Tiny Speedos and London Buses (1000s of them)


Back in 2004 (or whenever it was, some time round then), when I was being analysed for orthotics by the lovely podiatrist in Brighton, I remember asking him if I should try and change the way that I run, was what I was doing correct?  His answer was a sensible one: he advised that I ought to be able to run in a way that was comfortable to me. Run however you want to.  If it feels natural doing it that way, then do it that way.  Seems sensible, doesn’t it?

Ok.  Imagine this scenario.  You go into a sports shop asserting that what you would like to do today is some swimming.  You’ve never done it before, you just really fancy it.  The shopkeep says
“Great, what you need is these tiny Speedos. … Yes, they are expensive aren’t they. Yes, they are very bright.  But this is what everyone is swimming with.  They are top-of-the-range trunks and the company thinks they are cutting edge.  Now, pop them on and go and jump in the nearest lake.’  You are, quite naturally, never seen again.

This is what we do when we go into a running shop for the very first time (and, in my case, the fifteenth, too).  We think that the right shoe will do all the work for us.  That we don’t need to think for a second that running, like tennis, snooker, squash, backgammon (you get the idea) is something that we need to learn how to do.

So, imagine that you jump in the lake and by some freak of nature you find that you float, and that you are able to propel yourself in the most chaotic of manners through the water (like Animal from the Muppets doing a fierce drum solo) and what is stranger, you find that you like it. Well, by the next time you decide to go swimming you will probably have watched some Olympic swimmers, who seem to do it quite well. If you do want to do front crawl, you will find that you won’t go as fast Michael Phelps, but imitating his technique won’t do you any harm, it will in fact probably help. Watching old reruns of Steve Davis and copying his cue action will help you.  Even imitating Beckham’s arm-swing as he takes a free kick will help with your body rotation as your foot makes contact with the ball.  Although, let’s be honest, doing the same with McEnroe’s serve might not work so well, but… Borg’s probably would, or Sampras’, or Navratilova’s.  So why do we all think we can run?  We have, nearly all of us, been doing it since we were children, but most of the population can’t even run for a bus, so why do so many of us imagine that we can run?  (I know, I’ve asked myself twice now and I still don’t know the answer).

As soon as one starts running, you are immediately made aware of things like impact and exhaustion. (Finding a way to run slowly enough that will enable you to keep going is a major achievement in those first few weeks of running). But that’s OK because there are special shoes to help with the impact and comfort in these early days.  We all know that every time your heel hits the floor while running that your body has to absorb 3-10 times your body weight.  Is an inch of brightly-coloured sponge, no matter how sophisticated and cutting-edge, going to do this?  I run at about 160-180 steps per minute.  I weigh about 68 kilos.  I’m out on a run for an hour.  Taking the most conservative estimate of 3 times my body weight for each step.

3 (impact)
X 68kgs (times of body weight)
X 160 (steps per minute)
X 60 (minutes in an hour) X 68kgs
wait for it

1958,400 kilogrammes of pressure per hour.

That’s roughly 2,000 metric tonnes of pressure thudding through your body, and you expect that little inch of sponge to absorb it all.  If we were to convert that figure into London buses, the old double-decker kind. Then you are pounding around 2000 of them through your skeletal system – and these are not empty buses, they are full of passengers (add about 30% to the figure for empty buses).  Try this, too – think of that inch of sponge, then imagine full London buses piled 800m high (New York’s Empire State building is just over half of that).  So take a moment to yourself.  Think about that.  London buses piled nearly twice as high as the Empire State building. … hmmm.  Never mind how new, technical or advanced that wee bit of sponge is, how helpful is it really going to be to you in these conditions, with that amount of pressure thudding through it?

For most new runners, because your heel hits the ground first, there are no muscles there at all to help you absorb this unimaginable pressure, all a shoe does is slow it down a tad so it’s not so painful.  Imagine tapping yourself on the head with a  hammer – it hurts.  Now imagine the same tap from a hammer with an inch of sturdy sponge wrapped around its head.  The pressure is still the same, but it doesn’t hurt so much because the impact is slowed down.  Keep going, though, and something will give (that’s if kindhearted relatives don’t step in first to stop the lunatic experiment).  When your heel slams into the ground, that pressure has to go somewhere.   It doesn’t leave your body and enter the atmosphere, the energy is absorbed by your muscles, skeleton, heart, lungs, liver, etc.  But like a wave moving up the body, that weakens from its epicentre, the biggest shock is to your knees.  Whatever, you’re wearing, you still land on the ground, and all your body, organs, bones land with you.  The sponge doesn’t stop it, it just makes it more comfortable for you.  In short, big shoes allow you to run badly, very badly, very badly indeed.

I’ve never calculated these figures before, and looking at them I am astonished that I lasted as long as I did.  But they do make sense of the fact that I could never progress with my running when I was doing it ‘however I wanted to’.

Your body will only take so much shit before it stops you.  But what is so amazing is that your body has evolved to deal with these amounts of pressure, and much much more.  It can do it quite naturally and may be hampered in its attempts to do so by spongey and protective running shoes.

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