23 June 2015

Tread lightly

I try not to be boring about barefoot (or minimalist) running: fortunately, enough people are sufficiently interested to ask me questions, so if ever I am boring on the subject it is actually someone else's fault. I am a great enthusiast for the feeling of freedom (especially wearing my huaraches), speed and lightness I get from the technique. The idea of leaving no mark on the landscape appeals to the environmentalist in me. My feet feel strong and healthy and my knees love the fact that they are not called upon to absorb all the shock every time I put my foot down.
The science behind this is (to me) very interesting. Foot Strike Patterns in Tarahumara Runners Wearing Huarache Sandals vs. Conventional Shoes is a posting by Peter Larson on runblogger.com, his blog on all things running-technical. It picks up from the so-titled article by Daniel Lieberman in the Journal of Sport and Health Science, Volume 3, Issue 2, June 2014, Pages 86–94. Lieberman, of course (and yes, you should know this, if you've any interest in running) is the academic and runner who features in Born to Run and who has provided a lot of scientific support for anecdotal and instinctive discussions about the benefits of barefoot or minimalist running. He convinced me, of course, but that doesn't take much doing.
Lieberman's research (as interpreted by Larson, who is better-qualified than me to do so) shows, ultimately, that running is a highly individual thing. Although running in minimalist footwear is associated with more midfoot or forefoot striking (MFS or FFS) while marshmallow shoes (not the scientists' choice of word but mine) are associated with heel-banging (again, my expression not theirs) there are lots of other variables: as I have noticed ... going uphill tends to move your strike forward, perhaps for no better reason than that your forefoot meets the ground earlier, and going faster tends to get you up on your toes, perhaps largely because you're leaning forward a bit. Softer surfaces can also encourage you to land on your heels: try running on a nice soft beach (Grand Anse is perfect for this, though unfortunately it's not very convenient). Then get closer to the waterline where the sand is packed.
The fact that we are all different means that, running being a democratic activity, there is no right or wrong footstrike. But there are techniques which can prove more efficient or which can help reduce the risk of injury. Over-striding (a result of, inter alia I suppose, heel-banging) is inefficient. Mid- or forefoot striking recruits the myriad tendons and things in one's feet to absorb the shock of landing, a job done by the marshmallow in 'conventional' shoes, and strengthens the arch resulting in feet that will withstand more - in theory at any rate, although it certainly feels that way to me. That said, a couple of years ago I sustained what I must assume was a stress fracture in one of my feet, and of course (as a doctor told me at the time) your feet have lots of little bones in them (he suggested ibuprofen gel, which sort of worked, a little: rest was the only real treatment).
MFS or FFS is also lighter and quieter, which makes sense. If you're not banging down on your heel you will make less noise. The runner you're catching in a race won't know they are about to be passed until it's too late.
So I know what works for me, and also that it won't necessarily work for the next person. But what also works for me was illustrated at Didcot Parkrun a few weeks ago, when a couple of ladies to whom I was talking remarked on my huaraches. I observed that they got me noticed, which nothing else was likely to do.
They also have the advantage that, if the dog chews the toe off them, you can fix them with Superglue and still run a Marathon on them. Try doing that with £100 marshmallows.

19 June 2015

The Lark Ascending

One reason among many why I love running in the local countryside is hearing the sounds of nature, of which the singing of the larks alongside the Ridgeway is a summer highlight. (The sounds of heavy vehicles on the A34 is less attractive, but cannot in any case be attributed to nature.) They were in great voice this morning as my new training regime (which is basically "get out and run") continued - 17 miles so far this week and no ill-effects: on the contrary, a feeling of well-being and satisfaction and a greater capacity for work, which also seems to have become more interesting and compelling. Of course I knew all this would come from upping the running effort, but it is good to be proved right.

Today was almost a rest-day run, at a very sedate pace for most of the distance, concentrating on the new breathing technique and trying to make sure my diaphragm did the work. After a brisk trot down the metalled road from Upper Farm to the school, I planned to keep going without pause over the footbridge which always provides a satisfying moment as I get up on my toes and attack the climb: but as we approached it, a lady with a pushchair was just entering the path that leads to the bridge and I knew there would not be room for Lucy and me to squeeze past, so we waited until I saw her crest the summit before setting off over it. In fact it was the people several yards in front of her at that point who I caught first, near the end of the descent on the other side: she's already overtaken them.

Warm, sunny weather, no wind that I noticed, dry, in fact ideal running conditions. I hope I am on track for my 5K target - I haven't checked how my weight is doing recently.

18 June 2015

Moon in June

5K or 3.1 miles round the playing fields - 9 laps and a little extra. The first mile seemed to get faster and faster, so once I heard the bleep to tell me I'd reached that distance I slackened off and inserted some faster intervals into the laps. Three-two breathing is getting more instinctive and I feel less fatigue than I would expect. I hope this indicates that my Parkrun goal might be achievable, though I have a long way to go!
There are a few pauses in the session to pick up litter or wait for the guy who was mowing the grass: I didn't want Lucy to get too close to his mower.

No more heroes

[Originally started on 16 May]
Few books have had such an influence on me than Christopher McDougall's Born to Run. Not, as I explained to the guy I was sitting next to at the launch event for the writer's most recent book, Natural Born Heroes, an influence on my life, but on my running (though at times the two have been indistinguishable).
Presented with an opportunity to hear McDougall speak, to mingle with some like-minded people, to get my hands on an autographed copy of the new book, and to enjoy a free beer courtesy of the sponsors Vivobarefoot provided I turned up wearing their shoes (in the end no-one seemed to check), I could hardly resist: and, beer and book apart, I could hardly have been more disappointed. Hoping to get the author's autograph on (or should that be "in"?) my copy of BTR, and conscious that I would not be able to stay late, I approached him as he wandered up and down the stage: and he told me that he was busy just then and there would be a time for autographs later. Well, not for me, unfortunately.
Whatever he was busy with, the show took an hour after the doors opened to get under way, which now reminds me of some of those gigs I went to decades ago - Lindisfarne at the Locarno in Sunderland, for example - where you waited yonks for what you'd actually come for.
I foolishly took a seat, having drawn a blank with my attempt to interact with the speaker, and in doing so forewent the opportunity to meet anyone except those seated immediately around me (of whom only one seemed interested in talking to me anyway). But of course I expected the show to start ... When it did, I realised that my schedule really didn't permit me to hang around any longer so I left after about a quarter of an hour. It was billed as a seven o'clock start, and while that doesn't mean I'd expect it to start at that time I think it's reasonable to expect it to get under way about half an hour after the doors open. Had it been billed as an eight o'clock start (doors open at seven) I'd have known where I stood, and perhaps made arrangements to be later returning home. If I didn't like the books, or the shoes, I definitely wouldn't be better-disposed towards them now: but fortunately for them I do.
Not without reservation, though. I'm disappointed that my shoes quite quickly developed holes in the uppers, although they still work fine. (And my Achilles sandals were extremely uncomfortable for my big toes, then the heel strap broke on one of the few occasions I tried to use them.) As for the book, I couldn't put it down: McDougall has a gift for weaving together seemingly unrelated subject-matter into a compelling read. I started to read it for the Crete story, which is superb and well-told (and I am encouraged after talking to a friend about it to seek out the Leigh Fermor original), but fully expected the other stuff to be fascinating - and it was, even all the stuff about parcour which frankly I had previously dismissed as an unnecessary fad (why not just go for a run?).
I did not expect the book to have been translated from the original American English, and of course I'm accustomed to reading books by American authors who use their own vernacular. (I do however hate books by British authors which have been translated for the benefit of American readers - one Iain Rankin novel I read some time ago particularly grated.) But even making allowances, I groaned several times in the course of reading it. Disappear, for one thing, is an intransitive verb: you don't "disappear" something, although you might make it disappear. (Postscript: As my great friend Bob reminded me after I'd posted this, Joseph Heller got away with it in Catch 22, but Christopher McDougall is not in the same league, and not using the language for the same effect.) But more seriously, a complete failure to respect local usages (a common example of US arrogance, unfortunately): The Travellers' Club, being in London, uses the English spelling of its name, and no English schoolchild ever obtained a degree from their school. Mr McDougall was not writing for the benefit of other writers, of course, and I am a self-confessed pedant: nor was he addressing a British audience. Even so, I think that any author (and publisher) should show respect for those about whom, and for whom, they write. It's simple courtesy. Not that I am going to hold it against him (against the publisher, now that's another matter): I am however amused by the irony in finding that someone so closely associated with running should have feet of clay ...
Which brings me to another topic, and the one that I intended to concentrate on in this post. McDougall spends some time in the book exploring the etymology of the word 'hero', one of those words which I think has fallen victim to a form of hyper-inflation in recent years, or perhaps decades is the right interval. Increasingly I find I have to measure time in decades when formerly I would have done so in years. I realised - and I don't know why - some years, even decades, ago that heroes are dangerous things to have. One can admire other people, and even seek to emulate their achievements, adopting them as role models, but if your heroes are human (and of course not everyone's are) they are flawed. They all have feet of clay. A student whom I was coaching recently finished the essay through which I had guided him (I carefully avoid any suggestion that I helped with it), and he told me that I was his hero: I assured him that this was a terrible idea. I know my flaws, or some of them, and he doesn't, but adopting someone as a hero risks embracing the flaws and elevating them to a status that they should not have. 'Hero' is too unqualified, too uncritical.
Of course, stories have heroes, but that's a special usage and a rather different meaning. I'm currently reading Gogol's Dead Souls, in which the hero Chichikov is a most unheroic figure. Can a hero be unheroic? I think so - just as an artistic work in copyright law need not have artistic quality. It's a matter of defining your terms and using them to mean what you intend.
McDougall's heroes - those referred to in the title of his book, or at least the ones in Crete - behave heroically, and on one level deserve to be known as heroes, but they remain human beings and they therefore have their flaws. Would they wish to be regarded as heroes? I doubt it - one common aspect of heroes is that they tend to be rather self-effacing. I have never heard a soldier decorated for bravery claim that it was only what he deserved. Perhaps the act of doing something truly heroic makes people better appreciate their deficiencies. Doing something as un-heroic as coaching a law student certainly drew my attention to some of mine.

16 June 2015


Long-distance running ability may be signal of desirable male genes, said Runner's World recently, which is of historical interest only to me - perhaps, in a small way, I demonstrate that the thesis is correct: at least I don't disprove it. The same source (reading it is a great substitute for running!) explained to me that one's breathing pattern can have a significant influence on running injuries, a matter of much more than historical interest to me. In fact I am sure I have read this before, tried with little success to apply it once in a Parkrun and then forgotten about it again. The technique, which also involves the use of the diaphragm for breathing in a manner rather alien to most runners, who rely (too much) on chest muscles, requires one to breathe in for three steps and out for two, so that the breathing cycle does not coincide every time with putting one's weight on the same foot. It spreads the load, which seems to me to make sense: the points in the cycle of breathing when one changes from in to out or the other way round places a significant load on the body especially when you're running (and therefore breathing) hard.

Three in and two out also means you're taking in a lot more oxygen than you would if you were less organised and did two in and two out, which I think is my default setting. I've already found that I felt stronger and less tired when using the new technique. So today I set out deliberately and carefully to train myself to breathe out of sequence. I've done it for a few laps of the playing field, although I found my concentration was fairly easily broken (nothing new there), but I thought it would be real progress if I could do it for my regular nearly seven mile loop.

In fact, for anyone looking for technical tips (as if this is the place for that, or I'm the person to ask!) I find it much easier to count one-two, one-two-three than the other way round, for some reason. So I start by breathing out. I also try counting in foreign languages, and then it's more useful to count in fives especially because it's around 4 that my counting in German or Russian always goes awry - but trying to fit in the three syllables of четыре when I get to "four" makes it all fall apart. Try to do no more than one daft thing at a time.

Moreover, it was a lovely day. When we set out (about 0815) it was still cool: by the time we were halfway round it was heating up and I was regretting not having sunglasses. I didn't want to push the pace, because there is nothing worse than picking up after a hiatus and finding it impossible to descend stairs afterwards, but the pace will come with time. Runner's World also recently offered some useful advice on lessons from running for one's working life: there were five, and I think I can remember a couple - one being the importance of learning endurance, which is what I was doing today, and another being about setting goals, which is something else I think I have done today. In addition, that is, to the hopelessly unrealistic goal of a sub-20 5K later this year, which despite the hopeless unrealism I am going to try my best to achieve.

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