It is now the 45th day since I began my transformation, lifestyle change, health & fitness journey, or whatever you want to call it. For those of you who have been reading my blog, you may recall that I also started my 28-day workout plan on February 1st and that while it got off to a rocky start, I’ve dragged myself back on track over the past week or so. I almost derailed my entire effort of the past week this morning when I woke up and realised that my plan required that I go running for my workout today.
I’ve never really enjoyed running. It’s always left me feeling really short of breath, sweating profusely, with ankle pains, foot pains, calf pains, back pains, and that was when I was younger and fitter. After I had gained a lot of weight in my 20’s and 30’s I had tried many times to “get fit”, and whenever I started running, all of my fat bits wobbled uncomfortably and added to the discomfort. Needless to say that I’ve grown somewhat wary of running over the years, and in some ways, it has become my biggest challenge in terms of motivation and effort from a fitness perspective.
I’ll admit that when my 28-day plan called for me to go running last time, given I had already messed my plan up, it was simply easier to decide to not do it, and to find another workout to do instead. Yeah, I know, these are not the words you want to hear from a person who is planning on becoming the world’s greatest Personal Trainer – which by the way is a goal of mine so that I can get the mug to match the World’s greatest Dad mug my kids got me!
Today however, something was different. For a start, I realised that I was procrastinating again, and I remembered all of my advice to others about focussing on my goals and making them more important than anything else. Since I know these particular goals are a big priority in my life, I decided to simply get on with it, do the running workout and to just get it over and done with. In the end however there were a lot of other factors that came into play today that made the workout both surprisingly enjoyable, and surprisingly easier than I had anticipated, even though my heart wasn’t really into it at first.
Back in early January, I read Barefoot Bob‘s book: Barefoot Running Step By Step which I had borrowed from my local library. It has a lot of information about running technique, how “jogging” in shoes is generally bad because shoes encourage heel strikes which can result in knee and ankle injuries. It also describes how a barefoot runner leans with a body-forward position with shorter steps whereas a shod runner has a more upright body position with legs forward and a much wider striding gait. It was an interesting read which I filed away in my brain for future consideration.
At about the same time as I read this book, my wife had purchased a new pair of running shoes for me, which are a minimalist running shoe design by Sketchers called Go Run. These shoes break just about every rule that I thought I understood about footwear design, yet as it turns out I really love wearing them because they give me much of the tactile feedback that I enjoy when walking around barefoot, but without the risk of getting thorns or broken glass stuck in my feet. I decided to run in these shoes today rather than wear the New Balance running shoes that I’ve worn for years. As I started my run, I found myself automatically leaning forward, running more on the balls of my feet and with shorter strides. For the duration of the run, I probably struck my heel only 3 or 4 times and found the difference in the sensations in my feet to be comparatively uncomfortable. Now whether it was the shoe design, or that I might have been subconsciously channelling the information from Barefoot Bob’s book I can’t really say. What I did notice was that running today was easier than I had remembered it to be, and I didn’t get any of the usual foot or leg pain that I have always had in the past whenever I’ve been running for more than a couple of minutes.
My course started behind a nearby school, where I ran northward along the river on the footpath for a while before going “off-road” and enjoying the dirt tracks along the edge of the river. I returned to the paved area on my way back and stopped not too far from where I live. Now when I say that I “ran”, I must admit that I didn’t run continuously for the entire workout. My course was about 3.5km with about 1/4 of that over uneven terrain. Given I haven’t yet developed the endurance to run continuously and also because I prefer training in intervals, I alternated running and walking for 2 minute intervals in the beginning, yet by the end of the workout I found myself running for 2 minutes with 1 minute walking intervals. Yes, I actually started to improve over the duration of the workout!
After my first couple of intervals I was feeling so good that I decided to get a little experimental with my breathing. For several intervals at first, I’d allow myself to react naturally at the end of each running interval, letting my self bend forward and breathing in the short gasping upper chest breaths that people use when they have just run hard. However, by the end of each of the walk intervals I felt tired, and the next run interval seemed to be harder and really couldn’t end quickly enough for my liking.
I then switched for the rest of the workout to consciously lifting my chest, exhaling quickly through the mouth but inhaling through the nose more slowly and deeply, right into the belly. I found that while it went against my instincts to breathe in this way, my heart rate dropped more quickly and my breath became easier faster. Realising that I had just figured out how I should breathe to recover more quickly after running, I wanted to figure out how to make my breathing easier while running. It turns out that as I ran, I was allowing my body to bend slightly forward as I ran, and I would breath more shallowly as the effort became more pronounced.
Realising all of this, I determined to do three things. I firstly concentrated on stabilising my core – yes, the middle aged guy sucked in his belly again! – while secondly at the same time arching my back slightly backward and lifting my chest. The third thing was to focus on breathing in through the nose more deeply and slowly for 3-4 paces, and breathing out hard via the mouth for 2-3 paces. Rather than trying for a “perfect” 3-2 breathing cadence, I simply went with whatever breathing cadence offered me the least discomfort.
As the workout progressed I found myself feeling more energetic as a ran than I did at the beginning. I was running in minimalist shoes with a barefoot technique over uneven terrain, up and down hills, and found my breathing, pace, and stamina improving with every step. I found myself walking less and running more, and I didn’t feel the need to resort to mouth breathing. When the run ended, I had been out for about 25-30 minutes. I felt a little tired yet not so enervated that I couldn’t continue to function physically. I also noticed that as the run progressed, my heart rate went from being in the high aerobic zone with each run interval, to barely able to reach an aerobic heart rate at the same pace. I actually needed to start running faster in order to increase my heart rate!
After my run I noticed that I hadn’t really been sweating heavily as I ran, yet once I had stopped I suddenly found my body heat was incredibly high, and I found my sweat started catching up with me!! I spent some time rehydrating, and then hit the shower to get nice and clean and to reflect on the workout that I had just completed. What I believe I have learned is that my experiences of the past had coloured all of my perceptions about this particular form of exercise, and yet I would not have learned that I actually can enjoy running had I not learned to run in a low impact way and with footwear that is more appropriate to this particular running technique. I would even go so far as to say that the barefooters have it right that this really is the correct way to run and to do so with the least risk of harm to the body.
I tried a short jog outside a few minutes ago, wearing the old shoes and in the classic joggers wide stride heel strike manner, and comparing the two styles, I noticed that the barefoot style doesn’t cause any sort of a jarring sensation at the hip, knee, or mid to lower back, as does the other style. The leaning – almost falling forward – barefoot running positions the body so that you move your legs in shorter strides, and use the entire foot efficiently, with much less arm and shoulder movement and a greater spring in the stride that I believe uses a great deal less energy than running with a wider stride. Bending the knees more really does help as Barefoot Bob says it does, and increasing pace seems to result in longer more bounding strides rather than merely pumping the arms and legs faster. The other thing that I noticed was a great improvement in my balance as I ran. I could go over obstacles and around corners faster than I would have done with a heel striking stride, and dust and other slippery surfaces were no cause for concern whereas I would have otherwise risked slipping and straining hamstrings and ankles.
I learned more this morning about running than I had in my entire 43 years, and I’ve discovered that I don’t mind running. While I don’t plan to become any sort of long distance athlete, I will continue to enjoy running as an occasional variation in my workout plans in the future, and I’m even thinking I might enter a a couple of fun runs once I’ve increased my endurance and my breathing. I’ve also started to think that this could be an exercise that might help me to increase my SCUBA air time, but I will need to research this idea a little more before I can say for certain whether running or some other cardio work would be better suited to helping me achieve my scuba goal.
The thing that I will take away from today’s experience however, is that I need to listen to my own advice more. The stuff I always tell my kids about trying something regardless of how I might feel about it. Had I simply given into my urge to quit before I started, I would have justified it based on my years of negative experience, and not enjoyed the opportunity to learn so much about both running and how my perceptions of it can have changed so much for the better.
It really is true that you need to keep an open mind, even when you believe you have all of the answers already. Once again I return to my saying that you need to change how you see yourself in order to change the way you see the world. I’ve realised today that I really do need to open myself up to letting go of the things that I think I have learned about myself over the years in order to really discover the person I truly am capable of becoming, and that I would lose something profound if I don’t give myself every opportunity to continue on that journey of self discovery.