Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Depression, Flexibility, and Aging Gracefully


From the beginning of August until about two weeks ago, I was depressed!

My running had been going downhill and not in a good way. Speeds were falling off, distances were falling off.  And I was in constant pain.

After the end of the Cleveland Marathon in May, I had planned to run
  • The Wright Patterson AFB Marathon in Dayton,
  • The Road Runner Marathon in Akron,
  • The Cleveland TowPath Marathon,
  • The Columbus Marathon and
  • Maybe one more, perhaps the Detroit Free Press,  the Florida Space Coast Marathon, or the one in Indy.

During the month of August, however, I had to subtract races off of my goals list because my legs were in constant pain.  My weekly mileage was getting lower and I was getting increasingly weaker.

The depression was the result of not feeling in control. 

Imagine watching all of the improvements made from the middle of March to the end of July washed away in the space of a few weeks and not knowing the reason for it or being able to do anything about it.

Yeah. Major depression.

Fortunately, I got a hint of a solution from a kid on the street and from some advice I gave to a running buddy back when I was coaching him for the Boston Marathon.

Aging and Flexibility

During the start of one late afternoon run, I was scooting along with my lower back feeling like I had a steel rod jammed in it and every heel strike shooting a spike of pain up my left leg.  But I was intent on running the full 11 miles. That was when I passed a group of kids playing street football.  One of the kids that weren't actively involved in the game looked at me and said, “keep on running, old man”.

I thought to myself, “I'm not that old” but my legs were telling me a different story. 

As I proceeded further into my run, I started thinking about how stiff and painful my gait was; how limited my range of motion had become; how old I probably looked and definitely felt.

And that's when I recalled some advice I had given to my training partner on flexibility and stretching some years back.

Back in the early 90's when I was 5 miles south of crazy, I was nearing the completion of running 12 marathons in one year, something that's considered commonplace today.  But back then, two to three a year was considered the most that any “reasonable” runner could do.

I was helping a friend qualify for the Boston Marathon the following year, so we had targeted the Dallas White Rock Marathon to get in his 3 hour qualifying time. 

We spent a lot of our summer and fall days running the Charles River circuits preparing for the The White Rock Marathon.  On one of those days as we sped around a mid-sized loop, we noticed two older runners just starting out on their run.

As we zoomed past them, Frank said, “Good God man.  Would ya look at those two runners - older than dirt and still running.  Man, they look like they are having such a hard time. They should know when to quit.”

That's when I said, “You know, their level of performance isn't entirely determined by their age.  Look at their gait, their posture, their stride.  They're slow and in pain not because of their age, but because they have no flexibility. Their legs are tight.  They've got no flexibility in their hips.  Their lower body isn't loose enough to absorb any serious shock from the constant impact.  They are probably limiting their running motion to reduce pain.”

“If they had more flexibility in their legs and lower back, their stride would be longer, the would have more power in each step... With their experience, they could probably put us to shame.”

“So the lesson for today is – keep stretching. It will keep you running fast and looking young.”

Stretch Brings Back Faster Times

Truth is, most of the physical characteristics that everyone attributes to aging can also be the result of poor diet, poor physical conditioning, or too much stress. In my case, it was poor flexibility. 

My running posture was poor, my stride was short, and my legs wouldn’t lift up. I had resorted to a stiff legged shuffle with my legs swinging out to my sides as opposed to having them pull into my core and driving forward.

I’m sure I looked like an old man toddling along the road, which was kind of  ironic since I was being passed by guys who were older than me.

So for the past two weeks, I've been on a regular stretching regimen. Every chance I get I do quad stretches, hamstring stretches, and lower leg stretches using anything and everything I can get my hands on.

When first started this exercise, I was surprised. 

Shocked is more like it.

I had trouble getting my legs to separate by 45 degrees.  That's about the 2nd step on a set of stairs. Hurt like hell. No wonder I had lost my power and speed.  When I massaged my hamstrings, it felt like I was squeezing a bag of jello mixed with steel cables and rocks.   At one point I even used a rolling pin on the back of my legs to break up the big pieces and get some more flexibility out of my legs.

Now, I can get my feet up on the counter top without using my hands to put them there.  That's a little over a 90 degree angle.  And on a good day, I can even lower my head down to kiss my knee, but only if I stretch long enough. 

The pain is subsiding, I'm getting more power out of each foot strike, and I'm picking up some extra speed just from lengthening out my stride. My time for 11 miles has come down from a depressing 120 minutes to a fastest time of 94 minutes so far.  I'll celebrate when I get it down to 88  minutes!

The Dayton Marathon is at the end of the week, so I don't think I'll be setting any personal bests.  I've still got a lot of stretching to do and I have done very little speed work.  This knowledge, however, will come in handy for next year's racing events.

I think I'll also throw in a couple of 10Ks next year to increase leg turnover.  Doing only long slow distance has shown me that it keeps me running on the slow side.

Keep driving forward.

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