Once I had accepted the challenge of learning to run I tried to become a student of knee pain. I really didn’t know much about leg muscles or leg movement but it only took about 5 minutes for me to find 30 different webpages willing to explain it all to me.
Reading through these websites went something like this:
Website: Runner’s Knee
Website: Impressive-looking anatomical picture of what I assume is a knee
Website: Describes Symptom A
Website: Describes symptoms B, C and D
Website: Describes Symptoms E, F and G
Me: Er no, not so much.
which made me realise that knee pain may differ quite a lot between sufferers… and be caused by a combination of factors unique to each person. Which in turn means that because it isn’t a one-size-fits-all pain, there isn’t a one-size-fits-all cure.
With this revelation, I started focusing my studying more on how I run, trying to identify my ‘unique’ combination of causes.
Foam rolling was already one of my strategies, but as Shane was quick to point out, tight muscles had really become a specialty of mine. Even though I’d been going to the gym for 5 years, my idea of a warm up was walking from the car into the gym. Cooling down was having a beer in front of the TV later on. I thought I was pretty smart for fitting in some stretching between weight lifting sets, but really that meant having a chat to anyone nearby whilst briefly lifting my arms above my head or bending over to touch my toes.
Along with the foam rolling (which is gradually getting less painful, so is probably working) I vowed to never get on a treadmill without first doing a proper warm-up – consisting of jumping jacks, body weight squats, kick backs and tuck jumps. As a cool down, I decided to factor in at least 5 minutes of walking after each workout.
I had been using my new orthotics since I got them on the 2nd of November and had really settled into the new gait they gave me. I read through my notes from the podiatrist’s office and tried to make sure I kept my toes pointing forward and my glutes engaged as I walked, to get in the habit of it. So many of my Google search results pointed to poor foot support that I couldn’t ignore how important it was to make the most of my new insoles.
I also studied some professional runners, and how they look when they run. On YouTube, I noticed that many of them bend their knees considerably more than I usually would; their shins are often parallel with the floor when the leg is bent. I found this interesting because I had assumed that I would save energy, reduce pain and perhaps even go faster if I minimised bending my legs – aka using my knees. I looked back at the photos I had of me running and my legs were hardly bent at all. I was bounce-shuffling along.
I googled blogs that mentioned the words ‘running coach’ to see what advice other people were being given about their running form, because we have no money to spend on running coaches since the epic bike purchase. Happily, I found quite a few examples that seemed to ring a bell with me – particularly regarding arm swings. Again, thinking it would be more efficient if I tried to keep my arms fairly still in front of me, my arm swing when running had reduced to almost nothing. I had developed chicken wings; tucked in tight and useless unless drenched in barbecue sauce. But apparently your arms SHOULD swing quite a bit, ideally straight forward and back.
I gathered all sorts of hints, tips and tricks from dozens of different websites, not all of them related to painful knees, but all things that struck a chord with my own experiences. Eventually I had developed a few plans to try during my upcoming training sessions.
Plan 1 was simply to increase my cadence (the number of steps you take in a minute) to around 180 steps (or 90 steps if you are only counting one leg). This, apparently, is one of the simplest ways to improve your running form. By taking shorter steps, most runners will improve their running comfort and as a bonus, also get faster. I thought that with my orthotics and improved gait, a higher cadence might be the simple trick I needed to start to overcome the pain.
I warmed up, jumped onto the treadmill and counted 88 steps on my left leg most minutes. But 10 minutes in the pain started and I had to stop, which was absolutely no improvement on my previous running attempts. Clearly, cadence was not the key.
Two days later, Plan 2 was to still keep my cadence high, but to also lean forward into the run more, keeping my shoulders back and letting my arms swing, and really ‘falling into the run’ with a flatter foot. I had to concentrate on letting my weight land underneath me – not stepping my feet out in front of my body with a hard heel-strike – and I decided to also incorporate the 90-degree bend of the lifted leg like I saw the pros do.
I warmed up the same way as I had for Plan 1 and then got on the treadmill. I told Shane I’d see him in the weights section in 11 minutes if all went well. I didn’t bother putting a headband on because I figured I could cope with my hair flopping in my eyes for only 10 (maybe 11!) minutes. I didn’t even wear a proper sports bra – just a low-impact sports crop.
I’ve built it up too much. You know what happens next. I know what happens next.
As I sit here and type, I cannot believe what happened next.
I ran. I ran some more. I kept running. It was pain free.
I got to 20 minutes of running and the only signs of pain were in my head – I was getting a tension headache from concentrating so hard on keeping my new perfect running form. Doh.
I pushed on to 5km and slowed to a walk because my head was throbbing, my sweaty hair was poking me in the eyes and I was overheating because I was wearing the wrong gear. And frankly I didn’t want to push my luck.
I looked around the gym, where life was carrying on as normal. I tried to telepathically make someone turn and see me because I wasn’t sure if I would believe myself later if I didn’t have a witness. Nobody looked, so we’ll just have to take my word for it.
I grabbed my towel to wipe the sweat off my face and left it there in front of my eyes for a few extra seconds, as I genuinely fought back tears. It had been more than seven years since I’d run that far without pain. I couldn’t believe the dramatic difference; it seemed too good to be true. I wondered if I was dreaming, and worse, I wondered if I would ever be able to do it again.
I decided to let myself rest for three days and find out.