Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Was Damon Albarn right? Is modern life rubbish?

Sorry you had to see this readers. It’s not merely my favourite mega-blister,
but rather “A random episode that repaired itself and made me stronger”!

THERE’S been much TV news footage recently showing the hospital in which the Queen had her dicky tummy attended to. It all looked very familiar, and for several days I was under the rather pleasing impression that old Liz was being treated at the very same place where they operated on my knee a few years ago.

But now, having consulted The Old Grey Training Log, I realise I didn’t go under the knife at the King Edward VII hospital after all – it was a couple of blocks away in the nearby Princess Grace.  Liz’s BUPA cover was probably higher grade than mine.

Never mind! The distinguished consultant who foraged expertly inside my leg back in 1997 was one of Harley Street’s finest (so I was told), even though he wasn’t a young sporty type, but very ‘old school’ like the surgeons in the ‘Harry and Paul’ comedy show.

I’ve run 10,000 miles since that op, but all the evidence points to that day 15 years ago being the start of the decline of my glittering running career. In terms of speed and mileage anyway. Before that operation my 10k times were routinely well under 40 minutes, and the 5-milers well under 30, but since then . . .  well, let’s not go there.

The procedure involved keyhole surgery to clean up damaged cartilage. I was running again – albeit gently – only 11 days later and trying to obey advice to train mainly on grass. Nine years later (2006), the knee required a similar procedure again. And again I was slightly disappointed to get a surgeon with seemingly no real knowledge of running or sport.

After this second op the wagging finger on the other side of the desk told me to stick to gentle running on grass, or alternatively take up swimming. Anyone who has seen my pathetic efforts in water will know which option I chose.

I’ve always treated those two bouts of knee trouble as negative events which heralded the impending arrival of Clapped-Out Runner status.  But this week I heard about a school of thought which regards injuries or physical setbacks as normal ‘random’ events. They have a positive effect by teaching your body how to recover and be stronger in the future.

That’s not to say injuries are GOOD – that would be barmy – but there is an interesting new perspective to consider here.

All this stuff is posted on the Facebook page of an organisation called Champions Everywhere.   This group provides ‘old school’ coaching for runners, which aims to  ensure natural and injury-free running via the methods of legendary coaches of the past, such as Arthur Lydiard. 

When we get ill, the theory goes, we usually heal back more resistant to that disease. And if we lift 300kg of weights today, our body builds back capacity to lift 315kg tomorrow ("just in case it needs to"). Humans and other animals are not as fragile as machines, which break down and are not able to recover on their own and become stronger.  

Unlike the machines and technology we invent, we humans thrive on randomness. Stress and discomfort (especially in running) makes us stronger, whereas it merely makes bridges, cars and other machines weaker.

Those Britpop superstars Blur named an album ‘Modern Life is Rubbish’, and it seems Damon Albarn had a point.  Everything nowadays is designed to remove randomness. Antibiotics for bacteria, pain-killers for pain, anti-inflammatories for inflammation, hi-tech cushioning for road shoes, non-weight bearing activity for running injuries. The list goes on and on.

Although our systems cope well with acute stress and then grow back stronger, we can become fragile and vulnerable if subjected to chronic stress (e.g. daily commutes, constant abuse of the body, heavy mileage in cushioned  shoes, etc). This is even more likely when we get too comfortable and too protected, thus making us likely to be soft, weak, sick and maladapted!

Chronic injuries result from all this, and when we runners visit the experts in white coats they charge us a fortune and then put us on bikes (weaker bones, poorer movement), or put  orthotics or more cushioning in our shoes (even weaker body, bones, poorer movements). It’s an endless degenerative cycle.

The Champions Everywhere people reckon the only way to break this cycle is to accept you are NOT fragile - that your running body loves randomness, chaos, discomfort and stress. Next you must learn to move naturally again, apply the correct natural stress that will make your body thrive and adapt, get stronger again and move better.

And, they add, we should turn a deaf ear to the doubters - those who want to label us ‘injury-prone’ or give fancy Latin terms to our injuries - who perpetuate more fear, more disuse and more weakness.

So has all this advice come along a bit too late to help your Clapped Out Runner?

Should I start thinking of my dodgy knee as the result of past random episodes which have actually made me stronger?  Should I stop using the knee as an excuse to restrict my weekly training to 15 miles (mostly steady and off-road)?

Should I chuck out my cushioned and supportive Puma and Asics shoes and stick to the lightweight Brooks ones (which I prefer anyway) which have so far only been used with great caution? And why not go the whole hog and get some of those minimalist shoes that claim to replicate barefoot running?

Anyway, next time I feel a twinge in the calf, or inflammation of the knee, I’ll carry out a little experiment. Instead of describing it as an injury, I’ll announce it as a random episode that will make heart, nerve and sinew stronger.

I’ll sound like a complete nutter, but, you never know, it might help . . . .

Rob Hadgraft’s five published books on running (plus 11 others on football) are now also available as e-books for Kindle at just £4.99 each.   Use this link:   Rob Hadgraft's running books on Amazon  or, alternatively:   www.robhadgraft.com

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