Running: how to enjoy it
I concentrate a lot on weight training on this blog, because it’s what I know and what I’m passionate about. But I’m equally interested to hear and learn about training philosophies in general: to make training a lifestyle you have to first find something you enjoy and then explore it.
This is a guest article written by my brother Jonny, a running and barefoot running enthusiast who has completed 50 and 100 mile ultramarathons. In it, he talks about how he got into the sport and how his passion for it pushes him to improve, as well as some tips for how to get into the habit.
How I got into running
I’m Steve’s younger brother, Jonny. We’ve been training and talking about training ever since I started taking fitness seriously, when we used to lift weights together at home from the age of about 14.
Since then our paths have diverged – he went down the university rugby route and got progressively stronger, while I gave up rugby due to injuries and have spent the last few years trying to improve myself as a long-distance runner.
We’ve maintained regular discussion about our respective training schedules though, and I think we have a mutual respect for what the other strives for in spite of our very different goals.
So I was excited when he asked me to write a guest article about my running thoughts and experiences.
In the six years that I’ve been running seriously, I’ve gone from someone who used to run with terrible form, with associated flat feet and excruciating chronic knee pain, to a barefoot/minimalist runner who has done several ultramarathons, the most recent of which was a 100 mile non-stop race across two counties of southern England.
If we go back a few years, I remember a distinct moment which marks the turning point of my running life. I was 17 years old, stood in the living room at home having just had an hour-long foot examination from a podiatrist. He told me that I had flat feet, explaining the chronic knee pain that I’d been living with daily, and I would need to wear £300 custom orthotics (insoles) from now on.
So how did I go from not being able to walk without knee pain to running 100 miles?
I’m not about to present some heroic tale of finding the “one true path” of running, or hide the fact that I have injured myself along the way. It’s been a trial-and-error process, and like Steve with his weight training I’ve found out many things the hard way, adapting them into my routines as I acquired more knowledge about running and my own body.
Since I started running properly six years ago, one consistent theme has been a barefoot/minimalist running style. You may already have heard about this “new” running revolution, as they write an article on it in Runners’ World just about every month, weighing up the pros and cons of barefoot running, and (ironically) all the shoes they can sell as a result (yes, I have bought a lot of them because they let me run the way I want to).
The concept is that the human body has evolved over 2 million years to be good – excellent – at long distance running. There are many biological traits that are unique to our species pointing to why we are so good at running compared to other animals, and our feet in particular are extremely well adapted.
To quote Leonardo da Vinci, “the human foot is a masterpiece of engineering and a work of art”. What he meant by this is that the foot is a complex inter-related network of 26 bones, 33 joints and over 100 ligaments and tendons. These work together to support and transfer our weight every time we take a step when we run naturally and as nature intended – springing and coiling elastically, absorbing energy and then releasing it later in the stride.
We can’t encase them in rigid, blocky shoes and expect them to do their job or behave naturally; sticking an inch of EVA foam “cushioning” underneath the heel doesn’t help either, and encourages landing on the heel of the foot, which is just about the worst thing you can do for the heel bone and the knee joint – but it is what most modern-day runners do, since the founder of Nike invented the modern running shoe in 1960.
If you’re interested I would highly recommend reading the acclaimed book Born to Run, which pretty much sums up my thoughts on the subject. Or watch this 15 minute TedX talk by the author, Christopher McDougall: Are we born to run?
After many hours spent researching the theory of barefoot running, considering the evolutionary design of the human foot and leg compared to the 50-year-old design of the modern running shoe, and learning by putting this all into practice, I can say that I definitely believe it is the best way to run.
Many people have asked me how I can run for so long and so often without getting bored. Just as Steve has talked about before, if you choose to take up an activity and want to get better at it, then you’d better like it. The truth is, I really love running for several reasons but everyone has to discover their own reasons for themselves.
Related article: 8 things all fit people do
Firstly, running makes me feel like I am fulfilling my evolutionary heritage. I find that really empowering.
As Chris McDougall alludes to in his TedX talk, Homo sapiens aren’t the fastest or strongest animals out there; we’re relatively slow and puny. But hold a long-distance footrace between every creature in the animal kingdom, and humans would be up there on the podium, if not the outright winner.
This doesn’t make me think no one should aspire to be the best sprinter or weight lifter they can be, but for me, personally, I just enjoy the fact that I’m taking advantage of the remarkable endurance abilities that evolution has gifted me with.
On a more day-to-day level, I love the feeling of getting outdoors, exploring places in the fastest way that’s possible on my own two feet and without mechanical assistance. I prefer to run off-road because getting muddy and enjoying the scenery make me feel much more in touch with nature, although running on roads is often a fun way to explore a city.
I’m also constantly fascinated by what my body is doing while I run. People often ask what I think about if I go for a 6 hour run.
Well actually, I spend a lot of that time thinking about running.
In 6 hours each of my feet will strike the ground over 30,000 times – if I got it wrong things wouldn’t end too well. Most people wouldn’t try to play tennis or golf without having a coach show them how to swing properly so they don’t injure their shoulder or arm.
It’s the same with running. While I’m out on the trails I’m constantly checking in on my anatomy; I’m fascinated by putting my mind inside my body, mentally scanning my feet and legs in turn to assess whether I’m doing it right or if there are any little niggles which might escalate to a more serious injury.
I think being mindful and present while running is what makes the difference between finding it a fascinating conversation with your own body, or a mind-numbingly repetitive slog.
Quite a few of my friends have asked me how they can get into running – they find it really tedious, or it’s difficult to push past running 15 or 20 minutes without getting really tired.
My first tip would be that if you can, to get off the treadmill. For me, this is key- nothing can make running on a treadmill enjoyable.
Next, take it slow and realise that it will take your body time to adapt to running regularly or for any significant period of time.
If you find it hard to run continuously for 15 minutes, then start off by alternating running and walking for a couple of minutes at a time, until the walking periods get shorter and eventually disappear altogether.
Most importantly, treat the path into running as a journey to be enjoyed.
Give yourself several months to get into it; as Steve has said in previous posts fitness is a lifestyle, not a 6-week blitz programme.
If you can get yourself into the habit of going out and running three times a week to start with, for a distance or duration that you are comfortable with, then slowly but perceptibly you’ll make gains.
Before you know it you’ll be running distances that you would never have thought possible and enjoying the freedom of being out there, moving and exploring the world with no external means of assistance.
Be patient, take each run as it comes and have fun getting to know your body: that is the key to enjoying and sticking with it.