“Perhaps you weren’t born to run,” said my GP when I went to see her with an aching knee. “I could refer you to the physiotherapist but the muscles surrounding your knee already feel strong, so I’m not sure it would do any good. How about swimming or cycling?”
I was gutted. Swimming meant shaving, contact lenses and fitting in with a pool’s opening hours; cycling needed a decent bike, road sense and more storage space in the house. To me, neither of them offered the convenience and freedom of running.
I had run a couple of times a week for a few years, but had recently completed my first 10k: the Weston Christmas Cracker. My knee felt odd in the last weeks of training and ached from the 7k mark in the race. I ran through the pain and finished, exhausted but elated.
A week after the run, I got the flu, then it snowed. So I gave running a miss for a couple of months and hoped the enforced rest would be all that my knee needed to get better. It wasn’t. I soon had to walk the last third of each run and eventually couldn’t run at all. I admitted defeat and booked an appointment with my GP.
After a feel of my kneecap, she said there was nothing obviously wrong and gave me the depressing suggestion.
Perhaps I wasn’t born to run? Yes, we all were, I thought, having recently been inspired by Christopher McDougall’s book Born to Run. Okay, we were born to run, she admitted, but probably not on the hard surfaces that I ran on in our city. Despite remaining unconvinced physiotherapy could help, she referred me anyway.
Thank goodness. I’d felt more lethargic and anxious since I stopped running. I missed the deeper sleep, the feeling of worthy exhaustion and the way a run would sort my priorities.
I knew it would take a while for the NHS referral to come through, and felt like I’d wasted months already. So I went to the University of Bristol Sports Medicine Clinic for some private physiotherapy while I was waiting. It felt great for each of my leg movements to be thoroughly investigated by someone who fully understood the physiology of my body and the mechanics of running.
Nina Leonfellner, a physiotherapist at the UoB Sports Clinic, said she’d never dream of telling anyone they weren’t born to run, but admits there are certain builds more naturally suited to running.
“If you’re lightweight, with narrow hips and a straight line between your knee, hip and ankle, you’ll have an easier time with your running and be less likely to get a repetitive strain injury,” she says.
“If you have a more womanly figure and a knee, hip and ankle line that’s not straight, you’re possibly going to have more trouble. It doesn’t mean you can’t run, but it means you have to work harder on your hip conditioning, posture work, ankle flexibility and strength.”
It wasn’t just my shape that left me vulnerable to injury. Twenty years of sitting on my womanly butt in a sedentary job had left me with very weak glutes, tight quads and various other muscle imbalances. “If you’ve got a desk job where your muscles are stuck in the same position all day, they tighten and weaken, regardless of your build,” confirmed Nina. My weak glutes failed to stabilise my pelvis, causing my knee to collapse inwards with each step.
I was given a soft tissue massage and sent home with some glute-strenghtening clam exercises and side leg raises. I was advised to massage and loosen my quads with a foamroller and to loosen tight spots around my hips by pressing them against a tennis ball until the discomfort dissipated.
When the NHS referral came through for the physio department at Bristol General Hospital, I felt guilty using their resources when the waiting room was full of elderly ladies whose knees were so bad, they couldn’t climb in and out of a car. It also made me realise how important it was to look after my knees. But if I could keep running, I would be healthier, fitter and saner, and hopefully use less of the NHS in the long run.
My new physio encouraged me to keep up the glute-strengthening work, to go for a short run to see if it had helped (it had) and added some single leg squats and other strengthening and balancing exercises to my ever-lengthening list. Whenever I was waiting for the kettle to boil, I balanced on one leg while writing my name in the air with the other, did some heel raises or did a crab walk with a therapy band wrapped around my ankles. It was time-consuming, but soon became routine.
After a few appointments, my physiotherapist signed me off but told me to continue with the exercises. Without a follow-up appointment to keep me motivated, I slacked off a little, but the slightest twinge in my knee had me back on the case.
I finally ran the Bristol 10k this May, a year and a half after my first race at Weston. I was pleased to have got round pain-free in an hour and four minutes. I’ll never be a great runner. I’m not sure if I’ll ever run a marathon or even a half. But when I’m out for a half-hour jog, I feel my everyday worries dissipate with each step and think it’s such a shame that anyone is ever told they weren’t born to run.
University of Bristol Sports Medicine Clinic – see http://www.bris.ac.uk/sport/