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

Sat, 4 Mar 2006 20:17:24 -0500

No Mile Wasted


(rerun from March 2004 RW; this was my last column for that magazine, though I didn't yet know it at the time of its writing)

Ask me about my normal daily run, and the answer won't impress you. Tell me you run longer and faster, and I'll agree; most runners do. But try to tell me that my runs lack "quality" or, worse, are "junk miles," and you'll get an argument. Here it comes.

For as long as I've been running easily and writing its praises, I've heard how these runs waste time and effort. That was the knock on my first book, Long Slow Distance, published in 1969.

One critic with a long memory called recently to comment on a column of mine. The stranger said, "I'm happy to see your metamorphosis from the person who promoted long slow distance [LSD] to admitting now that you were wrong."

Wrong? Did I say that?

"I tried LSD, and so did many others who ran with me at the time," the caller continued. "All it did was make us long slow racers."

Then came his unkindest cut of all: "LSD was a cancer that hurt the sport for a long time, and you were the person who spread it. I praise you now for having the nerve to renounce it."

Renounce? Hardly!

I only retired the term LSD. It was misleading because it invited runners to stack up the highest possible mileage at the slowest possible pace. Too much distance can do as much damage as too much speed. I substituted the less catchy but more accurate words such as "gentle" and "relaxed."

My shift to a slower gear wasn't meant to improve my racing but to escape the ravages of excessive speed training. The other runners featured in that book did the same. To our surprise, all six of us improved our times anyway.

Our improvement didn't come from any inherent magic in slower running but because this was EASIER running. It let us freshen up between hard efforts instead of staying forever tired.

I was slow to see that the slower running was less a training system than a RECOVERY system. We raced better by staying healthier and happier, not by training harder.

One way to judge a running program's success is by the eventual results it confers. When runners aim for the biggest racing payoffs, no training is too hard and no sacrifice too great.

But another way to judge a program's value is to ask yourself: Would I still run this way even if there were no racing payoff? The runners from the LSD book didn't keep racing better indefinitely; no one does. But we kept running, and keep doing it, in the same way relaxed way as before.

We can view your runs as either vocational or recreational, as a job or a hobby, as work or play. "Serious" training falls on the left side of those word-pairings. My running tilts to the right.

I've spent a running/writing lifetime trying not to use certain words, because how we describe an activity shapes our view of it. One such word is "work." Another is its cousin, "workout."

Working implies doing something because you must, but don't welcome the job. It suggests putting up with a distasteful task to earn an eventual reward.

But what if that payday never came, or if it was smaller than expected? Would you feel that all your time and effort had gone to waste?

Running isn't my second job. No one pays me or forces me to practice this hobby. It's my choice, and I choose to find my rewards in the maximum number of runs.

To me, the real "junk miles" are those run reluctantly today, only as an investment in a better tomorrow. This feels like counting the hours until quitting time, the days until the weekend, the weeks until vacation, the years until retirement. Always working toward a distant finish line may mean missing the fun in being where here now.

Running can give its rewards instantly and regularly. Ask me about my runs, and I'll tell you they're nothing special -- except in the quiet ways that all runs are special. Any run anyone wanted to take, and feels happy for having taken, is never wasted.

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