Thursday, September 1, 2011

The New Cure is...

Let me trot out this graph for the last time (I promise):

Before 2007, the more I ran, the more my knees hurt. After that, it doesn't make sense. Why did my knees get better even though I was running more?

Looking at my log, I see I was riding my mountain bike quite a bit back then. Let's add in the bike miles:

Hmmm. Seems to be a correlation between the bike miles and the knee health. It may not look like a lot of bike mileage, but those are not namby-pamby-"spinning"-at-110-rpm road miles. Those are hunched-over-the-handle-bars-pedal-mashing Turkey Creek miles.

The Bike
I started riding my mountain bike in 2006 because I couldn't run.
After a year, my knees got better and I could run again. I kept riding, all the while running more miles and getting faster. Then in the fall of 2011, I became obsessed with a sub-3 marathon. I mostly quit the bike and started running 6 days a week.

Cross Training 
I have always been skeptical about the value of "cross-training". I always thought that the best training for running was running, and your legs will become as strong as they need to be. I only rode the bike to have something to do when I was taking a day off from running.

I put PowerCranks on the bike hoping they would make me a faster runner. It never occurred to me that the bike might be strengthening my legs and keeping me healthy. But maybe that was the case.

Shriveled Pepper
Last December I started getting injuries and taking a lot of days off. I still pushed hard in the races, which led to more injuries and more days off. I think my legs just got weaker and weaker.
Months of limping around and favoring my left leg actually caused my right quad to atrophy and shrivel up like a green pepper at Food Lion.

An Experiment
So back in July, I decided my new magic cure for Runners Knee was the bike!
My plan was to focus on strength instead of high turnover, so that meant a lot of high gear pedal mashing.

To make pedaling motion more like a running stride, I did the following things:
  • Moved my seat as far forward as it would go, for a more upright position
  • Put the seat up high so that my legs extended completely
  • Slid the cleats all the way forward to allow my calf to flex
  • Adjusted the cranks from 172.5mm to 180mm
The result was a full leg extension, the same motion as the quad strengthening exercises that are recommended for runners knee.
But instead of 3 sets of 10, I could do thousands of reps as I commuted back and forth to work.
In July I managed to put in over 400 miles and only crashed the bike once.

Baby Steps
Slowly, I started feeling better. It might have been the biking, or just the time off from running. I was able to start running again, just a mile or two at a time. I ran barefoot, because the knee felt better that way. Coming into August, I struggled up to 12 miles a week.

Please, Not Another Race
Too many hard races had led to my crappy knee condition, so I vowed not to sign up for any more races until I felt healthy again.

However, Shannon and I had volunteered to photograph the Continental Divide 10K Trail Championship in Laurel Springs, NC on August 27.
For this, the organizers gave us free entry to the race, and I received an email that I was signed up.
6.2 miles of lung searing climbs and knee crushing descents? That seemed like the absolute worst idea for my recovery.

But I supposed I could walk it if I had to...

The Test
Nine days before the race, it was a nice cool morning. I decided to put the on the old shoes and head out to the trail for a 7 mile run. Just to see if I was capable of going that far. It was the longest since my Bayshore Bonk back in May.

The right knee still bothered me quite a bit, and the downhills hurt like hell, but not enough to stop me.
The thing that amazed me was how easy the uphills felt.

Considering I had only run 50 miles the last 3 months, it was quite a good run. Maybe the 900 miles I had put on the bike this summer had helped me even more than I had hoped.

I was suddenly looking forward to Laurel Springs...

NEXT: Continental Divide 10K Trail Championship