Archive for December, 2008

Dancing with the devil in 2008

December 31, 2008

Despite lingering constriction of the throat and sore ears, I decided it was time to recommence moderate intensity running today with three 1Km repeats at 5K pace (around 4:20 min/Km ). I did the first two repetitions in 4:20 and 4:21 at mean heart rate 142 and 143. Then during the third, the cold air upset my airways and I started to develop an asthma attack. I completed that repetition in 4:32 at HR 144, and jogged home. I had taken one puff of my long-acting inhaler early in the morning, but it appears that in this weather I should increase the dose. Nonetheless I was quite pleased that despite my recent bout of flu, my pace and heart rate in the first two repetitions were similar to the recordings in a 6x1Km session on 6th December.


This a picture of the Trent beside the path where I do 1Km repeats, taken in May of this year. Ignore the incorrect date setting on my camera.

I had started this year with the intention of developing a running style that minimised risk of injury, especially the risk of further damage to my right knee which has been ravaged by intermittent attacks of inflammatory arthritis since childhood. I have read fairly widely and been influenced by an number of authors, especially Gordon Pirie, and to a lesser extent by Nicholas Romanov, the inventor of the Pose technique. Some of the principles of Pose appear to violate the laws of physics, especially the laws of conservation of energy and momentum, but despite its shaky theoretical foundation, the experimental evidence confirms that Pose places less stress on the knee. The study by Arendse and colleagues from Tim Noakes laboratory in Cape Town demonstrated a 50% reduction in work done at the knee joint when running Pose style compared with heel striking. So I attempted to work out a rational basis for a running style including what I regarded as the good features advocated by Pirie and by Romanov, but with a rational foundation based on the laws of physics. The details are described in the articles in the side bar entitled ‘A dance with the devil’

Unfortunately I have had a somewhat disappointing year, mainly due to respiratory problems, and it is difficult to judge whether my running style has been a success. The good news is that my knee is coping fine. It has caused far less trouble this year than it did in my mid-fifties before I recommenced running; and also, less trouble than last year, when I had remained injury free for most of the year, but suffered a flare up of arthritis in late summer that caused me to descend stairs on all fours for a week or so. That was the final impetus to develop a safer running style.

While my knee has been virtually trouble free this year, I have suffered two minor injuries. In neither case was running style the main cause, though in each case, I think that my new style did exacerbate the problem.

One of the crucial features that I learned from Pirie and Romanov is the principle of lifting the foot from stance as quickly as possible. This ensures that much of the energy stored in the muscles, tendons and ligaments at footfall is recovered via elastic recoil. Because muscle and tendon is viscoelastic, recovery of energy is greatest when recoil is rapid. The time on stance should be around 100 milliseconds or less. If cadence is around 180 steps per minute, which experience indicates provides optimum efficiency, the duration of each stride is 333 milliseconds. Therefore, when time on stance is less than 100 milliseconds, the major part of the stride is spent airborne. The vertical ground reaction force that must balance the downwards impulse of gravity acts only for a minor fraction of the gait cycle, and hence this ground reaction force will be several times body weight. For cadence180 steps per minute and time on stance of 100 milliseconds, the average vertical ground reaction force will be three times body weight, and for shorter times on stance, it will be even greater.

Another, more controversial feature borrowed from Pirie and Romanov is that it is most efficient to land on the forefoot. If vertical reaction force is over three times body weight, this places a substantial load on the ball of the foot. In addition, a substantial tension develops in the Achilles tendon. If the knee is slightly flexed at the time, a large portion of this strain is taken by soleus, the deeper of the two calf muscles. Unlike the larger gastrocnemius muscle, soleus does not cross the knee. Hence when the knee is flexed, tension in gastrocnemius is low and soleus bears the main burden.

So how did the principles I borrowed from Pirie and Romanov contribute to my injuries? The main culprit for the first injury was a stone on the path. I landed with the stone beneath the head of my second metatarsal, and a force greater than three times my body weight was transmitted directly onto the metatararsal head and adjacent metatarso-phalangeal joint. Ouch! This part of my foot has always been vulnerable and I was hobbling for several weeks afterwards.

The other injury occurred when I made a fairly rapid increase in the intensity of my training. After several months of low intensity training, I did two speed sessions within a week. In the second session, while running fairly fast uphill over irregular ground, I suffered a minor tear of soleus. Undoubtedly the main culprit was increasing intensity too quickly. I had not conditioned soleus adequately for the task, so I do not think that I should lay too much blame on my change of running style. However, this injury emphasises the importance of conditioning soleus well before increasing training intensity. It also suggests that when running longer distances, it is best to allow the heel to touch the ground in mid stance to avoid the risk that repeated micro-tears will combine to produce a full-blown tear of the muscle.

Despite the occasional tribulations, I am still greatly enjoying running and looking forward to an even better year, next year.

Happy New Year and good running in 2009.

He could pass for a 62…

December 29, 2008 the dusk with the light behind him (with apologies to Angelina from Gilbert and Sullivan’s Trial by Jury, for the minor adjustment of age and sex).

It has been a year in which I have become increasingly aware of my age. The minor infirmities that were a mild nuisance in my youth have emerged from the shadows like drab spoil-sport harpies clawing at me and attempting to either suffocate me or hobble me. I am grateful that I can still run and have even enjoyed a few sublime running moments during the year, but more often I have been struggling with my wheezy chest or the fragile aching connective tissues that barely hold my frame together. So I was quite amused by a trivial incident during my run this morning.

I had set out with no particular plan other than to run as the mood took me. The northerly air stream that has swept over Britain during the Christmas period had abated to a mild breeze and swung from north to east bringing air from Siberia rather than the North Pole. Nonetheless, it was still quite bracing, and despite my recent debilitating episode of flu, I felt reasonably frisky. After crossing to the opposite bank of the Trent and heading southwards to Beeston, I decided that I would continue onwards to Attenborough Nature Reserve, a gaggle of lakes formed from old gravel pits and laced with a network of delightful paths. The point where the riverside path enters the Reserve is about 8 Km from home, so I was committed to a run of around 20 Km even if I only did one of the shorter lakeside loops. I was still feeling quite lively as I approached a man of about my own age pushing a bicycle. I called out hello and he responded: ‘Great weather for a run, kid’. I am not sure whether the ‘kid’ was ironic, or merely an indication of his failing eyesight, but I decided to take it as a compliment, and continued on my way with renewed friskiness.


Here is a picture taken during the Hardrock Challenge a few months ago. It was taken about a kilometre from the finish; at the point where I had pushed myself into the anaerobic zone to break free from the pack with whom I had been running in the mid-stages of the race. It is unclear whether the etched lines on my face are the furrows of effort or merely the wrinkles of old age. That race was probably the high point of my running year. The challenge for next year will be to train hard enough to improve without injuring myself or becoming ill.

Snakes and ladders

December 28, 2008

I recently devised a test of cardiac fitness based on the relationship between heart rate and power output on the elliptical cross trainer. At home we have a Tunturi C6 elliptical, which I had bought as a present for my wife almost 4 years ago, at a time when she had expressed an interest in getting fit. After about three sessions on the Tunturi, she took up cycling to work and has continued to do so ever since. So the Tunturi achieved its purpose, but not quite not in the way intended. For the past four years it has mainly stood un-used in the guest bedroom. From time to time I use it myself, though I find it far less interesting than running in the country-side.

However, it does come fitted with a power meter and heart monitor so it offers the possibility of a test of fitness that is independent of the weather and the bogginess of the woodland or riverside paths.

My recently devised test consists of consecutive 2-minute epochs at 160 steps minute with six step-wise increases in resistance such that power output increases in steps spanning the range 30 watts to 230 watts. I record average heart rate in the final 15 seconds of each 2 minute epoch At my present level of fitness, my heart rate when generating an output of 30 watts is around 90 and rises in a straight line to around 145 at 230 watts. It should be noted that my actual rate of energy consumption is much greater than indicated by the power meter. Comparing the power meter reading with the estimated energy consumption (in Kcals/min) demonstrates that for a 63 Kg person, about 83% of the energy consumed is spent overcoming internal friction in muscles, ligaments and joints, and ends up generating body heat. The rate at which the sweat pours off me confirms that a large proportion of the energy is spent heating the body.

The attached chart shows the graph of heart rate v. power output on 17th November (filled diamonds), before I commenced my recent back-to-back moderate intensity training sessions; and two weeks later on 30th November (open diamonds) when my fitness had improved quite noticeably. HR was about 10 bpm lower than on 17th November across the entire aerobic range. I tested myself again today before my run. The open triangles indicate today’s HR readings and demonstrate that my recent bout of flu has taken me back to a level of fitness only marginally better than on 15 November. In this game of snakes and ladders, fitness is gained with great effort and lost very easily.


After the fitness test on the elliptical I went for easy 10K run in the woods. The woodland floor is still thickly carpeted in leaves, mainly the rich brown of beech and somewhat more sombre brown of oak, but to my surprise, green shoots that look like sprouting bluebells were pushing their way through the leaf cover. Maybe they were snowdrops, which are more likely in December, but they looked like bluebells – so even though this winter has so far been chillier than recent winters, it appears that global warming is causing confusion among the woodland flowers. I did not have my camera with me, but I have pasted a photo which I took at the beginning of May 2008, in the header of my blog. Maybe in 2009 we will have scenes like this before mid-April.

Increasing the pace a little

December 27, 2008

This afternoon I had been repairing the chain and replacing the saddle on my wife’s old bicycle when I realized that the sun was setting and I had not yet been for a run. The scarcely perceptible sliver of a new moon had already set about 10 minutes previously, and there was little cloud cover to reflect the distant city lights back to earth, so it was clear that it would be very dark very soon. If I wanted an off-road run I would have to set out immediately. I pulled on light-weight shorts and a long sleeved top but didn’t have time to locate gloves or any other warmer running gear. As I rounded the corner of the house a blast of arctic air from the north east made me wonder whether I should turn back and put on something warmer. However, I didn’t want to waste the final moments of daylight.  As I headed westwards toward the river I was able to warm up a bit before turning north eastwards again when I joined the riverside path. At this point I was partially protected by the steep escarpment on my right, but nonetheless, it was clear that today’s run would have to be a little faster than my recent runs. I built up the pace steadily to about half-marathon pace and then maintained that tempo. It was an invigorating experience after a week of very easy paced running. Once I had turned for home with the wind behind me, I started to build up a healthy sweat. By this stage the last vestiges of light were disappearing, though the river surface was still silvery grey and the path was easy to follow until the point where it leaves the river bank and passes through a dense clump of trees. Even in full daylight the path here is scarcely visible beneath a thick layer of decaying autumn leaves, and I was reliant on my familiarity with the location of every tree trunk to navigate safely until the path once again emerged on the river bank. I was breathing quite deeply but unable to check my pace because I didn’t have a watch – and could not have read it even if I had been wearing it. Though only about 8Km, it was a very satisfying run.


December 26, 2008

I have been enjoying my easy paced runs along the riverside path in the past few days. Apart from a few strides-outs for a hundred metres or so, have not felt inclined to push myself at all. I have been surprised at how debilitated I have felt following the cold I suffered two weeks ago. I note from the newspapers that the country has been experiencing a minor flu epidemic, and in light of the of the marked musculo-skeletal aches I experienced, especially in the shoulders, along with the sore throat and earache, I think the virus that attacked my upper airways was probably a flu virus rather than a common cold virus.

Yesterday morning, a few hours before Christmas dinner, I met far more people than usual on the path, most of them out walking their dogs, and I found myself reminiscing mentally about my various encounters with dogs during my runs in the past year or so. I am not a ‘dog person’. I feel irritated with dog-owners when I step on dog poo left thoughtlessly mid-path. On one occasion I wrenched my knee when I was forced to take abrupt last minute action to avoid an over-friendly puppy. On another occasion I didn’t take avoiding action in time and my knee connected quite forcefully with the dog’s jaw, causing the owner to lambast me with a torrent of abuse. However, mostly I find the dogs quite entertaining. Many of them appear to find it more fun to run with me than to stay with their ambling owners. They usually take no notice when I stop and point back towards their owner with what I intend to be a firm command ‘Go back’. In most cases they take no more notice when their owners plaintively call them back. So sometimes they run with me for quite a distance. On one occasion I was worried that I might have irretrievably separated an irrepressible young dog from its mistress after it had accompanied me for several kilometres.

This afternoon there were fewer walkers out with their dogs. On my outward journey I had a quite chilly northerly breeze in my face, but on the homeward journey, running toward the delicate December sunset with the breeze behind me, it felt very peaceful. However, much as I enjoy these easy runs, I am looking forward to a few more energetic sessions in the near future.


December 21, 2008

At a quarter past eight this morning a wonderful expansive pink glow in the east heralded the beginning of the sun’s shortest traverse of the sky for this year. At Nottingham’s latitude it will take a little over seven and a half hours for the sun to make its low arching journey from south eastern to south western horizon. Tomorrow this journey will take about 3 seconds longer. Although it will be several months before the evenings offer appreciably more time for daylight running, it is perhaps a natural point at which to review the running calendar.

After the beginning of my training year was disrupted by increasingly severe asthma in January and February, and then by lingering pain from a nasty bruise beneath the left metatarsal head from stepping on a pebble in March, I had managed to build a fairly sound basic level of aerobic fitness with regular, low intensity and moderate volume running though the spring and summer. In October I felt quite pleased with my performance when I completed the tough, hilly 10 mile Dalbeattie Hardrock Challenge in 78 minutes. I then increased the intensity of training with the intention of running some shorter races in December and January. However in my second interval training session in mid-October I tore my right soleus muscle and was forced to defer further interval sessions for about 6 weeks. Eventually, by the end of November, I was running interval sessions again and in early December was pleased to do 6x1Km at an average pace of 4:20 per Km and average heart rate in the upper aerobic zone (140-143). Then a week ago, I developed a rather unpleasant cold which took the wind out of my sails for another week.

Today I set out for a run at midday with no plan other than to run as my body dictated. The pink of dawn had by this time given way to alternating stripes of wintry sunshine and grey cloud. I ran along the southern bank of the river from Clifton to Wilford, before crossing to the other bank and heading south-westward towards Beeston. At Beeston Lock I turned and retraced my steps, covering 15 Km in total. I was not wearing a watch so I have little idea of my time, but I would estimate that the pace was around 6 min per Km. It was an enjoyable run, but serves to illustrate the fact that I have reached the end of the year with the moderate level of fitness achieved over the summer partially eroded by minor injury and illness.

I do not have a sound enough base for intense interval training, but I am still inclined to persist with moderate intensity, low volume training over the next few months. I will also include a few medium length runs in the range 15-20Km to lay the foundation for an increase in volume once the duration of daylight has increased appreciably.

Signals from the unconsious mind

December 20, 2008

It has taken a week to shake off the cold that I developed last weekend, and even now the last vestiges persist. However, compared with some of my friends who suffered the same bug, I did not suffer too badly. Some of my work colleagues who had developed symptoms a few days before me were still off work yesterday. For me the worst symptoms were painful throat and ears that kept me awake at night, and pain in the shoulders. By today those symptoms have disappeared, though my upper airways are still a bit congested.

This morning when I was in the garage sorting the household waste for re-cycling, I decided to do a few pull-ups to the rafters. I have a distance runner’s skinny arms and do not do any regular upper body strength training, though I occasionally do a few pull-ups or press-ups. I remember being pleased when on my 60th birthday I found I could still do 10 consecutive pull-ups. (I hadn’t recommenced running at that time and in general was feeling quite unfit). Today, I was struggling to get my chin above the cross-beam even on the first pull-up and after the second I decided to desist. It appeared that my unconscious mind was sending a signal that my recently painful shoulders were not yet ready for the task.

However, my conscious mind was eager for a run, and my unconscious mind did not signal any disapproval as I set out for an easy paced 8 Km run along the river bank. The weather was misty but mild compared with recent weeks, and it felt really good to be out running. I am eager to get back to systematic training soon, but nonetheless, I will continue to be guided by how comfortable things feel few more days.

Breathing more easily

December 14, 2008

I’m back from an easy 8 km run. I took neither watch nor heart rate monitor, though my relaxed breathing at a rate of about 20 breaths per minute was in stark contrast to the gasping 80-90 breaths per minute in the final 200 metres of yesterday’s third 2K repetition. In retrospect, that was clear evidence of something awry with my respiratory system.

Today the sky has been overcast with patches of blue, but no rain. Most of the puddles had drained away from the path into the loamy soil overnight, but the swollen river was swooshing noisily though low lying tree branches, to my left. On the right the normally dry gully below the escarpment, which I think must be the remnant of an ancient mill race connected to the river by an underground channel, was full of water. Further along, the river had flooded through the remnants of the long summer grasses on a low lying bank, creating a backwater in which the mallards were foraging enthusiastically.

My plan for the next few days is to continue with easy sessions in the expectation that I will be able to return to more intense training mid-week.

Sogginess explained

December 14, 2008

After writing about my soggy run yesterday, I wondered whether it was due simply to the weather and the puddles on the path, or whether perhaps my current training plan was misguided. However, it turned out that there was another explanation. I awoke in the early hours of the morning with a sore throat and by mid-morning I have sore ears and blocked nose in addition. So the sogginess of yesterday’s run was almost certainly due to an incubating cold.

Could my training regime, with its back-to-back effortful sessions have weakened my resistance to infection? I doubt it. Several colleagues at work had colds on Friday and my son has been complaining of a sore throat all week. My pulse was higher than usual during warm-up, so the early signs of the impending cold preceded yesterday’s 2K interval session. Thursday and Friday had been light training days as planned. So, if my training is in any way responsible for my current symptoms, it might at most be blamed for undermining the last strands of my resistance to a cold bug that was already winning its battle to take over my upper airways. Although it is a nuisance to have a cold, it is re-assuring to know that my struggle to do the 2K repeats in 9:15 says little about my potential 10K pace. However, I am aware that my current endurance is rather limited, so I have some work to do before I can expect to run a good 10K.

What should I do today? The main priority is recovering from the cold, so I will definitely not persist with my plan to do a fairly long run including a moderately fast 5 K. That will have to wait until next week. I will go for a very easy run instead.


December 13, 2008

Growing up in Australia, I formed the impression that English weather is mostly grey and damp, so it was a delight to discover when I first arrived in the UK nearly four decades ago, that the sun shines frequently between the rain showers. However today was more typical of my childhood image of English weather. It was raining at dawn and the rain continued to fall from a bleak grey sky throughout the day. Nonetheless, dismal weather often appears more daunting when viewed through a window than it does once you are outside with fresh air in your nostrils, even if there is rain splashing on your face.

In mid-afternoon I set off for my run. I planned to do 3x2Km at 10K pace. The riverside path was covered in puddles, but nonetheless preferable to running on the road in poor visibility. At the end of my third week of moderately intense training, my legs felt a bit heavy as I splashed ponderously through the puddles. My times for the three 2K repetitions were 9:15; 9:15 and 9:20. Mean heart rate measurements were 142; 144 and 144. The mean heart rate measurements were higher than during my 6x 1K repetitions a week ago even though my pace was about 20 sec /Km slower. Even allowing for the fact that mean heart rate over 1Km seriously underestimates steady state heart rate because it takes about 2 minutes for pulse to rise from warm-up rate to near steady state, it is clear than my performance today was sluggish compared with last week. I hope that my current 10K pace is a little faster than 46 minutes, but today I doubt if I could have run any faster. I am afraid I was as soggy as the weather.

As I jogged home the rain eased off, the cloud cover lightened, and a delicate pink sunset lined the south-western sky. In crude paraphrase of Shakespeare: ‘Lo the day, in russet mantle cloaked, crept quietly away o’er yon south-western brae, after all was soaked’. It is now only a little over a week until solstice.