Things I Have Learned About Running

I guess I am a runner. I never considered myself a runner--I ran my first 5K when I was 35, and had been a sporadic runner at best until my wife and I started training for our first marathon. Now I'm logging 20-30 mile weeks and burning through sneakers. So, now I'm a runner.

Everytime I suit up to run, I have to start a negotiation process with my head, my lungs and my legs. My legs say, "we're too sore." My lungs say, "we feel like crap." and my head mostly agrees with them. Still, I've managed to coax most of them along for most of my runs. In the process of becoming a runner, I've learned a few things. Maybe they'll help you.

1. There is no such thing as bad weather; only bad gear. We've been training in Boston, in the winter. It is not pleasant in Boston in the winter. There seem to be four kinds of days:

A. Windy and in the teens

B. Snowy and freezing

C. Rainy and 40

D. Deceptively sunny and mild when you start, but one of A-C by the midpoint of your run.

Still, I can't say I've been cold or uncomfortable. I can't run more than 3 miles on a treadmill without wanting to shove an awl through my skull, so outside is really the only option. Here is where you spend your money. I run with a combination of Nike Element Shield Max jacket/tights or clothing from Craft and I've been warm, dry and comfortable. Smartwool socks help, too.Yes, there are days when I'm out there in $1000 worth of clothing and electronics. Ridiculous! But I'm out there.

2. There are no good running headphones. I've tried them all. I've tried "sports" earphones from Sennheiser, Adidas, Sony and Klipsch. They either won't stay in my ears once I'm sweaty, or they break in two months, or yes. I've never, EVER, gotten a pair of sports headphones to last more than 2 months. Maybe my sweat is corrosive, like Alien blood. THAT JUST MAKES ME THE NEXT STEP IN HUMAN EVOLUTION.

I even tried a pair of Motorola bluetooth sports headphones to go wireless. Regardless of what ANY package says, sweat and electronics don't mix. They lasted 2 months of 20-30 miles per week running in a Boston winter before one of the channels just quit. I'm currently running with a pair of Yurbuds. They stay in my ears. I haven't had them two months yet. They sound like stink.

So, just find a pair you like that stay in your ears and resign yourself to re-buying them every two months.

3. You rarely feel like running until you've run two miles. This is good advice for life, period--you CBT fans will recognize the wisdom here. There is no such thing as waiting for the motivation to run. You get motivated in the act of running. The first mile, for me, is creaky and slow. The second mile hurts. Miles three and on are pretty good, actually--and that's when the endorphins kick in and you start to get the real benefit of running.

The other helpful thing I've learned here is that it's the runs that really suck that help you--if you are doing your weekly long run and you finish looking and feeling like 30 miles of bad road, congrats--you've just stressed your system. It will heal up, recover and be stronger. That's the point of the long run. This helps me, mentally, when I hit double digits in miles and start to question my will to live.

4. Bring food and drink. This took me an embarrasingly long time to figure out, but sometimes, when you feel like crap and don't think you can go another mile, it's because the tank is empty. Duh. So far, I've had the best success with Gatorade (there is a fair amount of science behind it, after all), Hammer Gels (the ingredients list doesn't look like a Union Carbide manifest) and Bonk Breakers (like Clif Bars, but they crumble and digest easier.) 

5. Cadence matters. This has been my most recent lesson, and the one that has really changed my running (and hopefully in time to correct my training for the Boston Marathon). My running form has been kind of a controlled fall--I trudge along at 70-75 strides per minute (per foot) and kinda just fall forward without much movement north of my knees. My legs felt fine, but my heart and lungs really struggled--I spent my last 10+ mile run with my heart rate at 90% of my max for over 40% of the time. That's unsustainable.

So I went back to the drawing board on my form and cadence, and started trying to run at 90 strides per minute--shortening my stride and turning my feet over faster. The first 3-4 times I did this, my lungs and heart felt better, but my "chassis" was killing me--I was straining and stretching muscles in my hips, glutes and quads that I had gotten used to not straining that much.

Now, however, things are falling into place. Those muscles have healed and come back stronger, and increasing my foot turnover has snapped my whole body (arms, shoulders and quads) into a complementary motion that propels me forward much more efficiently. I feel better than ever. Yeah, it sucked for a week or so, especially when I kept telling myself that it was "too fast." But once you figure out how to work your whole body to keep that cadence going, you really figure out running. Took me long enough.

By the way, I try to keep that cadence (it's a practice) no matter how fast I am running. When I am recovering, that works out to be an awkward-looking shuffle. But it works.

6. Music Matters. Our marathon coach, Rick Muhr, is awesome. He doens't run with music, preferring to focus and engage with his form. I can't argue with him, because he's run Boston elevently bajillion times. But I will say this--when I threw out all of my dance/pop music that I thought had "a good beat" and replaced it with music that was strictly around 90 BPM (music that I once considered 'too slow' to run to), I had something to focus on--a metronome for my cadence. Having that constant guide in my ears gave me something to snap back to when I lost the plot on cadence, so I could always find that optimal footspeed again.

For reference, that makes ELO's "Mr. Blue Sky" the perfect running song. If a foot hits the ground on every beat, you're doing it right. Also, here's my latest fave:

The Jayhawks – Waiting For The Sun

Again, these songs might seem "slow" to you, but try and match your footfall to the high hat, and you'll be zipping right along.

Those are some specific tips, but mostly, I'm pleased to be a continual student of running. That has been its greatest gift to me.