Many moons ago (December) I mentioned that running on softer surfaces had become noticeably more comfortable than pavement. Having said that, did I then seek out softer surfaces? Nope. I thought it was just a matter of my legs working themselves out, that eventually I’d find asphalt to feel as normal as before, so I continued to pound the pavement.
Plain stubbornness led me to resist, as if giving into comfort was a cheat. But also, I wasn’t convinced that I was actually experiencing genuine physical relief, suspecting that it had more to do with the distraction of focusing on the ground that made it feel so much better than pavement. Because before this crap happened I hated running on grass, found it to be a total pain in the ass so it was all very confusing.
Anyway, a couple months ago I stopped fighting the urge and began adding in a small stretch of grass on the way back from every run. I came to depend on that luxurious “Ahhh” moment when I’d land upon that cushy green carpet.
Beyond the wonderful softness, grass is great for a number of reasons: you can’t shuffle on it so you have to lift your knees higher which gives your hip flexors a good workout; I was sore for a few days until I got used to it – it’s like doing mini-drills without having to actually do drills. You also have to stay focused on where you’re going to avoid ending up in a divot and spraining your ankle so it’s a great exercise in concentration. It also encourages you to open up your stride and personally, I feel braver about landing heavier on it – this supplies more energy return resulting in more “bounce” which is a great feeling. Hell, even a half-dead sparse layer of grass now feels about a zillion times better to me than pavement.
As an interesting aside, though it feels to me as though grass gives more spring and pavement is entirely thud-inducing, in reality grass actually has the least spring and the harder up the surface chain you go, the more spring the ground provides, which makes sense if you consider bouncing a ball off grass vs asphalt.
So our legs adjust to the ground to compensate: stiffer on soft ground and more relaxed on pavement. This was a revelation since mine most certainly feel more relaxed on grass but this could be due to having lost some ability to adapt due to the stiff-legged weirdness.
Anyway, the addition of grass was heavenly until loose, sweaty shoes + morning dew created a giant blister problem that took nearly 4 weeks to shake. Part of this was exacerbated by new insoles bought to deal with Blisterpalooza because the location (inner edge of right foot) indicated pronation was part of the problem. I bought two types of Superfeet, green and blue, and while the blue ones went unnoticed, my first run in the greens gave me yet another huge blister on that same foot’s arch. In the end I averaging a pathetic 19mpw for 4 weeks.
Of course, now that the blister nightmare is over I know how to deal with it next time (generous layers of New Skin plus tape the shit out of your foot every time you run) but there it was, another stupid annoyance in my running life.
Luckily, I was busy with design work and also, knowing this was a superficial bother that would eventually pass kept my spirits positive, but a few days following the blister adventure I tripped on a branch, gouging a sizeable hole into my ankle (same side as the blistered foot, of course). That was not a good day. I stood there and cried like an idiot, wondering what the universe was trying to tell me because after a year and a half of travails, it sure sounded a lot like “STOP RUNNING!“.
As it turned out, the universe was only saying “Haha, we were just testing you one last time, get back to it already!” because after that, my running turned beautiful.
Some credit goes to A Muse/Adam because when I told him how much better I felt in grass he suggested I run on it as much as possible and after that’s commonplace to begin folding in more pavement. Up until then I’d been doing all pavement with brief moments of grass, so what the hell, I went for it.
After two days it became apparent that this could be Big. By the end of the week, I had experienced a remarkable change in my running. And I never use the word remarkable.
Turns out my legs never go wonky on grass and afterwards I feel like a million bucks; all that lateral skirting over uneven ground is giving my ankles, legs, and hips a far better workout than flat pavement or even trail can do.
I figure that I’m now on pavement for about 1½ miles max per run, the rest is grass and trail. Searching out every little strip of green isn’t easy, mind you, I’m having to jump on and off curbs, dance around trees, roots, grates, ditches and benches, balance on crazy cambers and hope I don’t land in a hole but it’s worth the ankle-twisting potential because gosh darn it, I feel like a bona fide normal runner again.
Mileage-wise, I’m in heaven, I was instantly able to lengthen my runs and it felt like nothing, as if I’ve been running this mileage for months. My last couple weeks were 48 and 47 mi. with a day off each week. I’m not attached to a schedule of rest days, it just worked out that way due to sensibility in the first week and busyness the next, but I do plan to stay at this mileage for at least a few weeks.
The other major thing I’m doing
This isn’t just about grass. At the same time I did the big grass switch, I also introduced some serious cadence retraining, though not for the usual outcome which would be to increase turnover, rather to slow my frickin’ legs down.
Thanks to all those months of weird tense running, I developed a manically high turnover rate – not a problem if I was racing a 5k from my front door but at easy paces, all it does is create a running stride that is short, choppy and energy zapping. I’ve been aware of this for months but no matter how many different cues I tried (slow arms, adjust foot placement, make a larger “wheel”, pretend I’m running aside a slower friend, etc) I found it impossible to stop the roadrunner legs – it’s hardwired to my brain.
Because of this, I’ve really struggled to find the comfortable zone on my runs. I’d constantly pine for one of those loping-type jogs where you amble for a few miles and return home, but for the life of me I couldn’t manage it. There were times I even followed other runners trying to emulate the rhythm of their stride – that’s how much I wanted it – but again…couldn’t.
It isn’t about pace, either, because I’ve been running slowly for ages now, it’s just that I cannot get my legs (and thus, arms, too) to stop churning. This, btw, was the source of why I wanted those walking breaks I spoke of in the last post, because I’d been unable to rachet down to a slog and regather myself, as any runner should be able to do, I had to resort to stopping entirely.
The fix is actually very straightforward, same as when I trained myself to increase turnover rate years ago: load up the mp3 player with 90/180 bpm songs and run to the beat. FYI: 180 is anything but slow and loping, it’s what people work up to for racing, but it’s my starting point to at least reach something more normal.
It’ll take some time before it’s truly ingrained but already it’s made a big difference: my stride (and thus my entire body) is a lot more relaxed while fast bits are especially gratifying – I experience an increase in length and at the same time, a real sense of letting loose. I’ve actually had glimmers of this over the past few months thanks to certain things I’d been doing (Alexander Technique and the hip work) but it wasn’t till now when I’m pinpointing cadence that it’s become repeatable.
Anyway, the big take-home for me is discovering that power and strength can emerge from relaxation. It’s exciting, these moments, and I anticipate the day when it’s no longer a novelty but simply the way I run.
Last words on surface
Now that I’m able to think more pragmatically and less emotionally about this long period of running suckage and because I now appreciate just how much surface does indeed matter, I think the ground probably had a lot to do with my situation. While anxiety fueled the fire, I suspect the actual physical combination that put me in the red zone was this:
Months of high mileage + 99.9% pavement + doing it all in lightweight trainers (and racing flats used as trainers)
I’ve been researching posts and articles about surfaces and high mileage and came across a great podcast from Alberto Salazar. If you fast forward to -16:10 he talks about how fanatical he is about his athletes staying off-road and how top East African runners will do anything to keep off pavement, even if it means running on a 300m loop of grass for 1½ hours.
And it got a bit freaky for me when he said that even if you don’t get injured from pavement, it deadens the legs. He was talking about it in regards to speed so I’m probably projecting, but it does seem like an adequate description of my stiff leg deal. He also says that if his runners run 100mi in a week, maybe 3 is on the road and the only time he takes his athletes to the road is to prepare for a marathon and sometimes a half.
Elsewhere, in a LetsRun thread, someone mentions an interview with El G’s coach “Someone asked him how much running on the road his athlete did. He gave a horrified look and said he did no running on roads whatsoever.” And of course there are more examples like that.
Not that I need to supply proof of my naivete, certainly nobody would ever advise 90mpw on pavement in the lightest shoes possible. Duh. In my defense, I felt bulletproof till I wasn’t anymore. Live and learn.
I can’t change history, but one last adjustment I’ve made is that I’ve finally bought a more cushioned shoe: Brooks Ghosts. They’re not especially heavy but at 10 oz. vs my usual 7+oz, that’s a substantial increase. I’ve only worn them twice so far but am very pleased with the purchase. The plan isn’t to wear them exclusively, but I think they’ll help a lot when I increase the pavement miles.
Incidentally, I would have bought heavier shoes months ago but I’d been swayed by the common sentiment proclaiming modern-day running shoes are evil with their pussyfied cushioning, encouraging runners to run terribly. It’s an effective piece of propaganda but ultimately, kinda stupid. I mean sure, in a perfect world we’d all be running like gazelles across the plain, but if a stinkin’ pair of shoes allows some guy to run uninjured rather than fix his crappy gait, is that so awful?
Anyway, in my case, with racing indefinitely out of the picture and a simple goal of consistently having a good time out there, the last thing I need to worry about is a couple extra ounces or whether I’ll feel an uncontrollable urge to start tromping on my heels, so screw it. Cushioning…come to mama.
I had to erase a gushing paragraph about how thrilled I feel right now, this thing is already too long as it is. Instead, I’ll let the next few weeks of running continue the story.
In the meantime, y’all be good and run wonderfully, ok? Muah!