I had left the appointment with Hagen knowing more than ever about my injuries:
- My symptoms are not true damage as much as a defensive response my body has developed to running
- He considers it unlikely that I have rheumatoid arthritis
I knew that my vitamin experiments, while not having caused me any problems, would have been ineffective then (they had no condition to treat), that my strengthening and stretching should be of the “resistance stretching” variety to strengthen the full muscle and Hagen also suggested some changes to diet which I will cover in a separate article.
Previous experience with running form
So as I boarded the flight to London, I wondered what new information I would gain to further help me on the road to permanent injury-prevention and performance enhancement. I have read most Barefoot books on the market, I’ve tried many minimalist shoes, I have attended ChiRunning courses, learned about POSE, participated in Running Clinics, watched the Evolution Running material and learned directly from Dr Mark Cucuzella (known from “Born to Run”). So what could I learn from Antony Riddle?
Who is Antony Riddle
A lot, I expected, for I had stumbled over Antony Riddle when watching a video with his colleague, the famous Lee Saxby. Antony is the director of the Gloves Boxing Club together with Lee and also runs the Pilates Running website. While he is a level 3 POSE instructor, he does not teach POSE. He considers Dr Romanov a genius but believes the starting point in the sprint movement pattern used for POSE does not result in the ideal running technique for normal running. Likewise ChiRunning, he does not agree with the “lean” technique employed in ChiRunning but this is not the major difference.
Matt Fitzgerald showed in “Run by Feel” that thinking about how you run while running actually consumes more energy so this is an inefficient way to correct your mechanics. Matthew Syed similarly showed in “Bounce” how important it is for performance to train movement so diligently that they become part of the subconscious of the athlete, leaving the athlete’s conscious mind to focus on strategy and similar questions. The conscious mind cannot make decisions quickly enough and causes stilted, tense and poor movement patterns.
Aoife and I walked into the back alley leading to the Gloves Boxing Club. The club has been built inside an old railroad ticketing office and we were immediately impressed by the intense atmosphere and the hard but dynamic training undertaken by boxers both inside and outside the ring. In the backroom, “Tony” was finishing up work with another client. She was running on the treadmill in the erect pose characteristic of his approach.
If I wasn’t convinced before, I was now: Antony had feet the likes of which I had never seen before. They looked more like hands. When he told me how his wife had given birth while squatting for 45 minutes, I knew I was talking to a man who could return the human body to its natural state.
What had attracted me about Antony’s methodology ahead of the others on the market was a simple thing: he talked about the hierarchy of movement – because we sit so much we don’t stand right, because we don’t stand right we don’t walk right and so on. Fix the posture, and you fix the runner. No thinking about each step or leaning forward etc. Just return your body to its natural posture and balance and go out and run along joyfully. Pleasantries first and then we went into action:
“So, this is your idea of forefoot style running,” Tony said to me without sarcasm before I gave way to Aoife on the treadmill. He filmed us both running with and without shoes (I was wearing my Inov-8 Road-X 155). To me he pointed out several flaws:
- Foot landed slightly ahead of hip, although on forefoot (corrected by fixing posture while running)
- Arms too tense and robotic
- Right foot wanted to “avoid” contact (it was sore)
- Left leg returned back to front too quickly
- Cadence was too slow and I hit the ground too hard (too much noise)
As I struggled during the first few corrective drills, Antony got hands on and started manipulating my legs, toes and hips. He found the sore spots on the posterior tibialis and hips and worked on them as Hagen had. Then he diagnosed both my feet with Morton’s toe (meaning my second metatarsal protrudes ahead of my first). This can lead to Morton’s syndrome and explains my metatarsal irritation history. Essentially, by wearing shoes that are narrow at the front my big toe has been pushed inwards. As the big toe can no longer fulfil its role as the main stabiliser on foot-strike the second metatarsal takes over. Sadly it is not as well equipped. We assessed my footwear and even the new Inov-8, with its wider snout, is too narrow at the front. Only my Inov-8 Recolites, Vibrams and the Vivobarefoot models are wide enough to allow the big toe out into its natural position.
Fear of movement
I performed the intricate squats (if you think you know how to squat, think again!), the freaky toe stretches and jumping exercises as instructed. Every drill pushed the body to rework the “bad software” programmed into it by years of misuse. “It’s easier to change the software than the hardware at least,” I quipped.
It would take me too long to describe all exercises here but I will write more about them when I get the programme on ChampionsEverywhere and for those who want to see the full thing, we’ll bring Antony over in the new year for a workshop, the method is too good not to spread to Ireland.
Early in the programme it became apparent that a lot of the squats and poses caused me painful tightness and cramps and I would jump out of them. Antony would use psychological tricks to get me to focus on something else and suddenly the sensations were gone. What was up? Then was asked to go on a step and jump directly down and into a deep toe squat. As one movement not two (e.g. not jumping down and then going into a squat).
Humans have incredible elasticity in their legs but we have lost it because we run only on soft surfaces (our shoes). Put a kangaroo in a bouncy castle long enough and it won’t bounce so well anymore. When a hard object hits a soft, the soft objects gives and springs away from the hard object. Our feet are meant to be the soft object naturally jumping from the hard surfaces beneath us. Because we wear shoes our legs turn into hard objects, fooled by the soft shoe, knocking down against the hard ground. It’s like throwing a metal bar onto a ceramic floor. It isn’t pretty.
So as I stood there to regain my elasticity, Tony noticed how many jumps it took me to get comfortable. Having noticed my earlier pains he said: “your body has Fear of Movement”. It’s like a lion in the room…
A lion in the room
If a lion suddenly walks into the room, it will trigger you fight or flight response (flight if you’re clever, fight if you have a gun). While this state has some uses it is generally a damaging state for the human body, a stressful type of exercise which we should not be subjected to too often.
“When you go out and run there is always a lion in the room,” Tony explained, “your body is afraid movement.” Twisting my ankles he showed how all of my ankle sprains have turned my ankles immobile. Ask me to move my ankle and other muscles fire. The ankles are like trapped in a panic, wanting only to lock. This is the cause of all my pains: my body has come to see running as an attack and the nervous reflexes stored in my muscles destroy my movement and pain is send to try and stop the exercise.
Slowly but surely, Antony began to teach me how to refocus my mind, release the tension and work myself into movement patterns that are not damaging to the body. As the body learns the new patterns its resistance to injury increases immeasurably – suddenly the force subjected can easily be withstood and the tension and warning signals reside. As Aoife said: “You looked like a man standing at the edge of a cliff on that step.” Just before writing this sentence I went over and gleefully jumped off my own Reebok step. Then I did it with a barbell over head. In two days, I have remembered how to jump.
So much to learn
So much more happened in the session that it is hard to summarise here: we were showed how to move up and down stairs most effectively by using the body’s natural “lifting” muscles instead of “pushing” (lift three kilos of legs instead of pushing 70 kilos of man!). We jumped and transitioned into our natural running form to the sound of a 180bpm metronome and we learned why standard strength training is so damaging and why having a strong psychology can pull you through forces your body cannot normally sustain…but not for long. One day it will leave you a wreck. Tony talked of Federer, grace personified and never injured, who trains naturally, whereas Nadal uses intense weight training and you can see it in his powerful muscly way of playing and his huge list of injuries and matches played on pain-killers.
How long to be fixed?
“Six weeks,” Antony told me without hesitation, “after each session you have a 72 hour window before your body starts reverting to old habits. You should perform the drills to set your body up for the run ahead.” The technique is not limited to running, Gloves Boxing Club was formed as the fulcrum because boxing is a sport that requires all parts of the body to be worked in unison. Yet, Antony deals with the specific, not the generic. He evaluated some of Aoife’s functional training exercises and noted that some were not intrinsic in the running movement and should be removed.
During the session he had found the root cause of her nerve troubles and “burning feet” as it became clear that her ankles started to rotate inward when squatting. This would happen during running too. Even the light Inov-8 X-Talon 190 she was wearing did not help the problem: “I can see you are pronating even as you stand there in those shoes. Pronation is not bad but too much pronation is.”
This session felt like getting a black curtain violently pulled from your eyes. I have held a big puzzle with a thousand pieces for a very long time and tried to figure out how to put them together to explain my woes. In a few intense hours they all fell together. Every injury I have had now makes sense. The physical problems are obvious, but all easily fixed with Antony’s system. Much worse is the “Fear of Movement” which I must release as I get more confident moving properly again and in collaboration with Hagen’s myoreflex therapy.
I am like the boxer Antony described to us: “who was put in the ring on his very first day and beaten up. Now every time he steps into the ring, he is tense and in fight or flight mode. His hormones and enzyme levels are not working right, his heart rate is unnecessarily elevated and he is wasting energy.” The road and the mountains beat me up because just like the first-time fighter, I had not learned how to defend myself. I was as uncomfortable out there as the fighter was in the ring.
How complicated is the human body. Yet so simple.