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

Thu, 29 Dec 2011 05:51:08 -0500

Best-Kept Secrets


(I’m marking this newsletter’s 30th anniversary by revisiting one piece weekly from each year of the publication. This week’s is from January 1985. It also appears on Facebook on the “Joe Henderson’s Writings” page.)

The more I learn about running, the less certain I am of what I really know. “Accepted” ideas and techniques are found not to be necessarily true or correct. “Logical” theories about the sport often defy logic when put into practice. What follows are the views of one who long ago quit believing everything he read or heard:

1. Attitudes. The act of running isn’t “fun,” at least not in the ha-ha sense. “Satisfying” is a better word – the quiet type of satisfaction felt by an artist in the act of creating. It isn’t satisfying every day. Some days feel so-so, some downright awful, but you wade through those days to reach the one or two a week that satisfy you… There may be no such thing as a “runner’s high,” but a “non-runner’s low” is very real and something we try to avoid... The “loneliness of the long-distance runner” is a myth. The chance to be alone isn’t a negative of running; it becomes one of the main attractions.

2. Fitness. Most runners aren’t fit in the ways all-round fitness usually is measured. Ours is a specialized exercise yielding only one-dimensional fitness... Most runners don’t care if they’re all-round fit or not, as long as they can run far and fast... Running isn’t the perfect exercise. If it’s only exercise you want, some combination of walking, swimming and bicycling will give better results with less pain... Running only for exercise is as limiting as eating only to strengthen the jaw muscles.

3. Running. The hardest part of any run is the first step out the door. The hardest mile is usually the first one... You feel less, not more, tired as you warm up. You feel better at the end of most runs than you did at the start... Don’t listen to your body at the start and let it dictate what you do. The body is a notorious liar then, looking for an excuse to do nothing. Treat the first mile or two as a gentle warmup and a lie-detector. The body will then tell you which problems are real and which are imaginary.

4. Training. Racing is an unnatural act, and you must prepare for it by doing unnatural activities. That means sometimes running farther or faster, or both, than nature intended... Extra-long runs, speed training and races are prescription items. They can help or hurt, depending on their dosage... Every dose of excessive effort must be followed by several doses of easier, more natural running. The secret to making the hard work WORK is the recovery interval afterward... Everyone knows the ingredients of training: going far enough, fast enough and easy enough. The secret to success is knowing how to combine them into a proper recipe... Training is increasingly scientific, but applying the principles properly is still an art.

5. You may HAVE a good time at the biggest races, but you’ll RUN your best times at the smaller ones. Save your big efforts for the small, well-conducted events... A little terror is a good to feel before racing. It means your mind is readying your body to go beyond its normal limits... Take a shower BEFORE a morning race. This serves both as a warmup and a wakeup... Most runners warm up too much before road races and cool down too little afterward, most of them start their races too quickly and finish too slowly, and most would feel better and do better by reversing those practices... The best races often seem the easiest, the worst ones always hurt the most.

6. Medicine. Pain is a friend to be heeded, not a foe to be fought or ignored. It is a friendly warning that something is wrong, and if heeded it can be stopped early. Enduring pain doesn’t equal gain. It adds up to more and more pain, until all running must cease... Everyone needs a big injury. It shows what running really means to you and teaches you better lessons about injury-prevention than any author or speaker ever could... Time is the best healer – and the only treatment required for most running ailments. Six weeks will cure most injuries, provided the stress that caused the problem is reduced or eliminated... Few running injuries are serious (when judged by the standards of football knees and ski ankles), and very few problems are permanent.

7. Diet. You burn about the same number of calories per mile while running easily as you do by running hard. So if you’re out to lose weight, slow down and go longer... Lighter weight usually means faster races, but you may feel healthier and happier while carrying a few extra pounds... Instead of carbohydrate-loading before a race, RELOAD afterward. It’s both more necessary when you’re depleted and more fun when you don’t have to worry about the side-effects of a binge... The most necessary drink before, during and after running is plain water.

8. Equipment. Most runners wear too much. They dress too warmly (not to mention expensively) for the day. They wear shoes that are too heavy for their needs... The rule of thumb for both clothing and shoes is: wear the least you can get by with, not the most you can tolerate (or afford)... Today’s shoes are made for road running. The support and cushioning features are excellent. But these same properties make them difficult to use on rough, off-road surfaces. The light-weight, low-tech shoes of yesteryear may work better there.

9. Publications. The best-kept secret in book publishing is Tom Osler’s Serious Runner’s Handbook – a masterpiece of simple wisdom and readable writing... The oldest of magazines, Track & Field News, remains the standard-setter for authoritative information. Long-distance running could use a news magazine of this quality... Regional and specialized publications (Ultrarunning and National Masters News, to name two) are more valuable to some readers than more general magazines.

10. Age. Aging is a myth, or at least the supposed rate of decline in performance with age is. All runners have the potential to improve for many years, regardless of when they start to race... Seven years is a common improvement period. That seems to be about as long as most people will tolerate serious training, especially when their race results level off... The “golden age of running” is a personal matter. You look back most fondly on the years when every course was new, every run offered a fresh revelation, every race a better time.... There is life after racing. Some of your best running days begin after the last PR is set and the pressure to perform eases off.

UPDATE: I bend a rule of mine here by rerunning a column that later went into a book. This one (in longer form) made the pages of my Running Handbook, which came and went quickly in 1986 after attracting only a few hundred readers. Some points made here aren't as “secret” now as they were a quarter-century ago. Yet I’m surprised to see how many of them still need arguing, and how few I’d reject now.

[This piece and others appear on a Facebook page titled “Joe Henderson’s Writings.” I invite you get each update by going to that page and clicking “Like.” The three books of my memoir series – Starting Lines, Going Far, and Running Home – are available as e-books for Amazon’s Kindle and Barnes & Noble’s Nook. Other books of mine in this format: Long Slow Distance, Long Run Solution, Marathon Training, Run Right Now and Rich Englehart’s e-book about me, Slow Joe. All are minimally priced at $2.99 each. Sample chapters are free – as are applications for dedicated e-readers, personal computers, iPads, iPods, and other smart-phones and tablets.]

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