In Praise of the Fitness Runner – the benefits of varying your training

Chances are if you’re reading this blog running is a serious matter to you. You invest your time, money, and attention in proper equipment, training, nutrition, and information. You believe that focus and drive make you better. That’s not necessarily wrong but it’s also not the whole truth.

Periodically you see a different kind of runner out in your local park on a nice day, in fitness gear not necessarily designed for running and mediocre trainers. With iPod in hand and ponytail swinging, she has no concern for pace or apparently anything else but trotting around the park for a good cardio session. Tomorrow she’ll probably be in a Zumba class.

Annoyingly, she is in no apparent pain.

Despite the fact that she is obviously Not A Runner, it’s not just her good fortune that she doesn’t seem to be suffering. Typically, this kind of runner is doing a key thing right: she’s physically active in a wide variety of ways.

Variety makes her adaptable and gives her better coordination, so she tends to naturally fall into a comfortable, healthy gait. For her speed she’s leaning appropriately (not very much, but visibly). She’s not tucking her chin or trying to maintain “good posture,” she’s actually just way too into her music to think about that and lets her head float freely in an easy “face forward.” She’s not worried about core stability but lets her torso naturally counterrotate. Her elbows are quite bent, curled knuckles coming to her breastbone because that’s what feels natural.

Despite generally being in lousy fitness shoes or very built-up trainers she bought because she liked how they looked, she isn’t doing a massive honking overstride with a pounding heelstrike. Partially this is because she’s letting her pelvis move and she’s got a forward lean with very bent elbows and hands near her chest, and all of these things help regulate footstrike. Partially it may be that her music keeps her stride rate up and her slow running speed – more of a trot – keeps her from any temptation to reach her feet out in front of her. But also, again, it’s mostly because that’s what feels easy.

Variety makes the nervous system wise and experienced. A wise nervous system seeks out the easy way of doing things because that is the coordinated way. Better coordination always feels easy, poor coordination is excessively difficult and exhausting.

The benefits of a varied range of activities do fade, however, so this is perhaps the one kind of wisdom that the young seem to have and their elders lack. If we place children in intense, specialized sports training or just park them in front of a TV without access to outdoor play we rob them of the opportunity to develop this wisdom. And when any person’s range of movement experiences narrows for an extended period of time this wisdom fades away.

You can recapture the easy buoyancy of the fitness runner by introducing more variety into your movement life. Varying your runs – terrain, speed, etc. – is a start. A lot of barefoot runners say when they took their shoes off they started feeling like a kid again, and one of the reasons is that when you’re barefoot every step is different and it reawakens your nervous system.

Trailball is another way of introducing revitalizing, nervous-system-awakening variety into a run. So are sports that involve running – Oliver Henzler, on the NYC staff of The Balanced Runner™, recently trained for a marathon by substituting a weekly soccer game for one of his runs, and felt it kept him healthier and running better than training by the book. In a previous blog post looked at soccer players and the form benefits of all the varied movements they do.

Changing how you think of cross-training is another way to recover the physical wisdom of your younger self. Instead of thinking of drills (drill = repetition!) and sports-specific weights and plyometrics, which are normally done in a very simple series of motions that focus on targeted muscles, you could think of doing some cross-training that’s utterly different from running. I keep going back to Zumba because Latin dance types of exercise are so great for developing a strong and mobile core, and you’ll get a wide variety of movements and rhythms in a dance class. Another interesting option is MoveNat, a movement-based exercise system that involves things like walking on logs and climbing trees, building strength and coordination much better and more interesting and useful than precision-machined gym equipment can produce. Another great option is Punk Rope. My own field, Feldenkrais, offers a purely movement-education activity that will make you younger and more skillful with each lesson.

All of this variety has other rejuvenating effects as well. Improving the hydration of your fascia is one; I won’t elaborate, just read this great article by Brooke Thomas of Fascia Freedom Fighters. Another is that varying your workouts improves your fitness while varying the stresses your body has to recover from, so it improves your recovery from the training you do. (Thank you Gary Reynolds for this insight!)

All of this variety in training teaches your nervous system to seek out what feels easy and enjoyable in movement and results in a healthier, stronger body moving younger and happier. Don’t look down on the fitness runner, make her part of who you are too.

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