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Core values November 03 2015, 0 Comments

Following on from a previous blog, my knee is improving slowly, and the bruising seems to have gone down, but it has some way to go yet, so still no running for a while. Fortunately, I can borrow the neighbour's dog and be useful when I go out for a walk. For more strenuous exercise, I do floor exercises to strengthen my core muscles around the abdomen, useful for runners and less active people alike.

Back pain and damage can come either from overdoing exercises such as crunches, or from too little activity such as sitting in front of a screen all day. In both cases, improving the tonus of the core region helps to hold everything in place and reduces the risk of spinal displacement and damage to the inter-vertebral discs. They also lead to better posture and to better running. These exercises have been picked up from physiotherapists and gym trainers over the years.

core exercise

Once again, as for the foot strengthening exercises from last week, they are done slowly to build strength, applying tension to a count of ten seconds, holding for two, and then releasing for another ten. Aim to build up to five repeats of each without any breaks so that the muscles stay under tension for about a minute. Breathing is important if you are working your muscles, so breathe out slowly as you go into tension and in as you release.  As they use body weight, no equipment necessary, and they can be done anywhere that you can find the floor space to lie down.

'C' crunch
Lie on your back with your legs bent and feet flat on the floor about hip-width apart. Raise your hands straight in front of you and link fingers - keep them vertical through the whole exercise. Slowly raise your chest and hips as high as possible and making a 'C' shape, hold and then lower.

Bridge
Still on your back with your legs bent and feet tucked in close to your bottom, keeping your shoulders on the floor, raise your hips slowly until your back is straight, hold and release.

Side crunch
Lie straight on your side with the legs together and your lower forearm on the floor about level with your lower rib-cage and at right angles to your body for stability. Slowly raise your hips from the floor into a side 'plank' position, hold and then lower again. Do both sides.

Plank/push-up
Lie on your face with your toes tucked under your feet and your hands under your shoulders. The plank usually involves holding a stationary position, but while you are here you might as well work your arms as well with some push-ups... Holding the body straight straighten your arms to raise your shoulders, hold and release.

Hyperextensions
Still on your face, and with your feet relaxed and extended on the floor, rest your hands lightly behind you in the small of your back. Pick up your feet and head and shoulders as far as you can, hold and release. If you would like to put more effort into this exercise, touch your fingers to the sides of your head or extend your arms to full-stretch in front of you.

Combined with the standing foot-extensions described last week, this takes about fifteen to twenty minutes and can be done once a week to maintain, and two or three times to build strength. Also pretty good for people who temporarily cannot run...

 


The importance of rest September 16 2015, 0 Comments

Browsing through YouTube the other evening, I came across Dr James O'Keefe, a cardiologist, delivering a talk on TED, in which he advises against overdoing exercise, a rather unexpected comment to come from a cardiologist. He compares exercise to a drug - a fantastic drug that protects against heart disease, diabetes, depression and a multiple of other conditions. However, as with all drugs, it has an optimal dose range, and if you overdo it, it can do more damage than good.

The human body is a remarkable piece of apparatus. It improves by a process of damage and repair. When you exercise beyond your limit, micro-tears develop in your muscles, and when these are repaired, the muscle is built back stronger and better than before. This is the process of getting fit, and it requires a period of rest before exercise is repeated to allow the repair to take place, or the tears simply get bigger. The heart is a muscle like any other, and according to Dr O'Keefe, sustained exercise beyond about an hour results in micro-tears or damage. If you take some rest days afterwards, these repair themselves, better and stronger than before.

The issue comes with long-term, long-distance runners who train regularly enough for the repair process not to take place. Their hearts stretch to accommodate the sustained increased blood that they pump, and the tears do not repair so that scar tissue is formed. He cites a study of some 50'000 people which shows that runners have a 19% longer life expectation than sedentary people, but that when they run over 30km average a week, this benefit cancels out. The result also applies to speed - up to 10km/h provides benefit, but pushing to 12km/h sees it go away. Finally, running two to five times a week provides the benefit, but running seven days a week takes it away again. The Copenhagen Heart Study, tracking 20'000 people since 1976, confirms these results. Joggers have a 44% lower mortality rate and live on average 6 years longer than non-runners - provided they run at a slow to average pace for one to two-and-a-half hours or two or three times per week.

Some of you will always prefer to run far and fast and die happy. With these learnings you can choose your own destiny and the good news is that if you choose to change and slack off now, the heart repairs itself and returns to normal. For the rest of us, exercise is a remarkable therapy, and running up to 30k per week at a moderate pace will make us healthier and happier. You can find Dr O'Keefe's talk here. Good running all!


Fixing outside knee pain August 18 2015, 0 Comments

It is fairly common for runners to get knee pain, and I'd like to take a look at a specific form of this in which the pain comes on the outside of the knee. This is probably because of tightness.

The iliotibial band consists of the the iliotibial tract, a tendon which attaches to the pelvic girdle at the top and the tibia below the knee at the bottom. The gluteus maximus (buttock) muscle inserts into it top-rear, and the tensor fascieae latae muscle at the top-front. This combination is responsible for sideways stability in standing, walking and running. Just above its lower insertion, the iliotibial tract passes over the lateral epicondyle, a bony bump on the side of the knee. Under normal circumstances, it will glide back and forth over this without issue, but if the iliotibial band is tight the resulting friction can lead to inflammation and pain.

How does it get to be too short? Running too much too early can result in the tendons shortening, especially if you don't routinely stretch them when warm after running. Aim to increase either distance or speed (but not both) by about 10% per week for a comfortable progression to fitness, and slow this down if you get untoward aches and pains.

The iliotibial band is relaxed during sitting, and so if you have a sedentary job, it can result in the tendon shortening. There are two main ways to tackle this, stretching and rolling. There are several stretches that you can use, either standing or lying down. For balance, you should always stretch on both sides, and go into and come out of stretches s-l-o-w-l-y - never bounce. One particularly effective yoga stretch (the pigeon) is shown here. From a position on your hands and knees, move the leg to be stretched across your body and then slide the other one backwards until you feel the stretch. You can get additional tension by bringing your head down to the floor and rolling towards the side with the straight leg.

You can roll out the iliotibial band with a solid foam roller, as illustrated. Regulate the amount of weight you put on the roller using your arms and the other foot, and roll back and forwards from knee to hip slowly about ten times. You will have a pretty good clue as to whether the trouble is coming from a tight iliotibial band, as this will be very uncomfortable until it loosens.

Stretch and roll at least once a day, and always when you are warm after a run. If none of this works, it might be time to go and see a doctor or physiotherapist for more specific advice.


Foot fitness August 11 2015, 0 Comments

Over the last few years, I have watched my feet get tougher.

Not in the sense of being able to run on stones or coals, more in the sense that a body-builder would use. When I first started barefoot running, I had a fallen arch on the left foot, and both feet had a slightly long and flaccid a look. As I continued to run, they appeared to shorten, the ball of the foot widened, the musculature across the top of the foot became more pronouced and, miracle of miracles, the arch on the left foot re-formed.

I am aware that a case study with a single subject does not make a general rule, so I went to the internet to see what I could find on the topic. As well as more case studies detailing improvements in foot and ankle alignment from barefoot running over two years, there is a study from the Shanghai University of Sport, written by some eminent USA professors. The study followed two groups of runners wearing standard and minimalist shoes for 12 weeks.

So we can expect some increase in foot strength whether running in 'normal' running shoes or minimalist ones, but this is more widely spread across the muscles in the latter, and the arch becomes stiffer and stronger. The upshot is, if you start running with minimalist shoes, you can expect your feet to grow and look tougher.Minimalist shoe runners moved on average towards a more front- or mid-foot striking pattern while running. Both groups showed an increase in muscle volume for the flexor digitorum brevis muscle under the arch, but the minimalist shoe group also showed a significant increase in cross sectional area and muscle volume in the abductor digiti minimi, which runs along the outside of the foot to the little toe. Longitudinal arch stiffness underwent no change in the control group, but in the minimalist shoe group it increased by 60%.


Do flip-flops cause floppy feet? August 04 2015, 0 Comments

Wearers of high heels sometimes complain of tiredness and aches when going barefoot or wearing flip-flops, and somehow this has been translated into a message that the flip-flops are the trouble makers.

We go barefoot around the house, and wear ZEMgear shoes regularly for trips to the shops or to go out socially. Our feet therefore regularly get exercise and stretching through everyday use - and on the occasions that we do wear flip-flops, it's a breeze!We would argue the opposite. If your feet are encased in a shoe all day, they are unable to flex and stretch as they would if they were uncovered, and so all the little muscles and tendons in the feet and calves do not get exercise. This is especially true if you are wearing high heels, where the foot is fixed in position such that up to 90% of your weight is resting on the ball of the foot. Furthermore, the Achilles tendon is held in an unnaturally shortened position, and tends to shrink. If, at the weekend, you then switch to flops, your feet will have to do unaccustomed work when you walk, and the Achilles tendon will be stretched back into its natural position, both of which can lead to discomfort. Regular periods in which you allow your feet and Achilles tendons to work naturally will help with this. We advise people new to barefoot shoes to start gradually, especially if the intent is to do some serious running, and allow the feet, tendons and calves to 'get fit' again.