Old Man Runs Like Kenyan

Best way to craft great runs? Start slowly.

No need to follow the motto of the Dolphin/South End Runners in San Francisco: “Start slow and taper off.” But there’s no denying that the body does like to get up to speed at its own pace, and that it baulks when we push it to go too fast, too soon.

Writer and 2:20 marathoner Scott Douglas spent six weeks in Kenya in 2004, training with that country’s elite runners. One thing that surprised him was that the Kenyans aren’t afraid to go slowly (or, of course, fast).

Okay, so you’re probably not going to move to 8,000 feet of altitude and devote yourself entirely to your athletics. One hundred twenty-mile weeks might not be on next week’s agenda. And, yes, it’s a little late to pick your parents with an eye toward getting dealt the best genetic hand. But that doesn’t mean you can’t still train like a Kenyan….

Every run I did with Kenyans started at a stumble, and most finished substantially faster. Contrast that with most recreational runners’ practice of starting out the door at the pace they think they should be running that day, and maintaining roughly the same pace throughout the run.

In my book, Fitness Intuition, I make my best case for a long, slow warmup – not only because it gets the body ready to rock ‘n’ roll, but because it’s a good way to get your head and heart and willpower in synch with your body’s real needs.

When I started running nearly 40 years ago, the most common training advice I heard was “Listen to your body.” It isn’t easy to do, but a long, slow warmup makes it easier. When we speed up too soon, the body has to work hard. It has to “get dressed in a hurry.” And our attention is drawn outward – to the painful, huffing breath, and the inadequately warmed-up, resisting muscles.

In yoga and other experiential spiritual paths, it’s a basic axiom that our breathing reflects our state of mind – restless, ragged breathing is invariably accompanied by a restless mind and difficulty concentrating. Heavy, labored breath indicates an outward focus of attention.

Scott Douglas writes:

Think of a pot of water coming to a boil-there’s no one instant where you can pinpoint when it started to get hot, but the end result is undeniable. The same thing happens when you allow your muscles and cardiovascular system to ease into action-as you gradually warm up, you’ll up your pace without really noticing it. Toward the end of your run, you’ll be moving quickly and comfortably, and will be teaching yourself how to run fast but relaxed. Finishing faster than you start is also good practice for running negative splits in races.

I learned the value of the long, slow warmup partly by running with other runners who were wearing a heart monitor. They always warmed up more slowly than I did. The long warmup made me impatient, but it always paid off, with fast, easy, enjoyable running later.

Scott Douglas also discovered that the Kenyans don’t run hard all the time, as some have claimed. Instead, they like to vary the pace, running hard one day and easy the next.

One day I joined 12:52 5K man Isaac Songok and world junior cross country champ Augustine Choge for their morning run. We did a roughly 10K loop in 49 minutes. For their next run, Songok and Choge covered the same loop in just under 31 minutes — about three minutes per mile faster!

This great disparity in intensity level from run to run is common. To Kenyans, every run has a specific purpose, usually expressed in terms of “easy,” “average” or “high” speed. When it’s time to go easy, such as the run before or after a “high” session, Kenyans have no qualms about doing nothing more than a glorified trot. This low-intensity, active recovery allows them to still get in volume while leaving them ready to really nail the next hard workout. Most recreational runners, in contrast, run too hard on their easy days and carry around too much residual fatigue to hit the times they’re capable of in quality sessions. To reach your racing potential, follow the Kenyans-easy runs easier, harder runs faster.

It can be very difficult to run slowly, when everyone else is shooting out of the blocks. I run often at Rancho San Antonio, a lovely, trail-rich 3800-acre preserve in California’s Coastal Range. “Rancho” is a favorite mecca for local runners. As a result, there’s lots of un-subtle effort to “look good.”

I’m too old for those head games. At 65, I’ll sometimes take an entire enjoyable hour to warm up, letting my heart and mind enjoy each moment while my old reptilian body warms up.

On a typical day, I was jogging up Wildcat Canyon so slowly that two young girls passed me hiking. I was wearing a heart monitor, holding my pace to 67-70%. Sure, I was tempted to speed up a bit, but I resisted the urge. They were soon far ahead.

After 65 minutes, I felt my body inwardly “loosen” – I don’t know how else to describe it. It was like a space opened up, and I relaxed easily and naturally into running a little bit faster – and then gradually faster. Soon, I was cruising at 85-92% of my max heart rate, going very fast with complete ease. As I passed the hikers, I heard one snicker about guys having to prove their machismo. I was enjoying myself so much that I just smiled as I sailed effortlessly down the trail, leaving them far behind.

The long warmup works. So does a mix of (very) easy and (very) hard runs. (The great Moroccan miler, Noureddine Morceli, would often do his easy runs as slow as 10-minute pace!)

At my age, the hard runs are rare – every two or three weeks. But the principle is the same. I may be old, but I run like a Kenyan.

(I found the Scott Douglas article on the Running Warehouse website.)