DIARY: What failed to work

As the inceptor of the next two natural movement focused workshops in Glendalough, it seems timely to look back on my journey into this field and explain why I have become a passionate advocate of natural movement in general and Tony Riddle’s approach specifically.

Perhaps regular readers are wondering, “here’s the guy who once high-dosed on anti-inflammatories, slept with a nightsplint, reluctantly accepted orthotics for a spell, bought half the shoes out there and worked with half a dozen different strength and conditioning coaches. So what’s this natural movement suddenly?

By the time I sought out Tony to pay  for a one-to-one session, investing in treatment was as common to me as paying rent. I had jumped at anything that could potentially “offer a fix”. My letters to the VHI were legendary every year and the cheque I got back would have been cause for celebration if the money had not been spent three-fold in the first place. So I thought, “I haven’t tried this and it looks interesting, so let’s give it a go.”

Like the trip I made to London to see Tony, “leap of faith” (you hear the atheist saying!) and it is therefore fitting that it all began with a jump, a jump from a Reebok step…

Ignorance is bliss

When I began running I would listen attentively to anyone who held a likely claim to wisdom or authority about matters of running. For the first year, I thought I was unbreakable, and regularly stated this fact, as I raced 47 races in 52 weeks. I did tear my meniscus but when I healed it in less six weeks, I concluded that my healing powers were legend and I’d remain protected from the scourge of injury for all time.

Thirty-three injuries proved me wrong in the following years and I managed to self-diagnose myself with a plethora of latin terms and some pains grew so chronic I convinced myself I had rhematoid arthritis and that the damage would not be reversible.

Thankfully, deep down I did not buy the argument that injuries are inevitable, athletic lives short and age automatically a restricting factor to training volume. After all, running was clearly my birthright, the most natural of movements. Yet it was breaking me down. Finding the Pilates Running website really was just a stroke of luck, but it answered many of the mysterious questions I still had.

Laser treatment and anti-inflammatories

My early experiences with laser treatment were overwhelmingly positive and benefitted me greatly. Sadly, they did not remove the posterior tibialis tendinitis nor did they manage to remove the lump below Aoife’s foot. I could not understand this until I came across evolutionary medicine, a theory that explains the body’s defenses.

Essentially, our view on many “pains” are completely wrong: inflammation in joints, calcification of tendons, protective “bulbs” on bones are not injuries or ailments – they are defense mechanisms, the body’s adaptive response to the wrong kind of stress.

When you run properly, the body will create better padding under your feet, increase bone density were it should be happening and so on. Unfortunately, improper use triggers an improper defensive response. So it does not matter whether your use a laser or anti-inflammatories to blast away calcium, inflammation or other healing or protective tissue. The mind will rebuild these as long as the perceived threat (moving badly) is still there. So these treatments were doomed to fail, as permanent solutions because the root cause remain unaddressed.

Strength and conditioning

I have received programmes from many highly qualified strength and conditioning coaches and have devised a fair few on my own. None made a positive contribution to my training and most invariably seemed to make me even more stiff and sore and impacted my running.

Why was this? Here again the answer lay in a current misunderstanding that if you train and strengthen muscles proper movement and resistance to the forces of running follows. Unfortunately, it is the other way around: move properly and proper muscle tone and resistance to the forces will follow. Technique not strength is the answer.

What happened to me instead is that I emphasized more of my current muscles imbalances – my strong muscles got stronger and tighter and worse at performing running specific movements and my weak muscles stayed weak and inactive. The worst among the exercises was the calf raises, prescribed to me more often than any other exercise. This in particular had a tendency to really flare up irritation in my ankles, tighten my calves. So now I had lower legs tighter and more irritated than ever and I had gotten into a habit of “pushing myself off the ground” with my feet (wrong again sadly). As I told James Cottle on a recce of Wicklow Way leg 6 the other day when we discussed whether he should send calf raise drills to Aoife, I had to lay down a marker: “If any runner of mine does calf raises, they need not bother coming to me and complaining.” In other words, those things are “verboten” for Aoife and anyone I coach. At least if they want to stay in my good graces.

For myself, the tightness in my calves from the calf raises then prompted me to do more stretching of my calves. Good right? No sadly this just perpetuated a vicious cycle.

Static stretching

Stretching used to give me a mixture of temporary relief or just plain pain and irritation. I eventually cut out stretches that I just thought were plain crazy (I could not relate them to any position I would ever need) but I did persist for quite some time. I noticed, almost by accident, that when I stopped bothering, all my ankle symptoms improved almost within a matter of weeks.

When discussing it with Tony in London I got a first hint of what was going on and when I read Phil Maffetone’s books it was all explained: studies have shown that stretching only further weakens muscles, potentially damages them and even worse, masks the pain so that you, for a time, can ignore treating the real problem. I could fill an article with the issues with static stretching but one of the most effective moves I made after the workshop in London was to remove it completely.

Only in hindsight could I see that in general my long term recovery was always at its worst after long stretching sessions. The only thing that seemed as damaging as stretching was sitting in the same position for hours after a session.

Complete rest

Which brings me to my favourite punching bag: total rest. I was told to take a complete break from running on more occasions than I care to recount. I rarely followed it entirely but when I did it never led to swift recovery. Even a very serious injury can usually heal on its own in six weeks, in terms of pure tissue repair. My plantar did not seem to “heal” for 18 months after the troubles began, so I invested in nightsplints and other contraptions and stayed off it completely for three months while trying Difene for the issue (very healthy, and after getting serious side-effects, I promptly dropped the pills).

So why does total rest not work? Well, if we go back to evolutionary medicine: the only time the human body was designed to be totally inactive (such as sitting for two hours in car, sitting for 8 hours at a desk, sitting for 2 hours in a couch, does this picture sound familiar?) is when it was gravely ill or wounded. Complete physical inactivity of that nature essentially tells your body that you are badly ill and is not a very good platform for recovery.

Active recovery was always my preferred option but unfortunately the only places I could seek an outlet were weight training, cycling and cross-training. None of the movement patterns involved in those, when done as they are commonly today, are in sync with how you should move as a natural runner. So all I was doing was training myself to become a worse runner than before. At the same time I would be mentally torturing myself, focusing on the area of pain and increasingly unable to even try to run relaxed.

Orthotics and running shoes

With my ankle pains getting no better, I was recommended orthotics. I went for the cheapest pair at €70 and gave it a go. Initially it did give some relief but eventually the problems reappeared or new problems started appearing. When I shifted the orthotics from shoe to shoe it occurred to me that since every shoe was different, the orthotic was really trying to correct my shoes not my feet! I looked at my feet and concluded that there was nothing wrong with them and threw out the orthotics. I never felt like putting them back in. I had done some work on running technique at this point and could no longer use very cushioned footwear as I noticed it had begun to interfere with my stride. Yet I still got pain and hammered calves after running in low to zero-drop footwear. I seemed to have eliminated a lot of damaging treatments that had been put to me, but I was still no closer to being able to live up the Lydiard ideal and run 100-mile weeks pain-free as we were intended to do.

Natural movement…

And at this point of my injury history, when things had brightened a bit but the outlook was still unsure, the concept of natural movement as rehabilitation was finally introduced to me. It took me a while to fully accept the facts that were being presented to me, because it asked me to throw away so much of the knowledge of the human body I had carefully built up over five years. But as it proves, no knowledge, no matter how cherished, is worth keeping when it is clearly wrong.

In the next instalment I’ll look at the first tentative steps into the world of natural movement, whether I had a “crisis of faith” and the set-backs I needed to overcome…