After 25 years of running, often troubled by injuries, the author has devised a routine that keeps him healthy, happy and running without pain
Like most of you, I’m a goal-oriented kind of runner. I need some sort of carrot to chase. A few years ago I had all the usual time and race goals that I would arbitrarily set and then try to knock down. Then, somewhere along the way, I was the one who got knocked down.
Maybe it was the incapacitating pain from a herniated disc injury and the subsequent back operation that finally did me in, but I always felt that the operation was more the manifestation of an obsessive character defect that always had me pushing too hard. Regardless, after 25 years of continuous running, my life had changed.
I spent an entire winter recovering on my back and vowed that if I could ever begin running again, it would be different. It would have to be especially different in one crucial area: goals. I would have to find a new approach to goal setting–a saner one.
And I have. Not only is my life different but so is my running. I’m still as goal-oriented as ever, but there’s been a healthy, productive change. In my former life, goals were ever ascending, and a PR often wasn’t good enough. I wanted breakthroughs. Unfortunately, the only thing that broke was my body. I know that injuries are part of the game for all runners, but for me, they became the whole game.
As I began my running rebirth after the back surgery, I decided that even if PRs were still attainable, they weren’t worth it. They’re so transitory and, ultimately, so unimportant that I could no longer see the point of training to run faster. What counted now was simply being able to run. Period.
For starters, I decided to follow the advice of my closest friend and purge the T-word from my running vocabulary. No more “training.” Same with “workout.” Instead of training or working out, I would play. I had always tried to regard my running as fun; now I would go even further. But first I had to find a way to remain healthy.
With continual, uninterrupted running as my goal, I drew up 10 Commandments of Healthy Running that I hoped would ensure my running health. And, so far, they have. Some are obvious, others less so, but all have increased my enjoyment of running by allowing me to continue running without any major injuries.
I’m not faster or stronger, not setting PRs or achieving breakthroughs. I’m simply happier and healthier. Following are my 10 Commandments of Healthy Running. Try them. I think they’ll work for you, too.
1. Stretch Every Day
I realize nobody wants to hear any more about the value of stretching, so I won’t belabor the point. I’ll simply tell you that I spend 20 minutes every morning doing yoga and various other stretching exercises, and it’s worked. My routine varies, but I always emphasize the abdominals, the hamstrings and the calf muscles/Achilles tendon.
Like a lot of us, I’ve always had tight hamstrings (the group of muscles in the back of the thigh). The stiff hamstrings probably had as much to do with my back injury as anything else because they placed torque on other areas of my body such as my sciatic nerve. I’ve always stretched my hamstrings, but now I know that placing my leg on a fence post for 20 seconds isn’t enough. These days I spend at least 5 minutes stretching each leg fastidiously. And how I do it is more important than the time.
With a jump rope or long piece of rope, I lie on my back and place the middle of the rope on the ball of one foot. Grasping each end of the rope, I slowly raise the leg, making sure to keep the knee straight and my shoulders flat on the floor. The idea is to get a deep stretch right into the belly of the hamstrings without pain. Make sure you breathe through the stretch. Don’t get greedy and overstretch. I stretch each leg five times in this manner and try to hold each stretch for a count of 20.
Another stretch I do for my hamstrings: I lie on the floor with my butt firmly against a wall and my legs extended up against the wall with my knees locked. I place my hands on my stomach and try to stretch through my toes. It feels a little strange at first, and in the beginning it’s difficult to hold this position for longer than a minute or two. But it’s easy to increase the time as your body becomes used to it. The longer you do it, the more relaxing it becomes.
The other perfunctory stretch I used to do was the leaning-against-the-wall stretch for my Achilles and calf muscles, but that never proved very effective for me. For the last 10 years, I’ve had success with an inclined-board device called the Flex-Wedge, one of the best products I’ve ever used. All I do is stand on the angled Flex-Wedge in my bare feet for a couple of minutes every morning. I keep my knees and back straight and force my heels down to deepen the stretch. Friends have told me that two other commercial devices–the Prostretch and the Footflex –are also helpful for calf/Achilles stretching.
The final stretch I do every morning isn’t really a stretch. It’s a strenghening exercise for my abdominals. Strong abdominal muscles are the counterbalance to weak back muscles, and sit-ups are the usual prescription. knees and cross my hands over my chest. Then I lift my head (without bending my neck) and shoulders only a foot or so off the floor. Anything beyond that point is worthless. For added abdominal strengthening, I place my feet up on a chair and try to do 60 of these sit-ups.
2. Stick To The Shoes That Work Best
You may know me as the guy who coauthors all the shoe surveys in this magazine. I probably have more running shoes in my closet than you have T-shirts. I have my choice of any shoe being made (and plenty in the prototype stage, too).
I used to try every new model, every hot technology, every funky gizmo. No more. I had too many injuries wearing shoes that weren’t right for me. This isn’t to suggest that the new shoes won’t work for you; my point is, don’t try new footwear simply because it’s different. When you find a shoe that works for you, don’t switch just out of curiosity. New isn’t necessarily better.
Of course, once a shoe loses its ability to cushion and control foot movement, it’s time to switch to a new pair. But whenever possible, I try to stick with the same model. If that model is discontinued, I’ll find one that is as technically close as possible to my old favorite (same last, midsole and control elements).
Here are several more rules: Don’t choose a shoe because of its weight, and be careful with racing flats. I never choose a shoe based on weight. Instead, I choose a shoe based on function, fit and control. And I never wear racing flats anymore. I don’t care how important the race is, racing flats don’t provide enough support and cushioning for me. Saving a few ounces of weight isn’t worth it. If I want to wear something other than my daily trainer in a race, I’ll switch to a lightweight trainer that’s an ounce or two lighter and has almost as much stability.
3. Wear Orthotics All The Time
Like many runners, I wear cutomized orthotics to minimize biomechanical deficiencies. Unlike a lot of runners, I always wear my orthotics. Not just on my daily run, but whenever I’m wearing any kind of shoe, boot or sneaker. The way I figure it, if they’re worth using, they’re worth using all the time. I slip my hard plastic orthotics into my tennis shoes, cycling cleats, ski boots, cross-trainers, even my dress shoes (on the biannual occasion when I wear anything but athletic shoes).
As a corollary to the above, it’s important for orthotics wearers to select running shoes that function well with orthotics. I stick with relatively straight-lasted, motion-control shoes with a firm midsole, deep heel and sturdy heel counter. Once I find a shoe that works well for me (and my orthotics), I stick with it.
4. Walk-In. Walk-Out
By that I mean, I begin and end every run with walking. Whether I’m leaving from my front door or a car, I start every run by walking a few minutes. Usually, it’s a short as a 200-meter walk through a parking lot to the beginning of a trail.
The walk-in accomplishes several things. It’s a brief transition from being sedentary to running. During this time, I check out my various aches and pains (I can shorten the run if any pain is pronounced); warm up with shoulder rotations and leg shakes; adjust my lacelocks or laces and determine if I need to add or shed any clothes before taking off.
The walk-out is different and a little longer, only because it’s so enjoyable. I loosen my shoes, wipe my shades, cool off a little and bask in the endorphin rush. It’s a time to celebrate the run, the day, the sweat, the companionship. It’s a time to drink and stretch a little–anything–to prolong the moment.
5. Stay Off Roads, Side-Walks And Tracks
Easier said than done, right? But to me, it’s worth the effort (usually a short drive) to run on trails rather than roads. It’s not just the hardness of the roads that kills my legs. It’s also the camber.
I don’t avoid roads just to prevent injuries though. Bottom line: Running on grass, trails or dirt roads is simply more fun for me. It’s less stressful because the surface is much more forgiving, sure. But it’s also cooler in the summer, and, because I don’t have to deal with traffic, it’s much more relaxing. Which is what running’s all about anyway.
I’m extremely lucky because our office is a mere 5-minute drive from a beautifully shaded 6 1/2-mile dirt trail that winds through a park. I can’t imagine a more perfect place to run. Even if I have to drive there, it’s worth it because I enjoy the run that much more.
Our trails spoil me for running just about anywhere else. So when I travel, I improvise. I’ll try to find a football or soccer field, a small park or any patch of green to run around. If not, I’ll run on the roads as a last resort. If I happen to be someplace where the running is truly awful (such as Barcelona last summer), I’ll bag it and just walk, swim or do something else. I’d rather not run than get injured. Or even risk getting injured.
I’ve found, by the way, that tracks are the worst place to run. Indoor, outdoor…it doesn’t matter to me. I avoid tracks completely. Running in a circle places way too much stress on the inside leg. Aside from that, I hate the monotony. And if I can’t enjoy my run, why bother?