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What I've Learned

Running magazines, books, and Web sites routinely offer tips and advice for both beginning and experienced runners. Here are a few things I've learned that I haven't seen mentioned in quite the same way, or at all.

Don't out-run your center of gravity
I suppose this is another way of saying don't overstride. But I think maybe it's more than that. By trying to keep each foot strike very nearly beneath your hips, you keep yourself moving forward with less effort, rolling almost. I recently saw an article about the author of a book titled "Chi Running." What he had to say seemed very similar to what I'm suggesting. By staying balanced over your center of gravity, you run more efficiently and with less effort. I know that when I'm on the track running intervals, or racing, I have a tendency to start overstriding with the attendant increase in greater perceived effort. Staying balanced over your center of gravity is even more important when running on snowy or icy surfaces. Out-running your center of gravity on slippery roads greatly increases your chances of falling. Pay particular attention to staying balanced and centered when making turns.

Wear a headband to tune out the wind
Strictly psychological. Running when it's windy can be annoying, particularly if you are trying to run fast. When I'm on the track running intervals, and it's windy — even if it's relatively warm — I generally wear a headband with a hat over it. When I can't hear it, the wind seems like less of a force. Once it gets hot, of course, the headband is off and the wind is free to whistle in one ear and out the other.

Run with rhythm
And I don't mean with headphones (a huge no-no in my estimation). Relax your shoulders. Visualize your limbs working in balanced harmony. Don't focus on your breathing, but be aware of it. I think speed can and does come from a combination of relaxation and strength. I literally repeat those things when running my intervals, consciously trying not to concentrate on the speed, and instead thinking first to be relaxed, then to be balanced, than on good turnover, and then on running strong. If I do all of those things, the speed usually takes care of itself.

When you run and train in the dark, expect to run slower
I suppose this sounds obvious, but depending on where you live and train, it might not. I can run the same seven-mile route in full daylight a good two minutes faster or more — even if it's windy — than I can in the dark. And that's in spite of the fact that the entire route is on smooth black-topped, lightly-traveled city streets with good street lights and virtually no cracks or potholes. And it's also true when the perceived effort is identical, or even if I feel I ran harder in the dark. My guess is that it has something to do with apprehension. Even if you are not aware of it, I think you run with more tension in the dark. Further, I suspect that this happens in a very subtle way, as the sensors in your muscles called propioceptors figure out where you are in space and attempt to cue your brain to orient and balance yourself as you take each step. I'll stop there because I am not a biomechanical expert. Also based on nothing but the empirical evidence collected in my 'experiment of one' (shout out to George Sheehan), I think because of that tension you're likely to experience more soreness after running in the dark. And that's aside from the real increased risk of injury you encounter running in the dark.

When possible and when safe, stay off of sidewalks
For a lot of reasons.

  • They nearly always have a slant to them. And that means you're going to create a functional short leg effect, causing one hip to drop relative to the other. Whether it's your knees, hips, or back, you can be sure that something will start to hurt if you continue to run in this misaligned state.
  • Cement. Hard. Really hard. Bad.
  • Cracks, uplift, and debris. Come to my neighborhood and I can show you exactly why I don't even like to walk on the sidewalks when it's dark. And it's a great neighborhood. They're broken up, with whole sections frequently lifted up by tree roots, creating perfect trip traps in low-light conditions.
  • Close proximity to bushes, buildings, low tree branches, startled dogs, and other safety hazards and obstacles.

Take your turns wide
This one follows a little from my suggestion to avoid sidewalks, which other criticisms aside, also frequently demand 90° turns. Because of where I live and the routes I choose, I can almost always run safely in the middle of the road. That's assuming light traffic, good visibility precautions, and no headphones. Even with a nice wide road to run on, the temptation is to cut the turns pretty tight. However, as a runner who's been at it for a long time now, I find it easier on the body — particularly hips, knees, and ankles — to take as gentle a tangent as possible around each turn. Just as running on indoor tracks can be tough on the inside leg/hip/ankle, I think making unnecessarily tight turns when running outdoors perhaps can have a negative cumulative impact. You're also more likely to encounter cracks, uneven pavement, and debris the tighter you pull those tangents.

Run fast once in awhile, even if you don't race and have no interest in competition
Why? Because it feels really really good. In my early 20's I did a lot of my runs on trails. Even though the trails were in the middle of a suburban setting, there was something about flying along those trails that made me feel alive, wild, and free. It was primitive. It was true mind/body synchronicity. When you're feeling good, and the weather is good, and your body is in that groove it really can be wondrous.

If something hurts, don't assume that's what's hurt
It's the old 'foot bone connected to the leg bone connected to the hip bone' thing. Sure, your hip might be hurting, but it's frequently not the source of the problem. If your foot strike is off for some reason, such as a pain under the ball of the foot (metatarsalgia), consciously or unconsciously, you're going to change the way that foot hits the ground. And that means trouble higher up the chain, whether it's your knee or your hip. Get all running injuries that linger for very long evaluated by a good orthopedist, physical therapist, or podiatrist. Someone at your local running store can usually hook you up.

Be visible. Be smart. Be aware.
Wear reflective stuff in the dark. Run facing traffic. No headphones unless you're on a treadmill.

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