DIARY: Managing “the Force”(s)

Aoife and I went back to “the road that just keeps teaching” today – the winding Glenmacnass Road. From our house we ran out the hard tarmac path and turned at the Glenmacnass Waterfall – 10.6km from where we started. By running back we completed a half-marathon, nothing unusual for regular runners to do on a Sunday, and, in fact, a bit short by the standard of most. So what made it interesting.

Ground Reaction Force

Well, firstly the run was much more satisfying than runs in the past because both Aoife and I were wearing our VivoBarefoot Aqualite shoes without insoles, meaning we had to absorb the impact forces involved in this run through skill and the strength of our bodies – not from any artificial aid.

When I began dabbling with this type of minimalist running, I could not run 200m down a tarmac road before hobbling back, so it’s fair to say that “the Force” is now stronger in me – or at least – I am capable of handling much greater forces.

Tony introduced the concept of forces to me and the force you feel when you hit the ground is called “Ground Reaction Force” and is not evil (although made out to be on many occasions). Without Ground Reaction Force there is no movement (unless you’re a flying animal), so it’s not something to scare away from – rather its something to learn to manage because the faster you want to move, the greater force you need to learn to control.

Taking control

Both Aoife and I are beginning to approximate old training paces very rapidly now and I estimate I am 8 weeks away from being back at my cruising speed from at the peak I reached earlier this year with Aoife being about 4 weeks away from running at the paces suggested by her best race performances over time.

What’s ironic is that, as science now proves conclusively, the impact forces of running in a shoe like the VivoBarefoot with a natural running style are actually lower than when running in a cushioned shoe. It does not feel that way initially: your feet are very sensitive and full of nerve endings, so the at first it can be a bit overwhelming to truly feel the ground. But then you notice that the stress on hips, knees and other areas of your body which are normally being heavily stressed by running, do not appear. The forces involved are the same or less, but they are now being distributed to the areas designed to handle them. Of course, there is a conditioning process as these areas have not been doing that job for a while, so like someone coming out of retirement, they need a bit of time to settle back in.

Bones of steel

The best example is the human bone: bones are not solid the way a piece of iron would be – the have hollow parts and a great part of their strength comes from the elasticity build into their construction. Our bodies develop the strength of the bone tissue largely based on being subjected to If you spend your life walking on soft surfaces, your bones become overly rigid on the one hand while the structure weakens, making them more brittle than they should be. Bones thicken at the point of maximum stress (one reason we develop bunions and other undesirable bone formations and spur). When you stress the right areas through natural running, you are essentially building bones of steel as well as the neuromuscular coordination to time the impact (subconsciously) to perfection so that the Ground Reaction Forces are dispersed optimally. Also the mind picks up correctly that we are running on a very hard piece of tarmac, often accentuated by the long fast downhill sections on the return where you have to get your technique spot-on, and it prepares not just muscle and joints correctly for the impact but bone as well.

When Tony tells us that soft surfaces make you stiff and hard surfaces makes you elastic, this is one of the elements he is describing. Slogging away in a cushioned shoe has exactly this undesirable effect – weak bones and an inelastic runner – nevermind the poor movement that almost certainly arises.

Running like an elite

This affects performance as well. When I trotted up and down the Glenmacnass Road in my Nike Lunarlites earlier in the year, not only did I have to be watchful of plantar soreness but I also lost all the elastic properties of the plantar arch and most of those of the Achilles tendon. Running with the proper technique coached by Tony and a shoe that does not interfere with this allow both Aoife and I to get more “free energy” from elastic recoil, spend less time on the ground and reduce the amount of muscular energy needed for propulsion – essentially we begin to acquire more of the running form characteristics seen in most elite, but rarely present in fun runners. We are also getting a much better workout from a full-body perspective as all the torso and upper body muscles have to stay strong and maintain correct posture. Muscles love doing what they are designed for and quickly adapt and grow to fill back into their old roles.

I have developed more core muscle definition from just running naturally than from any amount of core work done previously – killing two birds with one stone if that’s what you are after. Generally after a run like this muscle soreness is still there and you feel like you got “one hell of a workout” but there’s no undesirable pain (as always, run within your current limitations – this applies even to someone with perfect running technique and years of conditioning – the limit is just likely to be much much higher).

“Like lifting”

To my mind it is absolutely necessary to approach to 1) do this conditioning and 2) approach it systematically. Consider that I weigh around 68 kilos at present and for the most part of today’s run am putting 2x or more that impact force through my system with each step. This would happen no matter what I run in. So the question is – will I take the “magic bullet” and run beyond my true ability by just putting on a shoe, knowing payment (in the form of injury) is awaiting down the line – or will say “hell no, I’m going to condition this body to handle the force, step by step, the proper way”. If I run a half-marathon at 8 minute/miles today and then do 7:50min/miles next week, it’s really not so different from teaching myself to lift 250kg in a deadlift this week and 260kg the next. The key word is “properly” and the second thing to keep in mind is that the progression has to be reasonable enough for your body to do it’s job.

Time for a paradigm shift

The obsession with the physiological paradigm of running, as if it exists in isolation, is part of the drivers of the injury scourge in running exactly because it makes us rush out to pursue time and intensity blindly. Nevermind a pulled tendon as long as you got in 2 hours at 140bpm heart rate (or similar). What odds that your body is falling apart, as long as you could run that 5km time trial in 18 minutes flat. A bizarre notion that as long as our energy systems and heart rates are willing to let us do something, then nevermind that the rest isn’t ready. This “blind spot” in much of the athletics community undoubtedly arose when exercise physiology rose to prominence and we forgot what all old school coaches knew intuitively because – you are conditioning the entire body (and mind) when you run and you have to approach your training this way.

What is often done now is more similar to people who go lift a weight randomly 20 times (with terrible form) until they get red-faced or feel enough muscle soreness that the exercise seems worthwhile or hunch up over a spinning bike and trash themselves “just to get the heart rate going”. This is no way to build a champion athlete.

The physiological paradigm has had it’s day, and I’m reminded of that on days like this. It’s futile to try to isolate one little variable such as “heart rate intensity” and train that and that alone. We need to return to the holistic old school way of training – which includes conditioning your body properly for running – by running the right way.