Have You “Found Yourself” as a Runner?

Am I the only runner who took years to learn how to train?

I’ve met runners who never doubted their training. Usually, they were folks who’d been running a long time. Some had run on high school and college teams. They received their “education” from coaches and experienced runners.

Others weren’t on teams, but had logged thousands of miles and “learned by doing.”

People who begin running late in life have a harder time. At 30 or 40, they have a lot of catching-up to do. Yet there’s no coach or team to help. They’re on their own.

When we start running, we stand on the outside looking in. Our body sends us signals about the kind of training it can handle, but we don’t hear the signals, or we ignore them, or we can’t understand what they’re saying.

In the beginning, the issues are physical: what shoes to wear, how far and fast to run, what to do about blisters, heel pain, chafing, fueling, and drinking.

Once we achieve basic fitness, we begin to feel like real runners. Yet certain questions remain. After you find shoes that work, you can forget about them – at least until ASICS or Nike changes the design. But questions like “How far?” “How fast?” and “How often?” never go away. That’s because the correct answers change daily.

Once again, we’re tempted to look for answers outside, in “solid numbers.” “Oh, okay, this book by a respected sports physiologist tells me to run 5 miles on Tuesday at 2 minutes per mile slower than my 5K PR. Well, that’s a little complicated, but I believe I can do the math, and it will give me a solid number.”

But we soon realize that the “solid” numbers are actually a bit shaky. The trouble is, no two Tuesdays are alike. Many things change: the weather, fatigue, diet, recovery – the variables are endless.

We begin to “find ourselves” when we learn to calmly accept that things do change. We realize that, while it’s okay to start with numbers, the best “advice” comes from inside. Looking inside, we rely less on outside guidance and truly find ourselves.

No coach, book, or runner can give us the details of training. At best, they can only suggest principles.

It’s ironic that the most accurate and reliable running books are the least precise. They may give us numbers, but the numbers aren’t rigid – they’re intended as suggestions merely, put in the book to illustrate principles. Two excellent books that teach principles are Arthur Lydiard’s Running to the Top and Keith Livingstone’s Healthy Intelligent Training: The Proven Principles of Arthur Lydiard.

Hard numbers are unscientific because the efforts they prescribe are bound to be wildly inappropriate on most days. What sets principles-based training apart is that it allows breathing room to adjust training individually – to adapt our effort flexibly and flowingly to the needs of the day. If the best training for Tuesday is a slower, shorter run than the numbers dictate, principle-based training says “Follow your feelings.”

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “The Africans Are Hearing Footsteps: Kara Goucher Leads a U.S. Marathon Revival; Her Style – Run More, Think Less” (August 20, 2009), blamed the decline of US distance running on a trend that began in the 1970s, toward numbers-based, “scientific” training. The article heralds marathoner Goucher as a standard bearer for a more intuitive, feeling-based approach.

Author David Biderman credits the ascendancy of the Africans, in part, to their less-inhibited, more aggressive style. He quotes Kenyan Felix Limo, winner of the 2006 Boston and 2005 Chicago marathons: “I don’t need a mileage like the runners here [in the US] …. I can push myself.”

As examples of other elites who’ve rejected number-based training and racing, the article names Paula Radcliffe, Deena Kastor, and Ryan Hall. “She’s [Radcliffe] got some structure to her training,” the article says, “ but she’s known more for her relentless attacking and competitiveness.”

Kastor echoes: “For so long, people here were focused on figuring out the exact science behind setting records…. But there is no exact science.”

The media do love to whip up our emotions. “Here comes a brave new generation of runners who train with reckless abandon!” The trouble is, it’s a highly inaccurate. For starters, all elite runners have “some structure” in their training. And, worse, the take-away message for new runners is dangerous: “Stop doing the math! Throw away your training diary! Run as you feel (particularly if you feel aggressive)!”

Consider the Africans, those paragons of instinctual, aggressive running. With due respect to David Limo, the present generation of Kenyans don’t “push themselves” daily. On their easy days, they run amazingly easy – so easy that Joe Henderson, at age 60-plus, was able to run and talk with a group of Kenyans who were staying at the same hotel before the New York marathon. Of course, on their next outing they ran 3 minutes per mile faster.

Finding ourselves as runners means knowing how quickly our bodies recover. And that’s 100-percent individual. It also means knowing what pace is aerobic for us. And that’s individual, too. We need to “do the numbers” – but our numbers, not someone else’s. Numbers that aren’t written in any book, but that the body spells out for us every time we run. Finding ourselves requires that we run with logic and feeling in a careful balance.

Consider the 1992 Olympic men’s marathon at Barcelona, where the US runners stuck stolidly to their game plan, running in a tight pack, even as the winners broke away.

What were they thinking? It’s impossible to say, but it looked suspiciously as if logic had taken over the reins. “We have a formula for expending energy over 26.2 miles, and by golly, we’re sticking to it.”

Consider the women’s marathon at the same Games. After the race, New Zealand’s Lorraine Moller realized that she could easily have won Silver or Gold. But when the eventual 1-2 finishers broke away, logic raised crippling doubts:

I had just passed the 16-mile mark and felt fantastic…. This was the cue for my Rational Mind to step in. She looked snappy in her pressed and pleated power suit, selected just for this special occasion. (From On the Wings of Mercury: The Lorraine Moller Story)

Moller describes the reasoning that held her back:

“It is very hot, and you are not a good heat runner… This is no time to be rash. Slow down… The course goes uphill. You know you are not a good uphill runner… But I feel so good. Hey, you know not to trust your feelings. They always get you into a hell of a lot of trouble. Slow down, there’s a smart girl. The race doesn’t start till 20 miles. You know that.)

So I slowed down. The young Japanese runner, [silver medalist] Yuki Arimori moved past me in pursuit of the white-vested runner up ahead, gaining ten, 20 then 50 yards on me. I watched her swaying form chip into the lead of the upright Russian [gold medalist Valentina Yegorova], then catch her. As the two of them merged strides, my heart sank. Her onslaught had been met with renewed vigor from her rival and I knew they would now gain strength from each other…. Our energetic bond had now been severed. I was on my own.

The principles of training never change. Arthur Lydiard realized that the anaerobic system can be improved maximally in 4-6 weeks, but that aerobic metabolism can be improved almost endlessly, over years. That’s why he believed American high schools and colleges destroy young runners, by trying to get results too quickly. The coaches resort to speedwork, which produces fast results but fails to develop the runners’ aerobic potential, which is essential for long-term success. It’s logical and expedient, but it doesn’t have a heart for the future lives of young runners.

In contrast, the Africans build a huge aerobic base, by running throughout their childhood. Mike Boyt, 800-meter bronze medalist at the 1972 Olympics, ran 10 miles to school and 10 miles home, five days a week – 100 miles a week, for years, in elementary school! What sets the Kenyans apart isn’t mental; it’s physical.

Perhaps the biggest mistake the WSJ article makes is that it confuses raw emotions with the very different kind of calm, intuitive feeling that can help us find ourselves and know how to train.

Elite athletes know that excited emotions are dangerous, because they lead to poor decisions. In the brain, raw emotion and calm, clear feeling travel by separate pathways. And the interesting thing is, those paths are mutually exclusive. Thus, intense concentration and calm feeling shuts off distracting emotions, and conversely, raw emotion shuts off the calm mental focus that enables us to make good decisions.

We find ourselves as runners when our feelings are calm and a little bit impersonal and detached. We lose ourselves when we’re too excited.

Feeling is essential, but only if it’s the right kind of feeling. A famous study by neurophysiologist Alberto Damasio, PhD found that people with brain damage that destroyed their ability to feel lost their ability to make sound decisions, even though their reasoning powers were intact. They vacillated endlessly over small decisions such as whether to make a sandwich.

Feeling and reason are both needed. What counts is the kind of feeling. Calm, dispassionate feeling is an invaluable guide, but rah-rah excitement is a recipe for disaster.

This has practical applications. You start a long run. It’s a gorgeous morning and you’re feeling rested and fit. But you know that if you go out too fast, you’ll regret it later. And you know that if you give your body a decent warmup, it will perform more efficiently later on.

So you curb your excitement and deliberately practice patience. You may talk yourself: “Whoah, buddy, calm down and take your time. If we keep the reins pulled tight, before we know it, we’ll be sailing on a powerful flow of energy and calm, interiorized feeling.”

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