Saturday, June 30, 2012

The (Foot) Choice is Yours

"Give light and the people will find their own way " - motto of the old Birmingham Post-Herald newspaper

The other day, I was running along with my friend Jim, and in the matter of 5 minutes he told me 1) he had received a pair of Nike Free's (very minimalist shoe) from his brother and wanted to begin running in these, 2) liked what I had to say about Hokas (maxi-cushioned with a low heel drop) and wanted to know where to buy them, and 3) told me he was having no problems with his present shoes, the Nike Air Pegasus! The pace picked up and the conversation became rather one sided. My immediate answer to him was why all this change when things are just peachy? As far as the Free's go, Jim explained he had read "THE BOOK" (Born To Run) and was buffaloed (my word, not Jim's) by the pro-barefoot arguments, but on the other hand, he was impressed by my endorsement of Hokas and wanted to try them. But Jim, there is NOTHING wrong with your running now! I tried to explain the pros and cons of the minimalistic movement, but I don't think it worked. I have written in the past about my feelings about the minimalist movement, trying to stay as objective as I can as a 30+ year runner, a coach, and as a Physical Therapist.

Before I go any further, let me make one quick point that is very pertinent to what follows: I am not "against" minimalist running! I train and race in Hokas that are designed mostly for cushioning, and protection of the toes from kicking rocks, which is very handy on the trails. Although they get me WAY off the ground, it has a very low heel-to-forefoot drop (4mm)... not minimalist, but do get me to more of a midfoot strike than a heel strike. I've been running long-distance for 34 years in a row, at distances from 2 miles to 111 miles and most of my joints are still healthy and intact (daggum ankles are another story, hence the cushioned Hokas).

One principle minimalist argument declares that running in shoes promotes heel striking, so therefore the "shock-absorbing" forefoot striking isn’t a practical option in shoes. But all of the minimalist brands go on to clarify that a prolonged adaption or break-in period is needed to run barefoot without excessive soreness or injury. So, if you're going to take a learning curve period with minimalist shoes, why not use that period to learn to strike somewhere other than the heel while wearing technologically advanced shoes? All major shoe brands are now designing shoes specifically to facilitate fore- and mid-foot striking by building them with a smaller height differential between the toe and the heel (heel-drop). I explained in a previous post (click here) that as you drop the heel lower, the muscles on the back of your calf must lower your heel to the ground (with ALL of your body weight) in the milliseconds after your forefoot strikes the ground. Then the posterior calf must immediately explode to push your body weight back up to propel you forward. Hence, one of the drawbacks of minimalist running can be a rip-roaring case of achilles tendinitis if you don't adapt correctly and patiently. Running in a shoe with a moderate heel drop requires next to zero eccentric work in those (posterior tibial) muscles. Now, looking at this from a training standpoint, this additional stress makes barefoot running a great training tool. It subjects the body to this increased load and introduces a new and highly specific type of strength training that most people have never experienced because typical running shoes prevent it. And again from a PT's viewpoint, never pooh-pooh the opportunity to strengthen all muscles around an active joint.

Some shoes are designed to help runners strike the ground with their mid-foot or forefoot, while others tend to promote heel striking. If you aspire to a mid- or forefoot striking gait, shoes with a low rise from the toe to the heel can help. Although many studies have attempted to show that forefoot striking, not barefoot running, reduces the shock experienced upon impact with the ground, this is not universal. Some heel strikers can run with relatively little impact, while I've seen some forefoot runners who could probably crack a walnut with their ground strike.
As "THE BOOK" so eloquently describes, our barefoot great-ancestors would chase and poop out their future dinner by chasing them over many miles until they literally died (which I've done in many races). But, if these persistence hunters from before the days of projectile weapons somehow came upon a pair of modern running shoes, would they have failed to catch the animals they pursued? Of course not! Persistence hunting is a comparison of the relative endurance capabilities of two different species and does nothing to highlight the differences between shoed running and barefoot running. It only proves that people can run long distances. Applying the "born to run" argument to running is akin to saying that at one time man didn't have clothing so we should roam around naked to give our bodies an opportunity to adapt to be able to better protect us from the elements. I guess this makes sense if you're hoping to be the last one in the nudist colony who's able to stay outside when the sun dips below the horizon on a winter afternoon. But no matter how much you get your body to adapt you're not going to be as warm as the dude next door who has on a pair of down pants and a down jacket.
I like that the "craze" has turned so many new folks on to running, but I don't give a rat's tail what cavemen did when they ran. What I care about are the options available to me. I can either put my feet down on a couple centimeter thick piece of foam that has been engineered and re-engineered by thousands of shoe developers for the exact purpose of absorbing the impact of these hundreds of thousands of footsteps, or I can put my foot (or my foot wrapped in a foot glove) down directly on roots, rocks, pavement, gravel, or whatever else I encounter over the course of a run. Any guesses as to which one I'm going to choose?

Now, here's the whole point I'm trying to get at. Don't decide if shoes, foot-gloves, or nothing at all is what's right for you because you read it in some book that just happened to be fortunate enough to hit the "Tipping Point". How do we know then what is the right amount of shoe for us? In my mind there's no better method than good old trial and error. When you have the right shoe you'll know it. A natural foot strike should be one that feels natural to you. Whether its heel, forefoot or midfoot, it should feel comfortable and unforced. For many years, PT's, coaches, and many know-it-alls were trying to correct every Tom, Dick, and Mary that pronated their feet during running. Then someone a tiny bit smarter said "Whoa, everybody pronates and it's not always bad, so don't correct it unless it's causing problems!". What you will know right away is when you have the wrong shoe. If you're looking for somewhere to start I would say to go to a reputable local Running Store and talk to them about the goods and bads of all types of shoes. Most of these guys love what they do and stay up to date on the latest technology (Yes, minimal shoes ARE technology). They want to sell shoes to you and they don't want you to get hurt so you'll come back and spend more money.

If you've taken everything I've written here 100% serious: I'm sorry. My intention here was simply to touch on the general question of what type of footwear makes sense. If you want to run barefoot, run barefoot, but do it because it's the best for you, not because you read a book and now you think you're kin to a running tribe in the Mexican canyons. I think the minimal effect is here to stay, but the "fad" part will fade away, and most will find what is best for them. Your head is the farthest part of your body away from your feet, but you better use your noggin to keep those feet happy.

Everybody, have a good run today, tomorrow, and by using the right footware for you, all the tomorrows ahead of you. Hopefully, we'll make the right choices and I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Inching My Way Forward

Do you know what my favorite part of the game is? The opportunity to play."
- Mike Singletary (Football player and coach)

So, I just got back from running the trails at Oak Mountain and I can't think of any running that I enjoy more than strapping on a water bottle and romping down the dirt single track around rocks, roots and mud puddles for a couple of hours. Miles become less important. It's time on my feet and time up and down hills and time dodging gremlins that lurk to grab my feet and throw me hurtling into the bushes. But, the gremlins have been caught sleeping lately and I haven't had a good header in quite a while. Couple of stumbles here and there where I catch my foot on an immovable object, do the quick two-step off the trail, yell "whoa-whoa" and surprisingly still find myself on my feet when the inertia subsides and I'm not exactly sure why I'm not lying under some bush.

But, today was sort of an unexpected milestone for me. For several years, I've been cursing my cranky ankles that have kept me from going fast (that's my convenient excuse on that one), going long (pretty accurate there), and going on technical, hilly, rocky trails (absolutely true there). Slowly, mostly since I've been running in Hoka shoes, things have been getting better. I still can't run fast (must be something to do with age too!), but I've been getting pretty consistent with putting in one weekly middle distance run that takes a couple of hours. Now, granted, these runs are slow as Southern molasses, but speed is not even close to a top priority these days. The goal is to finish the run and still be able to walk and not hobble. Then today, here I was at Oak Mt doing a solo run, and I came to the, not only figurative, but literal, fork in the road. Left, the easier Red Trail...right, the hillier, rocky Yellow Trail. I have not ventured successfully on the Yellow Trail in probably 3-4 years. Tried it about two years ago and almost was stranded because I couldn't go up OR DOWN one of the hills. That was a super-downer of a run, mentally and physically. But today, I took the right fork and although I wasn't bounding like Killian Jornet up and down the rocky hillsides, I was able to traverse the terrain. Several of the hills are killers and I would walk them even in my heyday (I think I had a heyday...I barely remember, but I'll make one up). Did a good bit of walking, but if a clam could be happy, I was happy as a clam because I was running when I could, walked when I had to, but mostly, I was coming back to what I love to do. A true runner understands that, and I can't explain it to anybody else, so we'll leave it at that.

The important thing to me was that it was another step forward and not backwards. Kind of like going on a diet where you lose 2 pounds, yell "yey", gain a pound and scream at the stupid scale, and lose 2 pounds again. In a few months, you realize things are really a lot better than they were. I realize my "racing" days are over, so it's a real stretch to call my daily runs "training" runs, but a few years ago I made a deal with God that if I could run at all, I wouldn't complain. I'm certain I haven't held up my end of the bargain 100%, but I think I've done OK. I'm thrilled with a 5 hour marathon, when I used to do close to 3 hours...I'm ecstatic to be able to finish a 50K, even if the time is an hour more than I used to do 50 miles... and if I can do a 10K in under an hour, well, look out Kenyens!! But the Yellow Trail...ah, now there's something I can be proud of. A stepping stone to who knows where. All I know is that it's forward - a few hills thrown in, but definately forward. Now, where's that Blue Trail? And then the White Trail! Yes, the colors of Oak Mt are not off-limits anymore.

A couple of paragraphs ago, I mentioned the Hoka shoes. These anti-barefoot shoes have been a life saver for me. They have a ton of cushioning (something like 25% more EVA in the sole), but are very light (10 oz) and stable. They also have only a 4mm drop (the height of the heel compared to the forefoot), which is the big seller for all those minimalist shoes. Most traditional shoes will have a10-14mm drop. BUT, they are expensive...retail is about $170-180. But, if you search around, you can find an occasional deal. Last night, I found an 18 hour sale on The Clymb for $89. This is a good site to join (free) for great deals on all outdoor sports stuff. I follow their Twitter feed to keep up with their deals.

Finally, today is the Western States 100 Mile Trail Run. This is the Boston Marathon of ultras...not the hardest, but the most well known. I don't personally know anybody running, but in looking at the entrants, there is an Andon Briggs from Trussville running, so I'm following him. What bothers me is that how can I be so far out of the loop that I don't know somebody in the Birmingham area that is doing WS? Well, good luck Andon, and maybe we'll meet up on the trails someday. Now that I don't do 100 milers anymore, I cannot fathom how you can run for 24+ hours straight. Yes, I know I did it several times, but I still can't fathom it (there, I used "fathom" twice in two sentences!). And on the hilly trails to boot.

Well, time to get this day rolling. I hope you all stay cool (98 degrees today and tomorrow). Drink early and often. I'll put ice in the cooler for tomorrow morning's run, so there goes your excuse not to be there. As God said on a hot day... "and then there was sweat". And as I always say...I'll see you on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Things Rattling round in My Head

"You know you're a runner when you know exactly where one mile is from your front any direction!" - Unknown

On my way to Boston to visit the family, I'm having trouble coming up with a killer subject for this week's RWA, but I always have thoughts rattling around in my mind, so I like to share some of those with you every few weeks. Lots of different subjects to comment on this week...

When I was seriously training, nothing was more challenging than running hills, but unlike speedwork the results I got from it were almost immediately noticeable.

Gadgets are cool, but unless you're an elite runner who knows what to do with the data collected they're mostly unnecessary. On the other hand, there is NO WAY I would want to give up my GPS so I know exactly how slow I'm going over exactly how far.

It's frustrating that shoe companies update shoe models as frequently as they do because even subtle changes between models can be significant for individual runners. When you find something you like, buy a couple of pair and stash them away. When you have to change, talk to one of your local shoe guys to find out what the changes are in the new model and if it's still right for you.

If you're not an elite runner you're only racing against yourself and the clock, and no one else cares how you look running, what you wear while running, or how fast you're running. But everyone wants to see you cross the finish line and everyone cheers. Running is really a cool sport.

Running is inexpensive. Shoes and clothing that don't rub your sensitive parts to shreds are not. It pays to get well made clothing, but it doesn't always mean the most expensive. Wait for sales if you must, but do support your local running you know, I am partial to The Trak Shak.

On the other hand, I recommend you stick with name brand shoes. Even though mostly everything is now made in China (dag-nab-it), I believe there still has to be some quality control more with the name brands. I tell my patients or runners who actually think I have a small idea what I'm talking about that the most important aspects of a running shoe are the flexibility of the forefoot into flexion, the firmness of the heel counter, and the ability of the shoe to twist just behind the ball of the foot. The importance of cushioning has so many variables that it is the subject of another whole blog.

Speaking of expense, let's not even talk about (admittedly very optional) entry fees for races, where little neighborhood 5Ks can run $30 or more. I will admit up front that I have never directed a race. I will also admit that I don't mind paying when most of my entry fee for sure goes to charity, but Holy Cow!, it takes a chunk to run a bunch of races.

No matter where or when I run, it will always be into a head wind.

You can meet really great, interesting people through running. But, you can also meet an idiot here and there.

This is controversial, but I think stretching is overrated. I know, I know! I believe it's necessary to stay as flexible as you can, but (and remember, I am a Physical Therapist), I think strength of your ligaments and tendons does a whole lot more towards injury prevention than stretching, and the ONLY way to strengthen them is years of running! Stretching is invaluable though, when rehabing from an injury or if you're extremely tight or imbalanced.

Average time of the 2011 NY Marathon Top 10 runners was 2:07:32. The NY Marathon course record before 2011...2:07:43!! WOW!

Richard Donovan ran 7 marathons on 7 continents in 4 days, 22 min, 3 secs. Antarctica, Cape Town, Sao Paulo, Orlando, London, Hong Kong, and Sydney. Good for Frequent Flyer Miles, but really, what's the point?

On June 1st, the National Park Service Director designated the Oak Mt Red trail in Pelham (just outside Birmingham) a National Recreation Trail. This hike/run/bike trail now is 21 miles long with the addition of the Lake Trail that circumvents the OM Lake. I love the Oak Mountain Trail system..

Saw a Cooling Towel advertised that was supposed to stay 20-30 Deg. cooler than the air for 3-6 hours after taking it out of it's ziplock bag. Comes in several sizes. Sounds like a great idea for the hot Alabama summer while running. Bought one. Won't buy another. Yeah, it's cooler, and it is treated with some (hopefully not dangerous) chemical, but I think much of it is that the cloth is wet to begin with and if you stick it in your waistband, the 6 MPH windchill you create will keep it cool. PLUS, if you wash the daggum thing, supposedly it loses it's magic cooling property!!!!! If you want to try one, they sell them at Walgreen's for under 3 bucks.

This country is going down the toilet diet-wise. Burger King is now selling a Bacon Sundae! That's right folks...soft ice cream with bacon crumbles, hot fudge, and a bacon strip. Good Grief!! This comes on the heels of last year's KFC's Double Down Sandwich - two pieces of cheese, two pieces of bacon, special sauce, made into a sandwich with, not bread...oh no, in the best American example of ingenuity, this is "sandwiched" with two pieces of fried chicken!! It's a losing battle, I'm afraid! God Bless America.

One day I will not be able to run. Today is not that day, so I'm going running. I'll see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Tell Me Your Slowest Time

"Decide that you want it more than you are afraid of it" - Bill Cosby

When we meet up with runners we've just met or haven't seen in long time and find they've been running marathons or ultras, we will invariably ask them "What's your best time?". This line of thinking is supposed to let us know how good a runner this guy is. Did he qualify for Boston? Did he do 100 miles in less than less time than it takes to see two sunrises? More importantly, where does he stack up to your time? Any time slower than you is regarded as "Well, good for him. Keep up the good work.". Any time faster is met with "Whew! You're pretty good.".

The other day, I was running with my good buddy, Ken, and we got to talking about this. After all, you can check anybody's marathon time on . Ken brought up a good point..."Don't tell me your best time. Tell me your slowest time!". If you want to find out the true mettle of a runner, you know, see what's inside, real deep inside, then that is the question to ask. The answer you will usually get is an apologetic hem-hawing about heat, terrain, sickness, etc derailing an average time. I assume most of you that read this blog have been out there on the road or trail many times during races. In all those races, the clock keeps running no matter how good or bad you can feel. Things can go amazingly good sometimes and when you reach the finish line, it's like you've finally turned that proverbial corner and hit your stride. You can't wait to tell every Tom, Dick, and Aunt Bea what your time was. This will be your benchmark from now until that someday when you hopefully better it.

But, let's not pull any punches here. We've all been in races where the whole enchilada comes apart and we're left with "What the heck is going on?". In a shorter race, you can hang on and usually you are still followed by many walkers, so the sting isn't too bad. Besides, even the worst 10k is only going to last 90 minutes or so. But, in a race that at least lasts several hours, the less experienced you are, the more inclined you are to pack it in and save it for another day. Even experienced veterans will put their tails between their legs sometimes and plan for the next race almost immediately.

But when things go seriously south in a long distance run, and there is no injury involved, the mindset of most of these seasoned athletes is to try to lock in on what has to be done to get to the finish line. If you've been through the throws of Hades during a long, tortuous run, then, most of the time, you will try to reboot, recalculate, and reset the goals. It seems like the finish line is getting further away rather than closer. The sun is getting hotter. The hills are getting steeper. I've been in many trail races where I've been alone in the woods, berating myself about what an awful runner I am, wondering who was I trying to fool by saying I knew what I was doing...oh yeah, it is a long, lonely, miserable journey. You wonder how you will ever finish the race. You have basically two choices: try to snap out of it mentally or physically (eat, drink, cool off, etc), or you can try to tune every cell in your body to focus on one, and only one goal...heading to the finish. Some call it a bonk, some call it the wall, but unless you've been through it, you just don't know what it's like...there is a quote about something like "When you stare into the abyss, the abyss will stare into you". Now, I don't want to get into a big philosophical discussion about exactly what the abyss is, but I do know when I'm deep in the woods, when my legs are completely shot to hell, there's nobody in front of me, and nobody behind me, and only the dirt trail beneath my feet, the abyss is the dark tunnel of the race. On the other side of the tunnel is the light of the finish line. Do I take the easier DNF (or as the Barkley Marathons calls it RTC - Refused To Continue) or do I try to summon some strength that I don't even know I have left?

Whether it be alone on the trail with nobody around, or alone on the road with 15,000 people in the same race...if we choose to continue...if we choose to stare into the abyss...we draw from our own deep will to finish...time be damned. It is all we can do, it's all we have. We can still put one foot in front of the other. My mantra has always been, good run or not, "Every step is a step closer". I have climbed hills when my "up" muscles were drained dry. I've been in the latter stages of a race where I think I literally have fallen asleep while still moving forward, but every step is a step closer. We have all stared into that abyss, and it changes us. We know the abyss is part of it all. It might take hours to come out the other side, but come out we will. We doubt our strength once the abyss tries to stare us down, but it can't. We've been there before. We've cried like a little girl inside, but we still trudged on. We've won before.

So, don't tell me your fastest time. That lets me know what happened when everything went just right...when the abyss overslept and never bothered you. Tell me your slowest time, when you were at the brink of the cliff, ready to throw the towel in, raise the white flag, take the short cut home...but you didn't. The finish line was there and all you had to do was cross it...yeah, that's all you had to do! You can't explain it to others, but sometimes you're slowest times are the ones you're most proud of. It was during these races that others didn't find out about you...YOU found out about you...and you have every right to be proud of yourself. You crossed the line and said to yourself "That was ALL I had today". You swear you'll never come back, but the Abyss has been slain, and like the Phoenix, rises from the dead and beckons you to return, and return you will. So, tell me your slowest time, because then I'll know the hell you went through and I'll know much more about the heart of the runner I'm talking to.

Next week, I will be writing to you from Beantown as I visit my family in Boston for the weekend. Hope to get in a good run or two with my son, Michael. It's a gift that I can run with him. Supposed to storm tomorrow here in Birmingham, but as long as it's not thundering, I plan to see you all on the roads - AL

"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"

Saturday, June 2, 2012

Living In The Running Blogosphere

"Words, once they are printed, have a life of their own". - Carol Burnett (1936 - )

When I started my blog back two years ago, I didn’t know about many other running blogs, and I really wasn't sure what the difference between a blog and an email was. I had been writing a long, weekly email to my TNT trainees for more than ten years, but when my formal coaching tenure came to an end, I still wanted to write. What I wanted to write about, I didn't know, but I like to write and I like to run. But, a strict training blog is rather limited (boring) - I mean, how many times and how many different ways can you say "put one foot in front of the other for a real long time"? Of course, Runners World has found a way to say this monthly for a generation! I decided to put my thoughts, memories, and whatever crossed my cranium down on paper electronically, to be eternally entered into the cloud (still haven't figured out that "cloud" thing).

I didn’t know if anyone apart from myself was ever going to read it. I assumed some of my old trainees would read it to be loyal, or maybe more out of habit, but could I keep them interested enough to come back the next week? Well, when you start something new, you need some instant pats on the back, and I got that by seeing that not only were my "locals" reading RWA, but this blog counter thing (see the lower right sidebar of this blog) began to light up this map of the WORLD to show where folks were dialing in from. Now, it didn't matter to me that half of these folks probably erroneously stumbled upon RWA while meaning to type in TWA (Trans-World Airlines) or NWA (NorthWest Airlines) or any other other letter combined with "WA". The map began to fill up with little blips from every continent (except Antarctica, but you really can't count a continent that doesn't have anybody living there, can you?) and lands that I really never heard of...geography was so much easier when I went to school...after all, Russia and China took up half the world, and (not to offend anybody) there were only about a handful of other countries we really had to learn. So looking at my map, fellow worldly neighbors from 71 countries, including 48 US states have tried out this blog - BTW, if you know anybody that lives in Alaska or Wyoming, tell them it would make me EXTREMELY happy if they would read my blog. And when some reader actually takes the time to write a comment, man, I am flying high. Can you imagine ME getting a comment from Ireland??? The point is that the blogosphere is a lot bigger than I ever thought it was.

I look at and subscribe to loads of other running blogs, and I find reading them really addictive (which means I shouldn't really do it while at work!). I have a whole screen on my smartphone that is just for bookmarked running blogs I'm following! There are blogs from people with all kinds of running abilities, but mostly I read blogs by ultramarathoners that are really good, but when you read their blog, you find they're just like you and me. "Why did I bomb on that run?"..." Peanut Butter Gu is great!"..."Should I eat vegan or should I eat every piece of meat I can find?". Just like us, good runners get injured and absolutely HATE it. They rationalize, then they try to push too hard, then they say how stupid they were, and then they come back when they do things right. You read this all in their blogs. And you can comment on their blogs, and like a 65 year old groupie, I get excited when I get a (re)comment on my comment from a Western States winner that says "Thanks for the support Al". It's one thing to read in a magazine about these guys, but to read their own words means they sat down like me and put their thoughts down for no other reason than to let it flow and hope somebody will read it. You don't have to be a Western States winner, or an Olympic Champion to write down interesting thoughts about running. Running is running.

I won't list the blogs I read, but here in Alabama, we have some really good bloggers like Jeff Martinez, David Tosch, Dink Taylor, and Danny Haralson. Sometimes finding a good read takes a little searching, but that's all it is...a search. Put in a well-known runner's name that you think of, follow that with the word "blog" in your search, and you'd be surprised how many very good runners are out there putting down their scattered thoughts and just hoping somebody will give them a read. Better yet, try your own blog. All you have to do is sit down and type. Might be a rant, might be a rave, might be a gear review, might be just how you feel about running. Be yourself. You might not think it's interesting to anybody but you, but somebody will. My running is pretty low key these days, but just put a comment on my blog, and man, it's like winning at the slot machine...keeps me coming back to write again. But, now that I think about it, even if you don't comment, I'll probably still come back to write again. After all, I've got to get a hook in somebody in Alaska and Wyoming before I stop!

Hope you all are enjoying this warming weather. I run better when it's cool, but I sure do love the heat. You keep drinking and I'll keep writing and running, and as always, I'll see you on the roads - AL
"One child lost is too child saved can change the world"