Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Guest Post: A Word on Running, Health, and Balanced Living

***Today's Guest post comes from a woman who needs no introduction to The Urban Politico readers.  You all know her as MollyAnn.  So be sure to engage our guest in the comments below***

I can’t remember what was going through my mind the first morning I went running. It was the spring of my 16th year in 1980. There was a park with a baseball diamond a couple of houses away. Just after sunrise, I put on sneakers, a t-shirt and shorts, and went running around the outside of the fence enclosing the field. My Dad ran cross country track in high school and college. He kept running until he was in his 40s. I guess this would be what put the idea in my head.

Why? At first, it was about losing weight. I’m not thin. I’m not meant to be. This is fine with me now. Back then, I felt self-conscious and awkward. Up to the early 30s, I would run between 3 and 4 miles with an occasional longer run. In an attempt to deal more effectively with stress, I increased the distance to between 6 and 8 miles in the early 30s. Now, I run either 5.8 or 7.5 miles most days. In the winter, the distance depends on the temperature and the amount of snow. In the spring, I alternate short and long distance to ease into the longer distances and the warmer temperatures.

I no longer time the runs. I let my legs pick the rhythm and the pace. I concentrate on form. I want running to be something that has its own natural flow instead of another activity to be measured and recorded. Running stopped being a struggle the day I left the watch at home.

The only serious running injury I received was in 2003. The injury was a broken tendon on the sole of my left foot. I ignored the warning pains. I paid the price. It hurt a lot. It took 9 months to heal. Before 2003, I did a collection of stretches each day picked up from high school gym class, articles in magazines, and ones I made up myself. My Dad had shown me some books his physical therapist recommended. I remembered the name of one of the authors, Pete Egoscue. He has a system of stretches to correct posture issues and the resulting pain and to stay pain free. The stretches I do now are based on his method.

Earlier this year, I read the book “Born to Run” by Christopher McDougall. I thought it was a fascinating read. After the injury in 2003, I changed the way I was running. I didn’t do it on purpose. It was finding the answer to the question of how can I run and my foot not hurt. I now run with my feet under me when they hit the ground with a foot strike of outside to inside. This is the way the group of runners whose story is told in the book run.

My legs do get tired and sore, but it is a good tiredness. I pay attention to any pain in my muscles when I run. Almost always, the twinges and tightness go away as my legs warm up. The key is that I have no expectations for speed. If one of my muscles is tight, I start out slower than normal until it loosens up. If my foot starts to feel tight, I know my running form has gotten sloppy. I shorten my strides and get my attention back on making sure my form is even and symmetrical.

I grew up in a household where healthy eating was required. For the most part, I kept eating healthy after I left home. I wouldn’t be able to say how much of either the weight stability or the general healthiness can be attributed to running. It has become clear over the years that eating certain foods assures weight gain regardless of how much I run. It is complicated. Luckily, I appear to have stumbled on a way of eating that works even if I’m not entirely sure why. I do know that my blood pressure is down in the athletes' and children's range of the chart. Other than a few times, my weight has remained in what I consider a reasonable window.

What keeps me running is the beneficial impact it has on my emotions and my mind. I know that I can’t be happy all the time. There is unavoidable pain in life: the loss of a loved one, heartbreak, the loss of a job, and many others. My response to all these events is to go running. It calms my emotions. It clears my head. It is both relaxing and comforting. It has taught me the value of observation. I watch the birds, the butterflies, and the flowers. I feel the wind and the sun on my skin. I let go. And then, on the lucky days, I end up in a place that is independent of space and time. I remember my younger self: the excitement, the enthusiasm, and the bubbling joy of a child seeing her first butterfly. This is my source of strength and it is invaluable.

If you want to start running, it doesn’t have to be complicated. It is wise to consult your doctor first. Alternating running and walking is a good way to begin. Carry a bottle of water. Concentrate on form before speed. Tiredness and fatigue are to be expected. Pain is not. Have fun. If it is fun, then you will keep going.

I have one more thought. I don’t find living healthy a chore. Fresh whole foods taste good. Running is often the highlight of my day. If you decide, for whatever reason, that you want to try and live a healthier life, my suggestion would be to aim your efforts in the direction of harmony and balance. If you don’t enjoy running, then find an activity you enjoy. Experiment with whole fresh foods and find ones whose taste you like. It doesn’t have to be an added irritation. It can be an interesting adventure.
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