How did Callum Hawkins keep going? A lesson in elite suffering

The harrowing sight of Callum Hawkins collapsing at the Commonwealth Games marathon on Sunday has got the media shining its spotlight onto the issue of how safe marathon running is. I was interviewed yesterday on BBC 5Live about what might have led to Hawkins’ collapse and whether it could have been prevented.

The answer to the first question is simple – heat exhaustion. Ambient temperature on race day was 28 degrees – six other runners out of the 24 who started did not complete the race. The answer to the second question is more complex. Heat exhaustion occurs when the body is unable to dissipate the extra heat being produced by exercise. Given that the harder you are working, the more heat you produce, the obvious solution would be to slow down – but try telling that to an athlete on their way to a gold medal.

Like all elite athletes, Hawkins’ years of intense training have enabled him to reach a stage where he can hear his body’s alarm systems screeching that he’s reaching his limits without really listening to them. I say ‘body’s alarm systems’, but really it’s the brain that imposes such limits. At least, that’s where the most recent theories are heading. For Professor Tim Noakes, the brain acts as a ‘central governor,’ which regulates muscle recruitment based on the feedback it receives from the body. If that feedback says heart rate is way too high, breathing is laboured and body temperature dangerously high, it responds protectively by forcing you to slow down or stop (which – eventually – it did in Hawkins’ case). In Professor Samuele Marcora’s Psychobiological Model, the brain regulates endurance performance consciously, rather than subconsciously, and bases its willingness to suffer discomfort and pain on your level of motivation. ‘People will engage in a task until the effort required reaches the maximum level they are willing to invest in order to succeed,’ Marcora told me in an interview. It makes perfect sense, when you consider Hawkins’ position on the cusp of winning a gold medal, that he’d be willing to endure increasingly high levels of suffering to reach his goal.

Essentially, the physical and mental toughness that Hawkins has built up over the course of his athletics career is the very thing that led to him continuing to run when every fibre of his being must have been telling him to stop. Couple that with ridiculously high levels of motivation and you could argue that Sunday’s traumatic events could not have been prevented (although what happened afterwards – in terms of how long it took for medical assistance to arrive – certainly could). It’s great to hear that Hawkins is now feeling better, but are there any lessons we lesser mortals can learn about running hard in the heat? Frankly, most of us aren’t highly trained – or motivated – enough to override our ‘central governors’ and would likely find ourselves slowing down or perhaps even bowing out in such conditions, but here are some useful hot-race day tips.

  • Start cool – keep out of the sun before the race starts to keep body temperature in check. You could try draping a cold wet towel around your head and shoulders, or drinking an icy cold drink.
  • Wear little, and opt for light colours.
  • Keep to the shady parts of the course where possible.
  • Stay well hydrated, of course, but save some of that water for pouring over your head or seek out sprinklers on the course. In a study last year, a group of runners endured 33-degree heat while they ran 5km time trials. Spraying cold water on their faces lowered their forehead temperature and ‘thermal sensation’ (how hot they felt).

A day after the Commonwealth Games marathon, the weather bowled another googly – bringing torrential rain, sub-zero temperatures and high winds to the Boston Marathon course. Weather so extreme that it caused most of the elite field to retire. Its intriguing to ponder on what internal battles these runners went through before deciding to stop. Did they heed the warnings of their central governors or did they simply run out of motivation?

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A new running retreat with Sam Murphy

The path to the beach

21st-24th September 2018
Come and run with us* in the beautiful environs of Camber Sands and Rye in East Sussex. Our base for this three-night autumn running retreat is the luxurious Loma Beach House, just steps from the beach where we’ll start our morning runs and yet only 90 minutes from London by train or car. Limited to 12 places.

Camber Sands all to ourselves!

The schedule
We’ll combine daily runs amid gorgeous scenery just for the joy of it (this is our home turf, so we know all the best routes, views and refreshment stops!) with tailored sessions focusing on running form, strength and conditioning and pace development. We’ll also talk practical nutrition, training and injury prevention.

Trails around Camber

On Sunday morning, we’ll have a longer point-to-point run (with options for shorter/longer distances) that takes us through ancient woodland and along quiet lanes and rural trails back to the beach house, followed by a well-earned recovery session (on the 40ft south-facing deck if it’s sunny or otherwise in front of the woodburning stove!).

 

The fun and varied itinerary has been designed to ensure you have a fabulous running experience – and a relaxing break – while you are with us and go home armed with new tips and ideas to implement later on. Every participant will receive a one-to-one running assessment during their stay and get a personalised plan.

Dine in style at Loma House

Eating and sleeping
Part of the pleasure of running is in the refuelling, so rest assured you will enjoy plenty of delicious, nourishing food during your stay at Loma – all prepared using locally-sourced ingredients and chosen and timetabled specifically to aid performance and recovery.

 

You’ll have ample time to relax in and around the comfortable, well-equipped  and stylish house (free wifi throughout) – coffee out on the deck, a stroll on the beach or a cheeky afternoon nap, perhaps? And you’ll have a free afternoon on Sunday to mooch around Rye’s antique shops and quirky boutiques, or spend as you choose, before we head out for dinner together. A pre-breakfast run on Monday means you’ll go home with a smile on your face and sand in your shoes…

 

Running fun in Rye

 

 

What’s included

  • Three nights’ accommodation at Loma Beach House (see room options below).
  • All meals and snacks between your arrival from 4pm on Friday and your departure at 10am on Monday (home-baked goodies included!) except a group dinner out in Rye on Sunday evening.
  • All coaching, including a one-to-one running form assessment with video analysis and individually prescribed drills/strength/mobility exercises.
  • All workshops and seminars, with handouts to take away.
  • Transfers to/from Rye railway station if required.

*Who we are

Sam Murphy and Jeff Pyrah met on a training camp in 2007 and got married in 2010. Avid runners and enthusiastic coaches, they have hosted running holidays in Annecy, France and Lynmouth, Devon. This is their first retreat on their much-loved home territory of East Sussex.

Sam Murphy is a well-known running expert and qualified coach with more than ten years’ experience helping runners achieve their goals through her one-to-one coaching, workshops and writing. She has penned three books on running, including the pioneering Run for Life, which sold over 200,000 copies and has now been translated into 13 languages, and writes the monthly Murphy’s Lore column for Runner’s World magazine. Sam has 17 marathons under her belt with a PB of 3.22. She’s still trying to knock 5 seconds off her 5km PB of 20.04.

Jeff Pyrah is a lifelong runner who is passionate about helping others forge their own running habit. He has a marathon PB of 2.28 but now focuses more on long trail races, winning The Grizzly, the North Downs Run and Beachy Head Marathon in 2013 and Centurion’s Wendover Woods 50-mile race in 2016. He is a qualified running coach and, together with Sam, coaches in Rye, East Sussex.

 

Pricing (rates quoted below are per person for the entire retreat)

One of Loma’s double rooms

Shared room (a spacious ‘dorm’ room sleeping six in adult-sized bunkbeds) £325.
Double room (based on two sharing) £370.
Double room (single occupancy) £460.
Ensuite double room (based on two sharing) £395.
Ensuite double room (single occupancy) £495.

To find out more about this exclusive retreat or book a space, email sammurphyinfo@gmail.com

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Got plantar fasciitis? Time for some sole searching…

Athlete’s paw, y’know…

Despite its complicated name, the majority of runners can pronounce plantar fasciitis because they’ve had the misfortune of personal experience. I’ve heard it called the M.E of sports injuries because it’s so hard to pin down what triggers it and equally hard to find a way to get rid of it. It’s not uncommon for the condition to last six months or more. Part of the problem with defining the cause and solution is the fact that there’s little agreement on what PF actually is. The ‘itis’ in the name suggests it is a condition that involves inflammation but this has been challenged in recent years and some podiatrists and sports medicine experts have called for it to be known as plantar fasciosis instead. An ‘osis’ is degeneration of tissue, rather than inflammation – and as such, requires a different approach when it comes to treatment. (That might explain why the ‘usual suspect’ remedies, such as rest, ice and anti-inflammatories – or even corticosteroid injections provide little more than passing relief.)

In one study, tissue biopsies were taken from people suffering from severe PF and then assessed. There was no evidence of inflammation in the plantar fascia, but there were numerous microscopic tears and signs of degeneration (necrosis) both in the plantar fascia itself and within the intrinsic flexor muscles of the foot.

Caused by what? Well, you may not need to look further than your own footwear.  A lot of running shoes (in fact, a lot of shoes in general) don’t have enough space – or the correct shape – in the toe box, causing the big toe to be drawn towards the other toes (adducted). Then there’s the common shoe feature called ‘toe spring’ which pulls your toes into extension because the front end of the sole curves upwards (shown below). Add this to the fact that in most shoes, your heel is raised higher than your toes, and you end up with toes being forced into both extension and adduction. (Incidentally, given that the pads of your toes are essentially receptors, they don’t like to be away from the ground, and one frequent result of toe spring in shoes is hammertoe, toes that curl under in an attempt to feel what’s happening beneath them.)

But back to PF… when the big toe is adducted and extended, blood flow (via the posterior tibial artery) to the PF and surrounding structures is compromised, allowing degeneration to take place.

To get a sense of the position in which the foot is held in most footwear, push your toes together, raise your heel off the floor and pull your toes into extension. If you now press your fingers along the medial side of the heel, you may well find you can recreate your pain symptoms. This position will greatly increase tension in the flexor muscles on the bottom of the foot as well as the PF – an effect magnified by the forces of running.

So please, DON’T STRETCH YOUR PF EVEN FURTHER! Besides this exacerbating the problem, you are also stretching what is an essential part of your elastic energy return system, which helps to propel you through your running stride without using up precious energy.

So what’s to be done? You need to allow the toes to sit properly. That means a shoe with enough space in the toe box but more specifically, space for the big toe to sit straight, not curving in towards the other toes.  Correct Toes toe spacers are designed to be worn inside footwear to help realign your toes back to their correct anatomical position. They were created by a running podiatrist in the United States, and I found them invaluable in getting over my long-standing PF (and that’s why, unashamedly, I’m now involved in selling them in the UK online).

You also want a shoe that doesn’t have your toes lifted way off the ground at the front, court jester style, and one that is flexible enough to allow the foot to bend where it’s designed to bend – across the ball of the foot. You can check out my shoe reviews to see which brands and models fit the bill.

And finally, you need to get those feet mobile again. Stretching the tight toe extensors is the best starting point.

The toe extensor stretch


The position opposite stretches the toes at the metatarsophalangeal (MTP) joint – the ‘knuckle’ of the foot (level with that bit where bunions form). You can do this sitting or standing (sitting is easier to get to grips with). Extend one leg back behind the body and place the upper surface of the toes on the floor. This should bend the toes at the MTP joint. Then, plantar flex the foot fully by pressing the heel down toward the floor.

 

The stretch should be felt across the top of the foot and front of the lower leg. As the muscles become more flexible, bring the foot further forward, relative to the body, to increase the stretch.

Deep tissue massage is also helpful in mobilising the feet and improving blood flow when rehabbing from PF. I regularly use a pedi roller to stretch and ‘iron’ out the connective tissue on the soles of my feet and get my fingers in between the big toe and second toe to massage between them.

There will undoubtedly be physios, podiatrists and the like who will dismiss outright the notion that modern footwear and its effect on foot structure/alignment causes plantar pain. Indeed, people suffering from PF are often given MORE cushioning, MORE support in their shoes when they actually need less. But the huge number of runners with ongoing, stubborn plantar pain that doesn’t respond to the usual bag of tricks might be more open to suggestion. That’s how I felt after I’d had a corticosteroid injection, two different pairs of orthotics made, done copious stretching, icing and resting and was still on the bench nigh on a year later.  Why not free your feet and see what happens?

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Blog getting some TLC!

Hi there, I’m currently updating the blog’s look and functionality and it will be back to normal soon.

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Rye Runners Beginners’ Course 2018

It’s January, which means it’s time for new, rusty and returning runners to venture out and fulfil that New Year resolution to get fit. Rye Runners can help – our 10-week beginners’ course starts on Saturday, 13th January 2018 from 10.30am. It’s a fully coached and supported course, where you’ll find your running feet in a friendly, fun environment. For details, email garethmccully24@gmail.com

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