Running

Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Running

A few weeks ago I started coaching workouts at Athleta on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. It’s been so much fun, and has become one of the things I look forward to the most each week. Last night, while talking to one of the runners in the group, I realized that although I’m generally a quiet person, when it comes to running I have a lot to say. In fact, I probably have a bit too much to say. I just want people to love running, and to me, part of loving it is understanding it. So in an effort to get more people to love running as much as I do (and to shut up for a little bit and stop talking people’s ears off), I thought I’d start a series with tips, workout ideas, answers to common running questions, and all sorts of other things that falls into the category of stuff-I-want-to-share-with-you-without-overwhelming-you-with-too-much-information-all-at-once. Ladies and gentlemen (or, honestly, probably just ladies and ladies…or maybe just a lady or two), I give you Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Running.

Part I: Breathing

breatheBreathing while running is hands down the thing I get questions about most often, so what better place to start? In our day-to-day lives, breathing isn’t something that we think about all that much. Air comes in, air goes out, and as long as the process continues, we get on with our lives quiet happily. That, I think, is one of the reasons why breathing is such an issue for new runners. All of a sudden, breathing isn’t this comfortable, obvious, involuntary thing. Instead, it’s hard. It’s uncomfortable. It requires thought and concentration. When you start out running, breathing basically sucks (no pun intended). But it doesn’t have to. And once you get comfortable with your breathing, it can become an incredibly powerful tool.

I’m going to break breathing down into three steps.

  1. Think about it. The first step in all of this is to make your breathing a conscious act. Spend time getting a sense of how you breathe–through your mouth? your nose? Deeply? Shallowly? Quickly? Slowly? From the lungs, or from the diaphragm, or even from your belly? These are things you want to know about your breathing, and possibly things you’ve not thought much about. How long is each one of your breaths? And are your inhale and exhale of equal length, or is one longer than the other? All these things are different for every runner, so you have to figure out what works for you. Once you get an idea of how your body naturally breathes, you’re in a better position to work with your breath while running. Find a rhythm that works for you. You can keep track of it by counting your breaths, making up a little song or mantra that helps you to keep your breathing even, or time your breath to your stride. I’m a fan of the latter, and fall very quickly and comfortably into a pattern of inhaling for two steps, and exhaling for two. Finding your own rhythm and concentrating on it until it becomes second nature may feel silly, but it will make your running life so much easier.
  2. Keep it openYou need room to breathe comfortably, and you get that room by maintaining good posture throughout your run. The shoulders should be relaxed, down, and back. The chest should be open. The spine should be straight. No slouching! At the same time, though, you don’t want to focus so hard on keeping your upper body straight that you get stiff. As my meditation teachers frequently say, you should be upright, but not uptight. If you feel yourself tensing up, take a few deep breaths. You can stay loose by breathing correctly, and you can breathe correctly by staying loose. It’s synergy.
  3. Choose the right breath for now. This one comes from Sage Rountree, who is one of my favorite yoga instructors. She uses the concept of finding the right breath all the time in her yoga teaching, and I think it fits running really well, too. Don’t force your breathing; be aware of it, but let it be determined by what’s going on in the moment. There are a ton of factors that can affect your breathing–you might be tired, wired, congested, who knows?–and paying attention to what feels best and then working with that instead of trying to force things in a direction they don’t want to go makes a huge difference in your running.

Like I said before, learning to breathe and work with your breath can be really powerful. Finding the pattern that feels right and being able to adjust it to meet whatever needs you have on any given run can change how far, how fast, and how often you’re able to run. But that’s a whole post unto itself. For now, just focus on finding your rhythm.

 

The Lottery is Open

For the first time since 2004, the Marine Corps Marathon is using a lottery system for registration. As of today, the lottery is open, and will remain so until March 15 in order to give runners plenty of time to decide whether or not they want to throw their hats into the ring. It makes me sort of sad to see the MCM going the way of the lottery, since for a long time it was one of the few big marathons left that you could register for without having to qualify or get lucky. But given how hard it’s gotten to register in the past couple years, the move makes sense.

Photo on 2010-11-23 at 18.58

Post-race spoils in 2010.

I ran my last marathon in 2010, and it was a rough one. Since then, I’ve registered for them, but backed out of every single one. I can’t even remember anymore what I planned to do or when it was. I think the last time I signed up for a marathon was in 2012, when I planned to run the MCM. I grew up outside of Washington, so it’s a race I’ve always wanted to do. I got several weeks into my training and struggled through many a long run before I just sort of fell apart and realized that the race just wasn’t going to happen. With summer temperatures and the humidity, my running was just miserable. Mentally, I just wasn’t that into it. Ultimately, I decided not to do the race. I also decided I didn’t want to run marathons anymore. 

Fast forward a couple years, and I’ve once again experienced that desire to just hit the road and run until complete collapse (which, admittedly, would happen to me after roughly 8 miles at this point. But hey, that’s what training is for!). I’ve found myself missing the long runs, hour upon hour of putting one foot in front of the other. There’s something so pure and simple about training for and running a marathon, and the whole process leaves you with a feeling that you’ve been cleaned from the inside out. It scares me to say it, but I think I want to run another 26.2-mile race.

So when I heard that the MCM lottery was open, I went immediately to the website to find out more about the process. Here are some important facts: you’ve got 21 days to enter; you don’t pay any sort of fee until you register; race registration is $110, which is really reasonable given the cost of a lot of marathons. I almost entered immediately, but I stopped myself. I called it quits with marathons because they stopped being enjoyable. Instead of 16 weeks of highs and lows, the training period was just one long low. Runs would be preceded by tears and mental anguish. I never felt confident enough in myself to have any certainty that I would make it through my next long run. I got so wrapped up in the fear of failing that I put myself in a position where I couldn’t even try. I don’t want to go through all of that torture again.

What’s funny about all this is that if I enter the MCM lottery, there’s no guarantee that I’ll get in. I mean, that’s what makes it a lottery. But that hasn’t stopped me from getting nervous about it! If I enter and I do get in, there’s nothing keeping me from deciding not to register after all. And that hasn’t stopped me from getting nervous about it, either! Basically, I’m worrying about whether I should commit to the possibility of committing to running a race. I don’t think deciding whether or not to enter the lottery is supposed to be the hard part!

Fortunately, I have 21 days to think about this–three whole weeks to analyze the minute details of the pros and cons that accompany entering a race lottery to determine if you might get to register!

Hmm…Is it possible that I’m being a little silly about this?

Running Streak: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

As I write this, I’m sitting on my couch trying to work up the energy to go for a run. It’s not just the physical energy, it’s the mental energy that I’m lacking. Today is day 19 of the Runner’s World Summer Run Streak, which started on Memorial Day and ends on July 4. I’ve run at least one mile (often more than one) every day for the last 18 days, and this week I’ve hit a wall.

Badge via Pavementrunner.com

Badge via Pavementrunner.com

I started the streak on a bit of a whim. My running had been so inconsistent, and I wanted a new way to get motivated. A couple days after I decided I’d do it, I asked a few friends if they wanted to join in as well. This quickly turned into a bet between one of said friends and me: whoever ran fewer miles would treat the other to brunch when everything was all said and done. My friend has been an avid runner for a little over a year now, and I knew going into the bet that I was going to be the one paying for brunch. But that was fine (and still is)–again, I just wanted something to keep me motivated.

The streak started out hard both mentally and physically. I felt tired and dragged a bit through most of the first week. But after about four days, I felt like I’d broken through a wall and my running felt free and easy. I’d never been a big proponent of running streaks before beginning my own, and all of a sudden I wanted to tell everyone how great an idea it was. ‘Why doesn’t everyone do this?’ I found myself wondering. ‘This is the most amazing thing! I can’t imagine ever taking a day off of running again!’ All the worrying I’d been doing a few weeks earlier when my running schedule was erratic and fraught with anxiety disappeared, as it was no longer a question of whether or not I should run. Knowing that I’d be running no matter what took the edge off of some of the things about running that had gotten so difficult for me and had been holding me back for months. I ran through a nasty cough, in torrential downpours, and through some horrible humidity, all the while feeling alive and undaunted. The experience was exhilarating! This feeling of elation lasted a while–up until the beginning of this past week, in fact.

After day 15, things changed, and the past few days have felt more like a chore than anything else. I haven’t run more than 2.5 miles at a time since Monday; I haven’t had the energy or the desire to go much further than that. I’ve had to buy more running socks because I don’t have enough pairs to keep up with the rate at which we do our laundry, and I’ve started wearing some of my running tops and sports bras more than once between washings. I’ve found myself getting annoyed with the fact that the constant humidity has also got me feeling like I’m constantly sweating, and like my sweaty running clothes will never be completely dry again, no matter how long I hang them up to air out in the bathroom. I’ve noticed that almost every time I go running, I get some sort of comment from the people I pass on the sidewalk on my way to the park–“Hey gorgeous”, “Oh, hellooo…”, or just a simple but lascivious, “Niiiiice” as I run by. Maybe this stuff was happening all along, and I just didn’t notice because I wasn’t running as frequently. Who knows? Needless to say, it’s dampened my enthusiasm for going out. Yesterday, feeling both exhausted and physically sick, I delayed for a long time before finally putting my running shoes on and doing a quick 1.2 miles. Under normal circumstances, I would have let myself off the hook for an upset stomach. But with a running streak comes an obsessive need to keep going no matter what. My stomach hurt, sure, but why should that stop me from running a mile? Surely I could get through a mile. If I didn’t, I was throwing away 17 days of hard work.

It was while in the throes of this obsessive thinking that I realized that maybe this streaking stuff wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. If I missed one day, did that really discount 17 days of running? Or any of the other runs that had come before this one? Would the running be less meaningful if I didn’t manage to do it for 39 days straight? Even I, with all my anxiety and perfectionism, could see how potentially unhealthy this could be. And sure, 39 straight days of running is great, but enjoying the time you spend on your feet is even better.

So the upside of all this is that once I publish this post, I’ll get up, put on my running shoes, and head out the door. I’m feeling a bit low energy today, but I think being able to work through this sort of inertia is more healthy than it is unhealthy when it comes to running. Still, though, I’m not sure that once I’ve gotten through day 39 that I’ll keep going through days 40, 41, 42, and on and on. In fact, I’m thinking instead that day 40 might be a perfect day for a massage and some rest. I’m pretty sure that in my case, a running streak is going to be a simple accomplishment, and not a way of life.

 

Why Does this Always Happen?

I was so excited last week to get started on my return-to-running-post-hiatus plan, which obviously needs a catchier name. I got three runs in and I was feeling well on my way to settling back into the saddle. And then this week, I got sick. It feels like déjà vu.

Medicine

Medicine (Photo credit: DonnaGrayson)

I was fine on Monday. By Tuesday I was too tired to get up when my alarm went off, and felt like I could have slept through the whole day. When my sinuses started to feel funny in the late afternoon, it didn’t come as a surprise so much as it did a disappointment. Yesterday entailed a trip to the drug store before work to stock up on tissues, cough drops, and OJ, and today I worked from home in order to avoid spreading contagion and wearing myself out unnecessarily. I’m (fortunately) starting to feel better, but I’m salty about the fact that a mere week into my comeback, I had to take a break. Talk about derailed.

There’s a special kind of slugginess (it’s a word now, okay? And no, I didn’t mean to write sluggishness. That’s different.) that accompanies catching a cold: you feel exhausted but still functional, and everything is just slightly off. Your body kind of aches, breathing is kind of difficult, your nose is kind of leaking viscous fluid…For whatever reason, I always feel like I should be able to shake it off and go running anyway. It doesn’t help that almost every time I read one of those “Should I still run if I’m sick?” guides, the consensus seems to be that as long as you’re not hacking up a lung, you can run all you want. Personally, when I catch a cold, I feel too run down to walk from my bedroom to my kitchen–a pretty clear indication that I probably have no business lacing up running shoes and heading out the door to pound some pavement. But somehow the idea that I could be running still weighs on me. If it’s physically possible according to an article I read online that was written by someone who isn’t capable of evaluating my symptoms, then I have no excuse not to be doing it.

All this while I’m supposed to be giving myself a break, easing back into running, and resisting the urge to beat myself up. I guess this is a pretty effective reminder of the fact that I can’t control everything that happens, that I inevitably have to slow down, and that there are times when I have to ramp up the self-care and focus on what’s best for me rather than some crazy idea about what I should be doing.

So this week, as hard as it will be, I’ll give myself a break. There’s no reason for me to exert myself, and I’ll get better faster if I give my body the rest it needs. I’ll even try to like it, but I’m not sure how successful I’ll be. Hopefully next week, I’ll be able to start the post-hiatus plan again and have it go off without a hitch this time.

Fictions

I like it when you’ve been telling yourself that something is going to be like this:

Image via Tojy George, Redbubble.com

And then it ends up being like this:

Image via Stuffpoint.com

My run this morning wasn’t like that, but the run I did yesterday morning was. I know that most of what has been keeping me from running has been 1) the fear that it’s going to be horrible because I’m out of shape and 2) the fear of how much I’m going to beat myself up when it’s hard. But I am managing to develop a bit of perspective, and appreciate the difference between what a run will feel like and what I’m telling myself a run will feel like. 9 times out of 10, my fictionalized version of it is much, much worse than reality. Time to stop listening to that story.

I run for Oiselle

I’ve talked before about how much I love Oiselle. I can’t help it–I just can’t resist a company that was founded by a woman, makes a great product, and remains committed to its ideals. That’s why I’m proud to say that I’m a Team Oiselle athlete. To quote from the Oiselle athletes page,

The women who represent Oiselle are strong, resilient, inspiring runners whose healthy, pure love of the run can’t be ignored. Our team is a versatile group of women with different backgrounds, accomplishments and goals, all striving to run with all their strength, heart and talent.

This is a team of incredibly accomplished female runners. When I hear about their PRs and goals, I can’t help but look around and wonder how I managed to find my way into the group. Then I remind myself that I’m also aspiring to run with all my strength, heart, and talent. Speed, PRs, and accomplishments are secondary to love of the sport, and fortunately, I have plenty of that.

This weekend I’m running the Brooklyn half-marathon, which will be my first race as part of the Team. I’m looking forward to putting on my Oiselle singlet and distance shorts and run my little heart out. I hope I can make my team proud!

Junk Miles

Junk For the Punks^ - NARA - 533966

Junk For the Punks^ - NARA - 533966 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve been thinking a lot about junk miles, or junk mileage (whatever you prefer to call it) lately. I’m not sure why it’s on my mind–maybe because I haven’t really been running according to any sort of schedule lately and as a result none of my runs haven’t had an assigned “purpose”. On Friday, I didn’t feel like running but I knew that I’d feel good if I did, so I decided to play by the 10-minute rule. I ended up doing 2.6 miles. Do they fall into the category of junk mileage?

The idea behind junk miles is that they don’t really move you toward a specific goal. They aren’t long runs, they’re not speed work, they’re not tempo training, they’re just a few miles that you may throw into your week somewhere in order to hit a mileage goal. So if I run 20 miles one week, and 12 of those miles were done during my long run, the other 8 are just sort of, well, junk, right?

Wrong. There’s no such thing as junk mileage. How could  it possibly exist? Even if you don’t set yourself up so that each run has a specific function, that doesn’t mean that the miles themselves aren’t beneficial. Trying to argue that any non-specific, easy mileage you do is junk is like saying that it would be the same as doing no mileage at all. After all, junk is pointless. It has no purpose. Junk mileage would have to fit that definition.

Some people argue that when you’re running high mileage weeks, you inevitably have junk runs. They’re the runs you do to fit a few extra miles in, or “shake it out”. I’ve thought a lot about this, and ultimately I just find it confusing. As long as you’re running, you’re moving forward both literally and figuratively. If you’re adding a short run to your week to increase your mileage volume, that run is still going to play a role in improving your overall performance. Even if you think of it as a “recovery run”*, you’re spending time on your feet and helping your body to adapt to working through fatigue and stress. No junk there. Additionally, if you really think the miles you’re running are junk, then why run them?

It boils down to the fact that every run has a purpose. It’s not necessary to push yourself over the top every single time you lace up your shoes and hit the pavement. In fact, doing so is pretty likely to lead to overtraining and plateauing. A short run of 2-3 miles at an easy pace isn’t a waste of time, or just something you do to hit a certain number of miles in a week, it’s a valuable way to spend time on your feet and ensure that you continue to challenge yourself and improve as a runner.

*For more about the myth of the recovery run, I recommend this extremely informative article by Matt Fitzgerald.