Down deep every runner has The Dream, the fantasy in which they run almost without effort, just flowing or flying over the earth. But if you google “running quotes,” most of what you’ll find them talking about is hard work and suffering.
That is the painful predicament many runners know all too well. Running doesn’t feel the way we dream it should, and so we work very hard at it to try and get there.
In fact, you can run like you do in your dream, but the process of getting there is totally different than you think.
I did my share of working hard and suffering back when I was a dancer trying to learn how to run. After all, I’d started dancing at the ripe old age of 18, a full decade later than most female professional dancers, and I had a highly developed capacity for work and suffering. I believed that if I tried hard enough, I could solve my problems.
It was embarassing to go for runs back then. I knew if I felt awkward I almost certainly looked awkward as well, and I cringed when I passed runners going the other way and saw their eyes move in a very subtle double-take. If you walk out of a restaurant and people do that little double-take, you know to look down at your shirt for the food stain and go clean it off. But with my running I had no idea what was wrong, so I didn’t know what to fix.
It seemed like “real” runners all knew something I didn’t, and so not knowing what I needed to do I started with the obvious: running shoes. I went to a specialty running shoe store and got fitted for a pair of cushioned trainers, and for about 5 minutes I felt like I was running really great. But after that my usual pounding feeling returned. The only difference was that my wallet was lighter.
Then I thought maybe I just needed to warm up better. So again, I tried the obvious: stretching. I had a full stretch routine I did every day for dancing, and I tried doing that before runs. It was a total mess. I felt as weak and disorganized as a baby. I now know why, but back then I just knew it wasn’t helping and it worsened my embarassment, so I stopped.
My next step was core strengthening-type exercise. I’d already explored a lot of exercise systems while trying to get up to speed as a dancer, and had opted for Gyrotonics over Pilates, so I tried doing a Gyrotonics workout before my runs.
It sort of worked. I definitely felt more comfortable and fluid running after Gyro, but there were a couple of problems. First, it was exhausting. A typical Gyro workout for me was 90 minutes, and after that I could only manage to run about two miles. Second it was incredibly time-consuming. And third, it was ridiculous. A 90-minute warm up?!
The sad fact was that there wasn’t any carry-over. If I did the Gyro before running, the run felt okay. If I didn’t, it didn’t. I was completely back to square one.
After that I decided to go back to more runner-type things. I figured if my running felt like a pounding maybe I was running on surfaces that were too hard, so I started running on my local track instead of on roads and sidewalks.
But if your running feels bad to begin with, running in small, boring circles doesn’t improve your experience. It just heightens your misery. And to make matters worse, my neck clicked every single time my left foot hit the ground.
After awhile I noticed that my neck didn’t click when I was running to or from the track, only when I was running on the track. And furthermore, my running felt harder on the track than anywhere else. I now know the problem was actually an excess of cushioning: rubbery track plus cushioned shoes is a recipe for exaggerating every little niggle. Back then I only knew it obviously wasn’t helping, so that was the end of the track for me.
After that I didn’t really know what to do. I tried some strength training, I tried swapping my desk chair for a stability ball (a particularly bad move, as it seemed to make all my problems worse and I could barely run). I still thought that “real” runners must know something I didn’t so I subscribed to Runners’ World, but though I enjoyed reading it, nothing in there made much of a difference.
I listened closely when my anatomy teacher explained that runners should stay upright and run heel to toe (remember, this was 2001). I sincerely tried to do what she recommended and took some consolation from the feeling that I was doing something “right.” Then I went to the running section of a big bookstore and found the books ChiRunning by Danny Dreyer and Pose Method by Nicholas Romanov and was flummoxed to see they both disagreed with my beloved, trusted anatomy teacher. That was a bit of a crisis, but the fact was that regardless of who was right, I didn’t have enough control over what I was doing to really be able to choose whether to lean forward or stay upright or which part of my feet to land on.
To recap: I’d tried stretching, strengthening, core exercise, getting the right shoes, and switching my running surface. Nothing helped. But those books and my anatomy teacher and the occasional bits about running form in Runners’ World gave me something to think about when I ran. They also gave me a point of reference when I looked at runners who seemed smooth and comfortable. They weren’t yet the answer, but they laid the groundwork so I was ready to understand what was going on when I started having the learning experiences that made my running finally begin to change for the better.
More about that tomorrow!
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.