TRAINING: A Kenyan shadow

Whatever strange weakness currently sits in my system won’t let go of it’s hold but I have been slowly improving day by day and yesterday I was so inspired by Kiprotich brilliant marathon victory that I decided to try my long run.

The previous day I had joined Aoife to help her execute her time trial but proved a busted flush. My body began to red-line after a few kilometres of pace that normally causes me no issue at all, so I knew things were not right. I slowed down, let her finish on her own and focused on easy running.

Easy can be hard

When my journey of changing my stride began, the most difficult part was improving it at slow paces. This is a general problem – the slower you move the more concentration is needed to keep proper running form and not regress into a “jogging stride”. This is particularly true when you wear a shoe with enough rubber on the heel to mask the fact you are heel-striking at slow speeds.

So my process goal for the run (up the hard Glenmacnass Road) was to run at a speed where I was pulling my leg no higher than my ankle bone (the mind can relate to external points much better than internal points of reference, so I focused my mind fully on the ankle bone on the other leg). As I ran along I sunk into a deep meditative state and by and large heart rate, rhythm, intensity and feeling of control and coordination felt extremely composed, even on the last very steep ascent of the Glenmacnass Waterfall.

The shadow… 

As it was a sunny day I looked over on my own shadow several times and noticed something uncanny that really made my day: you would never have known that it was the shadow of a Northern European. Rather the image I had imprinted in my head of the proud Ugandan Kiprotich striding to victory (or all the Kenyan runners who resemble him, thus the title) expressed itself in that shadow: the head sitting proudly on top of all other segments, the composed and compact rhythm, the gentle movement of the arms and the almost complete lack of any knee lift.*

* Kiprotich is not perfect, it should be noted, as several images on Google will show. He sometimes reverts to an active push-off and full rear-leg extension with a stiff knee which in turn delays the front leg causing it to swing too far in front of him. Occasionally his posture breaks enough at the hip to sneak in a pronounced heel-strike etc. It IS hard to be perfect but the very built-up shoes he is running in allows for these errors to occur in what is otherwise, in most ways, a superb movement machines with terrific rhythm, overall posture and relaxation. I cannot help but wonder if the active push-off was coached into him the way it is in many Western athletes?

The only difference, apart (sadly for me) from the speed, was the height at which I pulled my leg off the ground. Kiprotich, running at 2:10 marathon speed, consistently executed a pull up to his knee-cap (about right for elite marathoning) while I pulled only to my ankle bone. But given I have been bed-ridden until a few days ago, I marvelled at the ease and economy of the correct running form versus where I used to be.

Not everything is perfect

Yet movement is a journey, not a destination. Coming home I felt some stiffness in my right hip which the usual hip pumps quickly worked out. However, as I have gained more experience I know that such sensations are not “part of the game” or “niggles” – they are warning signals of an incorrect movement pattern.

A technique I have begun to employ when I have to assess myself is to simply play around with different movement patterns until I find one that replicates the soreness. Example: if I ever came home with soreness in the outside of my foot, I might try to put the foot down in front of me and load the side. If that is painful it would be a first indication that during that run I loaded the side of my foot. If I found nothing there, I would try something else.

In this case I know the issue well as it is a relic of the time I was drilled by the traditional biomechanical model taught by UK Athletics and many other mainstream athletics coaches: that you need a knee-drive. What happens to me is that the right leg sometimes inserts a “superfluous movement”, especially on uphills, where the hip flexor fires after my hamstring has pulled my leg off the ground. The hip flexors are not designed to do this sort of contraction (flexion) repetitively during running. I had a similar issue in both hips back in the days when I tried to adopt ChiRunning.

This is easily removed as Tony Riddle provided me with an arsenal of exercises that teaches the hip to stay in extension during this part of the running stride. The beauty of having this knowledge for me is that I do not have to accept this hip “niggle” as a problem, it’s simply an indication of the next area of practice in the movement journey. In the old day my alternative would be to try various hip stretches, “strengthen my core”, “activate my glutes” or apply heat therapy. When you understand that this is a movement problem (my hips have a very wide range of motion), you can see that these types of interventions have near-zero chance of achieving anything useful.

Revised goals – post-script

As a quick post-script, because of my almost 10 day illness and my upcoming “Pilgrimage of Debauchery” to my local festival, I have decided to change my goals slightly for the Autumn. Instead of attempting a December marathon, I will target the Waterford Half-Marathon with the goal of recovering for a few weeks over Christmas and hitting the ground running for a Spring marathon. Coming back from the festival I will have a week to settle back in the routine and then 13 weeks until Waterford. The way things have gone I simply ran out of time to do the training required for a marathon that will be a positive step in my running career rather than a negative.