Does your running feel like drudgery, a chore, or a mindless routine? If so, you’re not getting the fitness benefits you could, you’re missing out on some of the biggest stress-relief, mood-lifting, and even brain-building benefits running can offer, and you’re keeping yourself from becoming a more skillful runner.
I have been lucky enough to find my work included in an article called Play Fast and Loose on the topic of running and play by Sam Murphy in the December 2015 issue of Runners’ World (UK edition). Play is fundamental to the exploratory learning that we did in childhood and which is recaptured by the Feldenkrais method, which I use to help runners; hence my inclusion in the article.
I hope if you learn nothing else from me, you learn that:
- it doesn’t work to try to run “correctly” — you need to explore and experiment, that’s what helps your running to improve.
- your main sign you’re on the right track is that your running starts feeling easier, smoother, freer, and more fun.
I love so many of the things the other experts said in the article, but my particular favorite is Tara Wood’s comment that “joy is an ancient symptom of doing something that has an evolutionary benefit.” And that is true of truly healthy running. It feels joyful.
So what does this mean for a running routine that’s a thrice-weekly trudge around the same old route?
It means try new things.
I’ve made a little list of options to get you started:
- Change your route. You will be amazed how good this makes your brain feel, its like washing out the inside of your head.
- Forage en route. This is a favorite activity of mine when I run. Obviously it doesn’t work well in an extremely urban area, though even there you’d be surprised, there’s probably plantain growing through cracks in the sidewalk. I find that everything about how I relate to my environment changes when I start looking for food in it (shops and restaurants do not count!). Suddenly I see everything, and I remember the tiniest details of the terrain. So much more of my brain switches on. I make physically interesting side trips to pick things, picking my way through underbrush for blackberries and reaching up high for mulberries, plucking a few leaves of wild garlic or some ground elder to put in my scrambled eggs when I get home. Get a book on what’s edible where you live and start looking for plants.
- Develop a personal relationship with the land where you run. This is the opposite side of the coin from changing your route; run a route regularly (not every day, but frequently) and notice the seasonal changes. They happen fast. This works particularly well if you’re also foraging; you’ll get finely attuned to when the blackthorn blooms, watching it bud, then almost burst, and then there’s the day when it’s time to stop and pick the blossoms to make a cordial. When I was a girl I lived near a forest and I used to go visit my favorite places several times a week after school just to see them change, and eventually I knew when the weather suddenly warmed in January where to go look for snowdrops. No matter where you run, you can do this.
- Do baby parkour. I know that real parkour is becoming popular crosstraining for a lot of runners, and I think that is a fantastic trend. But if you don’t really feel up to jumping over things and balancing and rolling… well, wait a minute, put it that way and it doesn’t sound so intimidating. Somewhere on your run there is a curb you can run on for a few steps. If it rains there’ll be a puddle you can try jumping over instead of splashing through. Does your run go past a playpark? Take a little detour and try walking hand-over hand on the monkey bars or, if that seems daunting, just walk up the slide. One of my favorite runs goes along a grassy bank and ends at a wall where I have to jump down a couple of feet to a sidewalk. Before my cycling accident I started working on a doing it without breaking stride, just putting one hand on the wall and swinging my leg through. And I swear I looked forward to it for my whole run, and then grinned the rest of the way home.
- Take your shoes off for the last bit (if you normally run in shoes, that is). I believe barefoot running is fundamentally playful, and especially in the early days it’s a lot like the game you played as a child where you tried not to step on the cracks in the sidewalk. You’ll feel very alive after doing this.
- Don’t just run straight forward. Why separate your drills from your running? And why call them drills, anyway? Skip a bit midrun. Do sideways chasses. Run backwards. Do grapevines. Back in my early running days when I was still more a dancer than a runner and actually running straight forward for long periods of time didn’t feel that great yet, I used to do all these things as well as a rotating sequence of grapevine-backwards-grapevine-forwards that drew stares even in NYC’s Central Park.
- Include a ball somehow. I remember a time living in the East Village when I felt really low. I didn’t know why, maybe it was just the winter blues, but I couldn’t motivate myself to go for a run. Finally, nearly out of time for getting any exercise before work and knowing the very difficulty with going for a run meant I desperately needed physical activity, I grabbed a medicine ball and went out to the handball court in Tompkins Square Park. I threw the ball up as high as I could, I bounced it as hard as I could, I threw it at the wall with both my right and left hands, and 15 minutes later I felt like a new person. There is something special about reacting to a flying, bouncing object that behaves in slightly unexpected ways. There is also something very special, mood-wise, about looking up. However if kicking a ball is more your speed that’s an option too. For that matter, dribbling a basketball for part of your run is a possibility. Could this be how joggling got started?
When you’re really in a routine, doing something new can seem seriously daunting. I had to think about it for a while before the first time I tried to make a smooth jump off that wall I mentioned, and I used to be a dancer, for heaven’s sake. But that feeling of being daunted is the strongest indicator that your body and mind desperately need a new experience… and some joy! So give one of these a go, and add your ideas by leaving a comment.