Sunday, January 27, 2013

How to Get in Shape

"...the universal impulse to believe, that is the material circumstance, and is the principal fact in the history of the globe." -- R.W. Emerson, "Experience"

Not belief, but the impulse to believe.

Not our precious and polished knick knacks of thought, cluttering the house of the mind. Not the desire to be happier, faster, fitter. Instead -- the gut that yanks us out, over and against the plans of our better selves.

Not the goals that we have, not the PRs we've run, but the thrill in the neck, the ache in the hamstrings, the sideways glance to hold him off, or to die.

Not the workout on paper, not the feeling of completion. Not the endless entries in the training log. The sand in your shoulders at the end of a race. Not the setting of the alarm clock, not the morning coffee. The weak winter sunrise, the breath in the air, the wet and frozen dew.

Not the training philosophies, not the books and coaches and blogs and message board bull. Not the miles per week, not the workouts. The grind, the fire, the slump, the legs that won't go.

Not the things you tell your friends and your family. Not the things you tell yourself. The things you can't say, the things that can't be said. The things you don't even know you could say. Not the shoes, not the clothes, not the body, not the mind. The beast, the bird, the antelope.

Not the selves we know, not the people we are. The bones, the grit, the dread, the relief.

Not religion, not argument, not logic, not truth. Acid, ache, stomach, heart.

Not belief, but the impulse to believe.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

What Is an Easy Run?

What is an easy run?

Well, most basically, it's a run that's easy to accomplish. It's the backbone of training. It's the run that makes every other run possible.

For some runners, this is all that needs to be said. But for a lot of other runners, especially new runners or runners who are entering a new stage of fitness, the concept of "easy" can be somewhat elusive.

Heck, if you are really out of shape, there's no such thing as an easy run because nothing feels easy.

That said, I think there are a few things I can say about easy running that will help new runners and experienced runners alike, mostly because I think that most people -- believe it or not -- can do their easy running better.

The place to start when looking to understand what an easy run is and how it works in training is to think about what it's not.

An easy run is not a workout, which means that it's not a couple more things: it's not structured or planned or focused on a certain pace. It's also not broken into intervals. These thoughts help us turn to what an easy run is.

An easy run is a continuous and sustained run at a pace that is determined in the moment by the feedback your body is giving you on the run. Instead of a planned workout, where we are usually trying to hit certain paces or times or even cover a long distance (as in the long run) the easy run is executed in a relaxed way with little conscious control. We just let the body run at the pace it wants to run. It's this lack of control -- or "pushing" -- that gives the run its "easy" quality. Like a raft on a river, we just float on the current. We don't fight it.

Simple enough, right? Just let it flow.

Easy doesn't have to be slow.
I think where the confusion comes in, however, is that the flow of this metaphorical "river" (like all natural things) fluctuates from day to day and from season to season. And it even fluctuates in the run itself. Sometimes floating the river is a placid and frankly kinda boring slow-as-heck experience, from beginning to end. Usually the flow of the river begins pretty placidly, but picks up some steam as the body warms up. And then there are those days where the river -- for whatever reason -- is really pumping, and  the raft ends up catching with a swift current, and we flow along with ease at new paces.

All of these runs are easy runs, regardless of pace -- we aren't fighting the run, we're just rolling with it; that's what makes it easy.

Maybe that seems too simple, but I wanted to write this out because over the years, I've seen two types of errors in runners when it comes to easy running. The first error is often pointed out on message boards and it is probably most common in new runners. You are already familiar with it and have heard it a thousand times. Since running is hard to begin with, and we want to be faster than we are, and part of the reason we love to run is we love to fight -- we run our easy runs too hard. This leads to injury and burnout, sure. But the worst consequence of running easy runs too hard is that the runner never learns to float the river, to listen to the body, and to surf its energies -- this art is really the art of all training and racing.

The second error rarely gets pointed out, but it's at least as common, I think, and it's most common in intermediate runners [Really, if you are a new runner, you should plug your ears now.] It's possible to run your easy runs too easy. Yep. Let me say it again and put it in bold and italics: you can run your easy runs too easy.

The metaphor is getting stretched, but I think it is still apt. Running easy requires getting into the flow of the run, and that's what these runners don't allow themselves to do. They consciously hold back, making sure the effort is "easy" -- and it's as if they are backpaddling, still headed with the current, but moving downstream slower than the water wants to carry them. Instead of letting themselves flow with the river, they are tentative and cautious and perhaps also want to make sure they are in control and not overcome by the river, so they never let themselves go.

These are the runners who get stuck in training. They do everything right, by the letter, by the book, by the McMillan chart, by the heart rate monitor, but all of that PLANNING holds them back and keeps them from being able to execute the single most important run in training: the easy run. Which, as you recall, is determined in the moment by the feedback the body is giving you. We run with the river of the body, not according to the chart of the mind.

So, if you are looking to train smarter this year and get faster, I suggest that you work on your easy running. Become the raft in the river. This probably means running some of your runs slower than you think you should. But some sweet days you will catch a deep and swift current. On those days fast will be easy.

When that happens, make the smart training choice: let it freakin' ROLL.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

New Year, Another Post

A guy I know and respect once told me: quit worrying about writing something deep and interesting, just write more. That thought pretty much got this blog rolling. Here's a post in that spirit!

Here's an interesting short video on the life of a professional runner, Ryan Vail. He does his best to make it seem really boring. But I guess in the end what makes folks like Vail admirable is that somehow they have made this really boring thing into something that they can pay attention to and thrive on. It's a kind of ascetic triumph that would impress, say, Nietzsche but also make him ask why the heck for?

What's in store for the blog this year? I am not so sure. I am hoping to get my training ramped back up, as I fell off the wagon for good reasons over the last couple of months. I am reminding myself in these early out of shape days "how it works." Also, LLD's friends at I  HEART to Run have created some shirts with some of my words on them. I think they are pretty cool, and they have treated me well, so you might think about buying a shirt or two and help make me super-famous.

This piece on the failures of Occupy Wall Street doesn't have anything to do with running -- except that it makes a case for boring and ordinary forms of togetherness, over and against politics as carnival. I also like his digs at academia and its crappy theoretical language. Back in the heady days of the movement, I wrote this "Runners Take on OWS." I ended the piece with the idea that the challenge that OWS poses to us as a community is whether we can figure out how to live together in "a dignified, deliberate, and joyful manner." Hmmm. A year later it's pretty clear that OWS was only raising this sort of question for a narrow subset of people, and it was framing it in a way that was neither sustainable nor practical.

A NY Times article by Susan Jacoby on atheism and moral reasoning in light of the Newtown tragedy is worth checking out. This article puts into question the framework that I laid over the tragedy in my own attempt to make sense of it. In my post, I laid out a religious take on the tragedy over and against a secular take. I characterized the religious take as focusing on the concept of evil, which I thought helped to put us into a mindset of reconciliation and healing. I characterized the secular take as problem-oriented, putting us into a mindset of looking for solutions and addressing the tragedy with social policy. Jacoby's thoughts on atheism help me to realize that by dividing the issue in this way, I fell into the trap of thinking that secular takes on tragedies can't reckon with the deep evil of the situation, which at the time seemed to me to take on an almost religious quality. I feel compelled by Jacoby's analysis to rethink the distinction that I made in this prior post, but I'm not sure exactly how I would reformulate it more precisely.

Thanks for making 2012 a great year -- I picked up a ton of readers. It's always exciting to think that folks are interested in the connections I am making here. I wish you all a happy, healthy, and FAST 2013!


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