Since 1982 I've written a newsletter, Running Commentary. A new issue appears here each week, and material is archived.

Sat, 29 May 1999 09:25:52 -0400

Career Options

(from RC 284)

Joan Ullyot's name led off my April Runner's World column. "Ten-Year Tenure" carried this medical doctor and marathon pioneer's comment that runners can count on a decade of PR setting, no matter our starting age.

Later I stumbled across a 1980s book of mine that almost no one ever read. It carried Joan's original comment in a chapter about the stages of a runner's life.

The RW column brought enough attention to this subject to warrant another airing for that old piece. The 15 years since its writing haven't outdated it.

RUNNING ISN'T a one-approach-fits-all-and-always activity. A runner can choose among many different approaches, and can move from one to another as interests evolve. Typically this evolution moves through three stages: first as exerciser, then as racer, and finally as fun-runner.

In Stage One you run mainly to regain and then maintain fitness. In Stage Two you're motivated to push your limits of distance and speed in company with other runners at organized events. In Stage Three you don't surrender fitness or necessarily leave racing behind, but these become by-products of the simple joy of continuing to run.

Look now at what three prominent doctors say about these three stages:

1. EXERCISING. Fitness isn't the same as health. Health is a passive condition -- the absence of disease or disability. Fitness is active -- a learned capacity to work smoothly, efficiently and with energy to spare.

You can't sit and wait for fitness to come. You have to chase it by prodding, challenging and stretching yourself. "You have to keep running," as Lewis Carroll wrote in Alice in Wonderland, "just to stay where you are." To make further gains, you must run even more.

But how much more? Kenneth Cooper, M.D., the man generally credited with putting America on the road to aerobic fitness, has the best answer.

The Aerobics researcher, author and missionary is not a fanatical runner. While he ran competitively in high school and college, and has exercised his way through the years since, he claims he doesn't even particularly like to run.

However, he loves the results it gives him for a limited investment of time. Cooper's typical run lasts less than 20 minutes, and he has mountains of data to prove this is enough to maintain fitness.

Dr. Cooper's prescription for optimal running is two to three miles, three to five days a week. "Anyone who runs more than 15 miles a week," he says, "is doing it for reasons other than fitness."

There are compelling reasons to run beyond the Cooper limit -- training for races, and running for recreation-relaxation, to name two. But realize that the extra running might add little or nothing to basic fitness, and might even work against it by increasing the odds of injury.

2. RACING. Joan Ullyot, M.D., wrote the best-selling book, Women's Running, in the mid-1970s. But before she could write it, she had to live out the lessons she would pass on to other women.

Dr. Ullyot never ran until she was 30. She began for the familiar reasons, to lose weight and to rid herself of the lingering effects of a smoking habit.

A few years after struggling to complete a single lap of a track, she improved enough to compete in the World Marathon Championships. She continued to improve her race times into her 40s, as she remained one of the top competitors for her age.

Trained as a pathologist, Dr. Ullyot switched her specialty to exercise physiology after she became a runner. She carefully monitored the effects of training and racing, both on herself and her patients, as she and they performed the tightrope act of running enough to improve but not so much that they broke down.

The doctor devised a set of guidelines to manage these stresses. She called them the "Rules of 10":

1. "Increase mileage by no more than 10 percent per week." A runner at a 30-mile level, for instance would step up to no more than 33 miles.

2. "No more than one mile in 10 as speedwork." Our 30-mile-a-week runner would average no more than three miles of high-speed running, taken either as training or a race.

3. "You won't reach your full potential as an athlete until you have trained at least 10 years." This is true no matter the runner's starting age. Witness Joan Ullyot herself, whose best marathon came in her 18th year of running.

3. FUN-RUNNING. George Sheehan, M.D., the runner's writer, once noted that "fitness is a stage you pass through on the way to becoming a runner." We might add that racing is a stage we pass through on the way to becoming a fun-runner.

Dr. Sheehan supplied a most eloquent description of fun-runners: "For every runner who tours the world running marathons, there are thousands who run to hear the leaves and listen to the rain, and look to the day when it is suddenly as easy as a bird in flight. For them, sport is not a test but a therapy, not a trial but a reward, not a question but an answer."

Derek Clayton once looked like the worst possible candidate to fit this definition. The Australian toured the marathoning world of the 1960s and early '70s, running this distance faster than anyone before him. He also trained harder than any marathoner ever had, and maybe that's why he reigned as world record-holder for more than 12 years.

When he trained to a peak, Clayton ran up to 200 miles a week. The reward was his record, but there was also a toll to pay. His price was nine surgeries.

On retiring from competition, Clayton made this blunt and revealing statement: "I can honestly admit now that I've never enjoyed a single minute of my running, and I'm relieved to be finished with it."

But his story didn't end there. Clayton's racing-induced injuries healed with time. He began to miss running a few months after he had retired.

He didn't miss the 200-mile weeks and the marathons that had beaten him down so badly. He missed something about the daily routine of running itself.

Clayton began to run again. Only this time he limited himself to a half-hour or so a day at a pace that was comfortable to him. He said his outlook on running changed from being grinding work that he barely tolerated, to being "one of the bright spots in my day."

Running was no longer his test but his therapy, not his trial but his reward, not his question but his answer. You too can run like the man who once held a world record.

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