Breathe

August 5, 2017

I was very poor at maths at school, all those years ago. I also hated it. But if I had a particularly weak area of study amongst the subjects I enjoyed, it was sciences. I remember an end-of-year report when my chemistry teacher prophetically wrote “Enthusiasm for the experiments is just not enough”. Say no more! Such basics of science that I now tenuously possess have come to me much later in life. My enthusiasm for the experiments remains, however, and that’s really what this blog is about. Read it in tandem with the last couple of episodes, for context.

The incentive to learn any such science has, of course, been sport. While earnestly trying to add value to my training, about ten years ago, I began to dabble in the black arts of heart-rate based training, and stuff like that. This was a mix of good and bad things.

The good was that, by and large, (dying batteries notwithstanding), the heart rate monitor didn’t lie, and the results could be written up for future reference. The bad was that almost all heart-rate related articles online, and recording applications, etc, were based around the needs of distance runners. There has been an explosion of GPS tools, heart-rate and activity monitors, mobile apps, and so on in recent times, but I’d not be sticking my neck out too far if I said that the needs of distance runners still completely dominate the design and features of these. I’ve yet to find anything of that kind that is really any use to a sprinter.

One thing every athlete needs to do is to get their VO2max measured, and re-do this from time to time. To the distance runner, it’s a valuable benchmarking tool. To a sprinter like me, it provides a benchmark too, it’s true, but, less helpfully, it also serves to show how far adrift my ability to use the oxygen I breathe in is from what most distance runners would regard as good. This will be the case with most pure sprinters. On the half a dozen occasions I’ve tested my VO2max, it has never risen beyond the level most results charts declare as “Fair”. Fair comes below “Good”, of course.

This used to disappoint me. Back in the day, the way most people got their VO2max measured was by way of a “ramp test” on a treadmill or a bicycle ergometer. Both methods push you hard over a given period, then push you harder still, and so on, until failure. They are designed to get you to give 101%. They usually also require someone to be on hand to catch you when you collapse at the point at which you can go no further. Done conscientiously, this is not a pretty sight at times! Nowadays, there are ‘phone apps and stuff that put you through far less trauma, but have enough of a body of data underpinning them that they can extrapolate your VO2max with accuracy. This has its attractions for me, because it means I can do what I do best, and work really hard for a short period of time. And, to begin with, thinking this would declare that I had good VO2max after all, I dutifully did.

However, even these things tell me my VO2max remains firmly in the “Fair” category. A bit of reading consoled me that, to a certain extent, VO2max is genetically determined, and that it can be trained upwards a little, but never a lot.

So, I have come to terms with what (for example) running Parkrun every Saturday tells me: I simply don’t get as much physical performance out of a lungful of air as some other people. What is called my “aerobic” capacity is, and has always been, typical of a sprinter. I could have tried as hard as I liked in younger years to train my body to use each breath better, but it would never have made much difference. On those few occasions I’ve ever raced over 400 metres, I used to say to myself, with 150 metres left “GO!”. My body always used to reply with the message that it had actually “gone” somewhere around the 200 metres mark, and had little left to give!

What I can muster well, however, is anaerobic power. That, put simply, is my ability to continue turning out the power even when operating at close to maximum heart-rate while, of course, breathing as if every breath would be my last! It’s part of the physiological skill-set that marks most of us sprinters out.

It’s also what I’ve recently been using the Wattbike at my local gym to probe, because the good thing I read is that anaerobic capacity can be trained and improved, albeit not without pain. Most of the Wattbike tests are longer or shorter variations on the Wingate Anaerobic Test. To me, any such test that is designed to be carried out over 30 seconds is just fine. The Wattbike even has a test to establish peak wattage that is just six seconds long. I like that too!

However, what are giving me greatest satisfaction at the moment are the tests that last in the region of 20 to 30 minutes all told, and which are based around repeated, really hard efforts of 10 or 20 seconds duration, followed by, say, a 40 or 50 second “recovery” period. Typically, five hard burst/recover efforts are spread over six minutes or so, and repeated three times in all during the test, with a gentle phase of pedalling for a few minutes in between. During this phase, you try to remember who you are, what day it is, and what you’re doing here. This sort of thing often goes under the name of “high impact interval training”. The acronym “HIIT” is very appropriate.

Here’s a graph from one such recent session. The yellow line is cadence – the speed I’m pedalling at. The blue line is the power in watts that I’m putting out. The red line is heart rate.

My wattage peaks come in the short “power bursts”. There are 15 peaks (3 x 5) in this test, over a period of 24 minutes. The wattage peaks are achieved by pedalling as hard as I can, hence the blue peaks come at the same time as the yellow peaks. However, the key feature of this test is that it’s designed to be done at or near maximum heart rate, which is reached very early on in the test, because of the effort required to achieve the specified wattage level. My max is 160 beats per minute. Most of this test was done above 155 beats. Notice, however, that the red line has no corresponding peaks and troughs. The power is coming when my heart and lungs cannot process any more oxygen than they are already coping with. This is anaerobic power.

It’s not just a fluke of that test, either. I do a regular 20 minute warm up routine where my power, cadence and heart-rate all pretty much flatline for most of the time. However, the sting in the tail is three full-on sprints near the end. Each is very short, but very intensive, and has virtually no recovery time before the next. And here too, as the graph below shows, my ability to suddenly whip my output wattage up to far greater heights comes without my heart-rate suddenly spiking as well. The power isn’t coming from my body gulping in increased amounts of air and converting this to power. In this example, I’m not working at quite so close to heart rate max as in the previous example. The peaks are higher and shorter, and, as with a sprinter busting forth from the starting blocks, there is no time for heavier breathing or a faster pumping heart to provide the wherewithal. The power is anaerobically generated.

That’s it, really. A few things I thought it would be interesting to share.

Regulars will know I like to find a suitable blog title from within my big music collection. This time it was harder than usual, and Pink Floyd’s “Breathe” is (shamelessly) a little ironic.

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Tall In The Saddle

July 20, 2017

Last time I wrote here, things were looking up, after a bit of a spell in the doldrums. Well, happy to say, that’s continued to be so over the last five week training block, which I can now look back at, courtesy of a pre-planned week of “active rest”.

I mentioned last time the improvements that a refit at my local gym had made to my training, and I name-checked the Wattbike I’ve been using as one of those positives. Well, lately it has been something of a mainstay, as I’ll explain shortly.

This summer is strange for me. If you’ve been reading my blog for a bit, you’ll recall that, courtesy of a bad left shoulder injury, I’ve not been racing. I’m fine with that, though I thought it might test my patience. Actually: not at all. I’ve been working harder than ever. You see, normally, the period from about mid-May to late August for me, as with most older sprinters, is spent doing “just enough” in training so that I arrive feeling fresh for competitions. That’s coupled with specific work to sharpen up for races, and time set aside to recover from them. It’s all pretty up and down.

This year, I’ve had the luxury of being able to train hard right through mid-summer. OK, I may just be making up for the five months spent re-habbing my shoulder since new year, but I arrived at the end of May feeling fresh, and confident that the shoulder was getting better by the week. I wanted to take the opportunity of doing something special for what amounts to “pre-winter” training. To be frank, I also needed to scratch the competitive itch that was building from not racing.

Initially, I was using the Wattbike to help me do structured, low-impact warm-up sessions. However, I strayed on to one of its pre-set “tests” that asked me to put down maximum pedal revs (cadence) at high load, to achieve good peak wattage (power) for a mercifully short peak period. High cadence I can do. High cadence at high load was hard, but when I found I was hitting 400 watts, I was quite impressed with myself, admittedly with nothing to compare against, though. The notion began to form that building my peak wattage would do me no harm, provided that I could discover ways to translate what I was getting on the Wattbike into what my legs could turn out, running fast – and particularly, running fast out of the starting blocks.

A couple of tentative weeks in, when I tested the optimal cadence/load combination I could best sustain for a good wattage peak, my “personal best” rose quite quickly. I think I wasn’t necessarily getting fitter, just getting better at the test. I hit 541w, then 649w, and not long after, 670w. Out of the blue, I pencilled in a target of 900w by October. No idea if I can do it, or what it will involve by way of preparation, but that’s the plan. Then came 716w, and finally 756w. I’m beginning to believe this is on! I’m not a pretty sight after one of those maximum wattage sessions. As the expression goes, you have to “leave it all on the bike”. A couple of days ago, I even did a bit of archaeology in my loft, to dig out my old cycling shoes, and bought new pedal cleats for them. I’m going to take this wattage thing seriously!

It’s become competitive. Only against my oldest rival, of course – me, but it really is giving me a regular substitute for some of the racing I’m missing. The feeling the day after setting a new wattage personal best is remarkably similar to the day after a race, mentally and physically.

The Wattbike sessions I’m doing are pushing my aerobic fitness hard as well as helping me right up at the anaerobic end of things, although they’re doing nothing for my running at Parkrun every saturday. I’ve been too tired by the time I’ve got there lately that I’ve not acquitted myself at all well! All this wattage and power stuff in the gym stuff is only as good as the result of turning it into running power, of course. Last blog, I mentioned the “sledging” tyre thing I also now have at my disposal in the gym. That’s becoming my benchmarking tool, because using it is quite like exploding the first 20 yards or so out of the blocks. I’m getting faster and able to sustain a session of an increasing number of repetitions. And it feels good!

I also mentioned the trampoline/ball device I have available, in the last blog. That has become a major piece of work in every training session, to give my shoulder some prolonged and dynamic exercise. My hand-eye coordination and balance while using the kit has improved to the point where I can do throws one-handed and catch one handed too. The balls used are about basketball-sized, so quite a bit of effort and control is required. I have a bit of a chronic “tennis elbow” thing after all the shoulder rehab stuff my left arm’s been doing, but at least this doesn’t make it worse. Because these sessions are split into left arm, right arm, and both arms together segments, crucially they also give me a like with like comparison between the strength and mobility in my left and right shoulders. And as the weeks go by, the news is good!

What You Do With What You’ve Got

June 16, 2017

When I checked, it surprised me that one of my very favourite songs from the repertoire of the great Dick Gaughan has never before graced my blog as a title, but this one is to put that omission to rights.

This episode of my occasional blog here picks up directly where the last one left off. The gap between the two is shorter than usual. This time, that’s a good thing!

Last time I was bemoaning to myself that training was rather lacking in any kind of “wow-factor”, and I was really pretty demotivated. Although I’ve chosen this year to be a non-competitive year, training’s nevertheless not lacked what you’d call “a direction of travel”. Next year will be here soon enough, after all, and I intend to be ready! No, but I’ve found that having a direction of travel is simply not proving itself a particularly motivating factor for me. I can guess it’s ok to know where you’re heading, but you won’t necessarily get excited about it.

I also quoted a former boss of mine, who was fond of the old adage “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got.” I’ve found it to be true, but it’s a two-edged sword. Regularly churning-out tried and tested training sessions that have brought success in the past can be tempting, but the potential price to be paid is boredom, and a failure to keep pace with others whose training efforts are helping them improve more, and beat you! Despite the fascination, at times, of training to rehabilitate an injury rather than training for immediately upcoming competition, think I’d got into a bit of a training rut. Writing that blog probably helped me put some shape around that particular theory.

I also mentioned that the gym I use for a lot of my training was being refurbished. The renovation work etc, well-handled though it was, had probably knocked me off my stride at a key point. Well, I’ve no complaints any more. The facilities in the refurbished gym areas are really rather good, and have injected into my routine a huge chunk of novelty, learning, and simple variety, right at a point where these things are proving to be exactly the medicine I needed!

At the moment, three things I’ve adopted into my weekly cycle of effort stand out for me most. One is a very simple piece of apparatus in front of which you stand and throw a weighed ball (basketball-size) at a small, adjustable-angle trampoline thing, about a meter and a half in diameter. It bounces it very sharply back at you, Catch. Repeat. There are balls of several different weights, and, as physics and snooker both teach, “the angle of incidence equals the angle of reflection”. This stuff has been a really significant boon to my recovering left shoulder. There are many ways to throw the balls, and as many ways to catch them – to one side of the other side, arms over head, etc. Classic concentric/eccentric exercise stuff, with dynamic work guaranteed, and hand-eye coordination at a premium. My core session with this thing involves over 150 throws and catches, broken down into five sets of thirty, with rising difficulty, weight and speed. Put that simply, it might not sound much, but the effect on my shoulder strength, its stability and speed of movement is proving impressive.

The second new toy is of a different order of complexity altogether. You can read something about Wattbikes here. These things are frequently a training tool of some of the world’s top racing cyclists, and are loved by other athletes too for their ability to allow the user to focus on leg power delivery, and to give feedback in an, at times, bewildering range of detail. The gym I use now has two of these bikes. I now have an integrated way consistently to measure raw power delivery and relate it both to objectively recordable things, like cadence, heart rate, etc and also to the subjective factors that tell me just how hard I’m working – inability to speak, stand, breathe, etc at the end of a session, for example! I’m also learning that my left leg is slightly more dominant than its partner. Actually not a bad thing, as it is my “power” leg from the starting blocks when sprinting, and probably works harder round the bend in a 200 metre race too. I’ve used a spin-bike in the gym for a lot of aerobic training for several years, but this is an altogether different order of device. I have a lot still to learn, but the state of me at the end of a few of the sessions I’ve achieved lately tells me in no uncertain terms that I am being worked beneficially and very hard indeed!

Number three on my list is basically something I’ve wanted in the gym for ages. Some time back, I nearly switched to a gym that had a weighted sledge thing for power sessions. Mine didn’t, and there was no way to rig up a substitute. Well, we’ve still not got a sledge, but we have a 60 kilogram thing the size of a small tractor tyre, which can be dragged, flipped, pushed, and so on. It’s even more versatile. Adding weight to it will be possible too, though for now, 60 kg is quite enough for my needs. There’s a padded waist harness that can be attached, and I am getting some superb work in towing this thing for about twenty strides, in sets of four or five. Adding in visualisation of the first twenty or so strides out of the staring blocks in a sprint is making this a very hard, but very rewarding part of my sessions at the moment. It’s also showing up that my left shoulder as still reluctant to work as well as the right, but we’ll get there!

Novelty has a habit of wearing off, of course, and routine can become drudgery, as I was finding, but I’m set fair for a little while to come, for sure. There’s lots more in the newly replenished gym that I’ve hardly even looked at yet.

The song (written by Si Kahn) that inspired this blog’s title is on several albums, but my favourite is this, from Dick Gaughan, recorded at a concert I attended in 2013 . Doncha just love YouTube? In the last couple of years, Dick’s been very unwell after a stroke. I wish him all the very best. He’s a truly good guy.

Help!

May 26, 2017

Last time we were here, I took a very therapeutically necessary trip down into some dark places I don’t often go these days. It felt good to be able to describe a little of what severe depression was like as an athlete, and then to be able to pack those things back into their box and leave them behind. Taken a while to be able to do that.

I was, however, unprepared for the catalogue of disasters about to befall me. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll know the bare bones of “Project Rehab”, which is the label I’ve given to my steady and quite long term plan to recover full function in my left shoulder.

Well, I’d tackled the discipline of regaining full and pain free movement, followed by stability. I had then begun, a few weeks back, to move forward to a tentative process of starting to build some muscular strength. Not just in the shoulder muscles themselves, but in the whole left chain of action, which had suffered from the failure of a main component, as it were.

And bingo! Welcome back “photographers arm”. If I call it “tennis elbow” instead, you’ll get the basic idea. Except that tennis elbow more commonly strikes the underside of the elbow. Or so I believe. I don’t know because I’ve never played. Quite a lot of my time as a jobbing photographer usually shooting action events, is spent lifting a heavy camera and heavy lens up and down and trying to hold them still. There are clearly muscles and bits deep in my upper forearm that have decided over time that they don’t like this when it’s coupled with a regular dose of shoulder rehab work in the gym. I guess some would call it repetitive strain injury, though I find little of any insight in that description. The painful area is no more than two inches long, and readily accessible to massage and acupuncture, which have helped a little, but not enough. The traditional remedial tools such as a tennis elbow strap or neoprene elbow sleeve aren’t doing it for me either. It’s a work in progress at present. Or at least, a lot of work and not much progress, so far.

I’d also been enthusiastic to get a bit of decent aerobic training in, as soon as my shoulder was comfortable with it. I’ve recorded here that three 5k runs at my local Parkrun were enough to beat up my left achilles tendon. I’m not over that problem yet, eight weeks later, but at least the one very tentative Parkrun I did recently didn’t aggravate it. Annoyingly, my commitment to Parkrun tends to be hindered at this time of year by an increase in my photographic commitments at the weekend, and this squeezes my opportunity for aerobic work that is also, and importantly, in a sociable setting. Read that previous blog of mine again if you want to be reminded of the importance of that aspect.

So why title this piece “Help!”? Well, it could as easily have been “Streuth!” or “OMG!” but “Help!” is at least in keeping with my habit of titling these things after a song from my music collection. However, it’s not a rhetorical title. At this particular moment, I seem to lack an answer. I’ve realised that my sporting life has gone off the boil, and I don’t like it!

My local gym is key to the work I do to stay fit and healthy. It is excellent and staffed by good people. It’s part of a chain, and over the last few weeks it’s been undergoing a complete refurbishment of the gym equipment and gym layout. To its overall credit, the gym hasn’t closed for a single day during this time. A great deal of the work (new flooring, for example) has been done overnight. However, at least one of the three sections of the gym area have been closed off at any one time recently. New equipment has also been arriving and being set up for use. So what, you ask? Well, this has all made the gym heavily overcrowded with equipment, at the expense of the floor space I find essential for exercise. This will all pass, I am sure, as the project finishes any day now, but it’s had an effect on my training nevertheless.

Injury has made me very cautious of trying anything new at present, and, while I don’t mean to sound ungrateful, the aforementioned theft of floor-space has restricted the opportunities for quite a lot of what I’ve been doing in the gym over the last few months. So, to be frank, I’ve skipped a few gym sessions lately, until it all settles down. The injuries haven’t helped my enthusiasm to train, despite that I’ve actually grown fond of the learning experiences that accompany properly managed recovery. So, I can’t altogether blame injury for where I’ve reached.

I told myself I could afford at least a week of this lessened activity, because I was due a break. Even while I’m basically “just” doing a glorified version of injury recovery routines, I’ve remained aware of the need to give my body time to rest and adapt. However, inactivity sings a siren song sometimes. I’ve had periods of inactivity in the past, of course, but nearly always there has been a background ingredient in the mix that just isn’t there at the moment: motivation!

One thing I learned some time ago that works well for me is to try to turn the nervousness of anticipating competition on the track into a motivating force. But competition is out of my equation at present, and without a shadow of doubt, I’m severely lacking motivation in my training. Note, that’s motivation, not direction. My rehab plan gives me direction, but I seem to have found that if there is a motivating force from knowing where you should be heading, it falters after a while. Progress isn’t, it seems, always its own reward.

I can carry on doing what I’ve been doing, but one of life’s best guiding quotations (a former boss of mine used to use it, but it’ll no doubt be older) is “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you always got”. In other words, I need a step-change in what I’m doing, which will be 1) physically and mentally absorbing, 2) as free from the risk of new injuries as I can reasonably hope for, and 3) motivating!

I’ll end this here. There’s therapy to be had in thinking out aloud like this.

Trouble in Shangri-La

May 8, 2017

I’m writing this in Mental Health Awareness Week, 2017. Many stories have emerged in the press etc recently of sports people suffering from depression and other mental health issues. Go back on this blog a few years and you’ll find that I was part of that gang too. It’s an area of my life I don’t revisit here very much now, but it’s part of me that never goes away, and probably never will. Depression was such a huge shock to me that I was, frankly, in denial for quite a long time.

In the twelve months or so period during which severe depression steadily established its grip on me, by some standards I had “no excuses”. Life was sweet in many ways. I was in my early fifties, and my training as a sprinter in Masters athletics was paying off. I was a regular finalist in World and European Masters competitions; I had very narrowly missed out on a medal in the last World Masters sprint final I’d raced in; and I was holder of three world gold medals from relay events. I was also in the world top ten for my age category, free from illness, and the back injuries that had plagued my life for the previous 15 years were apparently under control.

I had (and still have) a happy home life. I had a satisfying job, albeit with lots of anti-social hours. I had hobbies, and a sense of humour. And depression knocked me sideways nevertheless.

In my sporting life, I can’t say I felt unhappy in the accepted sense, but in a number of respects, I was unsatisfied. I was training hard and regularly, but one consequence of those frequent anti-social work hours was that I found it impossible to commit to training with a group of other athletes, or a coach. I just couldn’t guarantee to be there for any given session. I needed to grab opportunities to train when I could, and that usually meant solo.

I think I’ve always been a pretty self-critical person. Often that’s been with good reason. I don’t like just to think or imagine that I can do better; I like to set myself on a trajectory I think will lead me to “better”. And over time, I’ve come to realise that being your own control-group, only hearing your own voice as encouragement or criticism, only seeing yourself in the gym mirror, etc, can all be part of quite a dangerous cocktail. With no one to tell me what my sessions looked like and being largely dependent on how they felt to me, for feedback, there was usually only one answer to sessions that didn’t feel hard enough: try harder next time.

I wasn’t short of encouragement, from work colleagues, from my sports masseur and chiropractor particularly. My GP was (and still is) very supportive of this older athlete’s activities. Yet, there came a point when, with hindsight, I can see that diminishing returns set in. The harder I trained, the worse I seemed to perform. What I was doing and experiencing seemed to be lacking any “cause and effect” (as in “do A, and B should eventually happen”). And it seemed to me my options were limited to a single way forward: train harder still.

The nature of situations involving diminishing returns is that they quickly, and often stealthily, develop into downward spirals. I freely admit I missed all the indicators. No matter how untypical I knew I was for my age, my (then) 55 year-old body wasn’t made of Kryptonite, of course. It began to creak at the seams. Niggling injuries wouldn’t go away. Efforts to work around them simply meant less specificity in training, and eventually meant niggles just spread to previously healthy parts of me.

The expression I think I used most often, in my self-talk, was that training was beginning to feel less like something I did for sport and more like “beating myself up”. There is something relentless and deeply disturbing about self-harm. You eventually reach a point of paradox, where the activity that causes the harm actually begins to look like the way out. I lost several things going into and through severe depression. One was my sense of proportion – my sport was exactly that – sport. Not life or death. Yet I acted much of the time as if it was. I lost my coping strategies. I couldn’t cope with conflict or disappointment in particular. My mother died during this time. I simply couldn’t engage with that on any level.

An answer would have been to take a complete break from sport. However, to me then, that would just have smacked of squandering the effort I’d been putting in, and brought with it the certainly I’d just end up needing to do more, and harder, to “get back in”. So, the cycle of abuse continued. Until, that was, sitting in my hotel room one evening, while away on a trip to race in Europe, I was inwardly berating my day’s performance (despite having won two races and come second in the other!), and it finally dawned that I had completely lost the plot.

A few days later, I said this to my GP. After some standard diagnostic tests, he said to me “These suggest you are suffering severely from depression”. Depression? Me? Antidepressant tablets? Me? I went into further denial for a while, but did lots of reading about what depression is and how it works on you. Eventually, I had to concede that my GP was right, and I started taking the pills that had meanwhile been sitting untouched on the beside table.

There’s more to it, of course, than I can or choose to include in a single retrospective blog. Learning that depression was an illness, not a failing of character, was crucial. Being open about it to others was also quite important. Surprisingly so, given how dishonest I’d hitherto been with myself. The pills worked for me, and despite a few adventures in the process of coming off them, there came a day when I didn’t need them. In the intervening period to date, I’ve fallen back into depression’s clutches a couple of times, largely because old (bad) habits die hard, and depression is a stubborn bastard.

I still have lots of questions and not as many answers, but if this blog has touched a nerve with you, I’d say: be self-aware, ensure you have “significant others” who are able to give you feedback, and be open, both with those around you and with yourself. Good, honest internal dialogue is key! It’s not about kidding yourself everything is ok really, it’s about telling yourself how you feel and making that all-important deal to do something about it that breaks the cycle that got you to here in the first place.

Tom

My title comes from a great song by Stevie Nicks (ex Fleetwood Mac)

Keep On Running…again

April 24, 2017

This year, there were about twenty people I know who were entered for the London Marathon. Sorry, I could only afford to sponsor one of you. My social media timelines were full of the excited chatter of people getting ready for the event. For several, it was their first full marathon. For others, it was their first London for a while. For a few, it was their second marathon within a very short space of time. And was I jealous? No, not a bit.

It’s amazing how, nowadays, if you tell people that you run for sport, their immediate reaction seems to be that you must be a marathon runner, or an aspirant marathon runner. I’ve noticed that this is becoming more and more the case. There will be two reasons for this: 1) the resurgence once more of interest in distance running, and 2) the automatic assumption that anyone as old as I must look simply won’t be capable of racing short distances on a track.

Just occasionally, it leaves me feeling like a second-class citizen in some of the environments I mix within. This is sometimes amplified by people, who, having established, for example, that I’ve been to a track meeting and raced in a full-on 100 metres and a 200 metres race, then say to me something like “What, you mean you were there all that time, and didn’t even race the equivalent of one lap of the track?”

However, as this blog has been describing in the last couple of months, I’ve not even been running that far lately!

My damaged shoulder is responding very nicely to the rehab regime prescribed for it. I’d say I was well into Stage 3 of the process, and the start of Stage 4 looms. I have the intended “full, pain-free range of movement under modest load” after weeks of specific (and largely isometric) exercises. An interesting discovery, however, was that there was an important word completely missing from my rehab description.

That word was “stability”. I found several times in the last month or so that, just as I was tempted to give myself a metaphorical pat on the back for progress made, I was let down by realising or discovering that although I had pain-free movement and some restored strength in the joint, the shoulder remained unstable, and would easily fail me under load. Therefore, a certain amount of the progress was actually a bit illusory.

The answer was simple. By prolonging the duration of some of the routines I’ve been doing – by doing them more slowly – I found I was getting an almost exponential gain in stability from them. The name of the game at this point really isn’t to establish any kind of fast or explosive movement, after all. Strength is one thing, but in a joint as complex as a shoulder, if that strength is only capable of sustaining movement in one or two planes, the job is far from complete. A key factor of my mobilisation work was to establish 360 degree movement. Moving on from that to (as near as damnit) 360 degree stability alongside that movement is actually proving reasonably easy to achieve, but boy am I glad I’m being self-analytical about all of this stuff, because it nearly got overlooked!

A tougher nut to crack has been the insertion-point achilles tendinopathy which my enthusiasm to get some aerobic training under my belt laid me wide open to, about six weeks ago. For starters, the whole of my left heel at the achilles insertion point remained acutely sensitive to touch, and to pressure from normal running shoes. There was, however, no inflammation visible, and ice and anti-inflammatories had no effect whatsoever.

I mentioned “stress tolerance” in my previous blog. This was a concept to which I was introduced by my chiro once we were sure we’d got the right diagnosis, and a broadly helpful remedial regime lined up. In some quarters, so I’ve read, “stress tolerance” is seen as just a fancy name for a “grin and bear it” approach to recovery. For some injuries, that is, of course, the very last thing you should be doing. However, bells began to ring from my distant past (well, ok, 30 years ago) when I was recovering from pretty serious back damage. My osteopath at that time was of the school who believed that “backs need to be put to work”. So, it seems, do achilles tendons trying to recover from insertion point damage.

Softly, softly is the name of the game, of course. For a couple of my gym sessions a week, I reverted to wearing my Vibram Five Fingers shoes, in an effort to mobilise the whole of my foot. Had I got stronger or less sensitive, feet, I’d possibly have gone barefoot, although the gym discourages that. Initially my limit without aggravation was about one kilometre walking on a dead flat treadmill. At the point at which repeating that for a few sessions simply became tedious, I began a few jogging strides, working up to about four or five hundred metres in total. The art was to know to stop before any pain began, which was a bit like Russian Roulette.

And so it was for every session for a couple of weeks. And gradually normality is beginning to return. Today, I managed 30 minutes pain free, slow jogging on the treadmill, reaching the heady heights of around 4 kilometres. At this rate, I’ll be back tackling Parkrun again soon!

But all in good time.

Let the healing begin

March 18, 2017

That title (a Joe Cocker song) is a pun, by the way.

I’m writing this exactly a month since the last episode. Back then, things were going quite well with “Project Rehab”, as I’m beginning to call the long term process to mend my shoulder and start racing again. How things change. Well, partly so. Work on rehabbing my left shoulder is still going well. I’ll come back to that later. However, I have other fish to fry.

I made a passing, and possibly prophetic, reference to my achilles tendons in my last blog. I was concerned about doing more running over longer distances, given that, being a sprinter all these years, my legs are simply not those of a distance runner. They work differently, to achieve different results. Thus, building in a weekly 5km Parkrun to my regime, to try to help compensate for some of the other aerobic training my damaged shoulder won’t let me do, was always going to be a little bit of a risk.

My left achilles lasted just three parkruns. I was just getting used to losing myself in the crowd every Saturday morning, when a niggle in my heel walking back to the car alerted me to trouble I’d not really anticipated even five minutes earlier when I’d had my barcode scanned. Home, twenty minutes later, and I was in pain! I’ve had achilles tendon problems occasionally in the past. This time it was strange. The main body of the achilles tendon leading up to my calf seemed fine. No inflammation or pain in it. However, on and around my heelbone there were areas I could hardly bear to touch. The worst was on the outside edge of the heelbone. My self-diagnosis was of some kind of calcaneal bursitis. Dr Google appeared to agree, and recommended elevation and ice.

By the late afternoon, it was becoming apparent that the ice wasn’t doing very much. I’d been trying to avoid frostbite, of course, and conceded I needed to give it more time. Walking was agony. Almost any exploration and movement to try to define the precise area of damage was futile. The whole heel area hurt, though it wasn’t even that much inflamed.

Now, one important aspect of “Project Rehab” is patience. I’m not rushing my shoulder to mend, so why rush my achilles? A few days of reading about the causes of achilles tendinitis – or, as we’re told we should call it now, achilles tendinopathy – taught me a lot about its causes. I learned enough to know that, with my recent history, I was a sure-fire target. What I didn’t really mug up on that much were the different types of achilles problem. A bad omission. I’d never heard of “insertion-point” tendinopathy/tendinitis, and it was three weeks before I discovered it. It had, of course, discovered me three weeks earlier.

As you can read in that rather good article, it’s damage to the point of attachment of the achilles tendon to the heelbone, leading to persistent pain, but notoriously little inflammation. Like most of the achilles, the blood supply is poor, and the micro-tears of the damage don’t show bruising. Despite tending to my heel in the time-honoured text book ways of dealing with achilles problems (lots of calf stretching, eccentric heel drop exercises etc), I’d not made any headway. The only activities I could reliably do without pain during or after were spinning sessions on a static bike at the gym. This had become my sole aerobic activity. That it was pain free was a mystery to me. I was reaching the point where I thought I might have picked up a stress fracture of the heelbone itself. I held on for another week, until my next scheduled appointment with my chiro to check on my shoulder, and threw the achilles issue into the overall fitness equation.

Yes, it was an insertion point problem. Rehab based on longitudinal stretching of the calf or the heel was not recommended at all. The name of the game was to build stress tolerance slowly, mostly by a variety of different isometric challenges. I did some recommended reading, and found that for three whole weeks, I’d been treating my achilles all wrong! What was needed was a complete absence of dorsiflection-type stretching (as in toes up, heel down), including traditional calf stretches. The achilles needed compressing, not stretching. Heel lowers were fine provided they were onto a flat surface, not over a drop. Spinning had worked precisely because my foot position while pedalling compressed the tendon, rather than stretching it. I wasn’t surprised to learn that cyclists also have notoriously tight calf muscles!

I’m chastened, but back on the case!

My shoulder now has pretty much complete pain-free movement in all directions, including under the moderate tension of an elastic dynaband. Maintaining that while aiming to add stability is a next target. I picked up a few tips for some additional exercises from shot-putter friends recently. They suffer badly with shoulder problems, as you’d expect. However, I soon found that to do the exercises described to me needed a bigger physique and a far stronger shoulder structure than mine. They’ll make for some good challenges later on in Project Rehab, when my targets turn to rebuilding strength.

So, I’m behind schedule in one sense, but glad I’ve chosen to give this thing the luxury of time. And time, as, as we’re always being told, the great healer.

(and even.. )Further On Down The Road

February 17, 2017

Following on from my blog a few weeks ago, in which I set out my planned long-term rehab strategy for my damaged left shoulder, I thought I’d offer an update on progress, for anyone who’s following this.

I won’t repeat great chunks of that last blog. You can read it here. In terms of a marker, in the sense of linear progress, I am basically through what I described as “Stage 2” of five stages. It’s taken over six weeks, but I now seem to have a fully pain-free range of movement in my left shoulder, through every direction, albeit without any loading. I can at last raise my arm fully above my head without pain, for example. Raising my extended arm quickly out to my side gives a small twinge of shoulder pain, which isn’t there when the same movement is done more slowly. I only discovered this by accident this week, when I slipped while walking on muddy ground, and instinctively raised my arm to balance myself. So, if I’m honest, I’m nearly there, but not quite.

However, before that slip, I was confident enough to move on to Stage 3. The goal of this phase is to establish full, pain-free range of movement under a modest and consistent load. My chiropractor has given me five exercises around which to base this. One is an isometric routine, done twice a day, to gently challenge the stability of the shoulder joint, with extended arm and with my left hand in various rotated positions. The loading in this exercise comes because it’s done leaning against a wall. The other four exercises are all done with an elastic “Dynaband”.

A Dynaband is a broad and very stretchy piece of rubber. They come in various grades of resistance. I have a grey one, which is the stiffest, but in use these things are so versatile that it’s an easy job to establish the right loading and range of movement. The loose ends just wrap around your hands when you use them. These things are great. They give a nice progressive loading and release, so that there is tension in both concentric and eccentric movement. I’m coming to regard the Dynaband as a vital accessory; inexpensive and weighing just a few grammes.

When I began my Stage 3, I kept the tension on the band low for a few exploratory sessions. A couple of weeks in, and I’ve tightened it up somewhat. I’ve been fortunate to get the tension right, without overdoing it, and I have had no pain in any plane of movement. I shall very slowly crank up the tension in the weeks to come. This is a critical phase, because to get best value from the work, I’m trying to work precisely below a level that might cause pain. Pain will mean failure and setback. And that doesn’t only mean I need to get the tension right, but also the number of repetitions of each exercise right too. It’s the exercise equivalent of sticking my head in the lion’s mouth.

My undamaged right shoulder is my “control group” in this. Everything I do with the left I also do with the right, and at the same tension/repetitions. The right can do it all so very much more easily at the moment, of course. The basic aim for the moment to get the left to “level up” to an equal level of ability under these modest loads. It’s working too. Testing and levelling up at fuller loads is still some way in the future.

However, it’s not all been static work like this. I wanted a regular bench-marking exercise for my aerobic fitness while the shoulder rehab work was going on. I can’t sprint and move the shoulder quickly at present, but I can jog quite well. It was a bit of a no-brainer to start running in my local Parkrun every Saturday morning. For the last two years, I’ve been their regular photographer, and had amassed a collection of more than 21,000 photos. Everyone at Parkrun has been so welcoming of my change to become a runner instead. I’m not at all fast. My reputation as a good sprinter counts for nothing over 5 kilometres, of course!

I ran Parkrun a few times in 2014, when I was recovering from scaphoid problems and unable to do more conventional training. I blogged it back then. I cannot, in all honesty, say that I enjoy running 5k, but it gives me a pretty good test of fitness. It also has the downside of showing up deficiencies in my make-up which emphasise some of the physiological differences between sprinters and longer distance runners.

For example, when sprinting, I race on my forefoot the whole time. It’s why the track sprint shoes have spikes at the front and none in the heel or mid-foot. Running 5k means heel-striking every stride. There is no way I could run 5k on my toes! This altered motion is a big deal for my calf muscles and achilles tendons, which get worked in a very different way, and over a far longer period of exertion, albeit at a generally sub-maximal level of effort. Nevertheless, I’m very much aware of calf muscle niggles, and a need to build up my 5k running “prowess” (ha-ha!) steadily each week.

Needless to say, I’ve built some longer runs into my training during the week. It’s already clear that this isn’t only going to help keep me aerobically fit, but is also going to keep my weight in check. For my current training, I need to fuel and hydrate in a very different way. I’ve already got it badly wrong once. Say no more. Insulin spikes are very unpleasant, as I’ve now been reminded!

And that’s where I’ve reached so far. Thank you to those who have taken an interest in what I’m doing, either by reading this or by giving me your encouragement at the gym and at Parkrun. I’ll keep you all posted.

Did You Get Healed?

January 28, 2017

So sang (Sir) Van Morrison. Well, not yet is the answer. But I’m working on it.

We’ve reached that part of winter where I’d normally be well into speed training, working from a platform of strength and stamina training put in during the months up to Christmas. Only not this year. I won’t bore you by repeating the background. It’s in the last episode of this blog.

I am very comfortable at present with my decision to set competition aside for now, and to concentrate of the various aspects of rehabilitation I need to see my way through. The idea of doing this without the spectre of competition haunting me might seem commonplace to some athletes, but truly and honestly, it’s a new thing for me. In the past, whatever the injury (and I include clinical depression in this), there has always been a point, either in my head or in my diary, by which I expected to be back racing again. I strongly suspect (with the luxury of that lovely thing known as hindsight), that this has meant skimped rehab of some injuries, and it probably underpins the years of leg, back, foot, knee niggles etc that seem to form the background music to my progress.

When, following a fall, my left shoulder pretty much refused to function without considerable pain, it was one of those “oh fuck” moments. You know – an injury that immediately brings with it a sense of foreboding, often accompanied by a minute or two of cold sweats.

A couple of months down the road, with expert advice and several sessions of acupuncture on board, I have a rehab plan. In case the simple logic of it is useful to others, it goes like this:

Stage 1. Diagnosis. I am a firm believer in the principle of “know thine enemy”. I’m (basically) past this stage, and as I write this, I’m hoping I’m coming towards the end of:

Stage 2. Work to achieve full, pain-free range of movement without load This has been vital to me, in terms of introducing a sense of normality. That’s to say, if I can successfully and convincingly achieve this stage, it’s much easier to believe the next stages are also realistic. There may well be occasions when Stage 2 loops back to Stage 1 and progress slows down. This happened, for example, when I thought I’d recovered full, pain-free movement, but then extended my arm behind me to put on a fairly close-fitting jacket, only to find a part of my normal range of movement that had somehow escaped attention! Once I’m sure Stage 2 is in the bag, it’s then time for:

Stage 3: Exercise to establish full, pain-free range of movement under modest load This is the crux, and the stage I’ll be giving most time for. Too much load too soon might trigger a setback; too little for too long might give a misleading impression of progress. This is also the stage where expert monitoring will be vital, to help ensure the range of movement is indeed full, and the loading is not excessive. I think there will come a point where the abilities in my right shoulder (the good one) become my benchmark. At present, it is a bit shocking to discover how much more mobile and strong it is, compared to its damaged opposite number. Through Stages 2 and 3, I’ll be aiming to maintain a good standard of general fitness, but not at the level I’d aspire to as an active athlete. That would be a bit risky, I think. Then, as day follows night, we’ll have:

Stage 4: Gradually reinstating mobility and strength in the left shoulder to a point that pretty much matches that of the right one I say “pretty much” because it has never really been equally capable. Something to do with me being so right-handed perhaps. This will be a stage that needs to mesh in well with more specific fitness training. That’s because a key element of equality between the two shoulders for me will be the ability of both to function together under rapid movement. The left shoulder might have regained a semblance of strength by this point, but will it be able to cope with the rapid movement I need to sprint, and the sudden transition to fast arm movement upon coming out of starting blocks, for example? All being well, with stability, strength and normality thus regained, we reach:

Stage 5: Resumption of proper training I actually hope to reach this point when there is little or nothing of a competitive kind to tempt me back on the track. I need to leave headroom to loop back to an earlier stage if necessary – though hopefully not Stage 1, of course.

I don’t have a timescale for any of this. It’s probably not even helpful to know that Stage 2 has occupied almost a month at this point. Well, how long is a piece of string? It’s almost certain to be the key stage, and failure to achieve it as a foundation within what seems to be a “reasonable” length of time might be the first trigger for a rethink. Staying rehab-focussed and not allowing things simply to drift will be vital.

Onwards and upwards.

The Straight Line and the Curve

January 1, 2017

My title comes from a fairly recent song about an Elizabethan mystic. The “straight line and the curve” are rather neat euphemisms for a sprinter to adopt!

I’ve not written a new chapter for this blog for a while. There are many reasons for that. I’m writing this one on New Year’s Day, which is probably a day better than many for “resolutions”, but believe me, it hasn’t been easy to reach this point.

My summer track season in 2016 fizzled out in a very unsatisfactory manner, as described in one of my last blogs here. During the early autumn, training, such as it was without (m)any definable targets, was ok, but not very enjoyable. I was working at a level that, a year before, I’d probably have been pleased with, even if it didn’t seem all that hard. Then the injuries began.

First was a persistent pain in the ball of my right foot. Then, gradually, it was matched by one in the left foot too. I’d had something similar in my left foot back in 2012/13. It had responded to treatment for a malfunctioning medial arch, and has been kept in check since then by decent, high arch insoles in whatever shoes I wear. This time, renewing these had little or no effect, and I needed to give myself permission to ease right off on any running or high impact activity. After all, I thought, at that point there was a long way to go to next year’s track season. I’m currently trying recommended toe flexibility exercises, which give short term relief, but I’m still not doing any running.

Next, following a bit of a fall when I put out my left hand to break my descent, I began to get excruciating pain in my left shoulder whenever I extended my arm, raised it above my head, pulled or pushed on it, etc. I’ve had a clunky left shoulder since I was about 18, a legacy of a pedal bike crash, but this pain was new, and wasn’t near the old damage. Reading up Doctor Google’s diagnosis strongly suggests I’ve developed a fairly classic kind of rotator cuff problem. If that’s so, it seems it might well be something that rest and physical therapies won’t necessarily influence, thus leading to an operation as a remedy. Rest and regular doses of anti-inflammatories are the initial actions. Even the limited training I was able to do before has been very compromised. In relation to where I “ought” to be with only about six weeks to the start of the indoor track season, I’m nowhere.

I’ve been pretty fortunate to avoid them in the last few years, but then I caught a rather bad cold. It went on to my chest, and such was the associated hacking cough that my back muscles went into spasm. Now, I’m well familiar with anything my perennially bad back can throw at me. There is a pattern. Countering it involves a perhaps paradoxical mix of sessions of laying on the floor, propped up slightly on my elbows, coupled with a regime of going for very gentle walks as often as possible. After a week of this, as I write, I’m sleeping more comfortably, and feeling that each day is bringing small gains. However, the sound I keep hearing isn’t my cough, but the noise of further nails being banged into the coffin of my preparations for racing on the track in 2017.

Clinical depression is one of the scariest and nastiest things that has ever happened to me. I’m about four years out of that pit now, but one of the fastest ways back into it that I can imagine is to fall back to a point where training for my sport merely becomes a persistent form of physical and mental self-harm. I’ve written before about the horrors of simply “beating myself up” in training. I’m never going there again, and have become pretty acutely alive to the symptoms.

So, as New Year 2017 approached, the athlete in me needed to make plans. I sat down with the calendar, but quickly found that I lacked the courage to make those leaps of faith involved in committing to specific races on specific days, booking accommodation and travel to big events, and so on.

I’m 62, coming up 63. In the last ten years, and the last two in particular, I’ve been racing at levels of success I’ve not sustained since the days of my youth. And I’m in no way ready yet to “hang up my spikes”. Things would be so much easier if I was! However, everything that has happened to me in the last three months is leading me towards the decision to give racing a miss in 2017.

I’m making my decisions one bite at a time. Missing out of an indoor track season, and staying away from championship-level events in the summer, worked pretty well for me during 2013, while I sorted my foot problems. Initially that might be my chosen route for 2017: sort the injuries slowly and properly, stay well, mentally and physically, and gradually, gradually get myself to a situation where winter training 2017/18 becomes a reality.

There are acts of faith in all that, of course. Will I still want to carry on? Will I still be able to carry on? I can only respond to those questions with a old joke I once heard on the radio: “I can most definitely say, without fear of contradiction: “Perhaps”. One step at a time.

“Between the world of the straight line and the curve,
The sun and the moon will rule regardless”
(Jim Moray)

There are still other things to be worked through, but they’re for another time.