Run Over? Part 3

Continued from Part 1 and Part 2

I will say this for a serious sports injury.
Far better you get it at the end of a season, when you’ve achieved your goals and have little else to aim for, than at the start of the year, when the competitive calendar is laid out before you. I was able to, and have continued to, smile about the fact that I ran myself into the ground this last year. Sure, the recovery process would have been a lot quicker if I could have just rested the injured foot at home for the weeks immediately after the marathon, rather than having residential business in New York City and, especially, England, where my enthusiasm for renting a stick-shift/manual car was offset by the fact that using the clutch meant constant stress on the injured part of my foot. But at least I wasn’t missing my favorite races.

All the same, I worried that by giving up running, I would feel lethargic, nervy, depressed and moody. Instead, I felt surprisingly buoyant. I found I was sleeping well, eating well (putting on a not-unwelcome few pounds pretty quickly), and drinking well, too, my moderate alcohol intake no longer affected by running-induced dehydration. I was thrilled to read that one of my few running icons, Scott Jurek, takes 6-8 weeks “hibernation” from running at the end of each season. (With a spring marathon in my schedule for ’09 and ’10, I had not stopped running for three years or so.)

Besides, I now had the motivation to improve the weak link in my work-outs: swimming. I quickly found that time in the pool gave me a full-body, impact-free work-out and that I was positively glowing at the end of it. There came a salient moment on a wintry Sunday back in Britain in November, when I emerged from an hour in the Beverley Leisure Complex‘s pool to encounter a number of middle-aged runners coming in from a hefty annual ramble through the surrounding fields and dales. I wanted – expected – to feel envious that I had not been able to participate. Instead, as I examined their aching faces and mud-splattered clothes, it occurred to me that they were, in fact, stark raving mad! It was but a short term relapse to my younger, non-running self, I’m glad to report but it was, perhaps, not overdue.

Lessons to be learned, 1: Harvard Professor Daniel Lieberman, widely quoted in Christopher McDougall’s best-seller Born To Run, explains the science behind barefoot running.

Finally, over the Christmas holidays, I got to sit back and properly ruminate over the past year and a half’s many successes and eventual failure. I started to draft out what has become this lengthy essay. Primarily, I set out to ask myself: what have I learned from this injury? Well, not for the first time, I learned that it was nobody’s fault but my own – and the absence of external blame makes it that much easier to deal with the pain. More significantly though, I learned that I committed the following significant mistakes in 2010, especially in the weeks leading up to my second marathon of the year:

I ran too much.
I ran too hard.
I ran too fast.
I ran with bad form, certainly on trails, and yet while aware of this bad form, I did not set out to correct it.
I allowed myself to over-stride, rather that increasing my cadence, in my attempts to run fast on races.
I ignored encroaching pain.
And crucially, I switched my size of footwear in the same month as I set out to achieve PRs in both the half-marathon and marathon distance.

These are all stark, decisive, concete lessons that need to be absorbed and applied to the future. But they still leaves one vital question unanswered. Namely, did running in Vibram Five Fingers contribute to, or perhaps completely cause my almost certain stress fracture?

Lessons to be learned, 2: This video demonstrates, very simply, the advantage of keeping the forward leg under the body as opposed to far in front.

One would be tempted to assume as much. After all, as stated at the beginning of this reflective essay, my particular injury is the one most commonly seen in runners who switch to VFFs, especially those who don’t adjust their form accordingly. But the truly bad form that contributed to the stress fracture – landing on the left of my front foot, thereby putting undue pressure on the metatarsal – took place not on roads in the Vibrams but on trails in the purposefully-designed Inov-8s. It would be unfair then, to single out the VFFs as being solely (ouch!) responsible for my pain.

Besides, the statistic is out there that a majority of runners suffer an injury every year. Indeed, two of the three local runners (and friends) with whom I most commonly (and companiably) compete suffered a serious running injury this past year. For one, it was the acutely painful plantar fasciitis, that most commonly associated with modern, cushioned, heeled running shoes. For another, it was an achilles problem that put him out of action for a number of weeks. Neither of these three friends acquired their injuries wearing Vibrams.

Then there was the New Yorker story that focused on American long-distance runner Dathan Ritzenhein, who finished eighth in November’s New York marathon. The story noted that Ritzenhein is “prone to developing stress fractures in the metatarsal bones of his feet.” There was no mention of him running in Vibrams either.

There was, however, reference to his healing process, which included “long sessions of aquajogging.” Having just joined my local YMCA primarily for its swimming pool, I promptly signed up for the center’s free aquajogging class. It’s proved an amazing work-out, one in which I feel my foot emerging that much fitter after each session. In the meantime, I’ve got on with enjoying this winter’s fantastic east coast ski season. My quads and calves get a hefty work-out as they would from running, but with my left foot wedged tight into a heavyweight, flat boot, the metatarsals are under almost no stress whatsover. I haven’t relied on cross-training alone; I’ve made a point of taking my daily vitamins, adding in Calcium-Magnesium tablets, and ensuring I get some Omega oils into my diet too. All these things work.

Lessons to be learned, 3: You can mimic running by aqua jogging. It’s easy, it’s cheap, go and do it.

I did one other thing. Almost immediately after the October marathon, I sold my VFF KSOs – because I recognized that the larger size had contributed to the injury. And yet I couldn’t get comfortable in any other footwear. Not the several pairs of gelled ASICS I had accumulated over the year, nor my heavy dress shoes. Not my hiking boots, not my flip flops. The closest I got to comfort was in my Inov-8s and my MacBeths, which are minimal, essentially flat (vegan) shoes. I found myself walking round the house barefoot or in my toe socks. For all that I had an injury to recover from, for all that I needed to treat it gently, I found that, as it healed, my foot was not objecting to interacting directly with the surface beneath it; if anything, it felt that much better for the sensation. And so, early in the New Year, three months after acquiring the stress fracture, and at the point that I felt I had finally gotten over it, I returned to Kenco on Route 28. This time round they had the Vibram KSOs in my original size, the European 43. The same color too, a nondescript black. These are the exact shoes – if you want to call them that – that got me through my 5k, 10k, and 15k PRs, countless other distance and fun runs, as well as the joy of running the Boston marathon. This was the footwear that had made me faster, more nimble and happier as a runner. I tried them on. As if reuniting with an ex lover, my feet seemed positively eager to get back into them.

Lessons to be learned, 4: champion ultra-runner (and vegan) Scott Jurek talks about common mistakes in trail running. I am not especially guilty of these, except the tendency to over-stride. But I do have to say, I find trail running more emotionally satisfying than road running.

You see, I still believe in the nature of barefoot and minimalist running. My injury, I am now convinced, was much more the result of over-enthusiasm, over-excitement and overdoing it (with bad form) in the latter part of the year than due to the minimalist footwear that I had served me so well over the preceding twelve months. To further correct these errors, I’ve been reading up yet more about the barefoot/minimalist concept, watching videos, engaging in forums, learning the importance of good form, taking strength-building exercises, and studying the comparable and compatible school of chi-running, which emphasizes the importance of keeping the forward foot underneath the body rather than forcing it out in front where it serves as a harsh braking mechanism.

I have been looking forward to resuming my running; I have been determined not to rush back into it. The day would come, I knew, when it felt right. That day arrived in early January, in the middle of a snowstorm. I had hiked the ¾ mile trail behind our house in snowshoes, something I would not have been able to do just a few weeks earlier. The snow was just deep enough that my feet crunched down and through the soft surface, not so deep that it wore my quads raw. Coming back down, those “post-holes” and that softness of surfaces was just to enticing. I started jogging in the snowshoes. It was barely half a mile; it took but a few minutes. It felt wonderful. It felt natural. Like something we were all born to do. I was back.

Lessons to be learned, 5: If you have the time, watch author Christopher McDougall talk about how the athletic shoe companies sold us a false promise/premise.

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December 2021