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

Sat, 22 Nov 2008 05:17:42 -0500

This I Believe


[Rerun, in two parts, from November 2006 Marathon & Beyond.]

National Public Radio doesn't go with me on my runs. That's when I still resist listening to podcasts. But NPR's morning news is the last voice I hear before running and the first afterward.

At those times I often hear a segment in the ongoing series titled "This I Believe." Hearing these five-minute highly personal essays, I think: I could write a book on that subject.

Then I remember: already did that. It was titled Long Run Solution, was serialized in Marathon & Beyond in 2002 and 2003, and now appears in full on my website.

That book was an extended version of what I believed while writing the book more than 30 years ago. Time for an updated and condensed version.

So here is everything I now believe about running, in 100 words or less. A hundred per topic, that is, while totaling a couple dozen of those. This I believe…

EXERCISE ISN'T ENOUGH. Kenneth Cooper's formula -- two to three miles, three to five days a week at a relaxed aerobic pace -- is enough running for an exerciser. "If you run more than 15 miles a week," says the Aerobics author, "you're running for reasons other than fitness." There's more to running than fitness. Running only to train your heart, lungs and limbs is as incomplete as eating only to exercise your jaws. Training to race, and running for relaxation and meditation, begin where the exerciser leaves off. The early miles are warmup steps leading to the best part, the second half-hour.

RUNNING IS ADDICTIVE. This is a positive and natural addiction. Necessary activities, which running was for most of human history, are made pleasant so we'll keep coming back to them. The new runner's first goal is to reach the addiction point, the 3-3-3 level. This means promising to run for three months, and to build toward three miles, three days a week. Runners who go this far are likely to continue -- and to seek out the attractions of running beyond meeting the basic need for aerobic fitness. Running then shifts from an obligation into a habit, from a trial into a reward.

STARTING IS HARD, and not just for a new runner overcoming inactivity for the first time. Longtimers also wage a daily battle against inertia. One of its laws is that a body at rest wants to keep resting. The hardest step in running is the first one out the door. The toughest mile is the opener. You can trick yourself into starting by saying, "I'll try a single slow mile and see how I feel then." Get through that trial mile, and you almost always keep going -- at a better pace -- until the day's planned run is complete. Another law of inertia has gone to work: a body in motion tries to keep moving.

RUNNING IS EASY. No one can run long and hard, or short and fast, every day without paying a toll in pain and exhaustion. In distance running you must run less than your best most of the time. Nine miles in every 10, or all but a day or two every week, must be easy. An easy pace is one to two minutes per mile slower than you now could race the same distance. An easy distance is half the length of your current longest run, or between 30 and 60 minutes. Hold your running to less than one hour a day, on average. Beyond that time, this hobby starts to feel like a second job.

RUNNERS ARE ANIMALS. Animals, primitive humans and children show us that most natural ways to run are fast for very short distances, or slow and with many pauses for long distances. Long slow distance (LSD) running, walk breaks and short-fast interval training have history on their side. Racing a long distance fast is an unnatural act. We also get in touch with our inner animal in other ways by becoming a little less civilized for an hour a day. Real runners learn to let our sweat flow freely, and to spit, blow our noses with the fingers and discretely relieve ourselves outdoors.

WALKING IS WORTHWHILE. Walk breaks can work wonders. They can make a long run longer or short segments of a fast run faster -- without increasing the apparent effort. Or these pauses can make an easy run easier, or make a recovery run (after an injury or illness) safer. Walking isn't cheating. It's moving as we're designed to move, at varying paces and efforts. If you don't like the word "walk," think of it as interval training for the long-distance runner. Mix one-minute walks, early and often, into a long run. This is long enough to feel like a break, but not so long that you tighten up.

RUNNING IS BEST. Don't be attracted too much to activities peripheral to running. These include stretching, weight training, form drills and cross-training, as well as nutritional magic-seeking. Better to warm up by slow running, or even fast walking, than by stretching (which has value, but not as a warmup). Better to run an extra mile (because you get better at running by running) than to spend those minutes other ways. Better to lose a few pounds (if you're above ideal weight, as most of us are) than to add an imagined "missing ingredient" to the diet. Better to run a little hungry than eat too much, too late.

TIME IS RIGHT. Training by miles (or kilometers) means you must plot a course, then measure it, then remember to follow it as designed. A simpler choice: ignore miles and run by minutes. You can run anywhere without thinking about the distance or the route, and time will pass at the same rate. And logging "41 minutes" is more exact than noting "about five miles." By-time running also helps regulate pace, especially on easy days. You tend to push a known distance to finish it sooner. Minutes can't be rushed, so you tend to settle into the right pace -- not too fast or too slow.

REST IS NEEDED. Weekly mileage is the most misleading -- and potentially damaging -- figure in running. It can lead to a leveling of daily totals, causing you to run too much on days that should be easy and leaves you unable to do enough on days that should be hard. Weekly mile-totaling penalizes you the most for what you might need the most -- a big zero from a rest day. If you insist on counting miles (or minutes) by the week, take the math a step further. Calculate daily averages. Add up the amount of running, then divide only by the number of days run. This erases the rest-day penalty.

INJURIES AREN'T ACCIDENTS. They usually are self-inflicted by running too far, too fast, too soon or too often. Oncoming injuries can be minimized when caught early. If pain grows during a run and causes a limp, stop. If soreness eases and doesn't change your form, keep going -- cautiously. If you can't run, train in other ways that most closely resemble running. If walking doesn't aggravate the problem, walk the same places and for the same times you would have run. If you can't walk, bicycle. If you can't bike, swim or "run" in water. Move back up that activity scale as you recover.

RUNNING ISN'T ROUTINE. We think and talk about the whats and hows (especially the how-fars and how-fasts) of running. But the wheres seldom come up, beyond where the next race might be. Yet you spend dozens to hundreds of hours on your home courses. This isn't to say they grow old, routine or boring after the 99th repetition. Even as you run the same place and the same pace, a course never looks quite the same way twice. The combinations of weather, season, light, feelings and thoughts that you find there are ever-changing. Each new run has the potential to surprise you.

[Concluding in RC 756 with beliefs about racing and race-training.]
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