Fun Runner: the Sane Way to Train

Abdi Abdirahman is a fun-loving guy. The four-time Olympian, who placed third in this year’s US Olympic marathon trials, doesn’t feel that running should be a drag.

Abdi was the subject of a profile in today’s Wall Street Journal.

“He’s the polar opposite of any other runners I’ve ever known,” said Shelley Duncan, a Cleveland Indians outfielder and close friend of Abdirahman’s from their days at the University of Arizona. “He’s just a guy who loves life.”

Fellow US Olympian Ryan Hall says Abdi taught him to relax.

“You can only push the envelope so many times, be intense for so long,” said Hall, who blames some setbacks in his career on overtraining. “Abdi’s the total opposite of that.”

A brisk day in the Palo Alto Baylands
A brisk day in the Palo Alto Baylands. (Click for larger view; photo by author.)

Abdirahman’s coach, Dave Murray, believes it’s this easy-going approach that has allowed him to avoid injuries, preserve his passion for running, and have a long career.

I wonder if we couldn’t all benefit from changing our focus a bit, from living for some future result, to being less goal-oriented.

The Kenyan runners believe it’s a defining difference between their approach and ours. I’ve quoted Mike Kosgei, a coach of Kenyan elite runners, whose words bear repeating:

When Europeans or Americans are running together, using stop watches and heart monitors, you can see for them it is a very serious matter, almost like work. Africans start running, mostly slow, and then they accelerate. For them, it is a kind of a game. You try to challenge the other. If you want to be successful, you have to enjoy your training. When you take it too seriously, it damages your thinking and puts you down. But if you go and say, okay, it is a game, man, let’s do it, it’s fun – then you will not use a lot of mental strength.

As part of my long-term therapy to control chronic bronchitis, I do occasional juice fasts. In the second day of a fast, I decided to walk for an hour at the Baylands.

It was a lovely spring day. I felt like running but didn’t want to risk over-doing it during a fast So I reckoned I would do what felt right in the moment.

I remembered something that Peter Snell said in an interview with Rich Engelhart. Snell, the three-time Olympic gold medalist, explained  how he managed his speedwork before the 1964 Games where he won the 800m and 1500m.

Snell: That’s how I sort of handled those sorts of long intervals, and making the transition between distance running and track running. I’d do something like 20 quarters in 65, and I had a full quarter jog in between. So actually that was like a 10-mile run.

Q: Did you take a quarter jog between quarters?

Snell: Mm-hm. Yup. And if I was doing work for the 800 meters, I would actually lie down and take a rest until I felt like doing another one.

Peter Snell wins the 800m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.
Peter Snell wins the 800m at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.

I’ve find that mildly hilarious – “lie down and take a rest until I felt like doing another one.”

It’s so natural, human, and real. And as I ambled along at the Baylands, I wondered if Snell’s body was telling him with great precision the best way to train.

In the midst of pursuits that we’re often urged to consider terribly serious, such as improving our fitness, I believe there’s room – actually, a crying need – to include the heart, by deliberately cultivating positive, expansive feelings. Ralph Waldo Emerson, as stern a figure as ever starched our national shirts, famously said, “Nothing great was ever accomplished without enthusiasm.”

My spiritual teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, defined will power as “an increasingly smooth flow of energy and attention, directed toward a desired end.”

It’s quite a mouthful. In fact, it’s packed with meaning. And it makes will power seem more pleasant and relaxed than the usual, grimly frowning, jut-jawed definitions.

Consider, also, how it encompasses all five “tools of a runner”:

body = a “flow of energy”

feeling = “desire”

will = the “desired end” (a strong volition)

mind = “attention”

soul = the wisely chosen “desired end”

Of these tools, desire is the linchpin. Nothing happens without enthusiasm. If we don’t desire something strongly enough, we simply won’t bother pursuing it. Desire – a strong feeling, a powerful longing of the heart, is the dynamo that drives our best actions.

My weird little experiment during yesterday’s walk-run, where I did only as I felt, turned out well. I mainly walked, but threw in bursts of 30 seconds to 2 minutes of fast running. I ran when I felt my enthusiasm return, and I stopped when it was no longer fun.

Which, come to think of it, might be the best way to train – for an Olympian like Abdi Abdirahaman, or an old putz like me.

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