For many of us, whether we’re able to run is just a question about how we like to get our exercise. Are you a runner or are you the type who does yoga daily and says with a laugh that you only run, “If something’s chasing me.”
For others, though, running is a fundamental job skill—especially for those in the military, emergency services, and law enforcement. “Are you able to run,” in that case is a question of whether you’re able to make a living protecting others and sometimes even yourself.
For a couple hundred thousand years, “are you able to run” meant in most cases, “are you able to survive” in a very literal way. The ability to run for extended periods of time made us the creatures we are, with a unique way of outcompeting faster, more powerful predators for food. At the same time, contagious and degenerative illnesses were not the threats they are for our species today, and the event most likely to lead to an individual’s death was an injury. (For more about this, read Daniel Lieberman’s fabulous book, The Story of the Human Body.)
So your current running injury doesn’t just feel like the end of your life—somewhere back in your DNA lies the fear it really might be.
At the same time, the profound satisfaction and the physical, mental and spiritual wellbeing that come with being a runner are easier to understand when you think of it not just as a form of recreation but, again, somewhere in your DNA, the way you get everything good and necessary in your life. It’s fundamental to your basic nature as a human being.
Accompanying the ancient fear and the primal fulfillment that we feel as modern runners is still the modern reality that danger can arise. Whether you’re a professional who deals with these dangers and has to be able to run or simply a regular person who finds yourself unexpectedly under threat, you do actually need that ability.
So with all of that in mind, let’s evaluate to what extent you really are able to run so you know how to improve. Below are 7 categories of running ability. Read over them all and honestly assess which one you fit into—your ability might be different than you thought.
1. Can you break into a run in an instant if you have to?
If your bus or train is about to pull away, can you spontaneously break into a run to catch it? How about if your kid is about to walk out into traffic? How about if your life is in danger?
Obviously that’s a range of urgency, and you might be able to run from a tsunami but not to catch your bus. But this category is fundamentally about emergencies, and many people can manage in these situations without being otherwise able to run.
The key thing here is that if you can only run under this kind of urgency, running itself will significantly add to your stress, and you’ll have a harder time recovering than someone who can also run in other situations. So it’s an ability worth developing, and every little bit helps. Here’s my advice on how to start running.
2. Do you feel like you don’t know how?
If you’re the yoga type who abhors running and never does it, we can assume you could still manage it in an emergency situation, but otherwise you can’t really be useful in a situation where running is needed. No one is born knowing how to run—we all learn it, and you can learn it at any age, especially if you’re already pretty healthy and fit. Here’s my best free resource to learn the basics.
3. Are you currently injured?
This is the most obvious barrier to running. If you have an injury like a fracture that makes it actually impossible to run even a couple of steps, then healing should be your priority.
However if you’re just on a layoff right now in an effort to heal something that had been bothering you, such as plantar fascia, achilles tendon, or knee problems that didn’t actually prevent you from running, then you’re not so far from being able to run.
Depending on your injury you might not be healing your best by resting. If you’ve got the type of problem that feels better when you stop running, then gets worse again when you resume, it’s not healing that really needed to occur, it’s learning. In other words, though you can run, you’ve got deficiencies in your skill (a.k.a. your running form or technique) and could be running much better. I’ve got lots of free resources for the most common running injuries, so type yours into the search bar on this website to find what you need.
4. Are you currently running and training, but depending on orthotics, stability shoes, or some other support to make it possible?
In that case, although you feel like you’re able to run, the answer is borderline. You can kind of manage it, but not skillfully enough to do it without equipment. Biking and skiing are equipment sports—they literally don’t exist without equipment. Running isn’t like that, and depending on equipment is a sign that you’ve got a skill gap. If you’re surprised that I’ve included stability shoes in this list, read more about running shoes here.
(Obviously the situation is different for an amputee running on a blade or prosthetic—in that and similar cases running is an equipment sport and this category doesn’t apply. All the rest do, however.)
5. Are you currently running but depending on painkillers and/or anti-inflammatories either during or after every run?
I don’t think I need to say anything more about this, you’re obviously on an unsustainable path with your running and it isn’t going to end well. Refer to the “Are you currently injured” category. And please read this about anti-inflammatories.
6. Can you run regularly only if you do some kind of rehab activity afterwards, such as icing?
Again, it’s questionable whether you should be running in that case, since depending on symptom control indicates you’re in fact hurting yourself on every run. Plus, you definitely need to know this about ice.
Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that warming up before you run, cooling down afterwards, and doing sensible self-care are bad. But there’s a line between self-care and having to put Humpty Dumpty together again after each run. I’m confident you know, deep down, which side of that line you’re on. If you’re on the wrong side, put yourself in the “currently injured” category and follow the advice there.
7. Can you run in play?
If someone pulls out a frisbee at a picnic, or if your tyke suddenly gets the hang of riding a bike and takes off, can you break into a jog as needed without negative consequences? If you can answer yes to this one, you’ve met the highest standard—the one you should be aiming for.
Your ability to run is pretty tenuous if you can just barely manage—with orthotics, a knee brace, a lot of physical therapy, and Advil—to finish a 50k race. But if you can break into a spontaneous run for a joyful reason, then you can really run, and the security you’ll have in any kind of emergency situation is also optimal. And all the running and racing (if you enjoy that) you can do will also be a pleasurable challenge.
So don’t settle for anything less. Heal if you’ve got the type of injury that requires it, and start addressing your skill gaps using the resources above so you can move with ease and confidence, the way a human being should.