It occurred to me, not long ago, that I've been running for 25 years. Even when I tell people I don't mean continuously, they're still pretty impressed (Rimshot! Try the veal, folks!). But I don't do it for applause. Running has had a truly remarkable effect on my life. It's allowed me to stay at my ideal weight past the age of 50 and kept my blood pressure nice and normal. It gives me an outlet for stress and has kept depression at bay. It's even had a positive effect on my cholesterol, whose numbers once rivaled that of our National Debt. Lately, though, my beloved aerobic activity has begun to seem a bit counterproductive. No, I haven't found myself suddenly gasping for air, like James Caan in Brian's Song. But I recently experienced an upsetting aftereffect at the end of one of my usual 7-milers which caused me to wonder if my running days were, well, running out.
The first omen occurred about 5 weeks ago. After a routine run, I came home and relaxed. When I stood up to shower, my shins abruptly ached so badly, I inadvertently let out a window-shattering groan. Or was it a scream? I'm sure all my neighbors heard me. Hell, you probably heard me. I'd never had a serious adverse reaction since I started running, so I was freaked by the unexpected agony (as well as the inhuman sound that followed). In any case, once I'd finished showering, the pain was gone. I decided that the earlier episode was a fluke and gave it no more thought.
My next few runs seemed to confirm this. However, a couple of weeks later, stabbing pain emerged in an entirely different part of my body. A mile away from finishing up—with no warning—my ankle went on the attack. It wasn't quite like being hobbled by Kathy Bates, but, it was painful and it was upsetting. Sure, every regular runner learns to form a cozy relationship with at least a bit of discomfort; after all, you're taking a couple of hundred strides a minute, sending impact shock waves through pretty much every part of your body. I've dealt with plenty of muscle soreness, but this was something else entirely.
I found myself somewhere on the rutted road between depressed and panicked. Here I was, still reasonably young, feeling the first frost of dreaded Runner's Pain, the Chinese menu of debilitating ailments that cause many to throw in the Sauconys. I was aware of the alarming stats from the New York Times, which showed that 79 percent of all recreational runners are injured each year. All I could wonder was, Are the knees next? Youthful looks and desires aside, I suddenly saw myself as old. A guy wearing a sensible sweater, ordering Sanka from a waitress who called me "Pops." But mostly I worried that my running days, which I truly treasured, were coming to an end. What was next? Aquasize class?
I figured it was time to consult with a professional. Randy Accetta is the Director of Coaching Education for the Roadrunner's Club of America, and speaks often on how to protect the runner's body, so various parts will function substantially better than mine had been lately.
"The encouraging news is, more middle-aged people than ever are continuing or starting to run regularly," Accetta says. The secret to doing so without pain is making a few adjustments that will take into account the punishment meted out to older tendons, heels and knees. "Something that I recommend for all runners these days—especially those who have been doing it for years—is called 'Dynamic Stretching,'" says Accetta. "It's a form of full body stretching you do while moving to loosen up prior to the run. Unlike static stretching, this uses controlled leg movements to improve your range of motion. It can make a huge difference." Some of the best dynamic stretches for runners include lunges, squats and butt-kicks. "It's also good towalk for 15 or 20 minutes before you get going," he added.
My relief upon hearing that I should be able to continue running well into my 4:45pm Red Lobster dinner-special days was a palpable relief. It seems my recent pains might even be reversible. My only regret was that I hadn't spoken to Accetta sooner. Here are some of his tips for happier, more pain-free runs:
Love your surface, save your shins.Pavement and seriously rocky roads are not your friends. Those hard and uneven surfaces can bring on a slew of impact injuries, especially shin splints, in which the bone or connective tissues suffer damage. In worst case scenarios, runners can wind up with hairline fractures of the tibia, often without knowing it (at least at first). Mix it up: Run on grass, dirt or sand whenever possible—your knees will thank you, too. Also, there are exercises that can help strengthen your tibia and prevent shin splints: before a run, walk on your toes for 20 steps, and your heals for 20. Then repeat.
Get the right shoes. Cheap or poor fitting kicks are the number one cause for injuries. "People often go too small," Accetta. "You need to wear running shoes that are about a half size bigger than your dress shoes. You want enough room in the toe box to move around—you don't want your toes jammed up against your shoes." Every shoemaker has it's own specific fit, so try on a bunch to find out which is best for your feet. Better yet, find a truly knowledgeable salesperson to run you through the options, including custom made sneaks and special shoes for pronators (inward roll of the foot while running) or supinators (outward roll).
Try Chi. This increasingly popular methodology is somewhere on the spectrum between traditional running and barefoot running—think Kenyan marathon winners. Yes, you get to keep your shoes on, but you change your stride to come up with more of a mid-foot strike, in which the foot lands evenly on the ground underneath your body, rather than the usual stride in which the leg lands far in front of the body. This replicates what you do naturally in barefoot running, and promises to be a safer, less jarring and more mechanically sound form of running. The book Chi Running is the bible of this stuff.
Eat Smart. Know your body, part 1: understand your personal nutritional needs and don't overdo or underdo it before a run. "As Aristotle says, 'Exertion is all dependent on the person at hand,'" says Accetta. "It all depends on the athlete." Still, there are some guidelines. Accetta's advice? "Keep in mind the rule of half: About a half hour before you run, have half a banana, or half a piece of toast. Maybe half a bagel. Get some basic, simple carbohydrates in your system. Avoid fatty and fried foods and avoid sugars."
Get Real. Know your body, part 2: "One of things I tell middle-aged runners is, 'You are where you are.' We can't be what we were when were 25, or 35. We can only be what we are now. Allow for that. Embrace that. Be patient with who and what you are now and you'll be a happier, better runner."