It was the perfect day for a run: a sunny 7 C Sunday, the first day of the year that begged for a long, outdoor run.
Five minutes in, I felt the twinge. Soon the insides of both knees were throbbing with every step. For about 25 minutes, I endured the pain, until my knees said, please, stop now. I've skipped three scheduled runs since, as my inner knees protested every time I laced up.
Like any good 30 year old with a problem, I asked Twitter for help. The responses were varied and overwhelming. Quit running, stretch more, get a foam roller, see a chiropractor, buy shoes with more cushioning, buy shoes with less cushioning.
Then, clarity from a tweeter with a bio that read "Recovered Weak Knee Runner." She advised me to build stabilizer muscles, to find out how I run and to "re-align." I needed more than 140 characters, so I gave her a call.
Cursed with a combination of bad knees and a passion for recreational running, Karin Femi Adande, a personal trainer in Vancouver, hit the library to learn everything she could about knees and the way we run. Running, she says, shouldn't be a sped-up version of walking, but if you watch most runners in slow motion, that's exactly what they do. "We reach with our foot, and pull the ground behind us, strike with the heel and your knees suffer."
I need to see how my foot is hitting the ground – and I'll have to strengthen my feet and core muscles to achieve great running form, she says.
To see how I run, I book a 3-D gait test with physiotherapist Greg Lehman at the Medcan Clinic in downtown Toronto. The futuristic system is the only one of its kind in Toronto, and is straight out of Avatar. With my feet, legs and hips hooked up to dozens of sensors, a digital me – specifically my lower half skeleton – dances when I dance, runs when I run, on a fancy screen. (See it in action here)
Within seconds of running, Lehman can see I'm doing the speed-walk thing: landing with my heel, my knees caving inward as I run. "Pop pop pop pop pop," he instructs as he gets me to speed up my steps and take shorter strides. Now I'm landing on the balls of my feet – the knee pain vanishes, but my weak feet ache instantly.
Lehman cautions that this is just the starting point. I have weak hips ("you're such a stereotype," he says, as knee pain is often correlated to weak hips). He echoes the call for strength training, and advises I change my gait gradually.
But the first step? "The knee pain alone is proof to me to get new shoes," he says. Lehman, an avid runner, rotates through five different pairs of sneakers, from cushioned to minimal – the variety, he says, puts stresses on different areas of his body.
I leave the clinic feeling hopeful. I'm eager to get back to the plan, with a quicker gait and different shoes. But with the race just six weeks away, and a pause in my training schedule, I'm nervous.
STRENGTH, FROM THE VERY BOTTOM UP
Strong feet are key to striking the ground mid-foot and keeping your centre of gravity above your feet – both critical to ideal running form, says personal trainer Karin Femi Adande. Strengthening exercises will get you there. But, Adande says with a laugh, "It's the most boring workout you'll ever do."
The sock grab
Drop a sock on the floor. Pick it up with your toes (barefoot), hold it for five seconds, put it back on the floor, then pick it up again. Switch feet. Do two sets of 10 grabs with each foot.
Stand on one foot (close to a wall if necessary to help with balance), lift your heel as high off the ground as possible. Hold your balance on your tiptoes for five seconds (touch the wall if needed). Then let your heel slowly down to the ground. Repeat 10 times with each foot. Do two sets.
Stand on one bare foot with your eyes open for as long as you can, aiming for one minute. Repeat with the other leg. (Do it brushing your teeth to fight the boredom.) Once you can do it for one minute, try it with your eyes closed. Do two sets.
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