[First published September 21, 2007]
Is running complicated?
In spite of the fact that I seem to be writing or talking about it all the time, it strikes me that running is pretty much the simplest thing you can do and still call it a sport. Other individual sports aren’t even close on the simplicity meter. Weightlifting has all these techniques and rules, and walking is so complicated that you need three separate judges to tell whether you’ve done it right or not.
But running? Very simple! Everyone knows how to run.
But in recent years it has become common knowledge that running FORM is a rather sophisticated matter, and that young runners must be taught to run correctly, and so on. I admit that when taken apart and dissected, running form is complex. I will also admit that a focus on running mechanics is absolutely essential in the sprints and hurdles. And yet, aren’t we still talking about a skill that has been acquired naturally and fine-tuning it? Even the most radical approaches to improving running form don’t try to teach running from scratch. I stick by my basic assertion. We all know the basics from the time we are six.
But training, ah TRAINING must be very complicated. I know it must be complicated because I have a bookshelf that groans beneath the weight of all the training books I own. Some of these volumes present me with a veritable graduate level course in biochemistry. Others contain pages and pages of suggested training schedules. Still others recount the training logs of outstanding runners (oddly, all of the outstanding runners seemed to run a lot — and pretty fast). The more I read, the more complicated it seems.
But wait, here is Kenny Moore recounting Bill Bowerman’s famous speech to his incoming freshmen runners at Oregon: according to Bowerman, training is simple:
“Take a primitive organism (say, a freshman). Make it work. Make it rest. A miracle occurs. It improves! It’s so simple, and yet people always screw it up! They work too hard, rest too little. Fall in love, play guitar all night, get mono, and they don’t improve.”
Run. Rest. Eat well, sleep well, stay healthy, and run. Improvement is almost guaranteed. Perhaps training is not complicated either.
But then, it must be that the real complexity of running is… us! I am complicated and you are complicated. When we run, we project upon our exertions all our passions, fears, hopes, and insecurities. In training, we exhibit irrational exuberance; in racing, we exhibit hesitancy and lack of confidence; in recovery, we exhibit self-destructive behaviors.
We know how to run, but we don’t know why we run. We run fast, but we want to run faster — always faster! (“I already know how to run slow; I want to learn how to run fast!” – Zatopek). Running is no longer an activity of the body solely, but of the mind. We become obsessed with it. Then disenchanted. We think it will cure us of every disease. We think it will solve all our problems, forestall the aging process, perhaps keep death itself at bay, if only we can keep running.
And so, we bring to this simplest of activities, our most complicated and profound beliefs about ourselves and the world around us.
So is running complicated? Is racing? Paradoxically, the role of the coach might be to remind runners that these things are natural and intuitive, and needn’t be a burden on the mind.
I think of the famous racing advice given by Jumbo Elliot, the legendary Villanova coach, who instructed his athletes “Act like a horse. Be dumb. Just run.”
But I would add one thing: while you’re running, pay attention!