Surface tension

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim…

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Are you a road runner or a trail runner? It’s not a question that I could answer definitively – I run where the day’s route takes me, be it through a leaf-carpeted woodland (this morning), along a city street (last week) or across a muddy field (yesterday). Each has its own pleasures and challenges.

But some runners can be very snobby about surface. A trail aficionado recently commented on Twitter that ‘people who do road marathons hate themselves.’  You’ll find similar disparaging remarks about tarmac enthusiasts if you look at trail running forums and specialist publications. The gist of it is that road running is deathly dull/bad for you/a poor substitute and that running off-road is in all ways more fun, healthier and generally superior. I think it’s an unfounded and unwelcome division – like vegans dissing vegetarians – we’re all runners, aren’t we?

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The tweet came to mind at the weekend, when I was toiling along a public footpath bordering a field that the farmer had decided to plough to the very edge of the barbed-wire fence. Each time my foot landed, the clump of earth underneath it would either crumble or roll, creating angles at my ankle and knee joints that would have a biomechanist brandishing their goniometer with alarm. Any views to be appreciated went unnoticed, since I had to keep my eyes firmly on the treacherous trail.

There was little relief to be had when I reached the stile, which was so overgrown with nettles that getting over it could have passed as a ‘I’m a celebrity…get me out of here’-style challenge. ‘Fun, this is not,’ I thought to myself. Fifteen minutes later, the nettle stings fading (the secret is to avoid touching them) I was floating along a blissfully smooth tarmac lane. The ironed-flat surface rendered me surefooted enough to appreciate my surroundings – ripe blackberries in the hedgerow, leaves just turning in the autumn sunshine. My good mood was restored.

Now, I’m not claiming that road running is more enjoyable than trail; nor ‘better’ in any way. I love the ever-changing demands of an off-road run – one minute, mud is sucking at your trainers, the next you’re bounding through knee-high grass, leaping over tangled tree roots or skipping from rock to rock. But it’s hard to find any kind of rhythm – which is why I also relish the clean, rhythmic clip of feet on tarmac and the space that that metronomic movement seems to create in my head.

One of the reasons the anti-road brigade say that trail running is ‘better’, is that it puts less stress on the body. Intuitively, it makes sense (softer surface equals a softer landing, right?) but there has been surprisingly little research to back up the claim. In fact, studies seems to suggest that there’s a complex and entirely subconscious interplay between our limbs and the surfaces we run on: the ‘stiffer’ the surface, the ‘softer’ we make the limbs, and vice versa. It’s known as ‘muscle tuning’. This continual adjustment of limb stiffness to match the surface the brain expects us to land on means that the resultant force is pretty much unchanged regardless of surface.

More recently, researchers have posited the theory that trail running may be healthier (though there is not data to prove that trail runners sustain fewer injuries as yet) because of the variety offered by the mixed terrain and undulations. Each footstep is slightly different from the last one and the next one, so the forces exerted on the body are applied in slightly different ways, reducing the risk of overuse. This makes perfect sense and is probably also why varying your running shoes, rather than wearing the same pair all the time, has been linked to a lower incidence of injury.

Variety is almost always better than doing the same thing all the time – but when it comes to running surfaces there’s no reason why a brightly-lit town pavement or a country B-road should not form part of that variety.

This article previously appeared in my Murphy’s Lore column in Runner’s World magazine

 

 

We’ll be Running Forever

 

On a sunny 4th July last year, we were vacating our neat, grade-2 listed Georgian cottage for rental and moving into a hastily-purchased Decathlon tent.

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The ‘Crazy Thing’ we’d talked about wanting to do for so long was finally happening! Dogwood campsite in Brede, East Sussex, was to be our home for two months while we wound up our working lives ready to set off on the Cape Wrath Trail and explore the wild open spaces of Scotland on foot, by bike and kayak.

I’ve documented how it all went on this blog – suffice to say it was a wrench to leave and even more so to return to a grey wintry February. Nothing felt quite the same after our adventures. So in true Crazy Thing spirit, we decided – quite suddenly – to sell the house, downsize (though not to canvas this time) and start a running company together.

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Running is our passion – it’s how Jeff and I met, and it’s a thread that binds us, both through coaching and our own running antics. Between us, we have 60 years’ running experience and 13 years of coaching. We’ve pinned on hundreds of race numbers – in events ranging from one mile to one hundred miles. It’s something we hope and plan to do for the rest of our lives, hence the company name, Running Forever.

But we don’t just want running for ourselves. We’d like to help as many people as possible fall in love with running and make it a lifetime habit. Whether it’s for health, fitness, mental equilibrium, competition, personal challenge – it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we help each person who comes our way discover their own joy in putting one foot in front of the other.

We’re offering a range of running-related services, from bespoke coaching and training plans to educational workshops, running groups, guided runs, mini running adventures and longer retreats.

(While we build our website, you can find out more about what we do here.) We hope you’ll join us somewhere soon! In the meantime, we’ve got a neglected and rather dilapidated timber-framed bungalow to turn into a home…

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In praise of Jim Fixx – pioneer of running for the masses

One Sunday morning in the late 1970s, my dad suddenly appeared in the kitchen donning a tracksuit and towelling headband and announced he was going jogging. He returned, 20 minutes later, red-faced and sweat soaked, but by the time he’d come down from his shower even a Beano-reading nine-year old could see that he had a new spring in his step.

Unfortunately, Dad’s enthusiasm for running shrank faster than his polyester tracksters – most likely as a result of him attempting to practise his new hobby every morning and failing to allow enough time for his 40-something body to adapt to this new rigour. But his brief foray into the sport did give me a glimpse of the running boom that swept our nation in that era, a boom that – according to a survey conducted at the time – saw two million Brits donning their trainers at least once a week.

‘The purposes of this book are first to introduce you to the extraordinary world of running, and second, to change your life.’

And many, if not most, of them have one man to thank. Jim Fixx. Heard of him? His seminal work, The Complete Book of Running was released in 1977 and sold over a million copies, topping the New York Times bestseller list for months. Yet ten years earlier, Fixx was a non-runner who weighed in at over 15 stone, drank and smoked two packets of cigarettes a day. Running transformed not just his body – he lost more than four stone and went from last place in his debut 5-mile race to winning a state championship in his age group two years later – but his whole life. It was with the zeal of the newly converted that he set about writing The Complete Book of Running, which states in its introduction ‘the purposes of this book are first to introduce you to the extraordinary world of running, and second, to change your life.’

No wonder middle-aged men and women worldwide – especially those who had never dared to believe they could be runners – were lacing up their trainers in their droves. The only trouble is, seven years later, Fixx – the man who gave running to the masses – dropped dead while he was out running. He was 52 and had suffering a heart attack resulting from two blocked coronary arteries, forever proving to the lazy, the reluctant and the sceptical that running was a bad idea.

We are in the midst of another running boom, albeit a very different one from the first. And since its now forty years since Fixx’s book came out I opened it expecting to be amused, bemused, irritated and horrified by the advice and information it contained. And while it’s easy to snicker at statements like ‘the cure for an inflamed Achilles tendon is to run only on hard surfaces’ or ‘if you want to run well, try not to be satisfied with staying at a normal weight’ much of the book’s content remains valid – as well as interesting, insightful and witty. We like to believe that our sport has undergone nothing short of emancipation in the last forty years. You no longer have to be skinny, fast, male and competitive to be a runner – anyone can wear the label proudly, even if they have no intention of ever pinning on a race number. But on the yellowing pages of Fixx’s book many of the running converts he quotes talk not about race times or pounds lost but about a sense of independence or freedom gained, a lifting of anxiety or depression, relief from tension and improvements in self worth.

Running IS different this time round. Nowadays, it is as much a social activity as a form of exercise, a way to connect, not compete, a road to self-expression, not self-improvement.

Thanks to technology, social media, initiatives like Race for Life and Parkrun, its many benefits have filtered through to more people, different people. And this time, we’ve taken all the alarmist ‘Too much running bad for the heart! Headlines in our stride. But Jim Fixx and all those he inspired to run 40 years ago were the pioneers – who were stared at, mocked, imitated and warned off – they opened the doors for us. Thank you Jim.

This is an extended version of a Murphy’s Lore column, published in Runner’s World magazine.

What’s the difference between a placebo and an ergogenic aid?

Whether it’s EPO, caffeine or compression socks, what we believe affects our performance probably does…

Oh sorry, were you expecting a punchline? I’m afraid it’s my reflections on the blurry line between something that science says improves performance (an ergogenic aid) and a placebo (something that shouldn’t, but does).

I’m one of those people who considers the fruits of scientific research to be the bedrock of improving athletic performance, so studies like this recent offering from the University of Sao Paulo University are a useful but disconcerting reminder that that how the body responds to any stimulus cannot be separated from how the mind responds.

The Brazilian study looked at the effects of caffeine ingestion on performance in two cycling tests, compared to a control condition without caffeine. But here’s the thing: unbeknown to the subjects, the caffeine in the second trial was bogus and therefore could not exert any ergogenic (performance-enhancing) effect. So what happened in the three trials? Time to exhaustion and rate of perceived exertion (how hard the cyclists felt they worked) in both the real caffeine trial and the sham caffeine trial were better than in the control trial and barely different from each other. In other words, just thinking they’d had caffeine enabled the subjects to cycle harder, whether they had or not.

It was only a small study, admittedly, but it did remind me of an evening when I drank a cup of coffee shortly before bedtime, having been assured it was decaf, and went on to sleep soundly – only to be told by my host the next morning that I’d been Java-powered. A sort of reverse placebo effect… And that, in turn, reminded me of the time I got rather tipsy at a party, only to discover that I had been supping non-alcoholic beer all evening.

It demonstrates how powerfully our beliefs effect our reality – and, when it comes to running, performance. In 2015, researchers at the University of Glasgow recruited a group of runners to test a new drug purporting to mimic the endurance-boosting effects of the banned drug EPO. The runners took part in a 3km race and then injected the substance daily for seven days before repeating the 3km race. Not only did their performance improve by 1.2 per cent – 9.7 seconds (the equivalent of around two minutes off a marathon time), their perception of effort was lower and they recovered faster. Impressive stuff: especially when you learn that the ‘drug’ was actually a harmless saline solution.

In other research, exercisers bounced back from an intense workout after bathing for 15 minutes in lukewarm water containing a special ‘recovery oil.’ Their recovery – gauged by pain levels, leg strength and readiness to exercise again – was significantly faster than a control group who bathed in plain warm water.

The fact that the mind can exert such a strong influence over the body through the courage of its convictions throws into question how much sway scientific research should hold over what we do, or don’t do, in our efforts to run and recover faster. It certainly suggests there is a Tinker Bell element to it – you have to believe in the pills, potions and practices you invest in to run better and consider ditching the ones that, deep down, you don’t think play any role in aiding performance.

And that brings me to one final study to share, regarding the thorny issue of whether stretching is important or not for runners. The researchers found that when half a group of committed stretchers were instructed not to stretch before their runs for 16 weeks, they suffered more injuries than their peers who continued to stretch. Conversely, half of a group of non-stretchers were asked to stretch pre-run for the same period while their fellow stretch shirkers carried on as usual. Once again, it was those who were asked to act in a way that did not fit with their beliefs that got the most injuries.

What was on trial in this study wasn’t stretching at all, but what we believe about it. And that leads me to conclude that perhaps the biggest ergogenic aid of all is the one we already have – sitting between our ears.

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3 ways to run a faster 5K – tomorrow!

OK, so there’s no way you can improve your running fitness in the next 24 hours. But that doesn’t mean you can’t upgrade your performance. Here are just three ideas – and they’re all legal!

Grin and bear it

Kipchoge was on to something when he flashed the odd smile on his way around the Monza race track during his sub-two-hour marathon attempt last year. A recent study at Ulster University found that smiling during hard exercise improves running economy (a measure of efficiency). Runners were instructed to either smile or frown while they performed four hard six-minute runs on a treadmill. The results showed that smiling improved their running economy by 2.8 per cent compared to frowning, and by 2.2 per cent compared to a ‘control’ condition, in which facial expression was neutral. Get that happy face ready…

Full of beans

You’ve heard it before (and there is research to suggest that not everyone benefits) but a study at the University of Ballarat in Australia found that a pre-run caffeine dose (5mg per kg of each athlete’s body weight) elicited a small but significant improvement in 5km run time while a review from the University of Georgia reported that the average improvement in ‘time to completion’ trials (which mimic real-life racing better than ‘time to exhaustion’ trials) was 3.1%, with doses ranging from ranging from 3-8mg/kg.

Unlike with nitrates (aka beetroot juice), the effect was seen in both recreational and well-trained runners. For best results, studies suggest that your caffeine hit needs to be taken around an hour before your workout (which, conveniently, means you’ll have time to visit the loo after the caffeine has exerted its effect on your bowels!).

Energy gels and caffeine pills – or coffee? It doesn’t much matter, though the former allow you to keep tabs on exactly how much caffeine you are consuming.

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Lighten up

Leave those trusty cushioned trainers at home and step into a lightweight racing flat. Shoe weight really does make a difference. In a clever study at the University of Colorado, subjects performed three 3000m trials wearing Nike racing flats; but unbeknownst to them, the 200g shoes had tiny lead beads sewn into them for two of the trials, adding 100g and 300g respectively. The results showed that each 100g of additional weight slowed the runners down by 0.78%. What does that mean in real terms? Well, for someone running the 3000m in 11 minutes 23 seconds (the time predicted for a runner who can do 5K in 20 minutes flat) this would equate to slowing by 5.3 seconds for each  100g of additional weight. This is an instance where less really is more…

Callum Hawkins: a lesson in elite suffering

The harrowing sight of Callum Hawkins collapsing at the Commonwealth Games marathon on Sunday has got the media shining its spotlight onto the issue of how safe marathon running is. I was interviewed yesterday on BBC 5Live about what might have led to Hawkins’ collapse and whether it could have been prevented.

The answer to the first question is simple – heat exhaustion. Ambient temperature on race day was 28 degrees – six other runners out of the 24 who started did not complete the race. The answer to the second question is more complex. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to dissipate the extra heat being produced by exercise. Given that the harder you are working, the more heat you produce, the obvious solution would be to slow down – but try telling that to an athlete on their way to a gold medal.

Like all elite athletes, Hawkins’ years of intense training have enabled him to reach a stage where he can hear his body’s alarm systems screeching that he’s reaching his limits without really listening to them. I say ‘body’s alarm systems’, but really it’s the brain that imposes such limits. At least, that’s where the most recent theories are heading. For Professor Tim Noakes, the brain acts as a ‘central governor,’ which regulates muscle recruitment based on the feedback it receives from the body. If that feedback says heart rate is way too high, breathing is laboured and body temperature dangerously high, it responds protectively by forcing you to slow down or stop (which – eventually – it did in Hawkins’ case). In Professor Samuele Marcora’s Psychobiological Model, the brain regulates endurance performance consciously, rather than subconsciously, and bases its willingness to suffer discomfort and pain on your level of motivation. ‘People will engage in a task until the effort required reaches the maximum level they are willing to invest in order to succeed,’ Marcora told me in an interview. It makes perfect sense, when you consider Hawkins’ position on the cusp of winning a gold medal, that he’d be willing to endure increasingly high levels of suffering to reach his goal.

Essentially, the physical and mental toughness that Hawkins has built up over the course of his athletics career is the very thing that led to him continuing to run when every fibre of his being must have been telling him to stop. Couple that with ridiculously high levels of motivation and you could argue that Sunday’s traumatic events could not have been prevented (although what happened afterwards – in terms of how long it took for medical assistance to arrive – certainly could). It’s great to hear that Hawkins is now feeling better, but are there any lessons we lesser mortals can learn about running hard in the heat? Frankly, most of us aren’t highly trained – or motivated – enough to override our ‘central governors’ and would likely find ourselves slowing down or perhaps even bowing out in such conditions, but here are some useful hot-race day tips:

  • Start cool – keep out of the sun before the race starts to keep body temperature in check. You could try draping a cold wet towel around your head and shoulders, or drinking an icy cold drink.
  • Wear little, and opt for light colours.
  • Keep to the shady parts of the course where possible.
  • Stay well hydrated, of course, but save some of that water for pouring over your head or seek out sprinklers on the course. In a study last year, a group of runners endured 33-degree heat while they ran 5km time trials. Spraying cold water on their faces lowered their forehead temperature and ‘thermal sensation’ (how hot they felt).

Pastures new

Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in.

It’s our final month in Scotland. Edging closer to a return to reality, we decide that we need somewhere less isolated than our previous locations in order to re-familiarise ourselves with things like, er, other people, cars, towns and places that boast more than one shop.

We head for Perthshire (or more correctly, the County of Perth) in central Scotland at the start of a snowy January.

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With an expectation of spending more time indoors, we prioritise comfort and cosiness over wild surroundings when we choose the farm cottage at Incheoch as our base. It’s a working farm, and although our next-door neighbours (pictured below) are generally quiet they do occasionally like to lick our windows.

But in a repeat of our experience on Luing, a place that first appeared to be relatively limited in terms of inspiring walking and running routes turns out to be an unexpected gem. From nearby Alyth Hill there are 360-degree views over moors and farmland; the broad valley floors filled with a patchwork of fields in muted shades of green and yellow.

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Our cottage is just a stone’s throw from the Cateran Trail, a 64-mile circular walking route that connects up the trails used by cattle drovers – and cattle thieves – in the 17th century; immediately opening up route possibilities in two directions. A couple of miles away, a precarious path through woodland leads to the waterfall at Reekie Linn – modest in drop, but thunderous in power.

The hills may be lower, the lochs fewer and the forests smaller but gradually, on foot and by bike, we discover the beautifully bleak moorland north of Kilry, the wooded Bamff Estate, where beavers have been reintroduced (we didn’t see any but there is plenty of evidence of their presence – including gnawed tree trunks and impressive dams), and the riverside trails in the Den O’ Alyth.

Although our intention is to continue with the daily routine that’s served us so well up until now, it feels harder to settle. There’s a slight shift in the atmosphere. We know we’re going home soon and that creates a mix of excitement and anxiety. Are we ready?

Remembering all the things I yearned to do at the beginning of this trip when the vast, blank slate was mine to fill, I spend the first fortnight at Incheoch attempting to cram them all in. One minute I’m on acoustic guitar lesson one, the next I’m mastering some new core stability moves, taking part in a creative writing webinar or updating myself on the latest running coaching science. It’s quite exhausting and unsurprisingly, stressful. One evening I’m lying on the floor, foam rolling my calves when I spot the set of acrylic paints I got for Christmas eyeing me reproachfully from the shelf: you haven’t used us yet, they whisper. Enough already, I scold myself. I make a concerted effort after that to remind myself that I am not going back to a 9-5 job – I still have time, I still have freedom and opportunity. It’s not over.

Perthshire is the most populated place we’ve stayed in Scotland (apart from Edinburgh, of course). So, as part of our ‘unwilding’, we do stuff like drink beer at craft breweries and go for coffee. We go to look at the newly built V&A museum in Dundee, run the Parkrun in Perth a couple of times, go training with Perth Road Runners one evening and do our weekly food shop in the nearby town of Blairgowrie.

One day, we walk into Alyth on the Cateran Trail and, finding no cafe that allows dogs, take a punt on the grand mansion that is the Lands of Loyal Hotel, on the outskirts of town. We end up sitting in our scruffy walking gear in the magnificent ‘Great Hall’ drinking coffee in front of a roaring fire.

Tomorrow, we are packing up. We’ll go for one last dog walk, one last run, and then load up the van with the crates and boxes that have been our mobile wardrobes, pantry, bathroom cabinet and library since we moved out of our house back in July.

We’ll put the kayaks on the roof rack, cram the bikes in, along with Jeff’s snowboard (used once) and my guitar (I’m up to lesson four). On that walk, I’ll keep my eyes open for the hare that crouches in the field at the foot of the hill until we get too close and then bounds away, making speed look effortless. And when I run, I’ll head up to the top of the hill to marvel at the vastness of land and sky in every direction.

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