Building pace and distance.

Since being able to run again I have desperately been searching for two things: pace and distance. Before the Achilles rupture I was clocking half marathons in 1:20hr and a marathon in about 3hrs. When I look back on this time I was running almost every day and playing basketball, football and tennis on an infrequent basis. I had built up a depth of endurance from this along with completing distance running events on a regular basis.

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Regaining the ability to run decent distance and a respectable pace is something which cannot be rushed. Starting at 1 minute running, 2 minutes walking for 10 minutes I am now at stage where I can run for 18km without stopping at 4.30km pace. Whether this is good progress or not I am not sure but there are a few things I would suggest to people about to go through the same process of seeking to regain a running standard somewhere near where they were before the Big Bang happened.

1. Don’t worry about pace.
When you first start again don’t worry about raising your pace too quickly. Pace is dangerous for your Achilles and I found that focusing on distance was far more rewarding. Distance could be increased more systematically over the first few weeks as you start you start to run for five, 10, 15, 20 minutes without having to walk. The joy of this was the realisation that you can run again and that your Achilles does work. Having spent so long on crutches and in a boot you forget the reassuring feel of sweat dripping down your face as your legs creak into gear. I spent the first weeks and months simply raising the distance a few kilometres each week, building my confidence in the tendon and making sure any pain felt in it was “good pain”.

2. Continue with your physio exercises.
When you start running again it is easy to forget about the heel lifts you have mastered over the last year or so. You think, “finally, I’m back to normal”. You’re not. I quickly learnt that whilst your Achilles may be “better” the rest of your core and leg muscles have diminished significantly. Hip, knees, glutes, calves, I’ve had more niggling injuries post Achilles rupture then ever before. My bad leg resembled an emaciated twiglet when I started running again so these injuries were no surprise. These injuries have stopped me from running frequently since I started again and are a source of persistent frustration. I spent more time with my physio dealing with these then looking at my Achilles. The exercises prescribed, along with continuing the heel lifts were and are crucial in building core strength and keeping my Achilles healthy. As I write this the arch of my bad foot has just started playing up – I’ll add it to the list. I continue doing heel lifts now, a year after I started running again and have exercises for my hips (which caused me months of pain that) which I do irregularly. People often ask me, “is your Achilles better now?” and it took me a while to come to terms with the fact that will never be truly better, just as good as it can be and to do this you must continue your exercises.

3. Build pace gradually.
The dreaded Garmin. God, I hate that thing. I found mine at the bottom of the drawer a few months after starting to run again. There is no escaping the numbers on that thing. You think you’re flying along, on for a PB and then you take a look at the Garmin – nope, not even close. There is no escaping those dreaded digital numbers but they are crucial for building pace back into your runs. Much like with distance, small increments are important here to ensure allow your Achilles, and the rest of your body, to adapt to the new demands. One thing I have found that’s had a big impact on raising my pace has been 1km shuttle runs, repeated five times. Back in my glory days I could run 4.15 per km pace easily. That was just above jogging pace for me. After a few months building distance I decided to start focusing on pace. At the time I was able to run 4.45 per km pace just about comfortably but not for long. I decided to set 4.15 as my target for the shuttle runs. I found a flat, straight stretch near my home and quickly increased my pace until it read 4.15 on the Garmin. Get to 1km, stop, pant, kneel over, keep the vomit down. Repeat for 5km and you’ll quickly see the benefits but listen to your Achilles – if it’s not happy with the increased pace then ease off and find one that it is happy with.

Achilles Hell: tips for rehab.

Regular readers of this blog (my wife) will know that a couple of years ago I ruptured my Achilles heel in a typically below average five-a-side football match in east London. Over the past few months I have returned to running and am slowly regaining the fitness of yester year. For anyone going through the rehab process it can be a pretty nasty ordeal, testing your patience to breaking point. I often think back to my own rehab (which is still on-going) and think what I would/should have done differently and have come up with a few tips for those of you about to start the slog.

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1. To operate or not to operate.
The first key decision of your rehab and one of which I have no clear advice (great blog this, eh…) is whether to have operative or non-operative treatment. In my defence, this is because the medical world seems split. Rupturing my Achilles in east London meant I ended up at The Royal London Hospital in Whitechapel. The orthopaedic unit there advised against surgery on the basis that there is no clear evidence that surgery is better than non-operative treatment. Those of you who are Arsenal fans will know about Santi Cazorla’s terrible and gruesome Achilles woes which are due to infection as a result from surgery – something I was warned about. When I look back on my decision to have non-operative treatment I do question why all professional sports men and women (research them, it’s quite an impressive list) have surgery if there is no clear evidence and wonder if I did make the right decision.

2. Choosing the right physio.
This is the most important decision you will make in your rehab. A friend recommended her physio as she had been successful in treating my friend’s back injuries from ballet. In my naïve mind I thought, “a physio is a physio, right?” How wrong I was. In hindsight the exercises that she asked me to do were too much too soon which I think contributed to my partial re-rupture when walking “normally” down steps (something I should never have been doing so soon). When I returned to The Royal London after this my doctor was at a loss about what to do so asked his boss – an orthopaedic consultant called Nima Heidari who at once asked who my physio was. He advised that I see Adam Goode at Pure Sports Medicine which undoubtedly turned out to be the best decision of my rehab. Adam is a specialist in sports injuries and has extensive experience working with ruptured Achilles. His programme of exercises and crucially guidance on when to start doing more challenging exercises, when to start running and for how and at what pace, are the reason I am running today. It may cost a bit more but the right physio is money worth spending.

3. Having access to a running machine.
I’ve never been a fan of running machines. For me there is no reason to use one when you can simply, and for free, run outside. A lot of this is down to a PE lesson at school where a classmate who went by the name of “Mower,” was happily jogging along on a running machine. Mr Knight, our PE teacher, thought it would be funny to up the speed on Mower’s machine to the point where the poor lad’s initial smile turned to fear as his legs started rotating like Fred Flinstone’s. Young Mower couldn’t keep up and flew off the back of the machine like a cork out of bottle, skinning his back. I’ve never looked a running machine the same way since. I doubt Mower has either. Having said that, when it comes to rehabbing an Achilles rupture, they are a must when you first start running again. It is crucial to be able to control the pace and gradient of your runs, something that you cannot do outside. Also, the potential for slips and trips outside is a risk not worth taking, particularly in the more dark and wet autumn and winter months. You can systematically increase your pace and distance in those crucial first few weeks and stay in control when the urge to sprint off is strong. Just make sure Mr Knight isn’t around.

4. Choose your outdoor run routes carefully.
Those first runs outside post rupture are a thing of beauty. You’ve spent months in a boot, months being able to do nothing but heel lifts and then a few more months spent trying to not to fall asleep on the dreaded running machine. Finally, you feel normal again, shivering in the cold air and inhaling the friendly fumes of London. The key to this final part of your rehab is choosing a route that is Achilles friendly. By this I mean flat. The flatter the better. The only times (touch all the wood) that I have had Achilles pain is when taking on a punchy incline or a steep set of steps. Steps are a no go. Don’t even think of running down them. Stay away. They stretch and torture your tendon. You want a tarmacked route, that is lit and you know well. Did I mention it needs to be flat?

 

Ultimately the right physio and patience are key in rehabbing your tendon the right way. As I have alluded to earlier, the process can be beyond grim, particularly if you’re a regular runner. Choosing the right physio to guide and encourage you through this makes the difference and is worth every penny. In time your Achilles will get better and you will run again. Just don’t rush it.

 

A frustrating week for cycling.

The announcement last week that Team Sky’s Chris Froome failed a drugs test during the 2017 Vuelta has sparked a pretty angry backlash: The German cycling powerhouse, Tony Martin, described it as, “a double standard being applied,” and that he’s “totally angry” about it too. Another person totally angry is Cath Wiggins, wife of 2012 TDF Champion Bradley Wiggins, who described the current Team Sky leader as a “slithering reptile”. She later apologised and said she, “certainly didn’t mean to fan any flames.” No, no of course not…

09-09-2017 Vuelta A Espana; Tappa 20 Corvera De Asturias - Alto De L'angliru; 2017, Team Sky; Froome, Christopher; Poels, Wouter; Alto De L'angliru;
09-09-2017 Vuelta A Espana; Tappa 20 Corvera De Asturias – Alto De L’angliru; 2017, Team Sky; Froome, Christopher; Poels, Wouter; Alto De L’angliru;

Froome failed the test due to having twice the legal limit of salbutamol (a drug used to treat asthma) in his system. Salbutamol is permitted in cycling as long as it remains within certain doses. It doesn’t require a TUE and it is also clear that there is a great deal of doubt over whether it provides any sporting advantage. The point being you don’t over use this stuff if you’re looking for an illegal advantage as it isn’t performance enhancing and also when Froome did his drugs tests he would have had to declare he was using salbutamol so if he was deliberately overusing would know that he is going to get caught. As such, Tony Martin seems to be getting his bib shorts in a twist over claims of “double standards” – Froome will have to answer for this and if he doesn’t do so successfully then he will be suspended.

The key question though is why the UCI and Team Sky waited this long to announce the failed test. Did they forget? Did they simply have a lot on? Why not announce it when they found out in September? By leaving it until now exposes them and Team Sky to all kinds of understandable criticism which is undeniably bad for cycling’s reputation. Froome is the Golden Boy of world cycling, the Skywalker to the Armstrong Sith Lord of the 2000s. His speech after the 2013 TDF that “this is yellow jersey that will stand the test of time,” was a message the cycling world needed to here. The ambiguity of this situation has eroded a lot of the trust that had started to grow back in professional cyclists, their teams and the those that govern the sport since that speech and that is the real sadness and frustration.

Back to running

I snapped my Achilles heel on June 30th 2015. It happened during a typically low-skilled, high energy football performance on a crumbling five-a-side pitch in east London. I am regularly asked about the noise it made – “is it true that it sounds like a gun shot?” “Did everyone stop at the sound of it?” “Did any grown men cry?” Reassuring it did make a decent noise, although as the years have passed the story has morphed into some World War II epic with me screaming, “medic, MEDIC,” as everyone stopped playing, started crying and then gave me a standing ovation as a I was carried on shoulders off the pitch with Adagio for Strings rising in the background.

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As a result I couldn’t run for the best part of two years as I tried to rehabilitate my flabby tendon back to health. I was gloriously unaware of the impact running had on my mental health until this period. Before my tendon snapped like a cheap thong, sport and particularly running were a constant in my life for the best part of 12 years, something I did almost daily without question. Often this was associated with training for events which I gleefully completed before hurriedly entering the next. This gave me a sense of self-worth and identity that, until it was taken away, I had no idea about.

When my physio first examined my tendon he used the analogy of cooked spaghetti – mine felt like the kind of pasta you have left bubbling on the hob and forgotten about for 40 minutes. A healthy tendon, I was told, should have the consistency of hard spaghetti packed tightly together. He made it clear that running again was by no means a given and so I started a programme of heel lifts and exercises that as the days, weeks, months and years passed saw my heel return to something near al-dente.

Finally in November 2016 I was able to start running (for one minute before walking for 5). For the past few months I have been running “properly” again. A great deal of this has been with my brother whose idea of a fun Friday night is running 26 miles around London on his own and then doing it again the next day. As I drag myself around the canals and parks of east London desperately trying to keep him in sight, the bile rising in the back of my throat, I often simply dream of the run ending. But every time I go there are moments, sometimes for a minute, sometimes for most of the run, when my breathing softens and a calmness spreads that I don’t experience doing anything else. In these moments I realise why I run and I understand how lucky I am to be able to do it.

I never thought that rupturing my Achilles heel would be good for my running and in many ways it is not. But I’ve never enjoyed it more.

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