There was a day when joggers wanted only to go faster and farther. Today they aim for moderation - and get better results
By Dan Ferrara
Running is one of the most efficient ways to get fit.
Running has earned its reputation as the sport of choice for obsessives. When it entered the mainstream 20 years ago, runners rarely talked about anything except how to go faster -unless they were also talking about how to go farther. They told stories of outlandish suffering: the Englishman who ran 30 miles a day when he was healthy (which wasn't often, since he ran 30 miles a day); the American who toughened himself by training all summer in Georgia, at midday, in two sweatshirts; the Brit who ran at least once a day for more than 20 years, even when it meant hopping for a mile on one foot because his other one was in a cast. But these tales were always irrelevant to anyone trying to fit running into a normal life.
Thankfully, running has chilled out. You still hear stories about excess (let's face it, chilled‑out people don't make it to the Olympics), but voices of moderation are much more common today. Almost anyone can run enough to get tremendous fitness benefits, because a little running goes further than was previously understood. And it ought to be enjoyable. Thousands of people will look outside this fall and say, "I ought to try running [or try running again]. It's cheap, it's effective, it'll get me out of the gym." Here's what America's top running experts say about how to turn that good idea into a program.
EASY DOES IT
In the early seventies, Joe Henderson wrote a book whose title Jog, Run, Race (Anderson/World), reflected the prevailing orthodoxy of running: You started slowly, because you had to, but as soon as possible you'd work up to racing because ... well, why else would you run?
During the past decade, Henderson has changed his view and, in the process, has had a lot to do with creating today's more moderate orthodoxy. "You don't have to run really hard, you don't have to run really far, you don't have to run every day,” Henderson now says emphatically. He himself now races only casually and infrequently, and is fond of quoting Kenneth Cooper, the famed Dallas cardiologist who figured out that two or three miles of running three to five days a week is as much as anyone really needs. Anyone who runs more than that is running for reasons other than fitness. "If you have those other reasons, that's fine," says Henderson. "But runners ought to be told how little running it takes to get what they're after."
Henderson's and Cooper's messages are echoed by exercise physiologist Shelly‑lynn Florence, who coaches hundreds of runners every year through the New York Road Runners Club. Most beginners come to her classes, Florence says, certain that she's going to force them to do much more than they're capable of. To their surprise, they run only as much as is comfortable. Most still fear that they won't be able to keep up. "I tell them, 'As soon as you can run a few steps, you're going to be better than someone,'" Florence says.
Florence coaches many men and women who are already in good shape from such things as step classes and stair climbers. These "gymites," as she calls them, are usually frustrated that their conditioning doesn't translate immediately into comfortable running. "Their aerobic conditioning outpaces the strength of their running muscles," she says. "They need to take it easy until their muscles get up to speed." It can be frustrating, but conditioning in any sport is quite specific. Even an aerobics instructor will have trouble running comfortably at first ‑just as a marathoner can go to pieces in his or her first step classes. Pain and stiffness are part of the learning curve. For beginning runners, the most common complaint is shinsplints, aching along the front of the shinbones. Painful as it can be, however, shinsplints rarely indicates any kind of serious problem.
"I tell gymites to maintain their normal gym workouts until they can run as far as their conditioning allows," Florence says. It usually takes about a month for the well‑conditioned indoor athlete to be able to run three or four miles comfortably.
MIND AND BODY
"In any other sport," says Stu Mittleman, "you understand that there's something to be learned. Why should running be different?" Mittleman, a New York exercise physiologist and trainer, is passionate about the importance of right thinking and good technique, and he knows whereof he speaks: His most recent race was a 536‑mile event in France. It meant running eighteen hours a day for six days. Clearly, he's getting a slightly different message on his headphones than the rest of us. Still, he says, he's after the same thing every other runner is after. "The point is not to see how fast you can go," he says. "The point is to become a master of your body."
In practical terms, that means liking the way your body feels as it moves: being contented and comfortable. Unfortunately, many runners distrust comfort. They consider discomfort to be proof of progress and fitness. "These people are employing the electric‑shock theory of training," says Mittleman. "They constantly stick their finger in the socket to see how big a shock they can take. That's not learning to run. All these people are doing is developing good strategies to cope with pain." The trouble is, their pain will keep them from sticking with it. They'll think they've proved that fitness running is not for them, when really they just haven't relaxed enough.
Send one of these sufferers to Mittleman and he'll slow her way down. It's imperative, he believes, to teach a runner the difference between working aerobically (literally, "with oxygen") and anaerobically ("without oxygen"). Running aerobically means expending only as much effort as your oxygen intake can cover. To run anaerobically is to be gasping. Runners speak of something called the talk test: If you can't hold a conversation, you're running anaerobically, and you need to dial back.
So why not go as slowly as possible? Why not just walk? People who walk for fitness often deride running, saying walkers get the same basic benefits without the discomfort and the potential for injury. Fair enough, but running has an undeniable advantage over walking: efficiency. For a given half hour of exercise, running provides more fitness than walking ‑more calorie expenditure, muscle building, and heart‑lung conditioning. More, too, than cycling, swimming, stair climbing, and just about any sport other than cross‑country skiing.
All right, then, why not go as fast as possible‑run anaerobically, be a gasper? Again, it's a matter of efficiency. No one can carry on for long with insufficient oxygen. To return to Ken Cooper's terms, it isn't possible to run two or three miles in an anaerobic state, and therefore to get very much exercise. Wearing yourself out is not the same thing as giving yourself a good workout. What's more, faster running is more likely to cause injury. People who run a reasonable distance at a reasonable pace rarely suffer more than occasional joint or muscle aches.
It's fine to measure your effort with a heart monitor and your pace with a stop watch. But measurements are not what running should be about. In Mittleman's words, "if the movement feels good and you're enjoying it, you're aware of other people and of the beautiful day, you're doing it right. When you hate every step, when all you want to do is get it over with, you're doing it wrong."
As to the left‑foot‑right‑foot details of running itself, few people have Mittleman's way with imagery. Here's his idea of what healthy running should be like, from head to toe:
The face: Don't be a scowler. It means you're focusing too intensely on one particular thing ‑your speed, how far you've run, the pavement in front of you. Instead, try to take in all your surroundings. "You see through soft eyes," says Mittleman. "You see nothing in particular, but you see everything."
The mouth: "Imagine you have rose petals in your mouth." Don't smash them. If you do, your jaw‑and hence your neck and head- is too tense.
The hands: "Imagine you're carrying butterflies. You don't want them to escape, but you don't want to crush their wings." Let your hands‑and your arms, shoulders, and neck‑relax.
The trunk: Think of your abdomen as a triangle, the three points being your two hipbones plus your belly button, says Mittleman. "In the middle of the triangle is a ball. When you breathe in, you inflate the ball. When you exhale, you deflate the ball."
The feet: "You're not pushing off the ground; you're lifting your feet and letting the ground pass beneath you." Take small steps and minimize impact.
THE FIRST FOUR WEEKS
More good advice comes from Dick Brown, who tutored middle‑distance runner Mary Decker Slaney and now guides a dozen potential Olympians. "Get yourself a good pair of shoes. Make sure you have some very simple clothing for different types of weather. Pick a time during the day when you know you can do this. Pace is not important. Distance is not important. What's important is that you get your butt out the door. Once you're out the door you're going to be fine."
Brown has developed a computer‑software training package for runners, and his first nontechnical book, Fitness Running (Human Kinetics), written with Joe Henderson, was published last year. The lovely thing about running, says Brown, is that "nearly everything works." If you get out the door, you'll get the conditioning, weight control, and bonhomie you came for. Here is Brown's beginning‑running program. It covers four weeks‑enough time for nearly anyone to develop a bit of a habit and see some results.
Week one: Three or four workouts, 20 to 25 minutes each, of walking and jogging, in whatever proportion is comfortable. Always start by walking.
Weeks two and three: Three or four sessions, 25 to 30 minutes each, of walking and jogging. Increase the ratio of jogging to walking.
Week four: Three or four sessions, 20 to 25 minutes each, of continuous jogging. But walk a little first to warm up.
Where to go from here? Perhaps a fifth day of running. A sixth day isn't a good idea for most people; recovery is important to both health and fitness. Perhaps a little more running in each session. Or perhaps just maintenance, that 20 to 25 minutes of comfortable running, three or four days a week.
It's possible that a good start will uncover a competitive streak -lots of runners enjoy setting goals, fixing on a race some months ahead. If you go down this road, remember Stu Mittleman. As a competitor, he'll understand if you're compelled to crush your opponents. But try not to crush any butterflies.