Running is like the broccoli of conditioning. A lot of people run because they understand it’s good for them, but they see it as a necessary evil. . .
In honor of Zach Farrell finishing the Philadelphia Marathon last November, I thought I’d write a post to help others learn to enjoy running. I hear the phrase “I hate running” all the time, not just from RVTKD students, but from all kinds of people who know how valuable it can be but just can’t stand doing it. If you enjoy Taekwondo training, but can barely tolerate running, you should read this.
Here’s the short version of this two-part post:
When learning to run, the most important first step is to discover your slowest tolerable pace. When learning to run faster, the most important skill is to recognize your fastest tolerable pace. Here’s a link if you want to skip the background and get straight to what I mean by the first crucial term: the slowest tolerable pace.
Should you decide, for whatever reason, to start running today, you’ll find an overwhelming variety of “Couch to 5K” and similar training programs online. The science is out there, and some people benefit from having a strict schedule where everything’s laid out for them. They just have to wake up, do the run of the day, and after a month or two, they’re crossing the finish line. This is great for the people who think and train that way, but I get the sense that lots of people don’t respond to that. They try a few runs, find it unpleasant, and quit. This post is for people who are more attuned to their bodies and minds than a GPS watch and a distance/pace schedule.1 Again, either approach is valid and works for some people, this article is to balance the zillions of articles that show a step-by-step training schedule by describing a simple experiential process where you observe and feel rather than measure and follow.
That’s the problem with many running programs I see: they’re about checking off a series of tasks in the service of accomplishing one mega task. Whether a 5K or a marathon, the programs are usually about 800 meter repeats, VO2 max, diet and hydration, etc. and not what it should feel like to run successfully. This two part post describes how running should feel when you’re doing it well, and by teaching people to run well, helps runners enjoy the time they spend on the road or trail. When that happens, running becomes fun, and improvement often takes care of itself.
Running is like the broccoli of conditioning. A lot of people run because they understand it’s good for them, but they see it as a necessary evil, not an activity they’d choose to do. Zach was one, and many years ago, I was too.
I ran hard every day for years of competitive tennis in school—and spent most of that time waiting for the running drills to be over. I ran everything from sprints and agility drills to 10K races, and even though I was one of the faster runners on the tennis team, I didn’t enjoy the runs, I endured them. My body is reasonably well constructed for running, but that wasn’t enough to make me want to endure the pounding chest, gasping breath, the taste of pennies in the throat on a cold spring day. These sensations were what I always associated with running. No pain, no gain, no point.
My change in perspective came when, for reasons that are a whole other story, I rashly told a friend that I was going to run the Marathon Des Sables, a 150 mile stage race through the Sahara desert in Morocco. I still didn’t like running, but in my mind, the challenge of crossing a 120 degree desert over seven days was so mesmerizing, I told myself I would do whatever it took.2
As I sought out and read every personal account of Marathon Des Sables finishers I could find, it quickly became clear that nobody but the elite runners was making any effort to go fast. Racers were just clearing the miles, by any means possible, as efficiently as they could, and trying not to die. I thought that if I weren’t killing myself to go fast (which I’d previously thought to be the entire point of running), the miles would go by in a less agonizing way, and I could just get through them somehow. I set a short term goal of learning to run 10 miles, which would be a stepping stone to entering a marathon.
. . . start at a pace that seems ridiculously slow, then slowly accelerate until it doesn’t feel boring. In other words, the exertion is enough to hold your attention, but it doesn’t feel difficult at all. . .
The Key Insight
Most people know that you can’t just go out and run ten miles without hurting yourself. You have to start with short, slow runs and gradually add miles over a period of many weeks. Runners call this “building base mileage.” While I was building my base, I accidentally discovered the single most important thing that led me to love running: my slowest tolerable pace.
What does that mean? On certain days I just didn’t feel like pushing myself, but I knew I had to keep running a few times a week or I’d lose my momentum. This was during the summer, so it was often hot, which didn’t make it any easier to strap on running shoes and hit the road.
To keep moving toward my short term goal of running ten miles, I’d give myself permission to go as slow as I felt like going, go as far as I could stand, then call it a day. I soon realized that even without training much, I could walk all day long, and if I ran slow enough, I could still keep going and going and going, just like walking. I could have walked ten miles or more, and pretty early on, I could probably have covered ten slow miles that satisfied the official definition of running.3 Aside from the obvious risk of overuse injuries like shin splints or plantar fasciitis, the problem with doing this was simple: running really slowly is really boring!
I have a feeling that most new runners quit for two reasons:
- they go out too fast, and it’s agonizing or they injure themselves, so of course they don’t like it
- they go out too slow, so it’s mind-numbing and consumes too much time
To avoid both of the above, here’s my best advice: start at a pace that seems ridiculously slow, then slowly accelerate until it doesn’t feel boring. In other words, the exertion is enough to hold your attention, but it doesn’t feel difficult at all. There’s a sweet spot where you’re going slow enough that you feel like you can run all day, but it’s just barely difficult enough to keep your attention on how your body feels, step by step and minute by minute. This is your Slowest Tolerable Pace! Let’s call it the STP from now on.
Lots of running articles describe the STP thusly: a comfortable speed, where you can easily talk to your running buddy without feeling short of breath. That’s an okay test, I suppose, but I never liked running with a partner, or even with music. This is because when I’m running well—no matter whether fast or slow—I’m so attuned to my breathing, my energy level, whether my muscles feel juicy and smooth or are starting to ache, and so forth, that it becomes like a moving meditation. There isn’t room in my mind for conversation or music, because I’m 100% focused on how I feel at every instant of the run.
This inner discipline and mindfulness should sound familiar to martial arts practitioners. It’s one of the reasons I think that most people who are interested in martial arts training, especially in a technically rigorous traditional school like ours, would also like running if they knew how to approach it. Discovering your STP requires paying close and sustained attention to your body’s inner workings under stress. The kind of focus it requires is similar to the focus needed to perform poomsae or to spar with an opponent. The reward is developing the ability to do something that was once, for you, impossible.
If you’re just learning to run, it’s okay to never go one second per mile faster than your STP for weeks or months. It’s much easier to build base by gradually increasing the time/distance of your runs, maintaining this manageable pace, than it is to increase your distance while always pushing yourself to the brink of your physical capabilities. Enjoy the world around you, take in your neighborhood, the woods, or a river or lake. Know that with each step, you’re building more red blood cells and strengthening your muscles, bones, and connective tissues.
At the same time, it’s important not to become overconfident and speed up until you’re breathing hard, turning red, and allowing this comfortable enjoyable pace to turn unpleasant. If you keep this up for a few months, you’ll soon find yourself running five or six miles with no pain or injuries. If you can learn to run five miles, you can use that same body awareness to run ten. If you can run ten, you can run any number of miles, it’s just a matter of doing more work. There’s nothing wrong with choosing to run ten miles a week, but it’s nice to have the ability to choose, knowing that you can do whatever you find satisfying. If you feel this transformation in your own body, I promise that it will be tremendously empowering, and it will give you insights into your martial arts practice on physical, mental, and spiritual levels.
I hope this post will help people who have been curious about or challenged by running become successful runners. For those who have already experienced some or all of this transformation, you may find that running at your STP is so satisfying that you never need to do anything different. For others, you may eventually find yourself seeking more, in which case I’d lead you to part two: learning to feel your Fastest Tolerable Pace. Stay tuned. . .
1 This is exactly how I’d describe many successful martial arts practitioners, for what it’s worth. It’s the journey, not the destination, as we say so often in the dojang.
2 It’s probably obvious that this is one of the dumbest possible reasons for getting serious about running, but maybe that makes it worth paying attention to: you don’t have to have a good reason, just a good method!
3 Among other things that distinguish running from walking: having both feet in the air at the same time, keeping the supporting leg straight instead of bending it.