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Day 21: On Running and Being a Runner, Pt. 2

I just got back from a run outside.  It’s 25 degrees.  I would so much rather run outside, if it’s say, over 20 degrees, than run on a treadmill.  Last winter was the first winter I got serious about running outside and it was awesome-sauce, as the Greeks say.  There’s just something about being outside that spurs me on, while to be honest, it’s easier for me to give up on a treadmill.  And even though I’ve been running 3-7 days a week for about twenty years (which you can read about in Pt. 1 of this series), I still give up sometimes.  Especially on treadmills.  There’s two things I don’t like about treadmills.  The first is associated with one of the greatest fears every runner has: forgive me for being graphic, the treadmill makes my bowels seem looser and the possibility losing control of them more looming than running outside.  I can’t really explain why this is the case, but it does make me feel like that.  I speculate that it’s something about the way the belt gives in, nah, ok, I really don’t know.  But anyway, that happens.  I don’t like it.

The other thing about treadmills is that I don’t feel like I can adapt my pace and my stride to whatever is happening with my body in the moment on a treadmill.  That work of adapting my body and paying attention to my body to make microadjustments as I run became important to me after reading two books, Chris McDougall’s Born to Run and Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners. While McDougall’s book gives the larger anthropological and evolutionary account of why that’s important, Fitzgerald’s gives the specific advice about how to do it well.

Chris McDougall’s Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Super Athletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen changed my (running) life.  McDougall’s book starts with a discussion of the Tarahumara Indians of Mexico’s deadly Copper Canyons who run hundreds of miles a week over rough terrain and their bodies don’t seem to fall apart doing it.  McDougall visits the Tarahumara and follows them to ultramarathon races to see how they do it.  McDougall learns two things, with the help of evolutionary biologists, sports doctors, anthropologists and experienced runners, which improved my running life.  One, he found an argument to shut down all those haters who say running is bad for you.  He found an evolutionary biologist who studied human running form and learned that humans cover more ground per stride than horses do relative to their size.  He also learned that human beings are more efficient runners because every other animal in the world takes a stride then breathes, but human beings breathe as they stride.  And we’re the only mammals who shed our heat by sweating, instead of cooling by breathing.  Then he found an amateur anthropologist who had found Bushmen in the Kalahari desert who ran down their prey.  The man, Louis Liebenberg, didn’t know they did that when he went to study their animal tracking method.  One day, they took off running while they were tracking and that’s when he learned he needed to become a runner to become a hunter among the Bushmen.   Liebenberg observed them isolate an antelope from the herd so that it couldn’t blend back into the herd and be protected from them.  Over tens and tens of miles, they could eventually run it down.  Like the Tarahumara, the Bushmen were evidence that human beings weren’t betraying their bodies–no, we were born to run.

Second, McDougall traced the difficulties Americans faced with their running to the sneaker industry, which seemed to ruin the runner’s stride.  When we run, we get information from our body with every strike on the ground.  If we are wearing padded shoes, we might hit the ground with our ankle, shock our whole body from heel through the knee, the hip, the back, even into the shoulders and neck, and not even feel it in that moment.  But later, we would feel it.  The Tarahumara ran without shoes, or with rubber wrapped onto their souls, and they could run farther and faster without injury.  Connecting the dots with the help of sports doctors and other runners, McDougall concluded that the sneakers severed our relationship to our running stride–they made it impossible for us to get the information about how our body was being affected by the run that we needed in order to prevent injury.

The week after I finished McDougall’s book, I shifted my stride from heel striking to running on the balls of my feet.  My calves have never had to work so hard in that first week since.  One thing I realized is that heel striking doesn’t use the muscles ball-striking does, which might be part of why the body suffers because the muscles needed to support the movement are underutilized and underdeveloped.  Now I’m a midstriker, though sometimes I move up to the front of my foot–depending on what feels right.

It’s that last part, adjusting the body to what feels right, that I learned from Matt Fitzgerald’s Brain Training for Runners.  This book appeals to me because, even though I often run to get out of my head, I like the idea that running is about being smart.

Fitzgerald argues that standard tropes of running culture–fatigue is caused by energy depletion, good running form can’t be learned, a runner’s pace is determined by physical capacities, running injuries are caused by the high impact nature of running–are all wrong.  In each case, the brain can be trained to push through these limits.  Fatigue is the brain shutting down muscles to preserve energy stores.  Running is controlled by something like “running programs” in the brain that can be reprogrammed.  Your pace is controlled by your brains sense of how much you can do at each point to get to the end–teleoanticipation.  Not, the high-impact nature of running, but running shoes and sitting all day cause injury.

In each case, reprogramming or literally psyching out the brain through training can make you a better and faster runner.  The project that follows in the rest of the book is twofold.  First, he introduces exercises and running programs for developing ‘proprioception’–the sense of where your body is in space and how it is moving through space.  This capacity, Fitzgerald argues, is a brain capacity, or rather, it’s training you to interpret the signals from your brain and your body.  Second, he offers programming for race training that trains the body to run after the point where the brain wants to preserve energy.  As he describes it, he wants his runners to only have to do 16 mile long runs for marathons, but in such a way that they are experienced as the last 16 miles.  I’ve never run a marathon, so I don’t know about that, but I am still getting faster in half marathons.

What I liked most about the book was the discussion of proprioceptive cues–things you can think about or work on as you run to improve your stride.  From working on the feeling of falling forward as you run, keeping the abs tight — navel to spine — to make movement more efficient, practicing pulling your feet off the ground like you’re running on water, pulling the road like it’s a treadmill that you need to move with your feet, scooting by avoiding vertical oscillation, and a whole lot more — pounding the ground, driving the thigh, floppy feet, butt squeeze, feeling symmetry, axle between the knees, running against a wall.  Of course, you can’t think of these things all at once.  But each one can help you think about what’s happening with your body when you are running.  Fitzgerald’s programs ask you to think about each different one over the course of a 16-week training period, and he offers exercises to get better at it.  While Fitzgerald describes the point as training the brain so that this becomes second nature, I’ve found that knowing all these things helps me think about how to adjust when things don’t feel right.  That’s a kind of feedback I don’t trust on the treadmill and don’t feel comfortable adjusting to.

I guess I’m just an open-road kind of woman.

Tomorrow in Part 3 I’ll tell you about freeing myself from the demand to run. 

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