I learned a big lesson leading up to my first Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996: trainers are not just trainers.
As this weekend we see British athletes take on the best in Europe in the European Indoor Athletics Championships, I reflect on my 12 year international athletics career and ponder what simple tips I can pass on to those runners interested in improving their performance.
Trainer addict! That was me – for four years leading up to the 1996 Olympics I had all the trainers I needed, a pair for my easy runs, a lighter pair for my interval sessions, fartleks and faster training runs plus a pair of spikes for racing. And for each an identical pair that I could break in to be ready for use. As I say – a trainer addict!
Then a new sponsor offered me more money, loads of free kit and trainers as well as bonuses if I switched to them.
It was a no-brainer! What could go wrong?
I remember being so excited by my new contract as I chose the best looking trainers, the latest fashion and my favourite colours (I wanted to look good, of course).
With only two and a half weeks to go until the Olympic Games I was fit, fast and in amazing medal prospect shape, having won four global medals in the two years before.
Out I went in my brand new trainers for an easy run. The day before I’d run an amazing 2 x 800m in 2min 03sec and 2min 02sec with only 10 minutes’ recovery in between. My coach Dave Arnold and I knew I was in the best shape ever: I was practically flying!
As a forefoot runner, (I run up on my toes unless I am really tired) my heels hardly touch the ground. What I hadn’t factored in was that the new trainers were stiff and had no flexibility in the mid and forefoot. After the run I had really tight ankles, my calves felt rock hard and my lower back was sore. I went home, stretched and packed for my flight to Florida.
What was to come next was a complete shock.
Excited to be going to my first Olympic Games, I was eager to get on the flight. However, I felt a bruising pain on my shin, so on arrival I went to the team doctor who sent me for a scan.
And then, those words:
“You have a stress fracture in your tibia … our advice is that you go home…”
I was devastated.
The next two weeks were awful, I had decided that I was not going to go home as it was my first Olympics and what if I never went to one again? I faced no running, losing speed and tone, and injections into the site of the fracture. Yes, there were tears and pain but I stayed determined and focused on my goal.
I came fourth that year in the 800m final only getting pipped on the line. Not bad, considering. Then did the most stupid thing ever to try and make up for it, going through with the 1500m too, reaching the final. The end result was heartbreak, a plaster cast and crutches.
The conclusion of my coach, physios and doctor, was that it was the immediate change of footwear from a model that suited my forefoot running style (a flexible and light sole, allowing my foot to do what it wanted) to a trainer that was structured (a hard shoe that dictated my foot plant).
It was that simple: my choice and change of trainers put me on crutches!
I didn’t know about biomechanical assessments or that trainers could be so different and make such a difference. I thought the more expensive the better and the more cushion and stability the more supportive they would be.
What I personally needed was a pair of trainers that were light, completely flexible at all points on my foot, not restrictive and not too tight across the top, where I tied my laces.
In fact, check out the spikes that helped me win my Double Gold at the Athens Olympic Games.
Not fancy, as light as slippers but effective.
For me, less is definitely more. For you it might be different. My advice is:
- Don’t just go for brand and colour
- The most expensive trainers are not necessarily the best ones for you
- Observe your running style or ask someone to. Do you sit back and run on your heels? Do you run heel to toe? Are you flat-footed? Do you run on your toes?
- Get an assessment done at a specialised running shop
- If you can afford to, buy two pairs of trainers so you can alternate your running days in them to help prolong their life
- If you have a tear in the fabric, or the sole looks creased and squashed it’s time to bin them as the stability that you are used to has gone
My top tip for anyone getting ready for a spring Marathon – including Paris, Brighton and London – is don’t change the model of your trainers but start breaking in a new pair of the same model so you can use them if something happens to the ones you are running in now.
Good luck and run safe!