It all started with some off-the-cuff, lunchtime conversations with a colleague. The topics that floated around were about food, nutrition, fitness and then more specifically about running. It turned out that this was something my friend was well versed in, as evident through the pace and distances he would cover in any one typical week.
The numbers got me curious, but it was the how that led to the questions. Over time, I got to learn that not only was he doing impressive speeds over large distances, he was having fun while doing it all.
‘No way!’ was my instinctive reaction to learning this. To me, running has always been associated with pushing, effort, exertion, intensity, pace, velocity and… exhaustion. But fun? That sounded totally wild, and yet intriguing at the same time.
The idea of running long distances and having fun along the way had left a deep impression on me, so much so that I was now inspired to run experiments through my own routines to try and apply this into my own life. This was a philosophy that complemented nicely with my previous ideas around building a life upon “high leverage, everyday things.” The celebration of all of the small, perpetually repeated moments in day-to-day life and, ultimately, the idea that life could be beautiful and simple at the same time.
Up to this point, I had already been running pretty consistently week on week since first trying out the sport in 2017.
While I did have discipline and a routine already established, I would say that much of the time spent running to-date has been pretty aimless. In the beginning, I was excited by the idea that running could be a simpler and more time efficient alternative to road cycling for maintaining general fitness, and what kept me showing up was the satisfying sense of fulfilment after every run. There was never a specific destination I was trying to reach.
Not to say that this was a ‘bad’ thing, as having a fitness routine on autopilot has plenty of its own benefits. But as with anything that becomes too familiar, it is also easy to slip into complacency — what was previously magical starts to lose its lustre.
Now, there was a clear question at the front of mind that demanded an answer. Would it actually be possible to have fun while running far?
Having a clear vision of what the end could look like was key, but I also came to realise pretty quickly that tactics matter also. After all, how could I reasonably expect for anything to change if I continued to rely on my habitual ways of running?
I had little idea of what I was really ‘supposed’ to do, but I was lucky to have a few inspirational anecdotes from the earlier conversations and a specific book called ‘Born to Run’ by an author named Christopher McDougall. So down I went into the rabbit hole, being led by these breadcrumbs. If I could paint a mood board of what my free time had looked like, it would have the following words: barefoot running, going by feel, aerobic fitness, Rich Roll, Tarahumara, Phil Maffetone and beats per minute.
I still remember the very first trial-by-fire of trying to apply what I had heard and read. It was on March 12, 6AM in the morning and the intention was to complete a long run. In defiance of all of my previous running experiences, my focus was no longer going to be on distance or speed (or ego) but instead on maintaining a heart rate range between 150 to 160 beats per minute. This is the guideline established by the ‘MAF method’ and as simple as it might sound, it turned out to be a jarring experience to start of with.
The reason for this was that running no longer felt like ‘running’ and became more like… walking. To stick to the heart rate zone my pace was slowed to what felt like a walking pace. I was still running, technically, but with all the people overtaking me on the trail, there was the overwhelming feeling that I was definitely sitting in the slow lane.
It was not until the very end of that first run that there was an ‘Aha!’ moment. I had crossed 16.05 kilometres — which was 6 kilometres above what I previously would have considered to be a ‘long run’. There was also the unfamiliar sensation of having legs that felt fine even after such an increase in loading, and the overall feeling that the body could have kept going if it was called upon. This was all very unusual for me, because long runs have always had a historical record of leaving me physically and mentally exhausted by the end. ‘Where did this capacity even come from?’ I wondered.
The next weekend comes around, and there was this general anticipation and excitement for going out on another long run. ‘What is going on here?’ I wondered.
The memory that comes to mind of this day is the visual snapshot of seeing a 20 kilometre distance count on the Garmin tracker I was wearing — another step increase over last weekend’s all time high. I could feel that my legs were stressed but my body generally felt less spent than anticipated, once again feeling ready to go if called upon. There was something beneath the surface here that was working.
In addition to the tactic of diverting focus away from speed or distance and towards the consistency of heart rate, I have also been working on the specific technique of exclusively breathing in through the nose and exhaling through the mouth. Having a slower-than-usual pace was a sure-fire way of achieving the target heart rate zone but this was not exactly a desirable strategy. As it turns out, having a regulated pattern of breathing can also be immensely helpful to this end.
It was interesting to observe how the body would be taxed more intensely when the breathing went out of whack, something that was particularly true when taking on hills or by any sort of attempts at ‘pushing’. Through this experimentation, I learnt that the inverse could also be true — that a lower heart rate could be achieved simply by having a consistent pattern of breathing.
The protocol of breathing in through the nose and exhaling through the mouse had the benefit of physically restricting the volume of oxygen intake at each cycle, which served towards the goal of heart rate regulation, and also served as a useful guarding mechanism against my own neurotic behaviour of pushing too hard and going too fast. After just a short time of adapting this, it was mind blowing to be able to take on hills while maintaining a flat output of effort.
Before all of this experimentation, my default mentality to running could be described by an obsession on maintaining a flat speed regardless of the terrain. All else was made subordinate to this end — effort, breathing, cadence and mental focus. Now, it was the body that would adapt to the terrain. It was no longer about sprinting up every hill and outrunning every other person who just to happened to be on the same trail as I.
One magical side effect that came from this was in the new found capacity of being able to dedicate more attention to the myriad different signals that my body has been telling me all this time — valuable information that were previously muffled and overriden by the arrogant mindset of speed and intensity.
For the first time ever, I could sense how my feet were landing on the ground, what my breathing was doing, how beautiful the surrounding world could be as I ran past… and how so many other fellow runners were running with pain written all over their faces — as shown by the gritted teeth and furrowed brows.
It was an oxymoronic experience for me because I could vividly see myself in their shoes, that all of the pain was what I had previously felt too — a state of movement that I had considered to be normal!
My attitude towards going for long runs was clearly starting to change. Instead of feelings of intimidation and resentment, there were green shoots of curiosity and excitement growing within a sport that I had previously become so familiar with through blind repetition.
The physical and tactile experience of running was also starting to change. Instead of the eyes being aimed down at the ground all of the time and the feet pounding pavement, I could now look around more and actually see things as I ran past them. I could also pay closer attention to all that was happening on the inside too.
Running was starting to shift from being a chore into being an adventure. An opportunity to welcome spontaneity with an open mind. To letting go of the tightly clinched fists and gritted teeth. To being more comfortable in being immersed in the flow of things as they happen.
On any one day, there might rain, the temperature too warm or the body heavy from exhaustion — life happens. Instead of being obsessed with preconceptions of what ‘could’ or ‘should’ happen, running was starting to feel like play again.
“Distraction is not procrastination.
Procrastination consistently undermines our ability to make things work.
Distraction is strategy in service of the work.”
— Rick Rubin