A Merry Heart Goes All the Way

I love it when my views on training are confirmed by smart people.

Here’s Bob Kennedy, the first American to run a sub-13-minute 5000m (he did it twice):

Besides being exposed to faster tempos, what else did you learn from your Kenyan training partners?  

BK: One of the biggest things I learned is that sometimes you have to relax. I’ll give you an example. Most American athletes run too hard, too often. Recovery days have to be easy. One day in England, I was going out for an easy afternoon 6-mile run with Moses Kiptanui three days before a meet in Stockholm. We jogged the 300 meters to the park and Moses stops and says he’s too tired to run and he goes home. I’m wondering if he is okay. Three days later, he runs 7:58 for the steeplechase.

I asked him later about skipping that easy run and he said sometimes his body tells him it’s not time to train. Kenyans understand their body better, I think. Whereas a Western athlete, if they are tired, would try to jam their way through it. I learned that from them and was a better athlete as a result.

(See the complete interview: “Olympian Then and Now: Bob Kennedy.”)

In an earlier article, I wrote:

On their easy days the Kenyans run very easy – slow enough that Joe Henderson, at age 60+, was able to keep up and hold a conversation with a group of Kenyans elites who were staying at the same hotel before the NYC Marathon . Of course, the next day the Africans ran 3 min/mi faster.

The most dangerous part of a “recovery run” is the start. The problems arise when we’re feeling good. “Ah,” we say, “I must be recovered.”

A ultramarathoner running the 32 Mile Wyoming Ultramarathon in the Bighorn Mountains
The 32-mile Wyoming Ultramarathon in the Bighorn Mountains. Training for very long races can make us stronger, or erode our health and our life. (Click to enlarge. Source: Wikimedia Commons)

So we set off at a “reasonable” pace that’s actually 5 or 10 percent too fast for optimal recovery. And the story always ends the same. The “not-quite-recovery” days mount up and we find ourselves always feeling blah during the runs that count most – the longer and faster runners.

Now then, how can we know when we should jog, even if we have to go against our emotions and force ourselves to slow down?

We runners have two organs that can tell us, with great precision, when we aren’t fully recovered. The first is our legs. The second is the heart.

Have you ever felt, after a hard run, that your physical heart was sore, tired, and abused?

I have. I interpret it as my body’s signal that further abuse would be dangerous.  The heart isn’t an organ to be trifled with.

A tired heart is generally accompanied by tired emotions. The best sign that we aren’t fully recovered is a lack of enthusiasm. Until we’re recovered, our legs, heart, and mind don’t want to run. Our legs feel like slugs, and our heart lacks a fullness of feeling.

The “heart-getting-tired” idea is supported by a recent article in Scientific American, “Ultra Marathons Might Be Ultra Bad for Your Heart”:

“Many people feel obligated to hit the gym or the trail every now and then to help keep off the extra pounds. But people who run ultra marathons (usually 50 kilometers or more), ride in long-distance bicycle races, compete in Ironman triathlons or even just train for consecutive marathons are not usually doing it just to stay trim. Nevertheless, long-term health benefits (stress injuries aside) of so much exercise are usually presumed to be a bonus.

“A new study, published online June 4 in Mayo Clinic Proceedings, suggests, however, that this “excessive endurance exercise” might actually be putting people at risk for permanent heart damage and possibly lethal cardiovascular events….”

“The researchers found that many of these athletes had temporarily elevated levels of substances that promote inflammation and cardiac damage. One study found that as many as half of runners in the midst of, or who have just finished, a marathon show these spikes, which can last for days after an event. And over time and with repeated exposure, these compounds can lead to scarring of the heart and its main arteries as well as to enlarged ventricles—all of which can in turn lead to dangerous irregular heart beats (arrhythmia) and possibly sudden cardiac death.”

My friend Tom Schott and I were discussing exercise. I tossed out the idea that people run marathons and ultras for a variety of reasons.

For many, running a marathon or an ultra can be expansive. It develops their will, forces them to cultivate positive attitudes, and builds the confidence to achieve their goals.

But I’ve seen runners who had long since stopped reaping rewards from running very long distances. It was clear that the sport had turned against them – it was eroding their health, happiness, and relationships.

Case in point: a running-obsessed man who raced in the difficult Double Dipsea race the day after a hard 15-mile training run. His wife left him when he chose the roads instead of romance. You can spot an obsessed runner. They don’t look healthy or happy; they just look worn-out.

When I entered the Western States 100, I reached the aid station at 52 miles feeling crappy. I had been repeating a short silent prayer all day, and approaching Michigan Bluff, I turned inward and said to my spiritual teacher, Paramhansa Yogananda, “I’m not feeling good. I’m willing to go on, but please tell me what I should do.”

I heard his voice. It said, “This is not healthy for your body.”

I dropped out, knowing I’d done the right thing.

When running reaches a point where it isn’t expansive – why bother? It’s a question of weighing the costs and benefits. When the “price” of running is high and the rewards are small or superficial, maybe it’s time to take stock, and change direction.


The title is from a song in Shakespeare’s A Winter’s Tale:

Jog on, jog on, the foot-path way,
And merrily hent the stile-a:
A merry heart goes all the day,
Your sad tires in a mile-a.