When most people start the long process of becoming a runner, they often begin with a question: “how can I run so that I won’t get hurt?” The very short answer is to begin from almost absolutely nothing, and to go very slow.
I first heard of the slow progression from a story told to me by a friend of a friend (who is a devoted martial artist), who went to China, and sequestered himself with Shaolin monks to develop his skills. For those who don’t know, the Shaolin are a centuries-old order of martial artists, and according to legend, the precursor of Kung Fu.
What I expected were accounts of brilliant and esoteric meditation techniques and rigorous, multifaceted training routines. But what I heard instead was about simplicity. This story has to do with how young monks are taught to jump high. They are told to plant an apple seed, and jump over it 100 times each day.
The first week, the monks only need to jump on flat ground—a challenge so easy that it almost seems like a joke. But slowly, the tree gets bigger. Soon, the monks are jumping inches, and then feet into the air. And they are doing this 100 times a day.
That might seem unremarkable, except for its hidden brilliance: the sheer slowness of the increase. To jump one sixteenth of an inch higher every day does not take remarkable effort—not even when it’s a sixteenth of an inch up from six feet. That’s the point. It takes so little effort to make that tiny increase that the relative wear on the muscles, connective tissues, skeleton and connective tissue is tiny. But the task continues to demand increased power.
The body responds…and continues to respond. The slow progression does its work at the threshold of our awareness: if we’re barely aware of the changes, it’s only because the difficulty of the task is almost nonexistent. To put this in context, think about a contrasting situation: we’re usually hugely aware of something like twisting our foot. Awareness signifies a notable change—an alteration to our structure. We become very aware of twisting our foot because the body will need a long time to heal the bone, tendon, and muscle damage incurred.
In simpler terms, making such a small change is easy. And when the changes remain that small, even when we’ve already progressed a bit, they get relatively smaller to our perception—the same reason that months and marathons fly by when we’re older, but drag on forever when we’re younger: since we experience more time as we grow older, another month is a comparatively smaller chunk of our experience.
Similarly, as the slow progression continues, development becomes easier (less effortful). And because performance is not only based on power and tissue density but on the brain’s grasp of the task at hand, we develop ever more effective strategies fro engaging with the task—making the relative burden on our biomechanics and metabolism even smaller.
But how should we apply this to endurance running?
Run every day for 2 minutes, at whatever speed you want. Keep that up for 2 weeks. The next 2 weeks, run 4 minutes. The two weeks after that, run 6. 2 minutes is a tiny increase, especially when the previous increase occurred two whole weeks before.
Although this may seem extremely slow at first, why don’t we do the math: There’s 52 weeks in a year. That means that at the end of the year, you can be running 52 minutes a day, every day.
There’s madness to this method. Many of us are inclined to run more at first, because 4 minutes seems like nothing. Like I mentioned above, that’s the point. With the slow progression, we can stay ahead of a multitude of components, including the psychological:
If we run less than we think we can, soon we’ll want it more, and soon we’ll become hungry for it.
How’s that for developing a habit?
There’s more: Most running injuries occur due to the body’s inability to cope with the stresses of the run, in concert with the lack of mechanical knowledge of how to use the body to better deal with those stresses. The sheer slowness of this progression allows our body to learn exactly that—more effective strategies of how to run.
In addition the slow progression develops the fasciae, the fibrous connective tissue of the body, which hold together muscles, tendons and bone. They are only developed under certain conditions: low levels of activity, high repetitions-per-minute, and low strain (effort). As soon as the activity becomes difficult, the body will shunt all blood to the muscles, to meet the demand, and away from the fasciae. We’ve got to keep it easy. For the beginner athlete, effort must be kept at a minimum. All we have to do is follow the slow progression in a disciplined manner.
Developing the fasciae will allow the body to become denser, more interconnected, and more competently able to resist stresses. If the body can’t resist the stresses of the task, it’s will know, and the athlete will feel fatigued and without energy. Fatigue is how the body protects itself.
Strengthen the fasciae, and the body won’t feel the need to protect itself as much from those small shocks—the fasciae have become capable of absorbing the excess energy. The body won’t be worried about developing muscle power anymore, and pretty soon it’ll want to cut loose.
So, you’re 4 weeks in. You just moved up to 6 minutes a day. During those 2 weeks you got progressively faster, as your body became more comfortable with the strain associated with that time. But now it’s 6 minutes. Detecting the slightly increased load, your body slows down. But towards the end of those 2 weeks, you speed up again: your fasciae and other often-uncredited subsystems have gotten more powerful. This is reflected not in the fact that you speed up, but in the ease and the naturalness with which you do so.
You continue the progression up to 52 minutes, and beyond. The limits are far enough away at this point for them to be nonexistent.
A bit of caution: This version of the slow progression will get the beginner athlete far, but it’s not the only necessary exercise for someone who did not spend most of their childhood strengthening their muscle, bone, and connective tissue through competition and play. If you train the correct form for running in parallel to the slow progression, you’ll go much further, much faster. A way to do that, of course, is by jumping rope.
Hint: You can build a slow progression into jumping rope too.
The philosophy of the slow progression is exemplified by a saying that I keep attributing to the special forces (but who knows where these sayings really come from):
“Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”
Internalize that, and hold it in your mind when you’re thinking of setting your timer for just one more minute, and you might go further than your best expectations. After all, this was never about reaching some goal. It was just about taking another tiny little step. If you keep going like that, sooner or later you’ll leave the finish line in the dust.