Listen to your body or suffer in the long run

A few blogs ago, I cautioned readers , because no one was interested. Well, now that I'm a sufferer, of course the opposite is true.

I'm going to tell you a story about mine, but before you can say “hypocrite”, can I mention that this story contains a salient lesson for every runner. As it happens, I could have avoided this sorry business by being a little more mature about the fact that I'm a little more mature than I was when I first took up the sport a decade or so ago.

Like most runners, I generally felt so energised and youthful that I completely forgot my biological age. This can happen in many circumstances, not just running - the dance floor and ski slopes come to mind - and with relatively minor consequences. But a bruised ego is nothing compared with the ignominy of being told you're too old to teach your body new tricks.

I came unstuck by deciding I wanted to become more of a midfoot runner and less of a heel striker, the idea being that changing my technique would make me run faster.

I bought lower-profile shoes and did loads of kilometres diligently, focusing on landing on the ball of my foot and driving off the big toe. I noticed that when having a massage, my calf muscles were a new touchpoint for pain. Anytime I rolled on my weak left ankle, I didn't do anything specific to treat it, figuring that in the past, time had sorted it out. Then my heels began to hurt. After a while my usual strategy of pretending something isn't there didn't work, because simple standing or walking was agony and I couldn't complete track sessions.

According to Sports Medicine Australia, the plantar fascia keeps the foot bones and joints in position and enables us to push off from the ground. Bruising or overstretching this ligament can cause inflammation and heel pain. This is more likely to occur when doing sports that place stress on the heel bone and its connective tissue, such as running.

Plantar fasciitis is more likely to affect people who are flat-footed or have high arches, plus anyone who is middle-aged or older because muscles supporting the arch of the foot become weaker, putting stress on the plantar fascia. Wearing shoes with poor arch support or stiff soles can contribute to the problem.

When I eventually saw physiotherapist Ken Raupach from Activfit in Sydney, he was looking impressively fresh considering he'd competed in the world ironman championships in Hawaii the week before. He's fifty-something and a gleaming example of a mature athlete. Certainly no evidence here of my flawed “ignore it and it'll fix itself” thinking. Ken is a big fan of specific strength and balance work for running, plus foam rollers, massage and stretching. It's how he discovers if things aren't quite right with his own body, and enables him to fix little issues before they become big ones.

The point is, he's acting his age by accepting that age-induced weaknesses should be addressed. It's just a matter of doing a bit of extra work and then getting on with racing like you're 20 again.

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I've now got a series of exercises to stretch the plantar fascia and Achilles tendon and to strengthen the lower leg muscles, which stabilise my ankle and heel. I've got a strengthening program for the calf muscles and to address my flat arches and small muscles of the foot (picking up a pencil with my toes while sitting at my desk is one), plus balance work and glute exercises, including incidental ones like clenching my butt cheeks one at a time whenever I get up from my desk.

It's also important to replace old runners before they stop supporting and cushioning the feet. A lot of figures get thrown around about how long shoes last, but the lower the profile, the quicker they wear out. Generally about 650-800 km is the lifespan of a regular shoe.

Ken says the low-profile shoes are better for runners who are already technically efficient and biomechanically capable. For the rest of us, they can be a recipe for injury, as I've so capably demonstrated. He recommends sticking with a shoe that provides maximum support and cushioning where it's most needed - around the heel. Improvements in running times can be made by strengthening the typical weak spots, such as glutes and core and hip stability, plus ironing out calf muscle tightness and building up foot muscles.

He doesn't see age as an impediment, just something to prompt a little more self-awareness and attention when niggles arise. Then there's no reason to stop. That's the maturity of a mature-age athlete.

Have you been caught not acting your (running) age?

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