5.5
August 21, 2014

5 Steps to Establishing a Mindful & Joyful Running Practice.

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If we return to our body and the form anticipated by its design, we will find joy in running once again.

For many people, mindfulness is a struggle to focus in on a particular object without interruption.

It is a willful mental exercise, rather than a willingness to decentralize our awareness and allow it to pour out into the fullness of our person, into the totality of the body.

Similarly, running is an exercise of will power. We force ourselves to run. There is no joy in running, apart from the fleeting sense of accomplishment that comes after you have forced yourself to do something you didn’t want to do. Unfortunately, even this dollop of joy is often overshadowed by shin splints, plantar fasciitis or back, hip and knee pain.

Is running meant to be this hard?

The answer is, emphatically: No!

Just as awareness was intended to be distributed throughout the whole nervous system—the mind—the body was designed to run. But so was the cheetah’s. So, we need to understand how our bodies were designed to run, if we hope to re-discover the joy of running.

I say “re-discover” because as children, we wanted to run. In fact, we had to be reined in. “Don’t run in the house.” “Don’t run by the pool.” “Don’t run in the street.” Our parents were always trying to slow us down. Our bodies want to run, which is why we are haunted by the desire to run.

Regrettably, our adult mentality hijacks our body’s desire and spoils the fun. Nowadays, no one has to tell us not to run. We dread running.

So, what are some simple things we can do to restore joy to running?

The first thing we need to do is cultivate mindfulness, which really just means let go of the incessant chatter between our ears and reconnect with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes and sensations of the present moment.

Learn to feel the body, learn to listen to it.

The body will coach you. It will cue you in on proper technique and let you know when your posture and technique are working against your body’s design.

With mindfulness as our foundation, we now need to understand one very important thing about running and the human body:

It was not designed to run fast.

Christopher McDougall, author of the bestselling book Born to Run (a must read…seriously, it is a must read), often says that in a sprint, Usain Bolt—the fastest human being to ever live—would get his ass kicked by a squirrel!

Human beings are not natural sprinters.

We think we are, but we are not. We are distance runners. Our ego’s competitive mentality would have us believe we are or should be world class sprinters, but the truth is our bodies evolved for long, slow paces, not short, fast ones.

So when running, think more in terms of distance or even duration, not speed or pace. 

Bipedalism (walking on two feet) is the first feature that distinguished man from our closet relative, the chimpanzee. According to Dr. Daniel Lieberman, professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University, a walking chimpanzee will use roughly 50 percent more energy to move a kilogram of their body than you or I would.

While bipedalism is less energy efficient than quad-pedalism at high speeds (see Usain Bolt analogy above), it is far more efficient at slow paces, like walking or jogging. Therefore, human beings maximize their body’s capacities at long distances, not high speeds. So when you set out for a run, establish a relaxed pace. There is no need to burn yourself out trying to force your body to do something it was not designed to do.

The next thing we need to understand about running and our human body is our anatomical structure.

The size of our head makes things painfully awkward for us early in life. Newborn babies spend most of their time trying to balance their enormous heads.

As our shoulders broaden and our legs become longer, our center of gravity becomes lower. This enables us to balance our abnormally large brains and begin to take our first steps. These first steps will no doubt be clumsy, but as our coordination develops our stride will become more efficient.

An efficient stride is organized around an axis that cuts through our body from the center of our skull down to the point of contact between the earth and our foot. When our posture is upright, we are in accord with gravity, rather than working against it to remain upright. When you try to run fast, your head begins to lean forward and your legs begin to over-reach because you are off balance.

Dominated by the idea that we are supposed to be running fast, we lean forward. In this way we taught ourselves improper and inefficient technique. So, as master Yoda so eloquently said, “You must unlearn what you have learned.”

heeltoe

When we first start running we have to unlearn everything we think about running. When we try to run fast, the head leans forward, which shifts our center of gravity and turns running into an endless process of falling forward. This puts us in a position where we are essentially trying to catch our balance.

As a result, we are forced to unnecessarily extend our leg, which is not just a waste of energy, it also increases the risk of injury. A long stride shifts the point of contact from the mid-to-forefoot back to the heel, which transfers the energy generated at impact to the bones and joints: ankle, shin, hips, and back leading to hyper-extended knees and stress fractures.

So not only does improper form lead to inefficient strides and premature exhaustion, but it is the leading cause of running injuries.

Proper form is found in good posture. Keep your head up and shoulders back, always looking toward the horizon. If you need to look at the terrain, drop your gaze, not your head. Keep your shoulders gently pulled back, so that as your arms swing your thumbs are coming toward your collarbone. Keep your knees slightly bent with your feet about hip width apart.

The point of contact should never be in front of you, but always beneath your hips, which will enable you to land on the mid-to-forefoot, rather than the heel. The heel should be used as a stabilizer, rather than a landing pad, gently touching down after the arch of the foot has absorbed the energy of impact.

This will distribute the energy generated at impact to the calves, hamstrings and glutes, which will not only absorb the shock of impact but also recycle the generated energy much like a spring, increasing efficiency and decreasing the risk of injury.

Everything that makes running feel like a painful chore can be addressed by renouncing the sprinters mentality and adopting the vertical posture of a mobile biped.

You will undoubtedly rediscover the joy of running and as a result will look forward to grabbing your running shoes when you get home and taking off. The relaxed pace will soon feel too relaxed for your awakened respiratory and cardiovascular system. So naturally you will want to increase your pace, distance, or both.

How can you do this without sacrificing the principals of joyful running? A quick cadence and light steps are the keys to longevity and fitness as a runner.

When we first start running, an 10 minute mile may seem like a marathon, but before long that 10 minute mile feels like a warm-up. Soon we are running five or six miles and still feel unchallenged.  Based on the principles of running above, I went from not running at all to twenty mile runs in 7 months.

In order to increase the resistance without sacrificing the principals of joyful running, we need to differentiate between quickness and speed.

As our fitness increases, we tend to think that we need to go faster in order to maintain our progress, which of course means leaning forward, over extending our legs and landing on the heel. You will go faster, but the next day you will feel it in your shins, knees, and back. Eventually, you will suffer an injury that sidelines you for a period time.

Instead of going faster, be quicker. Try to take more steps. Start with a 78-step cadence, which means 78 little, quick steps in sixty seconds. Over time work your way up to somewhere around a 90-step cadence. This will require very light steps, meaning even more efficient strides.

In order to accomplish this level of efficiency, you will want to pick your foot up just high enough for your foot to clear the terrain and swing forward from the hip, like a pendulum. You do not want your legs to rotate out, but to swing straight forward with little-to-no sway, like the arm of a grand-father clock. These short, quick steps will also keep the point of impact beneath your center of gravity and just in front of the arch of the foot. This quick cadence  will also keep the weight of impact to a minimum.

I am a relatively big guy—6’8”, 240 lbs. I run with an 87-step cadence, which means I have extremely long legs and a very short stride. I may look goofy, but I have never had a running injury. A quick, light cadence increases aerobic resistance, while dramatically reducing the weight of impact and the risk of injury.

The fourth and final point, has little do with running itself, but the discipline surrounding the practice.

Set yourself up for success.

For starters, do not set yourself up for failure. Do not push yourself to run too far or for too long. Find your comfort zone and stay just on the other side of that boundary. If you can usually run one mile or for 30 minutes, then run 1 and ½ mile or for 40 minutes. Do not move your boundary every day. Stay at 1 and ½ mile or 40 minutes (or wherever your boundary is) for five days at a time, then move the boundary.

Consistency is essential in establishing any practice. So, for the first 30 days, run everyday. Your body does not need to recover from a forty minute run, and the consistency will enable you to set the habit. Stretch after each run to keep your body fresh.

Make your commitment tangible. Money is our culture’s symbol for commitment, so find a pair of shoes that work for you and invest in them. I am a huge advocate of the minimalist shoes, because less cushion between my feet and the ground enables my stride to be lighter and more efficient and my awareness of the body to be more sensitive. Plus, most of the running shoes (not all) are designed with “faster” in mind, thereby reinforcing bad habits.

Listen to your body. Get rid of the headphones. Feel your body. Feel your feet as they make contact with the earth. When you notice pain, scan your posture and make any necessary adjustments.

Finally, do not measure time and distance. Pick one or the other, because if you measure both you will fall into the trap of measuring speed. Once you have learned proper form by unlearning bad habits, you can pay attention to quickness, but do not worry about speed. Measure your attitude toward running, your form, and finally your cadence trusting that whatever speed you need will come.

Pain is not a part of running.

Running is supposed to be good for you, not painful. Broken bones, fractures, hyper-extended knees, pulled muscles, joint and ligament problems are symptoms of unrealistic expectations and the poor form that embodies them.

If we mindfully return to our body and the form anticipated by its design, we will find joy in running once again. Running will no longer feel like a chore.

This joy will transform running into our favorite pastime.

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Editor: Emily Bartran

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

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