surprised that I actually felt ok to begin with but this didn’t last long so I cut that run short and left it till Friday to run again. Fridays 2 hour run felt good from a speed point of view but calves and thigh still very tight and only a week to go until the race. Decided any further runs weren’t going to achieve much so spent the week massaging and stretching.

So it was a little nervously I lined up at the starting line in Torhout, Belgium. Would my legs still have sufficient conditioning from all the miles before Morocco to run a good time? Would my right thigh and calves hold out and allow me to even finish?

Torhout is a small, pretty Belgium town that had come to life for the event. At the same time as the 100km run there was a 100km walk , a marathon run and a 10km run involving over 1000 people and the two towns that the runs passed through were geared up for a big night. The races started at 8pm and so would finish till the next morning. To keep the spectators entertained bands, DJ’s and beer tents had been organised meaning everyone was in the mood to party ( except for the runners of course, although I did see quite a few people who were obviously planning on running one of the events indulging in a few beers only hours before the race!)
The gun went off and we set off. I was keen to settle into a very comfortable pace and not get caught up with everybody else. Marathon and 100km runners set of at the same time but you could tell who was who as Marathon runners had 4 digit numbers, 100km runners had 3. As I passed the 5km mark a checked my watch and saw I was on for around 7.40 pace which I felt was very realistic based on times five weeks ago, now, I wasn’t sure.

I caught up with a fellow Serpentine runner Ian and we chatted for a while, both of us focussed on maintaining “conversation pace”. I dropped behind Ian as we came to an aid station as I had decided to walk the aid stations. This was based on a purely practical reason. The cups they were giving out were tiny and when I ran through the first aid station I managed to get enough water from the cup to almost wet my lips and tongue. I had decided to carry a special sports drink on me but rely on the aid stations for water. You can’t run 100km without water so I decided any time lost walking for 10 seconds whilst drinking would be made up by not dehydrating later on. I’d had a bad experience during my first marathon with the same sized cups so didn’t want to repeat the experience.

The race consisted of 5 laps of approximately 20km (one slightly longer the rest slightly shorter) on traffic free roads through rural Belgium countryside. It was pleasant rather than pretty although the smell of cow manure in some stretches was a bit overpowering. Lots of spectators lined the route initially but as night came on the spectators became less and less and the ones that were around seemed more concerned with drinking and partying than clapping and supporting runners.

I finished the first lap feeling good and on time for 7.40 still. So far so good, the second lap started off much the same as the first, my legs felt keen to run,no sore spots in calves or thighs and feeling comfortable. Towards the end of the second lap although feeling comfortable my legs were starting to hurt more than they should have. I finished the second lap which was exactly a marathon in 3.14 and my legs felt sorer than they did when I was running sub 3 hours in training. Not a good sign. Still, I was on track for 7.40 and my main aim was to break 8 hours which still gave me 20 minutes leeway. The third lap felt a lot different as all the marathon runners had finished so there was a lot less runners around and it was now dark, very dark in some places.

I was focussing on running from aid station to aid station where I would walk just long enough to have what I wanted to drink again. The organiser’s had placed km markers every 5km so these helped measure my progress. I reached the 50km mark in 3.52 which is 7.44 pace if, I could keep the same pace up for the second half. Considering I had run 50km in training in under 3.40 several times and felt comfortable enough to run again the next day, 3.52 should have felt very comfortable which theoretically should allow me to push hard on the last 50 and run either a negative split or at least the same time. Well that was the plan 5 weeks ago. Based on how my legs were feeling now I knew that running a negative split was very unlikely and survival was the name of the game. The question was how much time I was going to lose in the last half. My 5km splits were declining quickly and my legs really starting to hurt.

Somewhere between 55 and 60km my legs decided they needed some relief. Well actually that’s not true, my mind is what needed some relief, the thought of dealing with the pain in my legs for another 40+ km was more than it could handle so I stopped to walk. Feeling disappointed that I was now walking I started running again almost immediately only for a few minutes down the line to find myself shuffling and then walking again. I knew straight away that if continued to do this it was going to take a long time to finish the race and I would be very disappointed in myself.

Dealing with pain in ultra’s is obviously a very mental thing and for me it comes down to confidence. Confidence that your legs can handle the damage you are inflicting on them. Five weeks ago I had that confidence, now I didn’t. I didn’t know if they would last the distance, I didn’t know if I had bitten off more than I could chew, I’d only run 5 times in the last five weeks, was that enough to maintain the great form and condition I had back then. I was worried about my right thigh and both calves, if one of them went then it’s a long limp home. I pride myself on my mental strength but now it was letting me down. I was crumbling when things got tough whereas in previous races I revelled in it, actually looked forward to the point where things become difficult, looked forward to testing myself. How strong mentally and physically was I? Only when you get to those points in a race do you find out and that’s why many of us do these races.

I quickly snapped out of this mental low patch and set myself some new targets and rules. Walking was allowed at aid stations whilst I was drinking and every ten minutes for one minute only. I accepted I just didn’t have the mental strength to face the thought of running non stop for another 45km with legs that felt that every step was tearing more and more muscle fibres before finally something gives way. I set of for my ten minute run and felt immediately better. I noticed my pace actually felt ok, my legs were still killing me but I could still run a decent pace. I counted down the minutes until ten and then walked for one, being very strict with the one minute. If I went through an aid station I reset the ten minutes from when I left the aid station. Bit by bit I saw the 60km 65km and 70km marks go by. Time wise I wasn’t sure what time I would be heading for, I did some initial calculations in my head and came up with 8.15 which wasn’t so bad and gave me a bit of a mental lift until I realised I’d calculated wrong. I decided to forget about it and just keep running.

About half way through the fourth lap I noticed my 5km split times were starting to speed up, somehow I was getting faster. Not a lot but it was a couple of minutes over 5km which adds up after a while. I also noticed if a lent forward slightly as I was running my speed would increase without any extra effort. The downside to this was it made my legs hurt more. I was starting to believe that my legs would get to the finish, my claves hadn’t torn yet and my right thigh felt no worse than my left. With only 30km to go I passed through the small village at the other end of the course as the band were playing “Born to be wild”. Lifted by the music and with my confidence and mental strength steadily growing I lifted the pace and decided to try and go longer before I walked. Unfortunately lifting the pace and increasing the time until the next walk was not a great idea and ten minutes later I was walking again. Ok lets try that again, without the adrenaline that was flowing due to loud music and a few kind spectators cheering me along. This time, with a more sensible pace I managed to keep running past the ten minutes until I reached the next aid station. Ok from now on aid stations only, my legs weren’t going to tear in two, I was going to finish so lets finish it as quickly as possible.

I ran through the town for the last time and headed out for the last lap. If I could run the last lap there’s a chance I could break 8.30 which although is a lot slower than my initial target is still a reasonable time. The stretch out of town was the most difficult for me. It is very dark , no aid stations to break it up until you almost reach the other village and very few spectators. I almost made it to the aid station without walking but after rounding a corner expecting to see some lights and people I saw another stretch of road ahead of me. I crumbled and walked. Come one I said to myself get running again, so after barely ten seconds I set off again and made it to the next aid station.

Just as I left the aid station I noticed someone just ahead in an Aussie top so I took off and caught him and said G’day. We chatted for a while and then got serious. We had 15km to go and 1 hour 20 left to beat 8.30. We ran side by side trying to keep the pace up, conversation revolved around splits, speed and aid stations. Idle chat disappeared as we concentrated on the job at hand. Both of us were using each other to keep us going, I’m sure he was doing it easier than me as it felt like he was setting the pace but I’d caught up to him at the station so he must have been going slower than me for a while for me to catch him.

Initially the km’s ticked away very slowly and the desire to walk was extremely strong but I had resolved to try and not walk at the start of the lap and now that I was running with someone the same pace as me I really didn’t want to stop now. After what seemed an eternity the 90km sign came into view. Only 10km to go. I really didn’t know if I could stay with him till the finish but every time I slowed even slightly he yelled out something encouraging. I tried to do the same for him but I was concentrating so hard on making my legs work I couldn’t offer much. Occasionally if he slowed and I had a momentary good patch I’d pick the pace up but I couldn’t do any more.

Eventually the we reached 95km. Only 5km to go. I’d resolved myself to the fact that it was going to hurt like hell but there would be no more walking except at the next aid station. Only 5km and we still had 35 minutes to do it in. Bit by bit, urging each other along we kept pushing the pace. I was dangerously close to blowing up, I couldn’t keep this up for much longer but I didn’t have much longer to go. We could see the lights in the town get closer and could even hear the party that was still raging at 4am in the morning. My Aussie mate (Michael I found out afterwards – we didn’t exchange names during the race) was keen to really push it hard for the last little bit but I knew I had nothing left. I still wasn’t sure if I could maintain this pace to the finish so I told him if he had anything left to go for it. He just kept encouraging me to stay with him. We passed the 40km sign which meant there was exactly 2.195 kilometres to go (as it was a lapped course you constantly passed signs that were for other laps). I knew that just before you enter the town you pass under a railway bridge and from there it is only around 800m to go. Mentally I knew as soon as I reached that I would make it.

We both realised we were going to break 8 and a half hours and as 2nd and 3rd placed Australians had a chance of qualifying for the Commonwealth Championships in September. The railway line came into view and I told Michael again to go for it, I’d be just behind him and would see him at the finish. He picked up the pace a tiny amount and I just couldn’t keep up. It didn’t matter though, we’d helped each other out and managed to run faster than we would have alone. (in fact my last lap was almost 10 minutes quicker than my 4th). I ran through the town feeling both exhausted, relieved and pretty pleased with myself. Ok it hadn’t been the best race of my career but I’d managed to hold it together (just!) and finish strongly.
Crossing the finish line in 8.25, Michael ( who had put 15 seconds on me in the last 800metres) was waiting for me, we shook hands then hugged realising how much support we had given each other and what a difference it had made.

So I’ve finished my first 100km race. Will it be my last. There’s a small chance I’ll make the Aussie team for the Commonwealths so will have a chance to run another 100km in September if not I would like to have another go just so I can see that kind of time I can do when fully fit.

What else did I learn? Well I’ve always thought of physical and mental strength as separate and maybe for some people they are but for me they are intrinsically linked. If I’ve trained well, I gain a lot of mental strength and belief in myself which carries into a race if I don’t then mentally I’m not as strong.

Today my legs are very sore but I can walk ok as long as I don’t have to go up or down! I’ll take this week of, selection is announced next Saturday so will wait till then to decide what my next race is.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Running heel to toe in supportive cushioned shoes. Have we got it all wrong?

Here’s a few controversial ideas to get you thinking. Some of these I have been pondering over for a while and some are derived from Christopher McDougalls fascinating new book “Born to Run”.

Why are we told to run heel toe when all the fast runners over any distance land on their toes?

Why do we constantly suffer from foot and knee injuries even though running shoe technology has improved exponentially over the last few decades?
Why has a large study shown that people with more expensive running shoes suffer from more injuries?

Why do we accept our feet for the way they are and give no thought to training them when any other part of the body we look at ways of strengthening and stretching to improve performance?

Running Heel toe

Every podiatrist and physio I have every seen has despaired at my habit of landing on my toes when I run. “You should land on your heel first and rock forward onto your toes..”. I was never really explained why I should do this except that the reason my calves were so tight is that I always land on my toes.

I have always ignored the advice as I felt running on my toes was a more efficient and faster way to run. When I moved into ultra-marathons I was told I couldn’t possibly run that far on my toes but once again I ignored them and kept landing on my toes and managed to do this for up to 100miles.

As a spectator at several half marathons and 20 mile races I took a keen interest in the running styles of the various athletes. What I noticed was all the faster runners ran by landing on their forefoot and all the slower runners landed on their heels.

So why are we being told to run heel toe if all the faster runners are landing on their toes? Are the faster runners simply blessed with good genetics and are therefore able to run on their toes and everybody else less fortunate has to be content with landing on their heels.

How were we designed to run in the first place? Back before running shoes even existed, how did we evolve to be able to run and what did our running style look like. For a fascinating insight into the evolution of early mankind and the ability to run, read “Born to Run” As far as how the human body is mechanically designed to run all it takes is a simple understanding of basic anatomy and it becomes obvious.
Let’s look at the two different running styles and see which one makes more sense in terms of anatomy. If we land on our forefoot, because we actually land on the outside of the forefoot our foot rolls in (or pronates) once we land. This movement allows us to absorb the shock of slamming our foot down into the ground. Once our foot has rolled in our body moves forward over our foot and our foot starts to roll back out or supinate. It eventually locks and gives a stable platform for the Achilles tendon to help propel us forward.

If we land on our heel, all the shock of landing is transmitted up through our shin bone to our knee and then up through our thigh bone up to our hips and lower back. To reduce this shock or trauma caused by landing on our heel cushioned running shoes become essential. The reason running shoes are designed the way they are is that in the early 70’s it was thought you could run faster if you increased your stride length so that you landed on your heel instead of landing on your forefoot. Because your heel doesn’t provide any shock absorption a shoe had to be designed had shock absorption built in. So basically the running shoe is designed to change the way humans have run for thousands of years.

Now it is obvious that the human body didn’t evolve with the thought that it could land on it’s heel since in 60,000 years time mankind would invent cushioned running shoes!

What about my problem of tight calves caused by landing on my toes? Well the interesting thing is if I didn’t wear running shoes I wouldn’t have that problem. When I land (or any person who lands on their forefoot) my heel does travel down towards the ground but it is stopped by my running shoe. This effectively limits the range my calf goes through therefore causing my calves muscles to tighten up. The same thing happens to women (or men for that matter) who wear high heels. Because the calf never gets fully stretched it tightens up. This was made extremely evident in my first Ultramarathon. I wore a pair of shoes that I hadn’t worn in properly and unbeknown to me the heel on them was slightly lower than my normal shoes. Because of this my heel travelled a few mm lower to the ground with every stride. After 40 miles my calves were screaming at me and after 90 miles I was barely able to walk. The extra stretch placed on them was more than they could handle. So if I had run all the thousands of miles over the last twenty years with shoes that had a lower heel my calves wouldn’t be as tight. Running on my toes hasn’t made me a less efficient, more injury prone runner, it’s made me a faster runner. It’s made my calves tighter only because I’ve run in highly supportive running shoes which if you keep reading will discover they may not be the best thing for your feet.

So dispense any notion of running heel toe as being a faster, more effective and less injury prone technique of running.

The easiest way of retraining yourself to run more effectively is run barefoot. Try running 100yards barefoot and see how long you manage running heel toe before you automatically start landing more on your toes.

Are running shoes any good?
A large study of over 4000 runners competing in the 9.6 mile race showed that those with more expensive running shoes were twice as likely to suffer from an injury in teh previuos year as those with cheap shoes. How on earth can this be possible? Running shoes have been around since the early 70’s, surely by now running shoes should be able to prevent running injures and the more expensive the shoe surely the better the protection against injuries. Sadly this is not the case.

The human body is very good at conserving energy. If something else is providing the support it normally provides then it may as well stop providing that support. If for example a muscle needs to exert 10 units of pressure to stabilise a joint, if you place a support in the form of a bandage or strap that supplies 8 units of pressure then the muscles will relax and decrease the pressure they supply to 2 units of pressure. If you continue to do this the muscle gets used to only providing 2 units of pressure and as a consequence become weaker.

This is what running shoes do to your feet, because they provide the foot with a lot of support the actual muscles and ligaments in the foot don’t need provide much support at all so they become progressively weaker. The more expensive the shoe the more support the shoe provides and the less work the foot has to do. You might think that it doesn’t matter as long as your shoes provide enough support. Unfortunately it is not as simple as that. What happens in the foot paves the way for what happens in the rest of the body. For example as the foot pronates it causes the lower leg to rotate in which causes the upper thigh to rotate in which switches on the gluteus(bum) muscles to control that movement. So without that foot pronation the gluteus muscles won’t activate properly which can overload the knee, ITB, lower back, hips or shins not to mention decrease the forward propulsive force the gluteal muscles can generate.

Surely I’m not suggesting we throw away our running shoes and run barefoot?
Not quite! Running barefoot is impractical in a lot of conditions, shoes protect our feet from the cold, the heat, glass, thorns and we didn’t evolve to run on concrete or bitumen. Having said that I think running barefoot or nearly barefoot can form an important part of your running routine. By nearly barefoot I mean wearing shoes that allow the foot almost as much freedom of movement that barefoot does. There are two types of shoes on the market that I know of that provide this. Nike make a shoe called the Nike Free which looks like a normal shoe but is designed to allow the foot as much movement as possible. The strangely named fivefinger shoes by Vibram are basically a rubber glove for your feet, they look a bit strange but are basically like having thick rubber skin on your feet. As a third more practical but not quite as good option is wearing old trainers.

Now don’t ditch your new running shoes just yet. If you go straight from highly supportive running shoes to barefoot straight away you are asking for trouble. You need to give your foot muscles a chance to strengthen up so my suggestion is to try is running twice a week for initially only 10-15 minutes barefoot or nearly barefoot and gradually build that time up until you can handle 45 minutes or so with no problems. Once you reach this level add some speed training to your barefoot running and then add some uphill and downhill running.

Will exercises for the foot make any difference at all?

I used to think they wouldn’t. As we spend so long on our feet I thought that 10 minutes of foot exercises per day is not going to be able to undo the hours of standing walking and running with poor foot biomechanics. However my thoughts have now changed for a number of reasons.

The exercises I have been shown for the feet always seemed a bit of a waste of time. They didn’t really seem to be relevant to what the foot actually does when you run. You had to concentrate on doing it correctly and when you run there is obviously no time to think about making the foot do something specific. We can’t consciously control what our feet do when we run.

Fortunately there is a new method of training the feet that works on training the feet subconsciously. It makes the foot do what it should do without you having to think about it. Combining these types of exercises with barefoot running I believe will be the next big breakthrough in reducing injuries in runners and improving running performance.

What are these exercises? Well unfortunately, every foot is different and the exercises that make one foot better could make another foot worse so if your currently living in London you can contact me and I can assess your feet and your running style and prescribe a series of exercises for you.

If not you need to find someone who specialises in Functional Movement Training preferably trained in the Gary Gray methodology. Gary is the world recognised leading expert in the field of Functional Training.

What running shoes should you wear?

No need to throw away your expensive pair and buy a really cheap pair just yet. Your feet will need time to strengthen so add some barefoot running to your program and start changing your shoes less frequently. Depending on how much barefoot running and exercises you do and how often you run you should eventually be able to start buying cheaper less supportive and lighter footwear.