This I Believe

by Joe Henderson

© 2006 42K(+) Press, Inc.

National Public Radio doesn't go with me on my runs. That's when I still resist listening to anything but live sounds. But NPR's morning news is the last voice I hear before running and the first afterward.

At those times, I often hear a segment in the ongoing series titled "This I Believe." Hearing these five-minute highly personal essays, I think: I could write a book on that subject.

Then I remember: already did that. It was titled Long Run Solution, was serialized in Marathon & Beyond in 2002 and 2003, and now appears in full on my Web site (address at the end of this column).

That book was an extended version of what I believed while writing the book 30 years ago. The timing is right for an updated and condensed version.

This column is my last for "On the Road." It was never intended to be any writer's permanent home. The scheduled stay here for past columnists had been a year, and I've more than doubled it.

Next issue I'll happily yield to Don Kardong, and then move to a new and more compact column titled "Joe's Journal," at the back of the magazine. Before vacating this space, I'm moved to do some summing up.

So here, in 100 words or less, is everything I believe about running-a hundred per topic, that is, while totaling a couple of dozen of those. This I believe...


Kenneth Cooper's formula-two to three miles, three to five days a week, at a relaxed aerobic pace-is enough running for an exerciser. "If you run more than 15 miles a week," says the Aerobics author, "you're running for reasons other than fitness." There's more to running than fitness. Running only to train your heart, lungs, and limbs is as incomplete as eating only to exercise your jaws. Training to race and running for relaxation and meditation begin where the exerciser leaves off. The early miles are warm-up steps leading to the best part, the second half hour.


This is a positive and natural addiction. Necessary activities, which running was for most of human history, are made pleasant so we'll keep coming back to them. The new runner's first goal is to reach the addiction point, the 3-3-3 level. This means promising to run for three months and to build toward three miles, three days a week. Runners who go this far are likely to continue-and to seek out the attractions of running beyond meeting the basic need for aerobic fitness. Running then shifts from an obligation into a habit, from a trial into a reward.


And not just for a new runner over-coming inactivity for the first time. Longtimers also wage a daily battle against inertia. One of its laws is that a body at rest wants to keep resting. The hardest step in running is the first one out the door. The toughest mile is the opener. You can trick yourself into starting by saying, "I'll try a single slow mile and see how I feel then." Get through that trial mile, and you almost always keep going-at a better pace-until the day's planned run is complete. Another law of inertia has gone to work: a body in motion tries to keep moving.


No one can run long and hard, or short and fast, every day without paying a toll in pain and exhaustion. In distance running, you must run less than your best most of the time. Nine miles in every 10 or all but a day or two every week must be easy. An easy pace is one to two minutes per mile slower than you now could race the same distance. An easy run is one lasting between 30 and 60 minutes. Hold your running to less than one hour a day, on average. Beyond that time, this hobby starts to feel like a second job.


Animals, primitive humans, and children show us that the most natural ways to run are fast for very short distances or slow, with many pauses for long distances. Long, slow distance (LSD) running, walk breaks, and short, fast interval training have history on their side. Racing a long distance fast is an unnatural act. We also get in touch with our inner animal in other ways by becoming a little less civilized for an hour a day. Real runners learn to let their sweat flow freely and to spit, blow their noses with their fingers, and discreetly relieve themselves outdoors.


Walk breaks can work wonders. They can make a long run longer or short segments of a fast run faster-without increasing the apparent effort. Or these pauses can make an easy run easier or make a recovery run (after an injury or illness) safer. Walking isn't cheating. It's moving as we're designed to move, at varying paces and efforts. If you don't like the word "walk," think of it as interval training for the long-distance runner. Mix one-minute walks, early and often, into a long run. This is long enough to feel like a break but not so long that you tighten up.


Don't be attracted too much to activities peripheral to running. These include stretching, weight training, form drills, and cross-training, as well as nutritional magic seeking. Better to warm up by slow running or even fast walking than by stretching (which has value, but not as a warm-up). Better to run an extra mile (because you get better at running by running) than to spend those minutes other ways. Better to lose a few pounds (if you're above ideal weight, as most of us are) than to add an imagined "missing ingredient" to the diet. Better to run a little hungry than to eat too much, too late.


Training by miles (or kilometers) means you must plot a course, then measure it, and then remember to follow it as designed. A simpler choice: ignore miles and run by minutes. You can run anywhere without thinking about the distance or the route, and time will pass at the same rate. And logging "41 minutes" is more exact than noting "about five miles." By-time running also helps regulate pace, especially on easy days. You tend to push a known distance to finish it sooner. Minutes can't be rushed, so you tend to settle into the right pace-not too fast or too slow.


Weekly mile counting is the most misleading-and potentially damaging-figure in running. It can lead to a leveling of daily mileage, causing you to run too much on days that should be easy and leaving you unable to do enough on days that should be hard. Weekly mile totaling penalizes you the most for what you might need the most: a big zero from a rest day. If you insist on counting miles (or minutes) by the week, take the math a step further. Calculate daily averages. Add up the amount of running, then divide only by the number of days run. This erases the rest-day penalty.


They usually are self-inflicted by running too far, too fast, too soon, or too often. Oncoming injuries can be minimized when caught early. If pain grows during a run and causes a limp, stop. If soreness eases and doesn't change your form, keep going-cautiously. If you can't run, train in other ways that most closely resemble running. If walking doesn't aggravate the problem, walk the same places and for the same times you would have run. If you can't walk, bicycle. If you can't bike, swim or "run" in water. Move back up that activity scale as you recover.


We think and talk about the whats and hows (especially the how fars and how fasts) of running. But the wheres seldom come up, beyond where the next race might be. Yet you spend dozens to hundreds of hours on your home courses. This isn't to say they grow old, routine, or boring after the 99th repetition. Even as you run the same place and the same pace, a course never looks quite the same way twice. The combinations of weather, season, light, feelings, and thoughts that you find there are ever changing. Each new run has the potential to surprise you.


Life is complicated, so run to escape the complexity instead of adding to it. Keep your training simple, low tech, and low key. Training simply balances three needs: long, fast, and easy. Train long enough (but at a slower pace) to prepare for your longest race, fast enough (but at a shorter distance) to match the speed of your shortest race, and easy enough (many days of this) to recover between your hard runs. Limit the hard days to one a week-be they long, fast, or races. This is all that most of us can tolerate or can fit into life's schedule.


The best type of speed "training" is regular racing. You can't duplicate the race-day experience as well with tempo runs or intervals. You can't match the racing effort (or the excitement) when running by yourself. The best type of "training" this way is at half your main race distance. That's 5K for a 10K runner, 10K for a half-marathoner, half-marathon for a marathoner. Don't take these races as seriously as your main event, and don't schedule them too close to that one. Remember that even training races take a toll. Recover as long as you would after a big race.


In marathon training, the long run means the most, by far. Take it and nothing else but easy runs and rest days, and you'll do fine on marathon day. Run daily, sometimes fast but not very long, and you'll do poorly. A big mistake of marathoners is increasing all the runs-long, fast, and weekly distance-all at once. As the long run goes up in length, the other runs must come down-in length, frequency, and number-to compensate. Long runs are best taken every other week or even three weeks apart toward the program's end. Recovery takes that long.


You don't need to "finish" a marathon in training. Leave the final miles unexplored until race day. There are two ways to run long before a marathon. One (which works best for a faster runner) is to build up to the marathon's projected time but to train at a pace one to two minutes per mile slower. This means covering three to six miles less than 26.2 while still seeing how it feels to be on your feet for the full race time. Another way a marathoner can train (this works best for a slower one) is to run at projected marathon pace but to stop three to six miles short of full distance.


A little bit of speed training goes a long way, and too much of it leads to dead ends of injury and disappointment. Limit the interval-training sessions of a road racer to 5K of fast running and the pace to that of a 5K race. The simplest way to improve speed is by running 1-1-1: one mile, one minute faster than your everyday pace, one day a week (with a mile warm-up and another mile to cool down). Another simple way to train for speed is with out-and-backs, such as going out for 15 minutes easily, then coming back in less than 15. This teaches you to finish faster or run negative splits.


The prerace anticipation and anxiety, the crowds running with you, the cheers for you, the splits, the drinks, the amplified announcements and music-they all combine to fire up your adrenaline. This has a magical effect on your running. You can run up to a minute per mile faster than you would go the same distance by yourself. Or you can double the distance you would run alone at a particular pace. Two cautions here: (1) adrenaline poisoning can lure you into starting too fast, and (2) going farther and faster than normal will demand a longer recovery time afterward.


The Bible says, "Run with patience the race that is set before us." Pay special attention to the first two and last two letters of "patience." Start at a cautious pace, and let the impatient runners sail ahead without you. You'll likely see them again later while passing them in the late miles, where it's much more fun to be the passer than the passee. This will happen if you pace yourself evenly. You'll feel even better by running negative splits-the second half faster than the first. That word "negative" is a misnomer, because racing this way is positively delightful.


"You can't think of running another marathon until you forget how bad the last one felt." Frank Shorter said that. This truism can apply to any race. Recovery doesn't happen overnight. It goes through three stages-muscle, energy, and mental-each taking more time than the last. A good guide for recovery is to not run another race (or even to train long or fast) until one day has passed for each mile of the race. One day per kilometer is even better if the race was really hard or you're into your masters years (as recovery slows with age). Treat racing as a prescription item, best taken in small, well-spaced doses.


"Winning is doing the best you can with what you're given." George Sheehan said that. Also, "Winning is never having to say 'I quit.'" Winning is also running up to your own standard of success-be it improving your distance or time, running better in this race than your last one, racing farther or faster than you would alone, or simply being in the running and finishing what you started. Winning is not automatic. You risk a loss whenever you race, but the only one who can beat you is yourself.


Complete running combines three different experiences: contemplation (runs alone where you take the time to think), conversation (with a partner or small group where you have the chance to talk), and competition (in a race crowd where you cooperate more than compete). Running is also evolutionary, as interests change over the years. Runners typically begin with fitness goals, reach them and graduate to chasing racing goals, and then finally advance to a goal of running to keep running. Fitness and racing aren't abandoned at that final stage but become byproducts.


You can expect PRs to improve for five to 10 years after your racing begins. This happens no matter your age at the start. You can extend that improvement for another five to 10 years by switching to a new type of racing-such as from short track events to midrange road races or from those to marathons or ultras. Eventually, though, your PRs go from targets to monuments. Don't let the old times haunt you. One way to do that is to write a fresh set of age-group records at five-year intervals. Or settle into running in races for their social side without really racing them.


Running is better when shared: as a teammate, a pacer, a coach, a volunteer, a fan. What you remember most, in the end, aren't the fast times run or the honors won but the people met and the friends made. You already know a lot about the runners you've never met. When you meet one on a run, give a "Hi," a wave, a nod, or at least eye contact and a look of recognition. You never run alone, even when you appear to be by yourself. There with you is everyone who ever advised, inspired, or supported your running.


Running is too valuable to leave to the best runners (which, inaccurately, usually implies the fastest) runners. If you want to run, you are good enough. There are no "bad" runners, only slower ones. And you're never the slowest. Look behind you at the people you can't see-because they either dropped out or never started. You don't need speed to outrun them, only starting power and staying power. No matter your pace or distance, you are a runner. You aren't a "jogger." The J word is used only by nonrunners to describe us unflatteringly. Edit it out of your language.


Speed drops, PRs become permanent, medals tarnish, photos fade. Your past is a nice place to visit in memory, but you can't live there. All you can really hold onto is today's run. Make it a good one, make sure you finish wanting to and being able to come back for another, and tomorrow's run will take care of itself. The running life is a pacing exercise, just as a run or race is. One day in the life of a runner is like one step in a marathon, a year is like a mile. Don't do anything in the short term that puts this long run at risk. All that lasts in running is the lasting.

You can contact Joe and read other columns on his Web site,