Typical of many middle-aged men, I decided to start exercising after many years of not exercising…for health and fun. So over a year and half ago, my wife and I purchased a monthly membership to the local YMCA and I started swimming laps three mornings a week. My wife takes yoga classes and our kids have taken part in a few programs, too.
Why swimming? Because it’s something I know how to do and I enjoy it. I love the feel of the water around my body. I also swam in high school. But I stopped swimming during my junior year for two reasons: 1) It was clear I was never going to break the minute mark in the 100 freestyle, leaving me to finish last or close to last in every race, 2) I joined the Debate Team and it turned out this Argumentative Bastard was a much better debater than swimmer.
I had been thinking about running for some time and after reading Born to Run by Christopher MacDougall, I decided that I should add running to my list of activities…for fun and health. I had done some running before, years ago when I was boxing. You can’t box without running. Running builds up your endurance, improves your footwork, and gives you more power in your punches. Back then I couldn’t run very far without a brace on my left knee, so that is how I ran.
More than 10 years later I decided to take up running and find out of course, that if you need something like a brace to run, you probably shouldn’t be running. So I bought a cheap pair of shoes and started slow and short. This worked for a few months. My left knee was fine. Then I got a slight pull in one of my groin muscles. It didn’t hurt while running. I didn’t even notice anything until two days after my most recent run, when I got in the pool and attempted to do the breast stroke, which requires a frog-kick. And that’s when I felt the “OMG please don’t move me!” pain in my groin. So I stopped that stroke and finished the rest of the my swim.
I went home, iced my groin regularly for a few days and stopped running for a month or so. Pain tends to take the fun out and undermine the health part of doing something for fun and health.
I tried to work running back into my routine slowly, by mixing it with walking. Meanwhile, I did what any over-educated wannabe athlete would do: I went to the library and checked out books on how to run.
The first was Running for Mortals by John “The Penguin” Bingham and Coach Jenny Hadfield. This is a very informative book, meant to take away all the fear of running away from people. I didn’t have this fear.
The authors are, rightfully, big proponents of cross-training. But cycling is their most recommended. And they think you should buy a hybrid bike. And you’ll need gear to go with that, too (after of course spending hundreds of dollars on shoes, shorts, pants, tops, gloves, and so on)…So hundreds and hundreds of dollars later…As if everyone will follow their program and next thing you know you’ll be driving to Florida to participate in a triathlon. As if everyone who decides to run can afford to travel the country or world taking part in marathons, triathlons, and eco-challenges. I realize this is all meant to be part of the positive encouragement tone that the book takes. Which is very good in and of itself. But what is discouraging is the idea that it’s not true that running is a low-cost sport.
Also, every question relating even remotely to injury is answered with “see a sports physician.” As if, in this day and age of not so affordable and readily-available health care, we can also have a doctor (in addition to our primary care physician, if we have one) who specifically treats our sports-related aches and pains.
For once, I’d like to see The Cheapass Guide to Running.
That said, Running for Mortals is an excellent guide to getting started as a runner. The book covers all aspects of running from warming up, cooling down, extending your runs slowly (using the walk/run method), stretching, injury prevention, gear, and strength-training. It also includes some different training plans in the back of book for working your way up to 5k and 10k runs.
One thing that’s lacking in Running for Mortals is a detailed look at form. With any athletic endeavor, form is one of the most important things. You can have all the strength and conditioning necessary for performing the activity, but if your form is incorrect you will be setting yourself up for injury.
So I picked up Natural Running by Danny Abshire (with Brian Metzler). Abshire is big proponent of minimalist shoes and using barefoot running as a training technique to maintain good form. This book is a detailed account of the mechanics involved in running. He goes over the various muscle groups that are used while running, his experiences helping runners adjust their form to get over injuries, proper technique, exercises and drills, and (like any running book it seems) a guide for transitioning to a more natural running style.
Barefoot running enthusiasts seem the harshest critics of Abshire, faulting him for NOT being a full-on Barefoot Running Enthusiast. While Abshire says that the mechanics of barefoot running are best because it’s what our human bodies are designed for, he acknowledges the reality of American and European infrastructure with concrete sidewalks and debris-filled streets. So while he recommends training barefoot on grass or cushioned tracks, he recommends minimalist footwear, with a low heel-to-toe height ratio, for running everyday.
(It is true that Abshire recently started and runs a company called Newton shoes that makes and sells minimalist running shoes. He does not push his product in the book. Rather he draws on three decades of experience as a runner and as a consultant to professional runners for much of the information in his book.)
One of things I found helpful was how he explained why it is difficult to maintain good form while running with traditional running shoes (highly-padded heel). The high heel makes it difficult to land mid-foot. When running, I found myself almost shuffling in my $35 Avia’s, struggling against the shoe’s “desire” to make me heel-strike. Heel-striking is the source of most injuries and problems with pronation.
Since before the Christmas Holiday I’ve tried to get back to running a few days a week, with mixed results. I even bought a new pair of shoes (New Balance MT20s on sale from Zappo’s; they feel great). I’d run pain free, but then a few hours later the soreness in my groin would return. It wasn’t constant and it only occurred when I moved my leg a certain way. So I’m going to stop running for the next month and then try again.
I’ll still be hitting the water early in the morning three times a week. One negative about swimming: despite using anti-chlorine shampoo, I’m getting highlights in my hair.