I have been running for some fifteen years. Yes, a late start simply because figuring out how to do it took forever. Contrary to what one might think, it was not as simple as tying up my shoe laces and taking off. That had been attempted throughout the years and with one notable exception, systematically ended prematurely in breathing disarray and discouragement.
The exception, surprisingly, had happened when I was a late teenager. I had gone on a five-kilometer run and finished it to my own surprise. But in those days, even before becoming a diver, I was able to hold my breath at rest for over four minutes and I attributed my running success to sheer will rather than rhythm and comfort. In any case, I was not able to duplicate it.
Many years later, as I never give up, I one day decided to go running with my Sony Discman. It was not highly portable and tended to skip a bit if shaken too hard, but I fitted it inside a neoprene belt pouch and launched around Montreal’s Maisonneuve Park.
It was as though lightening had struck. Music accomplished something my mind had never achieved: it completely distracted me from the basic task of breathing. Suddenly, without the instinctive need to control what my lungs did – or failed to do, the music’s beat overpowered my own and I fell into a routine. What had been a struggle became a breeze. I was finally running.
I experimented with tempo, found there was a narrow range of music beats that would actually sustain my effort, and that while the lower end would yield slower and longer runs, the higher would help me push it and improve time. It was hypnotizing. I switched to a Walkman and began creating playlists. I would start with slower tunes and build up the pace in a crescendo that turned into a mini sprint towards the end. I fell into a routine and what had been a struggle became a breeze, I was running
During my Club Med days, I tore a meniscus while dancing a silly can-can on the stage of Club Med One in rough seas. I went back home and had arthroscopic surgery, but whether the procedure was badly done or I did something wrong afterwards, full mobility and strength never came back. My knee remained weak and prone to sharp pain upon any sudden twisting motion. I began to carefully screen my physical activity for dangers of severe trauma to the knees, and since running past the test with flying colors, I persevered.
Rollerblading was also fine in those days and I routinely skated a 45-kilometer ride on a nice path along Canal Lachine. A few years later, I separated a shoulder in a nasty fall after one of my sets of wheels caught in gummy tar patching. The wheels took a step back and running took one forward.
When I left Little Cayman in 2005, I had been splitting my training between rollerblading and running, but I didn’t do much of either. Diving took a toll on me. Two boat rides a day, fighting underwater currents, and the lifting of dozens of tanks daily burned their share of calories. And since exercising after diving is dangerous because upon dissolution of gases in the bloodstream at depth lurks the infamous decompression sickness, I was left with very few weekly openings to run.
Back in Beloeil, QC, feeling the threat of a suddenly lowered activity level, I began a bi-weekly routine of running up to the summit of the nearby Mont St-Hilaire. The snow came. I kept going.
Then I moved to Vancouver where I ran in circles around a small park for a year, doing a trail run once in a while. I eventually moved again to the downtown waterfront along English Bay and suddenly, I was in running heaven. The Seawall was at my doorstep and on it, I could have gone for 30 kilometers one way without meeting a car.
Shorter runs have never interested me much. My ideal distance is 10K. I long ago found that I could manage to sustain two weekly runs while balancing daily life and a busy schedule, and promised myself to keep it up forever. For the most part, and despite a few interruptions due to illness or vacations, I have kept my promise well into New York runs.
But in late 2011 while visiting Canada for the holidays, I was given a book by my dear sister who, with the best intentions in the world, thought I might find it interesting. It was Born to Run by Christopher McDougall. Unknown to me, a set of fateful events was set in motion that would seriously challenge my running.
I had always run carelessly, or rather I had taken my style for granted and done very well, remaining injury and pain-free for seven years. The book changed everything.
It was well written and its investigative journalism style, no doubt cashing in on Krakauer’s own, made for easy, captivating reading. McDougall had found a lode and clearly intended to exploit it. The fact that he appeared to deeply believe the theory that we, as evolved primates, should be running barefoot and hit the ground with the forefoot rather than a heel strike, got me to start questioning my own form.
I was, it seemed, a slight heel striker. I have a relatively high arch and was at the time running in Asics Nimbus 12 shoes which were said to fit a neutral gait. How could I have complained about such shoes when they had effortlessly absorbed between 800,000 and 900,000 foot strikes each since I had purchased them? That’s close to a million impacts per shoe, bearing my full weight. Injury-free.
That’s close to a million impacts per shoe, bearing my full weight, injury-freeYet after reading the book twice, I convinced myself that I had been doing it all wrong and was going to change my style to a forefoot strike. I was smart enough not to transition too fast and began by slowly moving my strike forward in the same shoes. Three months passed and I was still struggling to find a comfortable place, but I attributed it to the fact that my Nimbus had an important drop that interfered with a forward strike. So I bought a pair of New Balance Minimus shoes with zero drop and very little cushioning.
I never adjusted to them. The forefoot strike still didn’t feel comfortable, and worse, I now had to think about the way I ran. When lower leg cramps began, I reverted to normal shoes, buying a pair of Nimbus 14. They were narrower than the 12 and didn’t make my that happy. The cramps continued so I finally decided to go back to my old running gait.
Horror. I could not find it. What had once been so natural was now painful and required concentration. Imagine this: you’re walking down the street. Have you ever had to focus on putting one foot in front of the other, and controlling how they land? Of course not, at least not since childhood. Yet this is what I was having to do when running. And it still didn’t feel right.
All around me runners were dutifully tip-toeing, like ballerinas en pointe, at times grotesque, always trying hard. A new generation of forefoot strikers had emerged. They were born to try.
For months, and then years, through highs and lows, the discomfort and pain continued. I managed some rather long runs when things improved a bit, but that never lasted much. I did not give up, but running had become a burden. Each outing was a source of new issues. The cramps that sometimes might have been shin splints and other times something else, moved around my lower legs, jumping from a muscle group to the next. They were debilitating to the point that I had to stop multiple times during my runs and massage my calves, their muscles so tight they felt like bone.
I kept alternating from forefoot to midfoot to heel strike in a fruitless effort to regain control. Strangely, the second half of my runs always seemed easier. I read dozens of articles, trying to identify the cause of my injuries. No one agreed. There was a lot of suffering out there and each person had given advice, but none worked for me.
Out of desperation, I bought yet another pair of shoes, Brooks Glycerin 12. They sucked. Plush, comfortable to walk in, but the running deteriorated and cramps settled mostly in my tibialis anterior, and the peroneus brevis and longis muscles.
I was raging and cursing the book that had stolen my running, furious at myself for giving in to a trend, a fad, a fashion. Everyone was doing it and I had gone the sheep route. There seemed to be no end in sight. I just didn’t know how to run any more.
Then one day, I found a small blog post where someone complained of exactly the same pain as mine, an extreme tightening of both peroneus muscles, on the lower outside edge of my legs. No stretching ever managed to relieve it completely. Someone left a comment explaining a simple stretch: with both feet flat and touching, parallel, bring the big toe of the side that hurts over the toe of the other foot, keeping the heel on the ground. There seemed to be no end in sight, I just didn’t know how to run any morePain will immediately confirm you are targeting the right muscle. Be gentle.
I tried it on my next run. Relief was instantaneous and complete. I was ecstatic. I could now run more or less normally and even though the cramps kept returning, hope was, too. But I knew the shoes were still wrong. I could not decide between a heel or forefoot strike, neither feeling right.
I did much reading again and decided to trust what I thought I knew about my feet, remained in the neutral+ category, and opted for a pair of Mizuno Wave Creation 15. They felt different when walking, a bit stiffer and less cushioned, and yet they had an edge that immediately made me want to speed up.
After over two years of trouble and four to five months of absolute torture on each run, I left for yet another test with my new shoes. An hour later, I came home stunned. Just a run in the park. I had felt no pain whatsoever and after sensing the emergence of the old cramps, had obliterated them with the new stretch.
I couldn’t believe it. It seemed too good to be real. On the second test run, not only did the pain not return, but I realized I was suddenly able to forget about my running style. On the third, I noticed I had gone back to a slight heel strike and was no longer thinking about my feet.
Pleasure came back. From barely managing a single outing a week, I went back to a couple of weekly runs, sometimes three. It has now been three months. Not once have I had cramps. Once in a while, I stop and preemptively stretch muscles that feel tighter. That’s it. I have found my stride again. On the third run, I noticed I had gone back to a slight heel strike and was no longer thinking about my feet
Looking back, I can see all the mistakes I made. Yet only one was fatal. I succumbed to a theory that, while logical and appealing, did not make sense for me as I did not have a need to change the way I ran, having always been injury-free. I gave in to the herd attitude.
Sure, forefoot running probably makes a lot of sense for some people. However I no longer believe that it is so right and everything else so wrong, and many agree. To say that we must imperatively run like our ancestors and neglect to factor in evolution is as narrow-minded as a paleo-diet that refuses to consider that this no longer is the Paleolithic.
Yes, some things are hard-coded inside our DNA and should be given credit as important, meaningful attributes. But evolution is at work every moment of every day, and probably faster today than it ever was in our short history as a species. And maybe wearing cushioned running shoes is part of that evolution, just as freeing ourselves from a digestive system or a physical body altogether some day could be.
I’m no Olympic athlete, and don’t really want to be one. But I am happily running again. I ordered a second pair of my Mizuno’s. Soon, with a bit of luck, I will once again be toying with crazy ideas of long holy trail runs. Bite me, McDougall.