The question I hear possibly the most often (about running or otherwise) is this: “I want to start running. How do I begin?”
I have to admit, I often answer this question a bit defensively, almost pre-empting any further questions or comments by saying “whoa, slow down.” Almost invariably, I find, people want to be runners tomorrow—immediately, that is. And for the majority of people who ask me this question, who stopped due to injury—a torn ACL, shin stress fractures, chronic plantar fasciitis—the answer isn’t what they’d like to hear:
Slowly. Very slowly. Considerations aside, a 5k in a year. A marathon, in ten.
For most, there’s a lot of ground to be covered, a lot of the body’s infrastructure to be built (or rebuilt), before we can legitimately consider that this body is prepared to run: we’d like to believe that all the complex movements that we make every single day—brushing our teeth, getting up from a chair, typing on a computer—are really as simple as they seem to us.
The truth is that they aren’t. Using a single hand in a skilled task takes an enormous amount of the brain’s computing power, to synchronize all the muscles just so. The brain must find a way, then, to counterbalance the movements of the hand with fine-grained activity in the postural muscles in the trunk and hips. If this is done incorrectly, we fall over.
(Likely, this is a major contributor to falls taken by senior citizens: an aging brain is not as capable at navigating these immensely complex tasks as it once was, and once, every ten thousand steps or so, something gives).
When we run, we’re doing the same: we’re using the body for a staggeringly complex task, one which demands that we maintain balance, and all of this occurring when there are enormous forces at play. Although we humans sometimes fancy ourselves weak and delicate beings, our bodies are powerful athletic machines, whose power is tempered by a superior cortex (in the brain) which micromanages our every move to a degree we cannot begin to fathom. And we exert all of our athletic power against the force of gravity, which brings us crashing to the ground at a rate of thirty-two feet per second squared.
We have to prepare our bodies for that, in a way that observes the enormity of the task. To do anything else is folly.
Any successful training program will have to put first things first. For runners, this means the ability to get the entire body, but most importantly the hip, knee, and ankle regions (this includes the foot and lower back) to effectively engage with the force of gravity. (Lower-body plyometrics, but especially jumping rope, do exactly this). Once you do that, the rest of the body’s mechanics basically fall into place. And after that happens, dramatic gains in ability will begin to happen as a matter of course: it is now possible to sustain heavy endurance and speed training, with reasonable confidence that injury will not occur in the regular course of training.
From this discussion, I draw the following principle: in order to become proficient at any athletic enterprise, we first need to prepare our bodies to engage in training.
You may think that I’m splitting hairs—that training is training, and that’s all there is to it—but I think there is an important distinction to be made here: namely, that any athletic pursuit has at least one overt and at least one covert component.
What do I mean by this?
Take, for example, the case of classical martial arts, say boxing. In order to develop our boxing ability, we need to develop speed, power, footwork, and reaction time. These are all overt components. But there is an objective to all this speed and power: to bring our fists into contact with an adversary’s body.
This is where the covert component comes in: We have to develop the integrity of the bone, muscle, tendon, and fascia in our hands and arms, which translate all of the force we generate into the body of our opponent. Our upper extremities have to be ready for that.
Now notice I didn’t write “strength.” I used a more technical term: “integrity.”
Boxing, like running, is a chaotic enterprise. This means that every step we take is a little different than the last: either the ground is different, or a part of our body is getting more tired, (or, in the case of boxing, our hands are coming into contact with unexpectedly uneven and hard surfaces on our opponent’s body, or our heavy bag).
It is not only important that the muscles in our hand be strong, but also that they be capable of adapting and re-adapting to these changing conditions, and to the massive (and changing) forces that occur. If we look at this problem overtly, and say “we need strength,” we may end up solidifying our forearms (or our calves), and turning them into hard, resistant structures.
But like the parable of the oak and the willow shows us, a term like “strength” cannot be easily defined when the objective is performance. In this parable, an oak and a willow are subjected to hurricane winds. The oak takes the burnt of it: it stands strong, immovable, as the winds pick up and pick up. In this wind, the willow has already begun to bend.
As the winds become inexorably stronger, the willow bends further, but the oak, which does not budge, begins to creak and creak until it is torn out by the roots.
The oak was strong because it was solid. The willow was strong because it was interactive. This should cause us to reminisce in a well-known saying:
“Be water, my friend.”
Like the willow, and Bruce Lee’s metaphor, our strength ultimately resides in the capability of our bodies to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and the forces that surround us.
If we runners make our bodies hard and resistant—or neglect any preparation at all—we’ll find ourselves in a position where we’ll only be able to train our speed, our endurance, or say, our VO2MAX, up until our body gives (which it will).
But if, instead, we train our body’s interactivity, we’ll become increasingly capable to interact with the mechanical energy that we generate, and with the forces that surround us.
Ultimately, integrity doesn’t just mean the integrity of our bodies in an of themselves, but the integration of our bodies within a system: when we box, our bodies and minds form a system with the heavy bag and all of its dynamics. When we run, our bodies form a system with the changing terrain.
Once our bodies are integrated with the relevant systems and forces at a basic level—once they are ready to engage in training—we can begin to increase the magnitude of the demands on the system: as boxers, we can begin to increase the speed and power of contact, and as runners we can begin to genuinely extend our endurance, increase our speed, and maximize the level of effort we put into our runs.