Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Fri, 14 Dec 2001 08:49:09 -0500

Whatever Works


Almost daily a runner sends me an e-mail, pleading for advice on how to come back from, or train through, an injury. Almost as often I decline to answer, at least in specific terms.

This isn't because I don't care. It isn't only because I don't want to spend all my time answering medical questions. It isn't even because I fear getting caught posing as an unlicensed doctor.

I don't answer in any detail because I don't have any absolute answers. And I doubt that there are any.

Running would be simpler if it followed a few rational rules. Simpler but less fascinating.

If one practice always worked and another never did, we could stop all of our experimenting. All of us would adopt a single training program and follow it unswervingly. We'd deviate from this Grand Plan at the risk of doing great bodily harm.

Logic suggests there is such a plan. You might think that the farther you run, the tougher it is. And that the faster you go, the more it hurts.

Your might think that the best response to pain is to slow down or stop. That slower running is less damaging than a faster pace. That walking is safer than running, and that resting is safest of all.

But running isn't always (or even often) this logical. I know that, and so do many of you.

We know that the first and slowest mile of a run can feel the hardest. We know that soreness often peaks during rest and eases after a warmup. We even know that running faster can be more therapeutic than dawdling along.

For much of the past year I had a hip problem. It took a sudden turn for the better when I began warming up really slowly (see RC 375) -- but also after I resumed running short races.

This wasn't a serious injury. As far as I know, my hip isn't arthritic.

Several of my friends and readers have been diagnosed with arthritis of the hip. One is Tim Zbikowsky, who thought a year ago that he would have to give up racing and maybe all of running.

Below is his story in his own words. It has an illogical but happy training twist.

TIM WRITES: The diagnosis of arthritis in my hip was correct; the x-rays were quite conclusive. I cut back to running a few miles easy every other day, but it remained painful. I started running one day with TWO days off, and the pain seemed to increase.

Then I got the bright idea to run every day again, and the pain level dropped considerably. My conclusion was a short, easy run every day was better than no exercise.

This is where I think the story gets interesting. A running friend of mine (my former high school coach) told me about the workouts he was doing on an indoor soccer field.

He had been reading [Olympic 5000-meter champion] Bob Schul's book describing a type of workout he termed "fresh." It's basically short, faster-paced intervals with walking breaks between each.

My friend thought this workout was good for leg speed and invited me to join him for one. When we did the workout the first time, I was surprised that my sore hip increasingly felt better throughout -- and was equally surprised to learn that our total distance was about four miles, my longest run in weeks.

I start experimenting with more of these workouts. Every day I did one felt better than a day when I ran short and easy. So I took it to the level of doing a workout of this type every day.

My longest runs are only six to seven miles and involve a lot of walking breaks and quick-paced strides. An average run is three to five miles with some combination of intervals and some parts of the run under six-minute pace. No matter how bad I feel at the start, I always feel better by the end.

I still enjoy 5-K road races, but 10-K's apparently grind on my hip too much. I don't positively know why I can't run steadily for more than four miles but can run interval workouts totaling six miles-plus. My best guess is the mechanical efficiency of faster running.

It works for me, and I'm sticking with it.

TIM ZBIKOWSKY'S message isn't that his intervals are right for everyone. It's that he found what's right for him at this stage of his running life.

The right way to run is whatever works for you at the moment. Keep poking around until you find your own answers, then stick with them even when they defy the conventional wisdom of running.

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