I love my feet

I do. I love them. I love their 52 bones, 33 joints, 107 ligaments and various tendons. I love that they have been working perfectly for 44 years and are still going, although by running I subject them to constant and huge pressure. I haven’t measured my cadence, but it should be between 160 to 200 steps a minute. Each of those steps is forcing the 9 stone 3 lb weight of my body into my feet, and that force is being met often by hard tarmac. It can’t be absorbed by tarmac, so it is absorbed by my feet. And still they run.

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There have been problems. I’ve only been running since 2010, and since then have had a few injuries. The problems are always on my right side. It started with my right foot. It began during a seven mile run with Jayne around Roundhay. It hurt, but I ran on it. It hurt more, but I continued to run. It hurt more, and I stopped. Thus began a year of appointments. Physio, first, where my pain (up the inner ankle) was diagnosed as a tendon problem. I was advised to rest, and did, even when I went to Long Beach, California, to do this TED talk, and, expelled from my bed by jet-lag, would go to the hotel gym and gaze longingly from the cross-trainer at people running along the beach-front running path outside, as the sun came up. I did my exercises – single leg squats and more single leg squats – I rested from running for three weeks, and nothing got better.

Next, a podiatrist. He examined me, sitting, standing, walking and running. He said, “you have quite frozen feet.” Oh? He said, I think you probably have some small bones fused together that wouldn’t normally be. He said that my foot flexing action when I run is also somewhat frozen, or not as flexible as it should be. He said, it’s not a tendon issue. It is anything but a tendon issue. He guessed I might have the beginnings of arthritis, and advised me to ask for an MRI. That was more than a year ago, but my first MRI appointment got lost, and I’ve not yet had the results from the second. But I haven’t felt any great urgency because a) he made me orthotic inserts for my shoes and suddenly I didn’t get much pain in my foot any more while running, only while doing squats and b) I started getting pain in my hip instead. I ran a Parkrun at Hyde Park in Leeds, and I ran it for the first time in racing flats, shoes that are more minimalist and less cushioned and therefore supposedly speedier. My clubmate Adam swore by them and they worked, despite being hideous: I got a PB, I think. And I got a sore, sore, right hip. I remember a few years ago my mother thought it hilarious that I had never encountered the words “pantechnicon” or “camber.” I haven’t had much cause to use pantechnicon since but I have used camber, because I run on it, and it can be difficult. The camber in Hyde Park in Leeds is severe, and it didn’t help matters when I was already making my feet take all that weight, pressure and force, without the usual cushioning they were accustomed to.

I tried a sports massage instead of going back to the physio. The masseur is called Ward, he has magic hands, and he can inflict more pain than people who work in dungeons. He has a special way of doing an intake of breath to convey shock at the state of things. He did that a lot when he started to massage my right side. He undid knots in my iliotibial band, a procedure that made me clutch things. He said my hip muscles were impossibly tight and did his best to loosen them.

I realised something was fundamentally wrong with how I run. It must be. Although my right side is stronger than my left, everything was failing on the right. I knew the injuries must be related to my biomechanics, to my gait and to my movement. It was logical. My club mate Adam, who runs freely and beautifully and fast, told me he’d had his gait analysed and changed at a running clinic in Harrogate called Pure Running. I immediately made an appointment. Teri, an ever cheery running coach, had me run on the treadmill and videoed me from the side and the back. Then we sat down at her laptop and she showed me how I run.

Good lord. What a catastrophe.

She put yellow lines on the screen to show how my body’s alignment should be, if if were moving as efficiently as possible. On the left side, they weren’t too bad. On the right they were comically off. Every time I moved my feet, my pelvis sank on my right side; my whole torso twisted; my foot kicked back like a Dick Emery move. My gait was all wrong: my backwards kick stopped below 90 degrees, which meant my gait was making a long flat oval shape, which was making my heel hit the ground with brutal force. I have bad posture anyway, and I had bad posture when I ran. I was twisted, slumping, thumping. It was all wrong. No wonder my body was hurting.

Children run freely and beautifully. They don’t think about it. But then we start sitting. We sit at school. We sit at university. We go to work and sit at desks. Then we come and sit in front of the TV. We sit, sit and sit. We slump. We crouch. We twist. Our sedentary lifestyles are now thought to be as life-shortening as tobacco or alcohol or heart disease. And they make us run badly.

So I began to learn to run better. I learned to stand straighter, to have a stronger torso. I learned to move my arms in front of me, like a piston, not across my body. Not every elite runner does that – Mo’s arms aren’t straight – but when they can run 26 miles at a four minute mile pace, they can do whatever they like. I learned from my friends Jayne and Bibi to keep my hands relaxed by pretending I was holding baby birds and didn’t want to kill them. (Butterflies work too.) I started to strengthen my gluteal muscles in my backside with exercises (glute bridges, clam shells). They were hardly firing at all because they had been slumbering after decades of doing not much more than sitting for hours on end. But you need glutes to run. They are the most important locomotive muscles. I wasn’t using them enough, so was using my hamstring and thigh muscles to compensate, and together with the twisting from my weak pelvis, this was was putting immense pressure on my hip.

Meanwhile I went to my GP. She’s a marathon runner, and she is sympathetic to running injuries, even though they are, I suppose, self-inflicted. But running keeps me healthy. This is ironic in the context of a GP visit, but true. It keeps my cholestorol down, my heart-rate healthy, my lungs fit. So she said, right, more physio, and sent me to my local hospital at Chapel Allerton, where I got more exercises, and the most striking acupuncture I’ve ever had, that melted knots in my tight muscles and made me grip the bench with shock. But it’s worth it, and it’s on the NHS, and the service is brilliant.

I graduated from Teri’s sessions last week. She videoed me again. I stand straighter. I kick higher. My flat, brutal oval has shortened into a safer circle shape. My heel strikes the ground at a much less brutal angle. My pelvis does not sink. Now when I run, my backside aches, which means my gluteal muscles are firing properly. It’s not perfect, and sometimes I have to stop and do hip-opening exercises, such as yesterday, when I tried out a pair of Brooks Pure Drift which I had been loaned for a week because I signed up to their Try it On scheme. They are minimalist shoes, and since my hip and foot problems, minimalist shoes have scared me. But I put my inserts in them and ran eight miles. And honestly, I’m not sure my feet like them. I know about the great debates of barefoot or minimalist running versus us cushioned clod-hoppers in our big shoes. And I know that I am able to find all sorts of excuses to avoid progress (such as convincing myself that treadmill running was far better than going outside, because I didn’t dare get off the treadmill.) But I think that my beloved feet prefer my cushioned Brooks Ghost shoes. I’ve put them through so much, and I demand so much of them, they probably still need the assistance of cushioning. I’ll try the Pure Drift again, though not on my 15 miles tomorrow. I meant to keep them pristine, although there is no obligation to do that, but as I ran up Harrogate Road, my feet turned right into Primley Park Avenue and then started running up to Eccup Reservoir. They love Eccup reservoir and so do I. So the Pure Drifts have been tested, and mudded. And I am doing my daily Pilates exercises, and using my spiky massage ball to iron out my knotted muscles after running. And I make sure, unlike a surprising number of my club-mates, to do a dynamic warm-up before running, and to stretch properly and massage afterwards. And all in all, I am running better, more safely, and more kindly on my hips, my knees, my feet.

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ACTIVITY: 8 MILES
TIME 1:13.58 average pace 9:14 min/mile

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