DIARY: Lessons from Canada

Canada proved to be a great country to visit, especially for Aoife and I as it had two of the things we like most: good trails and good food! Before this turns into a “Lonely Planet” blog, however, let me get the non-running matters out of the system: Canada had extremely friendly people, some of the best micro-brewery beers I’ve tried (Maple Cream Ale anyone or Sorghum Gluten Free beer?) and natural spectacles so numerous it beggars belief. There is so much within 20 minutes of Vancouver that most countries would be hard pressed to match it. Yet this area is a tiny dot in an wilderness whose size it is hard for my modern min to comprehend.  Only downsides were the over-priced and not particularly enjoyable local wines we tried, an uninspiring and somewhat dirty downtown area and over-attentive table service!

Running lessons

On to the main topic: during one of our first outings we learned that when Canadian guidebooks (this can be seen on their mountain bike trails as well – we only saw grades of More Difficult, Most Difficult and Extreme!)* was that they do not overstate the difficulty of their trails. Unsurprising then that on one of these trails, our long run in the Thursday heat in Squamish, I got dehydrated, lost concentration and struck my heel first against a hard rock, then a hard root and then another hard rock. At the third blow I had some immediate swelling so Aoife and I walked the last kilometre back to the car to ensure I could be back in action the following day.

* Sidenote:Seeing some of the trails and imagining the skill required to get over them on a bike gives me an increased respect for the mountain bikers. I never enjoyed the sport and would not be in any hurry to try it again myself, but they have my respect nonetheless.

A few weeks ago I had similarly banged my right forefoot and as a result had a tender third metatarsal on the right foot. While it did not stop me at any time it meant a slight wince whenever my foot got prodded by a pointy rocks straight on the sore sport.We were doing significant downhill and uphill on very technical terrain, almost daily, so every now and again I’d get a slight stiffness in my left ankle. But wait a minute? Wasn’t I supposed to be injury free? Or at least injury proof? Well, yes, and I have never intended to convey that I am bullet proof thanks to Tony Riddle’s intervention – if I get cut I still bleed. If you hit me, I still bruise. So what’s the difference?

Injury free running – before and after

What Canada really made me reflect on with this series of little “sore spots” was that I had experienced every single one of those “symptoms” (or effects as I prefer) earlier in my running career and in all cases they led to severe frustration and lengthy lay-offs of six weeks and often much longer. I was powerless and clueless to do anything about them nor to understand why I picked them up.

Aoife said to me after a bruise she got earlier this year: “It’s still so frustrating to get a pain like that but I know at least that it’s gone in 1-2 days, or 1-2 weeks when it’s bad, instead of not knowing when it’ll be gone.” She knew better than anyone having suffered for over a year with a “mystery” nerve injury that most, including the Sports Surgery Clinic at Santry, where helpless to diagnose or fix.*

* Tony Riddle fixed it. Not by waving a magic wand. Aoife had to change her ways and follow his instructions. But away it went. Truth was – we never found out “what it was” (pinched nerve or otherwise) – we didn’t need to know. Retraining the running style that hurt her and shoes that contributed to this was enough.

On the Canadian trails, the pain still hurt as I banged my foot and it was still slightly frustrating as it naturally put some tension into my system and took a bit of enjoyment out of some of the runs we did (when you have to watch yourself like a hawk, everything get’s less leisurely) but apart from that there is a world of difference from the past. Firstly – I know what to do to improve my healing process and I know the cause. Blunt trauma may seem obvious but I had noticed that my left foot still had a tendency to land with a slight heel strike. Had my heel landed more gently and my form been better, and my ability to maintain it, the blow would not have happened.* Rather than being unable to run for weeks and getting a Latin-language diagnosis, as I have been in the past, and told to rest, ice and take anti-inflammatories, I simply did two things: 1. focused more on form and 2. re-adjusted my volume to what I could keep concentration on. We threw in some easier days (hiking and light running) as well, as anyone would in their training programme, to allow the initial swelling to settle a little bit (we also went to an amazing outdoor SPA – Scandinavian style, but that was for the mind and pleasure not rehabilitation!).

* Some will blame my use of shoes with no protection. I prefer to take responsibility for my own failures and accept them for what Tony has taught me they are, my own lack of skill, rather than blaming it on the situation or artificial aids. Truth is, if I had worn a shoe with any kind of real sole, I expect I would have two badly sprained feet from the Vancouver trails!

Benefits of a banged heel

The day after a long flight, I take a shorter session as a rule because the system can be slightly sluggish and the “not quite right” so I only went out for an easy 30 minutes (1km bare foot incorporated) and this run confirmed something I had noticed on our last trail runs in Vancouver: my running form has improved rather than regressed because my heel is tender. Why? Because with the VivoBarefoot shoes I am getting instant feedback if I put any excessive force through the heel (e.g. too much “heel strike” and not enough of a “heel kiss”).

Right enough I had no discomfort at all and could clearly feel a difference and a better landing on the left foot. So once you are equipped correctly: technically and with the right technology shoes, then these bruises are not injuries – they are just learning experiences that heal quickly and provide no real impediment to running.  Had I broken my heel bone the scenario would, of course, be less rosy but it is very difficult to that running minimalist because you are very aware of what you run on! 

The difference then

What I tend to do is avoid extremely rocky trail if I have bruised a bone (since it only takes one mistake and it’s easy to tense up if you have that thought in your head) – I choose a hard flat even surface instead (tarmac) because then I can focus all my concentration on keeping good enough form that I do not put undue pressure on the bruised area.

So that’s what Canada has reminded me is the difference between an injury free runner and a non injury free runner: the injury free runner can still bruise but in my case it has allowed me to keep running while making the corrections to take into account such bruises.*

*Common-sense still applies, of course, if someone takes a  baseball bat to my feet tomorrow and break my ankles, I will not run on them the next day no matter how good I think my technique is (but I would as soon as the integrity of the bones would again allow it, which would be much sooner than for a heel striking athlete).

With that I am looking forward to welcoming back the coach who made it possible for me, Tony Riddle, this weekend for another of the “Run injury free” courses. There' are no magic bullets being handed out over the weekend – but the skill can be learned with the right attitude and right approach and with some new hill running material on the agenda I am looking forward to this one in particular. Roll on.