I Can't Run: The Excuse List

If you are a longtime reader of this newsletter you know that I think very highly of running as a conditioning method. Long runs, sprints, hill runs – as you can see from the following articles I think that they are all great.

What you might not know is that I used to have a love-hate relationship with running, and I had a long list of excuses to prevent me from just doing it.

Excuse #1: “I’m not fast”. I used this excuse up until I graduated from high school. If you sent me around a track with a bunch of my peers I usually ended up towards the rear of the pack. What I didn’t realize at the time is that your relative speed is completely, utterly beside the point if your primary goal is martial arts conditioning. What matters is getting your heart rate high, your lungs burning and your legs fatigued. Even though I don’t possess enough fast twitch muscle to ever come close to a 4 minute mile, any running I do will improve my cardio and that will improve my performance on the mats.

Excuse #2: “It hurts too much”. In my late teens, inspired by Bruce Lee’s ardent advocacy of cardiovascular training, I decided to give running a second try. I didn’t like it this time either. My lungs hurt, my legs hurt, and when my knees started to ache after a few weeks of regular running I decided that I just wasn’t built for running. “I don’t want to blow out my knees”, I thought, and my running program ground to a halt.

In retrospect I probably tried to go too far too fast – had I started with a walk-run program and been properly fitted for running shoes to compensate for tendency of my feet to pronate (roll inward) then I probably would have been able to continue pain-free.

Excuse #3: “It’s boring”. Ten years later, in my late twenties, I suddenly had two very good reasons to start running again. Firstly I had just started this intense new activity called Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and it was obvious that better cardio would equal better BJJ sparring and competition performance. Secondly I had set my sights on becoming a full-time firefighter, and just about every department I was applying to had some sort of timed run, 1.5 miles in less than 12 minutes typically being the minimum requirement, but added points being awarded for faster times.

This time when I started running again I was equipped with more knowledge and professionally dispensed running shoes. My problem wasn’t pain, but rather boredom, especially on runs longer than 15 or 20 minutes. I tried to compensate for this by listening to music on my shockproof Walkman (this was pre-iPod) and by running in scenic locations. As I persevered for month after month, driven by the goal of becoming a firefighter, a curious transformation occurred: the boredom started to fade away and really started enjoying my runs. I’m not exactly sure how or why this change occurred – perhaps it had to do with my cardiovascular system becoming conditioned enough so that my mind could focus on things other than pain and discomfort – but it was a very welcome change nonetheless. Although I still sought out scenic running trails I no longer needed (or wanted) music very often – I began to appreciate the sound of my breathing and the slap of my shoes on the dirt.

Excuse #4: “I’m injured”. In 2001 I sustained a serious foot injury while doing Judo. At first I thought my running career was over. Several surgeries later I was back on the trails, gratefully plodding away.

One year later a severe case of ITB (Iliotibial band) syndrome, resulting in severe pain on the outside of my knee, stopped my comeback dead in its tracks. This time the solution was going to orthotics, custom footbeds to correct your foot’s rolling and twisting on the ground. These were ‘silver bullet’ solutions – my ITB pain went away the day I put them into my shoes and returned only when I took them out.

A note about orthotics: these devices DO work for a lot of people, alleviating foot, knee and back pain while running or walking. You could try an over-the-counter insert first: two popular brands are Sole and Superfeet inserts, available at most running shoe stores. If the generic inserts don’t work and you want to upgrade to custom orthotics I strongly recommend that you go to a qualified podiatrist to get them: orthotics are dispensed by lots of doctors, massage therapists, chiropractors and running shoe stores, but only podiatrists spend 100% of their time dealing with feet, and the depth of understanding they bring to the table isn’t matched by anyone else. Be prepared though – custom orthotics are EXPENSIVE! Be prepared to pay $300 to $500 for your first set.

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