Running Wisdom

Joe Henderson’s excellent, long out-of-print book The Long Run Solution is now online here. It’s a great read, and 31 years have not changed the truth of its message.

In Chapter 18, “Training,” Joe describes his early struggles to find the best way to train. His high school coach wasn’t much help — he assigned a steady diet of fast quarters — and that was it. Joe evolved his own system, which included moderate-paced distance running, and it worked — on his self-coached training, he won six state titles. But then came college. Joe writes of his freshman year at Drake University:

I signed on with a coach who knew just about everything about training methods. He gave me workouts so complicated that I couldn’t figure out where I’d been and where they were leading me. No more easy miles on the roads combined with a few races and trials. That was too primitive. It may have worked in high school, but it wasn’t good enough for the big-time.

Maybe not. But I didn’t belong in the big-time, either, and I needed something more “primitive.” In the first year of college, my mile time went from 4:22 to 4:50, my three-mile from about 15 minutes to more than 16.

Earlier, I’d stumbled onto the right combination of endurance and speed — a torrent of distance and a dribble of fast stuff. I didn’t know what the combination was, so I stumbled in and out of it a half-dozen more times until I finally broke the code.

Joe’s race times rose and fell as he alternately trained too hard and raced too often, then got injured and regrouped with the kind of moderate training that had worked magically in the past.

I was in the sorriest mental-physical shape in my life. Only then, out of desperation, did I figure out the formula I’d been on during every successful, healthy, happy running period since the start — and off of during the down times….

I’d listed every race and every run in a loose-leaf diary-type binder. Since 1966, all of my running had been one extreme or the other — easy or all-out. So my own running-racing balance was easy to figure out. Two patterns jumped out of the mass of statistics.

1. I raced best when I raced 5% of my miles (20:1 ratio).

2. I raced worst, was tired, sick and hurt most often when I raced 10% or more of the total.

There’s a wealth of wisdom in Chapter18. For me, it held a powerful message.

After 30+ years of running, I’m well aware of the training that works best for me. But it’s such a simple formula that I occasionally begin to doubt. Start slowly. Practice ruthless pace discipline. Never run harder than an inner wisdom, speaking through the subtle feelings of my heart, tells me the body wants to go.

It always works. Yet I’m apt, on occasion, to lose my way.

I’m feeling really good; I wonder what’ll happen if I go fast from the start.

I’m not feeling great, but I’ll do a few miles of hard repeats and shake off the blahs.

After almost four decades of running, I can still feel mildly ashamed to be warming up with 40-80 minutes of slow jogging while dozens of youngsters (and not a few oldsters) go speeding by. They aren’t wasting their time slogging like an old putz. Shouldn’t I be going faster?

Yet, it always works. Even if I don’t end up going far or fast, the long warmup puts me in tune with my body, and my sure inner sense of its needs. It enables me to do what’s right. And that’s important, because doing the right thing invariably gives me joy.

An ancient Indian scripture, the Vivekachudamani (“Crest Jewel of Wisdom”), talks about the “glamorizing power of the mind.”

The glamorizing power of the mind wants to enmesh us in pain. It wants to draw us outward, away from our wise, inner core. It’s the attraction of cheap thrills, of fleeting pleasures, of wrong turns, of looking for love in all the wrong places. Defeating its wiles can require a hard fight. In The Long Run Solution, Joe tells how he won the battle, through difficult skirmishes and no small number of momentary defeats.

Those who mock us when we train temperately don’t have a clue. Impulsive running is easy. Balance, moderation, and self-control are hard. But they always deliver the best results, inwardly and outwardly.