The Buddha’s Snarky Advice for Runners

Where can runners turn when they have questions?

Science? Science is notorious for overturning its principal theories every few years. For decades, exercise physiologists believed that lactic acid caused the “burn” during hard exercise. Then, several years ago, lactic acid was shown to be a fuel for working muscles.

The trouble with exercise science is that it describes broad average behaviors; but it offers little help for the individual runner’s training.

Then where can we go to find the answers we need?

Famous coaches? Well, there are lots of them, and they aren’t all equally successful or wise. For my money, Arthur Lydiard was the wisest, most trustworthy running coach of all, simply because he proved his ideas in the laboratory of his own training – and he proved them again on the world stage, with multiple Olympic medals and world records.

I once got blasted for posting some snarky remarks on the Runner’s World forum. I said, approximately, “God help the beginning runner who comes here for answers. He’ll get so many different responses, he’ll be thoroughly bewildered, and most of the answers will be little more than random personal opinions.”

Judging from the violence of the reactions I got, people hated to hear that. And yet, it’s true. In fact, I wasn’t trying to be provocative. I was simply describing my own experience, as a beginning runner many years before. When I had questions and asked other runners or consulted books, I got such a bewildering variety of answers that I didn’t know what to do.

I had much better results when I started to consult my intuition. Specifically, when I prayed for answers, and listened in my heart for the response.

Sometimes, rarely, the answers came in spectacular fashion. When I began training for marathons and ultras, I got seriously overtrained. I was trying to go long every weekend, and I was running my long runs straight through, without walking breaks. I was sick all the time, with colds and constant diarrhea. Desperate for answers, one day I was driving on the freeway through Grass Valley one day, and I prayed hard to know what to do.

I heard an intuitive voice – it was my spiritual teacher, who said, “Go see Jim Walker.”

Jim was a well-known local ultrarunner who worked at a running store. He had run Western States four times, tthe American River 50-Mile eight times, and had completed the 135-mile Badwater race across Death Valley in midsummer.

I said, “But Jim’s boss gives me the evil eye when I go in the store and gab with him.”

Again the intuitive voice said: “Go see Jim Walker.”

When I got to the store, Jim’s boss was nowhere in sight. I told Jim how I had been training. He casually draped an arm over a clothes rack and proceeded to instruct me on how to do long runs.

Running is extremely complex. Very often, we can’t find the answers we need because we simply can’t access all of the factors involved. What’s causing that heel pain? Well, a “scientific” answer might include minute descriptions of bone, cartilage, cell metabolism, blood flow, pronation, shoe construction, running form – and so on. All with lots of “maybes” and “perhapses” thrown in. It might take days to ferret out all the factors and weigh them in the scale of logic and reason. I’ve had better luck consulting a power that knows my needs and all of the factors involved, and has my best interests at heart.

Where can we find answers? When asked essentially that question, the Buddha urged people to trust their own experience.

Kalama Sutta

The people of Kalama asked the Buddha who to believe out of all the ascetics, sages, venerables, and holy ones who, like himself, passed through their town. They complained that they were confused by the many contradictions they discovered in what they heard. The Kalama Sutta is the Buddha’s reply.

Do not believe anything on mere hearsay.

Do not believe in traditions merely because they are old and have been handed down for many generations and in many places.

Do not believe anything on account of rumors or because people talk a great deal about it.

Do not believe anything because you are shown the written testimony of some ancient sage.

Do not believe in what you have fancied, thinking that, because it is extraordinary, it must have been inspired by a god or other wonderful being.

Do not believe anything merely because presumption is in its favor, or because the custom of many years inclines you to take it as true.

Do not believe anything merely on the authority of your teachers and priests.

But, whatever, after thorough investigation and reflection, you find to agree with reason and experience, as conducive to the good and benefit of one and all and of the world at large, accept only that as true, and shape your life in accordance with it.

The same text, said the Buddha, must be applied to his own teachings.

Do not accept any doctrine from reverence, but first try it as gold is tried by fire.

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2 Responses to The Buddha’s Snarky Advice for Runners

  1. David October 20, 2010 at 10:00 pm #

    Great! I totally agree – what many of us need I think is a little more willingness to trust self-experimentation.

    How this, sometimes almost blind, trust in authorities came to be, I don’t know. But I do know that it can be very dangerous.

    Also, I think it’s very important not to get too attached to what you perceive as “truth”. Because “truth” is personal, and it changes. For example: I bought the shoe industry propaganda of overly protective shoes and I bought the dairy machinery propaganda of how I needed milk to be healthy, as truth. However, having let those “truths” give way for other “truths”, I now feel much better. Not to say that my current beliefs are absolutely true, but they are, at this moment, for me, at least a little bit closer to it.

    Anyway mostly wanted to say this: I’m fully with you, and with Buddha; we need to reclaim our own experience!

  2. runbei October 21, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Very insightful. You’d think it would be obvious to everyone – the individual is what matters.

    My spiritual teacher says the best spiritual practice is “that which teaches you to stand on your own two feet.”

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