That Knee

Two runs away from completing Couch to 5k and injury has struck. Again.

It’s my troublesome left knee. The knee which kept me from impact exercise for the better part of a decade. The knee that stopped me playing football regularly before my 30th birthday. The knee that had a cyst in the bone that seemed to have resolved.

That knee.

I started getting that familiar, sharp pain down the back of the joint after my last run on the 1st March and stopped running immediately.

I’ve spent a week resting, desperately hoping it’s a muscle pull or strain in a similar area because if the cyst is back, it’s probably the end of my running and any other form of high impact exercise.

Over the past seven days the pain has eased off, and day-to-day movement has returned to normal. However, if I put any serious loading on my knee the pain and weakness is still there.

I went on a four mile hike this weekend, and walking over rough, wooded terrain it was clear I’m a long way from being able to run.

Maybe I’m just being overly pessimistic because of my previous injury. Maybe I’m jumping straight to worst case scenario before I need to. Maybe it’s not as bad as I think it is.

I hope it’s not as bad as I think it is.

February 2021 Rundown

I’ve decided to start a new summary of my running month- it’s valuable to be able to look back and see what went well, what didn’t and what can be learnt.

Highlights

Injury free month
Getting through February injury free was massive! I’ve been at this since September 2020 and it’s the first month I haven’t had to spend some time on the sidelines. Hopefully that means my body is adjusting to being active and getting stronger with every run!

3 miles
On 22nd February I was feeling strong at the end of my 25 minute Couch to 5k run and was on about 2.6 miles and wanted to see if I could push it to 3.

Turns out I could and in doing so also ran for over 30 minutes, demonstrating to myself that I could also achieve the time required to complete C25K.

That was a good morning!

Doubled Distance
In February I doubled the distance I ran in January. Partly that’s due to staying injury free, but mostly it’s down to being able to run further!

On the 15th of February, I reached run 19 of C25K where there are no longer any walking breaks in the sessions. That meant I was covering so much more distance each time I went out (as you can see from the jump in the monthly graph).

I love the feeling of being able to run for 3 miles without stopping. It’s such massive progress from where I started this journey 5 months ago, and could barely jog 100 meters.

Lowlights

McDonalds as Fuel
On Friday 20th February, after eating pretty well for most of the month, I fell off the healthy eating bandwagon, had a (very) large McDonalds breakfast, a big bag of mini eggs and three cans of Carling in the evening. I felt a bit bloated during the day, but didn’t think anything much of it.

When I came to run on the next morning, the whole run was horrendous. I felt short of breath, leaden legged and sick. I made it round, but it was an awful experience and a real eye-opener about the impact of nutrition on performance.

The Weather
Not much I can do about this given I live in Wales, but it feels like a lot of my running this month was either done in the rain or sub-zero conditions, or a combination of the two.

Not that enjoyable.

Bring on the spring!

Lesson of the month
How I eat has a huge impact on how I run.

The McDonalds incident has had a massive impact on how I think about running and my diet. I’m generally trying to eat more healthily, but hadn’t been too focused on it.

The shock of how rubbish I felt that morning and how it negatively impacted my performance was inescapable.

Since then, I’ve been more serious about cleaning up my diet, focusing on whole-food plant based and cutting back on alcohol.

I’m running better, sleeping better and have more energy.

I don’t want my diet to be a drag on my running. I know my excessive weight already makes athletic performance harder and means my body takes more of a pounding than it should. This incident highlighted how eating poorly just compounds that in the short-term as well.

What were the highlights of your running month?

(not a) Running Shoe Review

After 4 months of running, I’ve finally pulled the trigger and brought some new trainers. This isn’t a shoe review, as frankly at this stage I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about when it comes to specialist running trainers. However it is the tale of how I came to be wearing my new ASICS kicks.

The reason that I’m excited enough about these Gel Contend 6’s to write a blog post is that buying a new pair of trainers is a milestone in my running journey, and also my return to a healthy lifestyle.

I resisted the temptation to buy new trainers back in September as I wasn’t sure if running would be a long-term thing for me- I was starting Couch to 5K  after a knee issue that had stopped me doing any impact exercise for years. I was concerned the issue would flare up again, and I’d be back to square one. Therefore it didn’t seem worth spending money on trainers until I knew my body could take running consistently without breaking down.

In that spirit so far I’ve just run in shoes I already own. I’ve experimented with my VivoBarefoots and then settled on my old gym worn New Balance 790s after a bout of Extensor Tendonitis whilst using the zero drop trainers.

Now I’ve reached the point where I know my body can take the rigours of running regularly, I thought it was time to invest in my first pair of proper running shoes!

My natural tendency would be to rush out and buy the latest shiny Nike offering, or desperate to look like a ‘real’ runner, invest in a trainer from a more niche brand like Hoka or On Running. What’s more, in my state of heightened enthusiasm I would probably buy a shoe suitable for running a marathon rather than one based on the level I am currently at, which is running round the block!

But, instead I took a deep breath, sat down and did some actual research. Were it not for lockdown, I would certainly have paid a visit to my local independent running store for advice and purchase, but sadly they are not open at the moment, so the internet had to suffice this time round.

Realistically at this stage, for all my blogging and social media hype, I am an absolute beginner and so my trainers should reflect that. I wanted to avoid being the all the gear, no idea guy and settle on a pair that will get the job done.

The ASICS Gel Contend seemed to fit that bill. A brand with a proper running pedigree, a very reasonable price tag, and plenty of good reviews; not least in Runners World, who awarded them Best Value Shoe 2020 calling them ‘A perfect all-rounder for new or lower mileage runners who don’t want to break the bank.’

I will christen them with their first run tomorrow, but for now I’m delighted that I’ve got to the point where I can confidently say I’m a runner who needs a pair of running shoes!

What were your first ‘proper’ pair of running shoes? Do you still wear that brand now?

2021 Running Goals

Whilst I’m not much of one for New Years resolutions, I do value setting goals for the year ahead. I believe if you don’t aspire to anything, you’ll struggle to achieve much of worth.

In that spirit, I’ve got three running goals for 2021; Completing Couch to 5K, taking part in ParkRun and finishing the Swansea Bay 10K in less than an hour.

Complete Couch to 5K

Couch to 5K has been my gateway back into running. It’s allowed me to slowly build up my fitness and confidence after many sedintary years on the sofa due to injury and lack of motivation. I think it’s brilliant, and I have been using it since September.

But I haven’t completed it. Eight runs into my first attempt in September I developed Extensor Tendonitis and had to take 3 weeks out to recover. I restarted the programme, as I had been out for longer than I had been running. It seemed sensible.

On my second attempt I made it 17 runs (week 7) before injury struck again- this time in the form
of an old back injury flaring up. Once again I was out of the game- this time for 6 weeks.

This week I began attempt number 3, restarting once again, and this time I’m determined to complete it.

I feel confident injury won’t be a barrier this time- I’m learning about technique, improving my form and managing my back through physio and Pilates.

I’m aiming to compete Couch to 5K in mid February.

Take part in ParkRun

Even before I started running again, I thought ParkRun looked amazing. As someone who works in community sport and development, I’ve long admired it from afar. It’s such a simple idea, executed brilliantly.

It’s allowed runners of all ability to come together and create a shared experience and community, which is so important in the fractured and often lonely age we live in. 

When reflecting back on 2020, One of my running takeaways is that community is key and ParkRun is the perfect example of that.

Whilst I don’t think I’ll be joining a running club any time soon, given I can only run for 20 minutes at the moment, taking part in ParkRun when it restarts is a much more achievable goal.

I’m excited to take part in the event, meet people and get to know other runners.

Fingers crossed we won’t have to wait too long before ParkRun returns.

Complete the Swansea Bay 10K in less than 60 minutes

If I was Captain Ahab, then the Swansea Bay 10K is my white whale.

It’s the only race I’ve ever taken part in, back in 2009 and 2010, both times for charity.

Despite my charitable motivation, I did set myself a goal of completing the course in under 60 minutes. Both times I failed to hit that mark, once by two minutes and once by 50 seconds.

Swansea Bay 10K 2009

It really bugs me- even a decade later.

2021 is the year I’m going to put that right.

The race is in September, so I’ve got plenty of time
train and get myself in shape.

I know for many runners completing a 10K in under 60 minutes is a straightforward affair they manage with ease, but I’m currently unfit, around 3 stone overweight and somewhat injury prone.

Once I’ve competed Couch to 5k, I’ll use the Garmin 10k training programme to get ready and prepared.

Unlike the unfortunate Captain Ahab, the white whale will not be getting away from me this time!

So that’s what I want to achieve in 2021. How about you?

Looking Back… 2020

It’s around this time of year that everyone starts writing their 2020 lists, posting their #best9 on Instagram and setting resolutions.

Whilst I only started running in September 2020 and was curtailed by injury just 2 months later, I’ve learnt three really valuable lessons that I hope you will find helpful either in running or elsewhere in life.

Routine, Routine, Routine
In the past I would have said I didn’t like planning ahead, that I’m not very organised and that I don’t place much stock in routine. 2020 was the year that changed. In a time of unprecedented uncertainty, the value of regular, consistent actions and experiences has become clear to me.

Healthy routines give stability, focus and something positive to centre on regardless of what else is going on in life. This has been particularly important for me amid the constant low level stress and anxiety caused by COVID.

This is was especially true as I ventured into running. Knowing how unfit I was, I needed a training plan to build myself up, develop consistency and give me a solid structure with goals to aim for. Couch to 5K proved to be the perfect tool for the job.

I know it isn’t a particularly ground-breaking route into running, but the fact that so many people find their legs in the sport through C25K indicates what an effective programme it is.

After a little trial and error I ended up getting into the routine of running every Monday, Wednesday and Friday and taking two rest days on the weekend. Logging these runs on the Momentum app also added a visual element to the sense of building an effective running routine and increased my motivation to get out there for each and every run.

This consistency of approach allowed me to make steady and measurable progress whilst beginning to learn about myself as a runner.

Look to Learn
As I wrote about in November, when I started running I assumed it was as simple as lacing up my shoes, getting out the door and putting on foot in front of the other. This is what I had done with my brief flirtations with the sport in the past and it had got me through a couple of 10k races (slowly!).

Very quickly I realised this wasn’t the case, and that running is a skill, with technique to be learned just like any other sport.

So I did some research, began diving into blogs and YouTube videos, engaging with the running community on socials and listening to podcasts with athletes and coaches.

Meanwhile using Strava allowed me to see how my pace was wildly inconstant at the start of a run and how tailed off dramatically towards the end of each run

Between these two I was able to identify a couple of key areas to begin working on my technique, specifically keeping my head up and keeping to a steady pace.

This focus on learning and technique began to pay dividends as I saw my skills start to develop. I was actually enjoying myself as the runs became less of a slog to get through and more enjoyable as I made progress in speed, pacing, stamina and technique.

I am still a complete novice, but I believe starting off with the positive intention to learn and master a skill is key to success in that area- running is no different.

Community is Key
2020 has been hard. We’ve spent much of the year either locked down or under restrictions. We’ve been limited in who we can see and when we can see them. Social interaction has been severely reduced and at times I’ve felt lonely in a way I never have before.

The lesson I have learned from that is the value of community and how it’s worth making the effort to find it. Basically, I didn’t know what I had until it was gone.

Whilst online community is not the same as seeing people face-to-face, in this year of  social isolation connecting with new running buddies by starting this blog and creating a running Twitter account has been so valuable.

It’s been amazing to link with other runners, see their highs and lows, achievements and setbacks. I’ve been able to get advice and be inspired. It helped me to stay motivated and engaged with my running aspirations during two periods of injury.

Whilst I would love to have taken part in ParkRun, maybe even joined a running club or taken part in an event, that just hasn’t been possible, so online community is as close as I’m going to get, and I’m grateful for it.

Hopefully 2021 will bring the opportunity to build on my virtual connections and create some in-person running friendships.

What have been your experiences in 2020? What are you keen to take with you into 2021 and what will you be leaving behind?

Progress

I’m now on week 5 of Couch to 5k and yesterday I ran for two eight minute blocks. Without stopping.

For those of you who pop out ‘for a quick 10k’ after work three times a week, that may not sound like much, but for me it represents real progress and it feels great.

The amount of ground I can now cover at running pace without having to drop to a walk is very satisfying.

Just five weeks since restarting Couch to 5K I am starting to properly enjoy exercise for the first time in half a decade.

I had genuinely forgotten the feeling you get from the endorphin rush after physical activity, the stress relief that comes from being able to just focus on the task in hand and the sense of achievement that comes from improving performance week on week.

It’s this sense of improvement that keeps me coming back for more. At the start of each new Couch to 5K week, the distance and time you spend running ratchets up, it feels hard and you really have to push yourself to complete. But, by the end of the third run in that week pace is up, the mileage is achievable and my confidence increased.

That increased confidence has allowed me to tackle the step up that begins in the following week.

The ratio of challenge to achievability is set at just the right level and it keeps me coming back for more. I can handle the slog of the first run because I know by the end of the week I’ll be flying.

This, I think, is the genius of Couch to 5K and why I would recommend it anyone wanting to get into running.

Have you done Couch to 5K? What did you enjoy most about it?

Look Ahead

In my teens and twenties I played a lot of sport, so back in September when I decided to try running to get active after years out with injury, I assumed I could just lace up my shoes and run. I believed the fitness I desired would come with time and effort. I wasn’t worried about ‘how’ to run. After all, I’ve been running my whole life! In my mind it was just a case of putting one foot in front of the other and getting it done.

As those of you who have been reading this blog know, it didn’t quite turn out like that. Despite sticking with the programme, my running felt like a slog and by run eight of Couch to 5K I had a shooting pain in my right foot that stopped me in my tracks. It turned out to be extensor tendonitis and I had to take a break to recover.

Time spent on the sidelines gave me the space to think about why I had got injured so soon into the programme. It wasn’t supposed to happen like that. I decided to canvas some advice from the Twitter running community. One of the messages that came back loud and clear was that I needed to consider technique as a way to avoid injury and improve my performance.

It sounds obvious as I write it, but this really was a bit of a revelation for me. The idea that distance running was a complex combinations of movement and form which needed to be learnt and practiced just like any other sport hasn’t even occurred to me.

Previously running had always just been a component of other sports- it allowed me to drive into the basket for a lay-up or sprint into the box to get my head on a cross. It was now clear to me that if I wanted to really enjoy running I needed to treat it just as I had basketball, football, rugby or any of the other sports I have played.

The question then became; what changes could I make to improve my performance and increase my resilience? What could I learn that would yield the biggest gains in the shortest time? I was starting from nowhere, not fine-tuning existing technique, so the opportunity for rapid, dramatic change was clear.

After doing some research online and checking out some basic YouTube tutorials, the simple change I needed to make became clear. Keep my head up and look ahead- around 20 meters down the road.

Runners World described succinctly;

 “Be sure to gaze directly in front of you,” says Kelli Fierras, USATF-certified running coach and Asics Studio trainer. “Don’t tilt your chin up or down, which happens when people get tired,” she adds. 

Really, your eyes can look anywhere, but a focused gaze helps maintain proper posture, which keeps your neck in proper alignment with your spine.”

I’ve been trying to implement this advice for about 2 weeks now, I cannot believe what a huge different this straightforward correction has made to my running.

Previously if you’d seen me running I’d look like the proverbial nodding dog, The longer I was on the road, the worse this would get, to the point that by the final 5 minutes of my session I would be staring at my feet, gasping for air, glancing up occasionally to make sure I wasn’t about to stagger into a lamppost!

Keeping my head up has a massive impact in the second half of my sessions. Rather than getting increasingly ragged in my technique, dragging my feet and slowing my pace, I maintain my form, can better manage my pace, and I feel less strain on my body.

When I keep my head up I feel like a runner, rather than someone running. It’s a small difference, but a crucial one.

What changes to technique have made the biggest difference to your running?

Running for Good

Fiona Oaks is an athlete with a message. She’s a vegan, passionately committed to animal welfare and runs her own animal sanctuary. If you ask her, she will say the only reason she runs is for the animals. It’s what motivates her and what drives her to the most incredible feats of endurance, one of which, her Marathon de Sables run is the backdrop on which this remarkable documentary unfolds.


For the uninitiated, Marathon de Sables is a completely mental, six day, 251km ultramarathon that takes place in the Sarhara Desert, Morocco. It is widely regarded as the toughest foot race on earth and you will see why as the film follows Fiona’s progress.


In between each stage of the desert run we learn more about Fiona’s past and see her completing marathons (and breaking records) on every continent on earth, including Antarctica.


Oh, and we find out Fiona had a debilitating knee disease when she was a teenager and had her knee cap removed…


Throughout the film we see Fiona claiming she isn’t a natural runner, that she is no good at running really and that she doesn’t have a clue about running. She claims it is just the love of animals that enables her to just keep putting one foot in front of the other. Given the amount of marathon wins and running world records she has under her belt, it all might sound a bit disingenuous, apart from the fact that the host of top draw ultra athletes taking part in the documentary all confirm she really is that humble and that is truly how she sees herself.


The director of Running for Good is Keegan Kuhn, the director behind Vegan documentaries Cowspiracy and What the Health. However Running for Good is something of a departure from those fact-laden reporter style documentaries, instead focusing on one person’s  superhuman efforts to achieve remarkable feats. But, Fiona’s love of animals and her vegan lifestyle is the heartbeat of this movie, with Keegan hoping it makes clear that…


“Being vegan doesn’t hold you back from anything and in fact, it might make you better at what you want to do.”

Despite this, I don’t think the film feels preachy. Yes, it clearly has an agenda because Fiona has an agenda, but it wouldn’t be a true portrait of her if her Veganism wasn’t front and centre. It certainly didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the film, although just for the sake of transparency I should say I am currently transitioning to a plant-based diet myself. 


Ultimately Running for Good is compelling because Fiona Oakes is compelling. What she has achieved and how she has achieved it given the challenges she has faced is truly remarkable, and for one race, in the most demanding of conditions, she takes us along for the ride.


If you want to find out more about Fiona’s story, check out the Rich Roll podcast 397 

C25K Rerun: Trainers

I suspect one of the reasons I ended up with extensor tendonitis a month ago is that I went from doing no running for years to running three times a week in barefoot shoes. 

I have been wearing nothing but Vivo Barefoot trainers for over a year. 


Having heard about them through various podcasts, I did some research on the purported benefits of zero drop shoes, and being convinced, purchased my first pair.

Taking a chance on the Vivos paid off.  The way I walk noticeably changed, my posture improved and nagging back pain I’ve had for years has reduced.

However running regularly in them may have been a step too far.

I feel a bit sad admitting this, but swapping to more traditional cushioned trainers since I restarted Couch to 5K has made a positive difference to my running experience. 

Rather than feeling the impact of tarmac slamming through my ankles and knees with each stride in my minimalist trainers, in my battered old New Balance 790s I feel lighter and more resilient to the pressures of pounding the pavement.

The result of this is that I experience less pain during my runs and immediately afterward. I also recover quicker and feel less achey on the C25K rest days. 

Given I have already had one surgery on my right knee and I know the cartilage is wearing thin, combined with the fact that I am three stone overweight, I think need to be pragmatic about it and acknowledge that barefoot running may not be a wise choice for me right now. 

I still remain convinced that in an ideal world zero drop shoes would be the optimal trainer to run in, and I hope one day to do so, but for now, when I go for a run my Vivos will be staying on the shelf. 

What is your experience of minimalist running shoes? Do you use them regularly and feel any benefits?

Plans

It’s been three weeks since I had to stop my running comeback due to an injury. After initial fears that it might have been shin splints or a stress fracture (thanks NHS online!) it turned out to be a simple case of extensor tendonitis.

A mix of ice, rest and anti-inflammatory drugs has calmed it down sufficiently that I think I’m ready to start running again next week.

I’m super excited, but going off too fast after a long time out may have been what caused the injury in the first place. Therefore I’m trying to take a more measured approach this time around.

After a shoutout on #UKrunchat on Twitter, I got lots of helpful advice which gave me plenty to think about. In particular three suggestions came up repeatedly, so I am going to take them on board and apply moving forward.

  1. Lose the barefoot trainers
    I’ve been wearing Vivo Barefoot shoes for about a year now, both at home and work, and I love them. They’ve changed the way I walk, improved my posture and allowed my feet to regain a more natural shape. However, I can see how running on tarmac three times a week, whilst three stone overweight without cushioned shoes may have been a significant contributor to this injury. For now, I think the wise thing to do is get back into my more traditional trainers (a battered pair of New Balance 790s). I do intend to phase the barefoots back in, but maybe not until I’m closer to a healthy weight and therefore driving less impact through my body when I run.
  1. Start again
    I’m using Couch to 5K to structure my return to running in a managed way. The temptation after three weeks out is to pick up again on run 10, where I left off. The feedback from the more experienced runners I spoke to was to avoid this approach and take into account I have been recuperating for a period of time, and will have lost some fitness. The advice ranged from going back to the start to slipping back just 2 or 3 runs to ensure I’m not taking on too much too soon. After considering my options over the past week, I’m going to go back to the start. I think part of the problem of causing the injury was I went off too hard and needed to spend more time building my fitness and acclimatising my body to doing regular physical activity again. Now I know this, I can hit the C25K reset button and hopefully end up with better results.
  1. Focus on technique
    I’ve never been coached to run. In school I was never involved in athletics, I spent my time playing football, basketball and rugby. Any coaching there was spent on ball skills and drills. The basic mechanics of running well never came up. What I do know is that there are always things you can do to improve technique in any sport, and running is no different. Having done a fair bit of reading and got some advice, I’m going to start by focusing on landing on the balls of my feet instead of in the rather flat-footed and heavy way I currently do. Hopefully this will lead to more efficient running and lower the chance of this tendonitis injury occurring again.

The final thing I’ve learnt from this period of injury is the kindness of running Twitter. I reached out and heard back from a number of people who were generous enough to share their knowledge and experience with me. I hope I can do the same for others in the future!

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