"I’m not a runner. I’m running the London marathon, but I’m not a runner."
I’ve been saying this to everyone for months. I’m not built like a runner and I don’t go very fast. But for the past four months, I’ve picked up my trainers, plugged in my music and pounded the pavement. Slowly it’s dawned on me that if I run, I am a runner.
I've taken part in a few races before and my training has been sporadic at best, at worst non-existent. So when I got my place for the London Marathon I realised I probably wasn’t going to be able to blag this.
I invested in new trainers, I bought energy gels, I got a foam roller (we have a love/ hate relationship), and, importantly, I got a training plan. Everything was going well until about six weeks in when I started experiencing knee pain. The best way to describe it would be a dull ache around the kneecap. When I ran it was worse but even walking or going down steps could be pretty painful.
So I did what everyone does. I Google diagnosed myself with a case of ‘runner's knee.’ If having something called runner's knee doesn’t make you a runner, I don’t know what does.
I began a programme of ice, elevation and rest. Slowly my knee began to recover and I worked up to my first 20 mile run in the training block. Then, several weeks ago I started to experience the same problem in my other knee.
Losing a couple of weeks from your training is pretty annoying, but to face the same issue with the other knee so close to race day was terrifying. It felt like time to get an expert involved.
The HCA Healthcare centre in London offers a 'Running MOT Clinic' for people just like me (although admittedly, with only two weeks to go until the marathon, I'd left it a little late to book in). The idea is to give runners of all abilities the once-over, from a biomechanical point of view, and suggest some (hopefully gentle) re-tuning that can help you avoid injury and run more efficiently.
My main fear, as I opened the door onto HCA's immaculate facilities, was that the clinic's experts would tell me I was in terrible shape, that my body couldn’t handle what I was about to attempt and that I should probably drop out.
Emily Drakes, outpatient Physiotherapy Leader and veteran of six marathons, was to be my mechanic for the day. She started by asking me to explain my running history, injury concerns and what I was hoping to achieve. She checked my knees and assessed the flexibility in my hips and ankles. So far so good.
Then it was onto the treadmill to assess my running style, looking at foot strike, cadence and relevant asymmetries. My cadence was initially 155-160spm (steps per minute – the ideal range is 165-180), which, said Drakes, was causing my foot to land in the 'heel strike' position, meaning that my knee was taking more strain than it should. It also meant that I was effectively braking with every step, which was slowing me down.
Already, Drakes had spotted a potential cause of my knee trouble. To help fix it, she got me to run on a treadmill while making sure my foot landed every time a beep sounded. The higher cadence caused my foot to land under my body better, which should reduce the strain on my knee.
The tests also showed that I tend to cross my feet over slightly as I run (I blame years of trying walk like Marilyn Monroe), again increasing the pressure on my knees. Moving my feet faster would mean less time for my feet to cross over.
Next was a range of functional tests, involving single leg squats, calf raises and leg presses – all of which showed that my left leg is weaker than the right. Given how much I’ve neglected strength work in my training plan, that made perfect sense.
Unsurprisingly, the most common injuries seen at the clinic are runners knee and shin splints, followed by stress injuries. Drakes said that most injuries are caused by doing too much too soon (guilty as charged).
Despite my fears, she assured me that she thought I am physically fit enough to run. As our meeting was so close to the marathon itself, she said it was not advisable to start changing training programmes too much – the new cadence could wait until after the marathon – so instead she showed me a range of exercises I could do at home, how to tape my knee for extra support, and a few simple things I could try on my last few runs before the big day.
For those taking part in any races, Drakes advice was to be realistic about your goals, don’t set off too fast and don’t try anything new on the day. Afterwards, remember to keep moving, do some gentle stretches and perhaps treat yourself to a sports massage. And for those suffering from injuries or niggles, perhaps don't leave it so long before seeking help!
The Running MOT Clinic at HCA Healthcare at The Shard, part of the London Bridge Hospital costs £120 for an hour session.
Danielle is running the London marathon for the British Heart Foundation and doesn’t care if she runs, walks, or crawls over the finish line on 28th April.