March 2013 Archives

the shoe quandary

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A few hours ago I finished Week 3 of the half-marathon course I am working through. I am already pretty amazed by the results. I mean, sure, it's early days running and I'm supposed to be getting better at a reasonably quick pace, but a month ago I had this feeling that I wasn't really getting much better anymore and I didn't know how to fix it. Since then I've knocked about a minute per KM off of each of my slow/medium/fast-ish paces, and next week's program is nonchalantly asking me to run about a minute faster than I ever have for 5K (based of course on times I have managed to run for shorter distances.) That will be "interesting".

So that's all going very well so far, but the thing on my mind this week has been running shoes. Specifically, the competing and conflicting advice for shoes, foot mechanics, what works and what doesn't. It feels strangely akin to the dieting and nutrition scene, divided between mainstream lowfat/calorie-counting dogma on the one hand and the lowcarb/paleo hipster crusade minority on the other hand, except that with dieting I know where I stand and with running shoes I absolutely don't.

In this case the mainstream is more or less the entire running shoe industry with its motion-control and stability and support etc. etc. specialist shoes, and the evangelical hipsters are the barefoot/minimalist runners who claim we don't need any of that. My biggest problem is that I don't seem to be starting from any sort of mainstream demographic.

While I am obviously not Skinny Racing Chick and I have been heavier than I am now, I never made it into the 'obese' category and I have walked with some regularity for my entire adulthood. So while my body composition is more or less mid-range for women who start running as adults, I have been told multiple times that I overpronate. Like, ridiculously, freakishly. Okay, they don't actually use the words 'ridiculous' or 'freakish', but when I went for a gait evaluation a couple of weeks ago it was a case of running (haha) through a series of shoes for increasingly heavy and unstable overpronators until we hit the one shoe in the shop that was the best they had to offer, and reduced the pronation but still didn't get rid of it. So I was sent on my way with a pair of Saucony Stabil CS2s and the absolute self-belief of the Running Shop Guy that these were what I needed.

But wait, does that make me a running freak? I don't feel like a freak! Are we sure about this?

On the other hand I know I'm not entirely innocent of foot and leg issues. I spent a month and a half at the beginning of this year going to physiotherapy sessions to try to get rid of some lingering plantar fasciitis in my left foot, and the PT immediately zeroed in on how much I pronate my foot when I walk. She gave me various exercises, and I did my best with them, but there was this constant feeling that she wanted the heel and ball of my foot to align like THIS with my knee pointing straight like THAT in a way that left me feeling like my bones simply don't bend enough to accommodate it all. The Running Shop Guy also observed that my left foot pronates more than my right, which tallies with the PT observations, so I'm pretty sure he was not just selling me snake oil.

Now I've been out a few times in the new Sauconys, and I'm still not entirely convinced. What really troubles me is that my right leg seems markedly less happy in them than in the previous pair of shoes (New Balance 940WR, which I bought as the successor to the first running shoes I was 'prescribed' many years ago.) On the other hand, my left leg seems reasonably okay in them, possibly even better than in the New Balances.

Hold on, am I so freakish that I need two different sorts of shoe for each of my feet? This is getting absurd.

And that's where my thoughts start turning toward minimalist running, which to be honest has so far struck me as a little cult-like. I am also a little put off by the sentiment I have picked up on that naturalist feet are meant to run on naturalist surfaces, not paved ones--most of my running is on paved surfaces and I don't think that is going to change anytime soon. On the other hand, the predominant sentiment that, by and large, variant feet are not necessarily freakish feet is something that really speaks to me at the moment.

So I'm in something of a quandary now. Do I stick with the Sauconys and see if my right knee adapts? Go back to the more normal New Balances and see if my left foot gets stronger? Throw caution to the wind, move to Portland, and get a pair of Vibrams? Who can tell me and how will I know to trust them?

Joining the club

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This week I took the plunge (as it were) and joined a local triathlon club.

I still feel a little out of place doing this. If a Swiss person engages in sport at all, s/he is likely to be far fitter than I am. I am a total beginner to this whole triathlon scene, and to be honest I'm a little nervous of being both female and near the bottom of the heap in my age group, as far as I can judge. I don't really want to be the one holding up training rides while everyone waits for me, because let's face it, I'm still rubbish at hills.

On the other hand, I did attend a swim training session a couple of weeks ago on a trial basis, and even though I am not a great swimmer the sessions are such that I don't hold anyone up. Also, I had some attention paid to my swimming technique that turned out to be useful, and I'm pretty sure I would not have swum 2000m in a single session if a coach hadn't been pushing me to do it. A year's club membership seems a pretty reasonable deal for being allowed to go along to these sessions every week, and it also means that I'll have a way to dip my toe (ha ha) into open water swimming when the season opens.

In a way it's swimming that got me started on this whole fitness lark last November. I have never swum competitively, so I'm not fast at all, but I enjoy being in the water and I've been comfortable there since I was a kid. So when I went to the local pool for the first time and swam my first couple of lengths of face-in-water freestyle for about fifteen years, it was pretty intimidating and embarrassing but at least I had perfect confidence in my ability to go through the motions without drowning.

When my thoughts began to turn to triathlon I looked for some guidance on how to get better (i.e. faster, less wiped out) at swimming. The first thing I found was the Total Immersion (TI) course, so I bought the book and went patiently through the drills for most of December and January. It certainly helped, and I have a better and smoother stroke than I started with as well as a better appreciation of my balance in the water, but once I had gone through the drill progression there seemed little to do but endless laps that may or may not be helping me get any faster. To make matters worse, when swimmers who write books talk about speedwork and intervals, I run into the same problem as I do with running. They're all just too fast for me, and write as if it's beyond their comprehension that someone might take more than 2 minutes to swim 100 meters.

So there I was at this swim training session of the triathlon club, and the coach immediately pointed out a couple of bad habits I'd picked up while coaching myself through the TI drills (e.g. over-rotating and crossing my arms over in front of my head when I reach forward.) I picked up another swim advice book, Swim Smooth (YES the lack of -ly also sets my teeth on edge), which seems to be a bit of a TI competitor but had a section that described my style(s) pretty darn well, including the bad habits and including the implication that it's bookish nerds like me who go the TI route and pick up bad habits that way. I have tried to do some of its drills but there is more of a learning curve and I need more of a coach, which hopefully the tri club will provide.

I am consciously putting swimming and cycling on a backburner while I go through this half marathon program, but I'll try to get to a swim session every week or two and see if I can get any better at this whole freestyle lark. It's probably good to have some way to build up my measly upper body strength anyway. (Although if that's the goal I should be doing breaststroke and butterfly instead. I guess there is a limit to the extent to which I'm a glutton for punishment, after all.)

And we're off.

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As of this morning I'm on my way to the half marathon. I find this pretty funny when I think about the trepidation of entering my first race (the April 10K), and then realize that here I sit precisely one month before that race, already aiming higher.

My initial plan had been to start the Up & Running course on Monday after next, giving myself the prescribed twelve weeks leading up to the local half marathon I'd found, a midweek evening event run by the local university athletics association.

And then I realized that there is a marathon in Leiden on 26 May, with an associated series of shorter races including the half. So let's see...
* Flat
* Not midweek
* No hills
* Stroopwafel
* Pancake Pannekoek-like course profile
* Excuse to visit the Netherlands and see friends
* Did I mention, flat?

Of course this means that I should have started the course two days ago. Oops. But the patient Coach Julia put up with my manic reshuffling of plans and gave me orders this morning on how to catch up on the overdue session.

Now here's the really dumb thing: I could hardly sleep last night. My brain was buzzing with "Leiden!" and "Half marathon!" and "Going to start tomorrow!" and I pretty much just wanted to leap up right then and get going. How crazy is that for someone who doesn't really like running? What is happening to my brain?

So this morning I suited up, downed my tea, and headed out the door. The easiest way for me to fit a run into the weekday is to take S to nursery and run some route, more or less direct as circumstances require, back home. There is a decent path along the river Glatt that makes a nice default; taking that direction I go a minimum of 5K, but can easily extend it to 6, 7, etc. Today's prescription was to take it easy, so I made an effort to notice the scenery as I ran. The freezing spell we've had has finally broken for a little while, and it was lovely blue morning skies reflected in the water. Somewhere along the way I saw a graffito that read "Thug Life", which, well, just looks sort of cute and amateurish around here. My route took me past the local athletics track, so I could scope it out in advance of doing intervals etc. in future, and I peeked a little farther up the river path than I've been before in anticipation of doing longer runs in that direction.

It still felt...not entirely comfortable. Not smooth. I was making something of an effort to run slowly, and the result was that I felt like I was more bouncy than I normally would be. On the other hand if I tried to run more smoothly my heart rate shot up, and I had ordered myself not to let it go above 170. The "smooth but slow" gait also felt a little unnatural, so it was probably using muscles in a new and weird way and that is probably why the heart rate climbed. Overall my cadence was about 10spm lower than it normally is when I run, and my pace was about 1:40/km slower than my default. To me that feels stupidly slow, but I guess that was the point!

Today's run

A short history of me and running

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I'm tired of feeling unfit.

That's a funny thing to say, given that I've gone on a surprisingly robust health and fitness kick and seen great results, by any measure, over the last four months.  I have lost two stone, shedding the new-mother weight and then some--this is the lightest I've been since my first year at university or so. I did it on a diet that hasn't left me hungry and tired, and to illustrate the point I got it into my head to start swimming and running. (I think of myself as "really" a cyclist, or as having been one before I got pregnant, but I'm no fan of frozen fingers and toes so my bike remains on sabbatical until it warms up.)

What surprised me most in all that was that I was willing to give running a try. I've always hated it. There was a time in middle school when someone said to me that he thought I would be good at track & field, and I found this inexplicable for a long time. (In retrospect it probably had to do with me being small and skinny.) But I was never comfortable running and never learned to like it. Getting an Air Force ROTC scholarship for university didn't help--I was constantly failing (or only barely scraping by on) the physical fitness tests, they felt horrible, and I was completely clueless about how this might ever change. The Air Force's version of a conditioning program was to send me to 8am physical fitness classes that I could barely wake up in time for. 40 minutes busting my ass twice a week, with no clear road map to how I would actually get fitter, quite frankly did nothing to help. Where push-ups and the flexed arm hang showed me how nonexistent my upper body strength was compared to everyone else, the running showed me how little aerobic fitness I had. All I could do was kill myself and try to be fast enough. When I left AFROTC one of the nicest things was the thought that I'd never have to go running again.

As I approached my thirties I saw more and more of my friends take up running (or even triathlon) for their health and fitness. I always thought they, including my husband, were crazy. Still, in 2007 or so I bought my first pair of running shoes for years, while we were on a trip to California (where the constantly perfect sunny weather just seems to bring out the fitness nut in a person.) I ran a few times, but it still felt miserable and once we were back home in Oxford I started getting shin pain almost instantly. So I gave up the whole idea and went back to cycling.

After my daughter was born at the end of 2010 I put on a lot of weight, I suppose from the stress of a difficult infancy. In May 2011 I tried to do something about it by starting Couch to 5K. I got to the end of week seven before travel intruded; not coincidentally that was also about the time when I was supposed to be running nonstop. The thing that made C25K bearable for me was the intervals, and once I no longer had a walk break to look forward to it became a nonstop slog. Add to that the chronic heel pain (plantar fasciitis) that made a reappearance in the last couple of weeks and, well, I packed it in.

Last October (2012) my husband and I agreed that we both needed to do something about our weight. Cutting calories worked for him immediately, of course; for me, not so much. But in November I switched to an LCHF ("low carb high fat") diet, and around the same time I finally worked up the nerve to investigate the public swimming pool we pass every day on the way to/from my daughter's nursery. Between these two things, well, the kilos FINALLY started shifting and I was starting to feel pretty good about myself (ignoring the time it takes me to swim 50m and the time spent huffing and puffing catching back up on my breath when I'm done...)

Swimming, could I not try running one more time? In December, optimistic that the weight loss would solve my chronic heel problem, I returned to C25K. This time I went all the way to the finish and ran my nonstop 30 minutes in the first half of January. And shortly after that I ran my first nonstop 5K, which took a little more than 30 minutes. Meanwhile, to prod my husband back into running (which he wanted/needed but kept finding excuses) I entered him on New Year's Eve into the Z├╝rich Marathon in April. So it seemed only fair that I enter the associated 10K myself. Happy New Year's resolutions! It gave me a goal far enough out to be reasonable, but near enough that I had better not get out of the habit.

And now here I am. I appreciate running, I go voluntarily to do it and I've been amazingly (for me) consistent about it since I started in December. And I certainly like the feeling of getting to stop at the end of a run. But I still don't even know why I keep doing it, because I almost never enjoy the feeling. (Runner's high? Never had such a thing.) It was a landmark the first time I managed, on a run, to think of something other than my pace my cadence my shortness of breath when do I get to stop etc.; now I can do that sometimes but most of my time running is spent noticing how much effort it is to run. If I go by heart rate (range for me is 50ish to 200+), a slow jog has me in the 150s and a medium pace has me around 180. Even climbing stairs or a hill at walking pace will send me zooming up to the 140s. If I'm trying for a 'tempo' pace I'll be averaging in the 190s for more than half the time. I mention these numbers to the runners in my life and they look at me like I'm an alien.

What I am good at, it turns out, is endurance. It's kind of crazy given how unfit I constantly feel, but suffering? I am great at suffering and can do it for hours. (Seriously, hours; ask me about the time I cycled 200 miles/300+km in a day from Oxford to the Cheddar Gorge and back. Or the three days cycling...most of...600km from London to Paris via the Portsmouth ferry. And you know, even then I felt unfit.) I don't think I have ever 'hit the wall' metabolically, and these days I wouldn't much expect to since I've been adapted to very little carbohydrate for months.  But how do I make myself enjoy this?

I think part of the problem lies in my own expectations for how fast I 'ought' to be able to run. The charts in your typical running handbooks, meant primarily for men who are fitter than I am, have me right at the bottom. (But at least I'm on the chart! Progress.) It leaves me with very little idea of how good I can expect to get or how to go about doing it--basically I'm right back in the bad old Air Force ROTC days knowing that I'm supposed to be doing better, and knowing that my capacity for sheer endurance will allow me to keep pushing at it, but not having any idea how to make what I am doing feel like less effort and misery. I made it to 10K a month earlier than anticipated, and started wondering "well where do I go from here?" I still want to be fit, and I want running to work for me, but I don't think I'm going to get there on my own.

A few weeks ago I ran across an organization called Up & Running (no relation to the chain of running shoe stores), which runs online training courses specifically for women. It is a little unlike me to retreat from a mainstream male-dominated environment into what is essentially a safe space, but in this case it might be just what I need. I've just signed up for their self-paced half-marathon training, which I'll start in mid-March. I'm going to be measuring my success not by whether I finish a half marathon (I know I can if I try), or by how fast I go (though obviously I want to do well), but by how fit I can feel at the end of these 12 weeks and whether I can learn to enjoy my time spent running.


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I seem to be taking up a new hobby, and feeling the urge to witter more publicly about it than in locked LiveJournal posts. So it seems new life might be breathed into this blog. Stay tuned...

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