Do as I do: why listening to your own advice isn’t always easy

Being injured always sucks. But I can’t help feeling it’s even harder when you’re a coach, because you feel as though you should be immune. Surely, if you know so much about running, you never make training errors or run with anything other than textbook-perfect form? Ha ha. We’re only human, of course. Our bodies are no more machines than are those of our clients. But it does shake your confidence when you can’t do the very thing that you’re teaching and supporting others to do.

When I recommenced running after a week’s recovery post-Brighton marathon, my right knee started to niggle, getting progressively worse over the course of the week to the point where even walking was painful. It was frustrating – I’d been seized by that ‘just let off the leash’ feeling after the discipline of marathon training, and was looking forward to pottering through the woods and tearing up the track in equal measure.  But there I was, grounded.

One thing I could do as a coach, however, was be a good role model and act how I would advise others to in my situation. OK, I’ll admit it took me a week to get my head around this, but after a flurry of ‘panic’ activities (including a course of anti-inflammatories, a knee brace, regular applications of ice) I stopped running completely, endeavoured to avoid anything that irritated it (which turned out to include both cycling or swimming) and waited for my body to do its healing thing. Oh, and I went to see a physio.

While logic suggested that my knee was ‘a bit angry’ after the rigours of the marathon and wasn’t ready to get back to the day job yet, the less-rational side of my brain was conjuring up serious issues like worn cartilage, ligament damage or tendinopathy that would put me out of action for months or even spell the end of my running career. With such a powerful psychological component to pain (and studies showing that stressing about pain actually makes it feel worse), it was really important to me to have a professional assessment. Being able to rule out these more sinister possibilities was enough to put my mind at rest and allow me to focus on building strength in my quads and glutes while it settled.

“Try not to ‘helicopter parent’ your injured part too much”

It now has, and I’m gradually building up my running again. For anyone else returning from injury, I’d recommend trying not to ‘helicopter parent’ your injured part too much. After having suffered some pain there, you are going to be super-sensitive for a while and even the tiniest twinge can be magnified in your mind. Sure, don’t ignore pain, but ask yourself how you’d score it on a scale of 1 to 5. If it’s a 1 or 2, you’re probably fine to carry on.  I’ve found that smiling – and looking at the scenery – helps keep me distracted from worrying about it too much.

During my ‘off’ time, I took the opportunity to read up and refresh my knowledge on strength and conditioning and gait retraining and I’ve learned some useful new stuff, which I’ll be weaving into my Run Better workshop. You could call that a silver lining, but I’m far too cautious for that!

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How slow running can reveal form flaws

When I am devising running programmes for my clients, I give them a pace ‘guideline’ for each of the different types of run they do. Most will have recovery runs in their schedules, where the object is to keep the pace and effort level really low. The run needs to be low-intensity enough to not require any further recovery – so going faster than the guideline pace is not necessary and may well be counter-productive. And yet, over and over again I hear the cries ‘I can’t run that slow!’ ‘It’s more tiring to run slowly’ and most of all ‘Sorry, I tried to run slow but I inadvertently speeded up.’

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I’ve mulled over this a lot – worried about it, even – because personally, I have no problem whatsoever running slow. But it doesn’t mean I can’t, or don’t, run fast when I need to. It’s often observed – with amazement – how slow Kenyan runners go in their easy runs, given how fast they could be going.

I’m starting to wonder whether running technique has something to do with people finding it ‘hard’ to run slow.  If you run with good form, then that form should hold true whatever pace you are maintaining. Running slower shouldn’t mean a slow ‘sticky’ cadence, a shuffling gait or a minimal leg lift. I suspect that people who find it very hard to run slow are doing the following: overstriding – most likely with a heel strike – running with too slow a cadence or too much tension. One of the drills that running coach and Alexander Technique teacher Malcolm Balk suggests in his book Master the Art of Running is to run very slow whilst maintaining perfect form. I highly recommend giving it a try.

The other reason runners can’t slow down is probably mental. It’s an issue of bravado – ‘hell, I can’t run THAT slow!’ – with the tacit suggestion being either ‘I’m too good,’ or ‘someone might see me and think I’m slow…’ But I’d say it takes focus and commitment to reap the benefits of any training session – and recovery runs are not excepted. Try a go-slow on your next run and you might just find that less is more.