PUSH AND PULL: THE ART OF SELF-MONITORING

Endurance athletes new and old are often unsure of how frequent, fast, or hard their runs should be. In order to make fitness gains without getting sick or "burned out," all runners must learn to balance the intensity and length of their workouts with proper doses of rest.

Surveys reveal that the vast majority of people undertaking exercise programs quit within one month. The main reason? Too much, too hard, too soon. Believing in the American "no pain, no gain" fallacy reinforced by, for example, gym-class running for punishment rather than recreation, they're apt to force themselves through more than they can realistically handle, not understanding that even healthy young folks are advised to mix equal amounts of running with walking when first getting aerobically fit. If they've been in shape in the past, they're discouraged at what they feel they've physically become. As a result, they get discouraged and stop working out, soured by the experience and believing they "aren't cut out" for running.

Everyone with the willingness to run a step is a runner!

A realistic approach for the newcomer is to schedule several relaxed sessions a week, running on consecutive days only if prodded by honest desire, not obligation. Mixing in one minute of walking for every minute run is more than adequate to reap cardiovascular and muscular rewards until steady running becomes manageable, comfortable, and yes, downright enjoyable. I've been running for over eighteen years now, and have progressed from someone happy just to cover four miles without stopping to a veteran of eleven 26.2-mile marathons; I'd be lying if I claimed every run is easy or pleasurable, but never have I finished a run regretting having headed out the door.

Remember Newton's laws of physics? Inertia is the biggest obstacle to consistency in any committed fitness endeavor. Chances are that no matter how "blah" you feel at the end of a workday's grind, if you can at least get yourself onto the street, you'll find you've got more vim and vigor than you'd thought. I can recall many an afternoon on which I - a 5,000-miles-a-year runner - looked out the window at a cold rain spattering the streets and thought, "not today." But after prodding myself into deciding to run for "just a couple of miles," I've often enjoyed some unusually long, relaxed, and rewarding jaunts.

In terms of how hard to push yourself, knowing when to drop the hammer and when to back off is a skill developed only through experience. Beginning and grizzled runners alike often persist in the belief that anger and stress are great fuel for extra-hard runs that "blow off steam." Nothing could be further from the truth. The best tonic for a hectic buzz-saw of a modern day is easing into a run and opting for long and gentle rather than short and furious, as the former approach better promotes the release of endorphins, chemicals that send signals of comfort and mild euphoria to the brain (hence the term "runner's high").

Switching themes: If you're aiming to run a race in a certain time and want to better your chances of reaching your goal, once a week, try one of the following workouts:

1. Go the distance of your goal race at just-faster-than "conversational" pace; "comfortably hard."

2. Split the length of your goal race into three equal parts. Run these segments at the same pace you hope to maintain in your race, taking a five-minute walk break between each segment.

Not only are these great workouts per se, they're reliable indicators of whether or not your goal is feasible. If you're unable to run a mile in nine minutes three times in a session, taking five minutes' rest in between, then shooting for 27:00 in a three-mile race (or about 28:00 for 5K, which is 3.107 miles) may not yet be in the cards.

Most of all, keep in mind that wherever you are in your journey, each run is a fresh beginning and a rightful source of pride.

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