Long distance trail running has informed other areas of my life. It doesn’t apply just to running. The same can be said of many areas of human endeavour. They can teach us wider lessons than the activity itself.
Over the past 15 – 20 years I have read books on both the science and art of running and tried to put into practice various techniques. Some have stood the test of time and others have been discarded or superseded. Some have been inspirational and challenging. However probably the most influential voices for me in terms of running technique have been the writings of Phil Maffetone and in recent years ‘The Lost Art of Running‘ by movement coach Shane Benzie. Here are a few ways that over the years trail running has informed me about the art of living. Some thoughts may speak as much about my own age and stage of life. Please note in life as in running I am learning! I fall short physically and metaphorically.
Keep head upright and look ahead.
Too much looking at my feet or just one or 2 steps ahead gives poor posture. It also doesn’t inform where I am headed. Focusing on being in the mud or on how steep the trail is saps mental and physical energy.
I easily ruminate and become absorbed in the difficulties of the present. Doing so stunts vision or nourishing hope of the future. At the same time it is important to be aware of what I need to do in the present. Life’s challenges are not meant to paralyse me to inaction. Seem to me they are an invitation to do something practically, mentally or relationally.
Feet should land below centre of gravity. Make contact with the ground like a tripod – ball of big toe, just under little toe and the heel.
This gives good proprioception (maximum sense of where the foot is). Especially so if you have shoes with little or no cushioning. The ‘tripod’ is a good position for impact and loading. On tricky runs downhilł keep eyes several paces ahead. Use running poles downhill to have 4 points of impact and not 2. This means that slips are less likely to lead to falls. Put faith in my feet to find the right places. Foot/ eye and brain coordination is faster than my conscious awareness.
Life needs to be grounded in reality. Easier said than done. However one aid is to acknowledge to myself how I feel about experiences. The good and the not so good. If I absorb the things that happen to me appropriately then I can be resilient. Not to get hung up by daily ups and downs but press ahead.
Try to keep a cadence of 180 steps/ minute. If wish to go faster increase stride length and not step turnover. Similarly to go slower or climb uphill, shorten stride.
Research has shown a step frequency of 180 steps per minute is the most efficient use of energy. Feet should ‘kiss’ the ground and not thump it.
Sticking to regular routines help me adjust to and absorb the changing challenges of daily life. In times of storm good, healthy habits weather well.
For endurance, train according to heart beat, at a low aerobic rate.
Recording heart rate is the best single indicator of combined mental and physical stress. This form of ‘bio feedback’ is very helpful. It is insightful that a negative thought will within seconds increase my heart rate (HR) by 5-10 beats /minute. Cold weather with not enough upper body layers also greatly increases heart rate. The torso needs to be comfortably warm. Conversely wearing full body leggings when it’s not cold enough increases my HR. An incipient cold or infection will also raise HR above normal for activity. I should take it easy or stop running. Running can help to cope with other stresses in life but paradoxically there are also times when the best medicine is a gentle walk.
I need objective feedback on my life. Another kind of ‘bio’ feedback. Honest friends can help. Wisdom gleaned from sources such as books, culture and art can also be helpful. As a Christian the Bible has become for me a ‘go to’ source of feedback on matters of the heart and life.
Every once in a while take a mental scan from head to toe of how I feel. If something not right what can I do about it?
Is head upright? Am I looking ahead? Is head cold/ hot? Tension in neck? Shoulders and arms relaxed? Any lower back pains? Am I taking in and enjoying the landscape I am moving through? Does my HR reflect the degree of effort? If high, why? Consciously lower shoulders, elbows down at waist. Hands unclenched, fingers lightly touching each other. My legs are doing the running. The top part of my body should assist that. It’s a waste of energy being tense.
Travelling through life requires some reflection and self awareness. Problems and stress often come from my wrong attitude, a faulty posture, a lazy approach to life. There is usually something I can practically do? Are there also areas I need to be more relaxed about and not worry?
Try and keep a relaxed facial expression and smile at people.
It amazes me how many runners have gaunt or expressionless faces. Some do not even acknowledge your presence as you meet them. Running should be fun. Some people really don’t look like they are enjoying themselves. It’s hard to have a high HR and a relaxed smile!
It takes effort to enjoy life as it is. Doing so is good for me and maybe also for those I meet.
14 thoughts on “The Metaphorical Trail Runner”
Well said, could be called mind over matter.x
Bless you heart! Well said and well done (physical include Biblical). Keep it up Allan!
An insightful combination of practical advice and thoughtful reflection on living
Thanks Ken, trust you and Barbara are well.
You show me the way I can finally become a runner….metaphorically! Reading your blogs and these extracts are the closest I will ever come. I love that the cerebral element is so significant. Elisabeth’s art is simply stunning in illustrating this.
Thanks, am sure you have a few metaphors to go with cycling!
Allan, regarding the picture on your latest blog. Is ti Gruinard Island ? It certainly looks like it. Dad
That was helpful and insightful in running day to day life -thanks
Thanks Linda, glad you could relate.
Great blog (as always) Allan. Loads of practical advice in here and yet, as others point out, much that is relatable for the non-runner.
I was out in the Kilpatricks with Peter Bowman last week and he was telling me about your heart rate method and I can see why this allows you to sustain efforts that are beyond most people. I dont monitor my HR, just keep an eye on subjective feelings of effort – 16 out of 20 is my sweet spot. And I’m trying to be more mindful of cadence – I’ve been suffering a bit with shin splints lately and I suspect it’s because I’m overstriding when trying to up my pace when I should, perhaps, focus on increasing step frequency. It’s interesting to me that you take the reverse approach – steady cadence but lengthen strides when you want to speed up.
Also, I love the idea of looking up and ahead. Good for the posture and better for the spirit.
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Thanks Jamie You’ve touched on quite a few things! Shane Benzies’ take on cadence is fascinating. The way you lengthen stride and keep same cadence is by increasing bounce.
Maffetone advocates what for most is an extremely low training HR for 80-85% of time.
Following his formula has helped me keep free from injury. He also advocates complete avoidance of sugar in any form and have a fat rich diet yet being very lean. Theory is combining that with low HR endurance training and you become a great fat burner. Am not disciplined enough to follow through on it all but what I do has helped. He has been saying these things for 35+ years and was ostracized for it but now is more accepted.
Keep pressing on and maybe see in Kilpatricks sometime!