For most people, running is either a love it or hate it type of activity. There are people who swear they can't live without running every day and there are people who swear that they would rather die than run a mile.
So what's the deal? Why is something that seems so essentially human such a controversial subject?
Before I go any further, I'd like to tell you a story...
|My first exhibition boxing match.|
When I was a kid, I thought that I should be good at things right away. I picked up a baseball bat, swung, missed, and swore off America's passtime. Moving on to football, I threw a pass that loped end over end into the dirt, and said that the gridiron wasn't for me. All the while, I was big into video games. For whatever reason, I didn't take losing a video game personally.
Perhaps it was because it was a more private experience and failure didn't invite public ridicule, but nevertheless, I practiced playing video games without realizing that I was practicing. Understandibly, I got better, and therefore I enjoyed playing video games much more than I did playing sports.
It was only after many years that I realized that by practicing athletic activities, such as rock climbing, boxing, or even, gasp!, baseball, that you could improve your skill level. With improved skill I started to enjoy physical activities more and more and now look forward to the challenge.
Now this brings me back to my original point about running...
Unlike swinging a golf club, or swimming the breaststroke, learning how to run is something we are expected to do on our own. We are told to "Just Do It" and, depending on our genetic lot, we experience either initial success or initial failure.
In running however, failure and success are more subtle than with baseball. Instead of striking out like a baseball player, a clear sign that you need to work on your swing, a running "fail" takes the form of an inefficient stride, poor posture, and overall bad biomechanics. This requires the runner to expend more energy (effort) and takes a greater toll on their body (injuries).
My theory then, is that people who don't like to run are really people who have never been taught to run properly.
With proper technique, running is an enjoyable activity, an application of athletic skill, and an expression of our genetic programming.
Enjoyable activity? Athletic skill? Genetic programming?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Ever hear of the "runners high"? Well that's a real thing. With a combination of mindfulness, deep breathing, and a dash of endorphins, you can get pretty lifted on a run. Before you get to this level though, you need a degree of proficiency. Practiced running is an efficient movement that balances relaxation with effort and if you doubt that you could ever "relax" while running, think about this:
Human beings emerged from the African savannah as hunter-gatherers adept at tracking game. Do you think that we were hunting turtles? NO! We had to chase down fleet-footed ungulates like the modern day antelope, and in some cases, exercise the poor creatures to death (this is called "persistence hunting").
Running an antelope into the dirt wasn't something you could do with an all out sprint (antelopes have us beat in the sprinting department hands, or should I say hooves, down), but by hitting cruise control and keeping up a relentlessly driving pace, we were able to eventually prevail. You have the DNA of those ancient marathon runners in your modern day cells, and it's just waiting to get out, it just needs a bit of encouragement and some perseverance on your part.
If you're still reading this, I'm assuming you're starting to buy into the hype. So let's get into some specifics:
Tip 1: Tread Lightly
Take out your earbuds and listen to your stride. That percussive “slap, slap, slap” of your foot hitting the pavement is a sign that you are running “heel first” which stresses the muscles in the front of the shin as they struggle to decelerate your foot crashing to the ground. A hard heel strike not only encourages the development of shin splints, it also contributes to degeneration of the knee, hip, and low back as these structures are forced to absorb the impact of your leg hitting the ground with a straight knee. “Running Quiet” encourages a “midfoot” stride that utilizes the natural spring-like action of the knee and ankle to absorb impact forces and convert them into forward motion.
Tip 2: Slow Down
Imagine if your golf game consisted of trying to hit the ball by swinging the club as hard and fast as possible. Chances are, the turf would end up looking like it had been trampled by herd of angry elephants and the golf ball would be somewhere far from where you intended. Running is no different. By slowing down and really focusing on the “quality” of movement versus the “quantity” of speed (ie how fast you are running) you can ensure that you are running with a smooth efficient stride.
If you have been ruled by your stopwatch during your runs, put the timepiece aside and trust your gut. Try running as slowly as possible while still technically running. Use this as an opportunity to really dial in a sense of effortlessness. Once you have the feeling that everything is working together properly, add a dash of speed. If you can keep everything going at a full tilt, great, if not, dial it back down.
Tip 3: Stand Tall
Ever hear the phrase, “walk before you run”? Well, this phrase should probably include an additional addendum. Before you walk, or run, you need to be able to properly stand. Proper posture starts with the feet, which means ditching the “high heeled” running shoes that are so commonly pitched by shoe store salesmen. Look for a shoe that has a minimal “drop” (the distance between the heel and the forefoot). By standing with your feet mostly or fully flat on the ground, you create the foundation for proper posture.
After the feet are squared away, the next point of focus is the hips. Think of them like a bowl full of water. If you pelvis is pitching forward, the water will spill, if it’s pitching backward, the water will spill, you want the hips level and the “water” contained. North of the hips is the abdomen. Gently pull in the abdomen (about a 20% effort) to engage the core musculature and support the spine. The last two points of posture are the chest (you want it up), shoulders (you want them back), and head (eyes focused forwards, not on the ground). With proper posture, you put yourself in an anatomically ideal posture to move, whether walking, running, or anything else.
|Probably the muddiest I've ever been in my life. Guess that's why they call it a "mud run"!|
Putting it all together
Where you start in your running journey will certainly influence how far you go and how quickly you get there. If you've been totally sedentary for decades, it's going to take some time to knock the rust off. Conversely, if you're already somewhat athletic, and have just been avoiding running out of fear or prejudice, you'll likely find that you advance rather quickly.
Most importantly, you should ENJOY your runs. Treat them as the opportunity to get better that they are, rather than penance for bad food choices or a masochistic need to feel pain. I personally went from an unathletic, chubby, video game playing nerd to someone who has dedicated his life to the pursuit of fitness. I'm not doing this because I no longer enjoy video games or TV, it's because I've discovered that fitness, including running, CAN be just as fun as other forms of entertainment, possibly even more so.
The last thing that I would like to leave you with is that this post is intended to put you on the path, it's up to you to get out there and put it into practice. If you do this, I can guarantee that you'll begin to learn how to love this most ancient of human activities.