The advice I most often want to offer new runners is to slow down.
You can almost always identify a new runner because they are gasping for air as they try to race themselves to some theoretical finish line.
I understand the compulsion completely.
Sometimes you want the distance to end as quickly as possible. Sometimes you feel invincible and find yourself sprinting through the run.
When I’m the one racing through practice runs, I’ll say to myself out loud, “Speed Kills.”
So then, how do we get our legs to move ever so faster to reach that personal best without killing ourselves?
My answer will be one you might not expect. I say, slow down.
When I started running, I would come home and tell my husband how I had started out too fast, lost my breath and had been totally miserable as a result. So I began to purposely slow myself down – slow my feet down, try my best to run so slow I felt like a tortoise. I’d check the pace on my watch, or early on using the little contraption I plugged into my iPod. Amazingly, my pace was actually faster when I tried to slow down. How can this be?
I’d test this little theory over and over. I’d try to run fast and measure myself – my pace would clock in around a 9:00 minute mile. Relax, relax, slow down…..now I’m at a 8:30 pace. It was fascinating.
Arthur Newton said, “Learn to run in an easy and serene manner without an atom of wasted energy.” It was the “easy and serene” part that caught my attention in this quote and triggered the purchase of the book, Chi Running. The authors propose that the best way to build a good foundation is in getting your running motion smooth, relaxed and efficient.
A few weeks ago, we practiced our kicks in Kung Fu class. One person holds a big, thick pad with the straps on the back that your arm slips through and a grip at the end to hold onto – in my case, with all my might.
Although women come and go in our class, I have been the only female to attend class regularly for some time now. I am the oldest person in class and at 105-110 lbs, depending on the time of year, I’m the smallest as well. So when we practice our punches and kicks….well, let’s just say I’m not quite as threatening as the boys.
On this particular night, we all lined up at the back of the classroom. The first person in line holds the pad for the next person in line, who kicks the pad all the way across the classroom. The kicker then holds the pad for the next person in line and so on. Purely by luck of the draw, I found myself holding the pad for the most senior black belt in our class.
I slipped my arm into the strap on the back, lowered the pad to the level for him to perform the specific kick we were practicing, and with no fanfare, off we went with the first kick. WHAM! The sound came first and then I realized the blast had spun me an entire 180 degrees. I think it gave me a headache. But for all the reasons mentioned above, I don’t dare show the shock and fear I’m feeling.
Here comes the next kick. He’s getting more and more relaxed and with each turn down the classroom, his kicks are getting stronger and harder. Back and forth across the classroom we go.
It comes my time to kick the pad and with everything in me I try to mimic his kick – strong, effortless and deadly. My classmates give me advice. Sifu instructs me to relax. Ok, I know this is what I’m supposed to do, but it’s not easy.
I took private lessons from Sifu for about a year. He taught me how to disarm my opponent, how to attack and where to hit, he taught me to fight with a stick and a knife. The most difficult lesson for me remains punching and kicking.
Sifu takes that pad out one day and thrust it into my arms, positions it at just the right spot in front of my stomach and says, “Watch my fist.” He punches the pad. There was no wind-up. It was a simple step forward, thrusting out of the back leg. And his fist? It was an empty fist – totally relaxed. His fingers weren’t curled up in one of those white-knuckle clenches. They were relaxed not even touching the palm of his hand. I was in awe.
His punch knocked me backwards the way I would imagine a bomb blows a person across the street. It took the wind right out of me. All I could think was I want to learn to punch like that!
That’s when I realized why I run faster when I think I’m slowing down…..it’s because that’s when I relax. There’s not so much secret in this as there is finesse.
I practice my kicks and punches using the body bag hanging in my garage, trying to put 100% of my body weight behind them. Sifu says if all of my weight, slight as it may be, is behind my punch, no one could take the hit. This gives me encouragement.
And I still practice “slowing down” when I run. On the track, I consciously relax every muscle, head to toe. I run one lap fast and one lap “slow”. My “slow” laps are always as fast or faster than the fast ones.
The morning after practicing our kicks in Kung Fu class that night, my hand was swollen twice it’s size and was black and blue on top. My classmate felt bad I know but I reminded him that it would make me stronger. And it has.
Run relaxed, hit relaxed, live relaxed. There are so many things in life to which this theory could apply.
It just takes a little practice.