Mindfulness at an Ultra, Even When You Don’t Want It

tussey_finishThis year I slated three races to run. The first was a 25K trail run I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for. The next was a trail marathon I used as a practice run. The third was my “A” race, the one at which I wanted to perform well and go for the best time I could over 50 miles. I cramped up at the first race which I attributed to lack of preparation. It was frustrating, but not demoralizing. The second race was healthy and enjoyable mainly because I wasn’t going all that hard. But the last race? That “A” race I had in my sights all year? I cramped up the worst and way earlier that I would ever have expected. I sucked down all the electrolytes and was well hydrated, I wasn’t going all that much faster than my final training run, and I had a 3 week taper leading into it. I had also trained my ass off and followed a program I put together based on plans recommended by more than one coach. Yet I still lost my legs at mile 22 and they never came back. That meant 28 miles of often excruciating pain that made power hiking up even modest climbs difficult and unforgiving. But I’m not here to talk about my body. I’m here to talk about what was happening in my brain.

Managing Self Talk

Anyone who has worked through a mental illness will tell you that self-talk and personal narratives dictate how they feel, what they believe about themselves, and how they behave. The messages from past experiences and internal traumas that loudly whisper, “You aren’t worth this,” “You should stop,” “Who are you to even try,” “You’re so selfish,” “Just give up, that’s what people would expect anyway” never fully go away no matter how healthy you get. The trick is to form a different relationship with those messages so they stop dictating your feelings, beliefs, and behavior. This takes practice and hard work over a long period of time like training the body to endure running for long distances. When the body is healthy and everything seems to feel good and highly functioning, dispelling those messages with affirmations, completing even mundane goals, or bodily movement is at its easiest. But when the body starts to fatigue and pain is inescapable all those practices you have developed to counteract the narratives of depression or anxiety in all of its forms begin to lose their effectiveness. Without those practices, your thoughts are left bare. What then?

Mindfulness has become a Westernized panacea that is as ubiquitous as diets promising you that you can lose weight fast and look like a fitness model in two weeks, or get rich schemes from televangelists promising magic from “miracle” spring water from Russia. Most of the popular mentions of mindfulness are divorced from its roots in meditation practices from Buddhists and romanticize the image of the happy guru blissful in his chubby transcendence. Mindfulness to the popular imagination is more like achieving the state of a happy dog that lives its life in a series of present moments ecstatic to see people, play ball, and sneak scraps from the table. This image of mindfulness misses the mark not only for what it is and how hard it is to practice and to achieve a level of competence doing.

Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others.

Mindfulness is indeed becoming deeply familiar and intimate with the present. It is a practice that gets you much closer to and curious about everything happening inside the body and outside of it. It is feeling the shirt on your skin, hearing the ringing in your ears you usually don’t notice, listening to the voice that tells you how horrible you are, and leaning in to all of the things that go through your brain of which you are most often completely unaware. Mindfulness is about understanding the cycle of cause and effect that people are caught in so that we can better understand how to break and change those cycles in which we find ourselves in order to live lives at greater peace with ourselves and with others. If you stop everything and become aware of everything going through your brain and everything that you sense in your body, it is overwhelming. Close your eyes and give it a try right now for 30 seconds. There is a lot happening isn’t there? Just like going for a run when you are out of shape is difficult and takes time and consistent effort for your body to adapt, the practice of mindful meditation should be done by setting small goals and adapting over time to where you are able to manage your mind more effectively.

Flipping the Script

So what does this have to do with running an ultramarathon? Mile 30 was the last time I would see any of the runners in the pack I had been in until the finish. Except for relay runners passing me and support vehicles speeding by, I was totally alone with my pain and my thoughts. I am not a meditator. I tried it for a while, but I did not want to get intimate with my thoughts at all. At the time, life was a mess and the idea of making that mess more present and clear was awful. Why would I want to make bad stuff feel worse? I have done work since then to understand my brain, how my thinking works, and how it affects my behavior. But I have not exactly practiced mindfulness at least to the degree that a Buddhist monk would ever have me do. So when my body that I thought I had trained went south, I was left with an untrained brain to work through the mess of thoughts that I simply could not avoid.

As every negative comment ever slung at me going back to when I was probably eight years old raging in my brain, a woman from a relay team pulled up next to me. She said, “I have been trying to catch up to you for a half an hour! You are so strong! You are doing this! You’re strong!” She said it over and over again. I told her I was OK, that I was just working through bad cramps, and that there was nothing I could eat or drink right now that would help. We got to the top of the hill and I said, “I think I can run down this now.” She fell behind me. I never saw her again. I still have no idea who it was. But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

But those words were just enough to feed my brain with something different and positive enough to flip the script a little. It also reminded me to keep practicing gratitude. If I saw someone else struggling, I offered encouragement. I thanked everyone at the aid stations and smiled for them because they had been working for us all day. The best solution to the problems inside my head was to get outside of my head.

The first step in mindfulness practice is to accept the thoughts and sensations you are experiencing. The second step is to accept that they are temporary and you are free to let them go whenever you want. The third step is to understand that the longer you hold on to those thoughts and sensations, the greater the risk is that you are going to cause yourself or others to suffer at some point. Sometimes you just need a little push from the outside to let those things go and that comes from either receiving help from others or offering help in any way that you can manage. That’s when the content of your brain starts to change just enough that perceptions and experience slowly and gradually transform.

So what did this race teach me? I not only need to strengthen my body a little bit more, I need to strengthen my brain. Two hypotheses I am going to test for next year: 1) Strengthen the muscles in the hips and knees to get better balance and increased resistance to fatigue; 2) start meditating with a true beginner’s mind and not for some deeper, spiritual purpose, but for stronger and more resilient processing of whatever is happening so I can more effectively let it go.

Starting Marathon Training…Slowly

I started running in July of 2015 just to lose weight and to give my mental health a needed boost. After I finished my first half marathon that December and signed up for my marathon for May of 2016, I started running just for the sake of running. Today I mostly run because it’s just what I do. Also, if I skip out on it too long my brain gets all squirrely, I get depressed, and get a mild case of the “fuck-its” which neither I nor anyone around me enjoys that much.

I am running the Pittsburgh Marathon again this May and I hope to get in the Marine Corps Marathon this fall. My training program starts on Sunday and now that I think I know what I am doing, I am taking a whole different approach.

Last year, going from couch to marathon in 9 months, my entire goal was to increase mileage as much as possible and at as fast a possible pace. I had no time for base building and was coming off of my third minor injury. For someone who had never run that distance, my training would give me only 12 weeks. That’s way too short a time and most run coaches might dissuade me from doing too much. But I learn from mistakes which means I need to make them. I did not get injured again, but every recovery period was sore, distances were difficult, and I got flu-like bugs twice. I focused far too much on carbs and my protein intake was abysmal. But I completed the marathon in under 4 hours anyway.

After that I decided to work on just building up mileage and pace. I rarely paid attention to heart rate except for when it was too high. My only goal was to get to running 50 miles a week comfortably. I met that goal and did so in good health. I also emphasized carbs less and focused more on meeting protein targets. The result has been a stronger, faster, healthier me. Now I’ve reached a point where I should be far more literal about a training program, work more on strength beyond doing pushups, and run each session with a different goal in mind.


So what I am doing this time? I wear a Polar m400 (seen at the top) to record all of my workouts. I sync that data to a few other platforms (Strava, Runkeeper, and MapMyRun) for the community and because I am a nerd. The Polar ecosystem has blossomed with each update. Now, Polar will design a training program based on your race goal and over the time period you specify. It mixes up the distances, effort by heart rate, and works in a dozen or so strength and stretching exercises. A feature that I had never used before that I used today is called Zone Lock. By pressing the big “start” button, you can lock in the heart rate zone with which you want to pace yourself and it beeps when you go over or under. You can program it to use a pace lock instead if that’s what you’re after. This is all about becoming more efficient and consistent and little beeps and alarms help a great deal when you are getting used to a new rhythm and relationship between your brain, heart, and feet.

The hard part will be going slowly. I am so adapted to doing everything at a heart rate of 148-165 and at a pace less than 7:50/mile that all of the slower paces just feel weird. But I am also not adapted to push through sprints very well. I need both of those parts of my physiology to improve my time and health for the next marathon. Zone 2 for me, based on age and resting heart rate, is somewhere between 115 and 132 bpm. The hard thing to do will be to keep most of my running time at that heart rate regardless of pace. As you see in the picture at the top, that means running somewhere in the ballpark of 10 minute miles to start. Painfully slow. But I am trusting the science and evidence rather than my feelings. Today was my first shot at it, and I have to say it was enjoyable. Once I got used to the cadence of going slow, I was fine. And after about an hour I was really sweating it out and working hard. that partially because I was running on tired legs at the end of the week, but also because the myth I had that running more slowly was less work was false. It is not less work, it is different work. And different is exactly what my body needs.

So on we go to Pittsburgh. Slow, fast, and everything in between.

Getting Through New Year’s Resolution Running Pain

postcards2cardsnewyearsresolution1915New Year’s resolutions have a horrible success rate. While gym memberships spike with all sorts of well-meaning goal seekers, 60% of new members give up.  One estimate shows that about 9% of people who make resolutions feel they achieve them with over 42% feeling that they fail every year. Whether these are scientific results might not matter all that much. I think it’s safe to say that most of us experience or know many people who experience that sense of failure within just a few weeks of making a New Year’s resolution. It all sounds great when we are partying with our friends after those holiday vacation days, but when it comes to doing the actual work in the cold, dark days of January, that initial enthusiasm tanks and it all fades. Hell, last year I “resolved” to read 24 books. I got a good start, then started marathon training, then that goal disappeared. I finally deleted my habit tracker app in October because it was just annoying me. I did finish that marathon though. I also crushed my goal of running 1000 miles by about 300. Reading and writing – not so much.

In response to holiday torpor, many people make fitness goals. They have a ton of energy and enthusiasm usually motivated by shaking off the winter blues or a strong desire to eliminate the sluggishness of holiday gluttony and avarice. All those cookies, pies, pigs-in-blankets, and ham seemed like great ideas at the time. But eventually, everyone gets sick of casseroles and endless college bowl games. People who have never exercised that much, don’t particularly like exercise, or haven’t exercised in a long time suddenly shake their bodies awake for that first week of January. It rarely comes off that well. The soreness overtakes them, the weather outside sucks, and it’s dark until at least 7:30 in the morning which is torture for non-morning people. So what gives?

If you want to keep going past the first week, here’s what you need to be aware of.  I promise that if you keep at it through three weeks, you will feel better even as the days get longer. But you gotta keep going.

This is Uncomfortable: Embrace the Discomfort

I have heard people say “Pain is fear leaving the body.” When I started running after having never run a mile in my life, I wanted to stop because it hurt and I was tired, not because I was afraid of anything. My legs were sore all the time, I felt worn out, I was hungry, and just warming up my aching body was rough. I started in July when days were long and it was warm outside. Starting this in January must be miserable. Part of my problem is that I started out too fast and did not heed to advice of professionals to start slow. I went from couch to 10K in 11 days. I was exhilarated, but hurt myself and had to take 18 days off. It took a while for me to learn my tipping point where running through soreness is helpful and where it becomes unhealthy. A good pace to start is where you can speak an entire sentence of about 6 – 10 words. You will be slow. That’s ok. Your “conversational” pace will get faster over time. If you are in your 40’s like me, that will take a bout 3 weeks of consistent work. Your body has been in hibernation for maybe years. What you will need to learn is how to adapt to feeling a little sore and a little hungry most of the time. This is normal. Your relationship to soreness will determine how long you persist in that Resolution. Stretch out after your workout and a few hours later. Take a warm bath. Apply ice to sore joints for 20 minutes. Lean into your discomfort, don’t avoid it. This is your body waking up and adapting to new stress. Embrace it.

Don’t Spend a Ton of Money

In two running groups I am in on Facebook, new runners are eager to know what shoes, jackets, tights, underwear, watches, water bottles, and everything else that “more experienced” runners use. I love a good product. But this stuff is way expensive. Clothing designed and sold with shoe company branding is mostly a rip off. It looks cool and might be comfortable, but after running for a while, as soon as I hit about mile 5, what I am wearing is the last of my thoughts. Right now in the Northern Hemisphere, you do need a few things if you are gong to run outside. You need good shoes that can handle some slush, socks that dry quickly, a few layers of moisture wicking material, maybe a vest and a hat, and something to repel rain. It sounds like a lot, but all of this stuff is available at Wal-Mart or Target. All of my clothing came from the clearance rack and for my most recent 15 miler in the cold wet winter, the price tag was about 60 bucks that I spent last year. I ran in a 38 F degree rainfall this week for 10 miles. The rain jacket I wore was on clearance for $9! Fancy brand name products that do the same thing can run you up to $180.

rain beads on a cheap starter jacket

With that said, if you run for a couple of weeks and find out that running is something you want to do, get good shoes, just get last year’s model. I pay full price for a shoe very rarely. These things run from about $110 to $160 bucks which is nuts! I use Shoekicker which is a great site to get the cheapest shoes, often in a color scheme you might not prefer and in last year’s model. I also like Running Shoes Guru for reviews. That’s how I got my Asics Gel Kayano 21’s last year for $75. They have about 400 miles on them right now and I think I can squeak out another 50 or so (those are dog poop bags I used for waterproofing). One last tip on shoes: It ultimately does not matter what another person’s review is. I read reviews to exclude shoes the models with really bad reviews. Regardless, you still need to find the shoe that works for you. This takes some time. If you can get fitted at a store that specializes in running, do it. You’ll save a ton of time and guessing and those folks will give you all kinds of useful advice.

Asics Gel Kayano 21

Pick a Time That Works for You

I really do like a good morning run. Just not this time of year. It’s dark, cold, and I am nervous about icy patches from snow melt during the day. This time of year in Central, PA the roads are rarely dry and even then they are covered in gravel and undissolved salt among other things. I also like to get sunshine when I can so I run during my lunch break at work. The point here is that here is no better time to run than any other. If you despise a 5 am wakeup call, don’t feel obligated to change your wakeup habit just to start running. You are already making a big change and adding that to it will create only more stress and exhaustion. This is neither helpful nor healthy. If you have to run in the evening when it is dark, find a well lit area if you don’t have a headlamp, and run in that spot back and forth 20 times if you need to. I am fortunate I can get out for lunch. Many people cannot. Time is no excuse to quit. Be flexible and willing to adjust.

Get Rest, Take Your Vitamins, Get Protein

I learned this the hard way. The more stress I put on my body, the more I am actually damaging it. Sore muscles are healing muscles. What helps with healing? Protein intake and rest. You might read about something called “overtraining” or “overreaching.” It’s when we ignore our body’s signals that we need to rest or take it easier in order for it to heal. When I started running, I ran though everything. I ignored pain and would pop a few ibuprofen tablets to help me ignore it more effectively. The result: I got injured frequently and got sick a few times including an episode of pneumonia. I started with the advice to carb load which isn’t exactly false, but it’s also a half-truth. Your body will burn sugars first and fats second. Carbs efficiently convert into the sugars your muscles need so they help you perform. This is especially true for new runners whose bodies are not used to burning fat efficiently. But those sugars are not what your body needs after a run.

You need protein. As soon as I began to add a protein supplement to my diet after a workout, my recovery time shortened and my stamina to run longer and faster improved. I stopped getting hurt and I stopped getting sick. The one I use is cheap from Wal Mart. I get it because it has a 30 grams of protein per 41 grams in a serving. That’s a solid ratio. How much do you need? It will vary based on your age, weight, and how strenuous your workouts are. I run between 40 and 50 miles a week and on running days I will get my protein up to about 130 grams. On rest days it will be between 30 and 60. I use MyFitnessPal to help me keep track.

I also don’t go cheap on the vitamins I take. I looked into it and after reviewing the information on Labdoor, I settled on Now Adam for men. It’s got everything the male adult needs and more. I don’t need any other vitamin or mineral supplements when I take this.

Finally, healing needs sleep. Good, deep sleep. Yesterday I was primed to get a 10 miler in, but I did not. I was too damn tired and sore from the previous too workouts. It’s ok to skip a workout if you are too tired and don’t feel healthy enough. When I started running I was under the false belief that skipping a workout would end my days as a runner. Nonsense. A healthy runner performs better than a sick and injured runner, always.

Take It Easy, Have Fun

If you are running slower than a sloth, don’t worry about it. If you fear you look bad, show me a runner that looks good when they are in the middle of a serious workout. We got snot, spit, and sweat happening and look kind of rough a lot of the time. Get your body used to it and let it adapt at its own time. You’ll get there. You will adapt and your progress will shock you. Even to this day, I hate the first mile or so. I feel stiff and my body takes a good 20 minutes to warm up. Hills are always hard and I run up plenty of them. But I always feel great after a run and never regret a workout. I only regret not getting outside to get it done.

The only outcome that you should not accept is regret for not sticking to your goals. Put in the work. This is worth it.

From Couch to Marathon

Pittsburgh Marathon RouteWhen I started my running journey last year, there was absolutely no way that anyone could have convinced me that I was going to run a marathon within the next 10 months. I was barely able to put together 3 miles last May and that was with walking. But I kept running. On May 1 not only did I finish my first marathon, but I did it on a challenging course and comfortably under 4 hours. I did this with no athletic experience other than 25% of a wrestling season before I quit. Nor was I ever a runner before July of 2015. I gave it a shot back in 1997 for a maybe three runs and stopped. I did the same pattern in April of last year. But something clicked in July and I stuck with it. Now I am in it for the long haul.

So what did I learn while training for a race I did not think I had any business running just a few months ago? What did I do right and what mistakes did I make? I look at life like a big science experiment. One of the most difficult problems in educational research is that there are so many variables that condition what happens in the teaching and learning process. Gender, socio-economic background, race, family systems, mental illness, personality, and many others are all somewhere in the background affecting things we think are simple to measure. Running is no different. There are dozens of general guidelines, but until you get out there, make some mistakes, identify the causes of problems spots, and then change the variables, you will never make progress. So you want to run your first marathon this year? Here are a few things you might want to think about.

Check Your Shoes When I started, I ran in old-ass shoes because that’s what I had and they were decent enough. When I started to realize I would be doing this as a weekly habit, I switched up to shiny new pair of Asics Gel Cumulus. I thought I had arrived. Until the blisters and shin pain settled in. It took me a few months to accept that I might have the wrong shoes on my feet. Just because a shoe gets rave reviews and costs in excess of 120 bucks does not mean it’s a good shoe for you. One afternoon I stopped in my local running store to get fitted. He watched my gait and told me right off that the shoe I was wearing was not right for my overpronating ways. He put me in a different shoe and I have been golden ever since. It’s not the brand or the prettiness of the shoe, it’s the kind of shoe that fits not just my feet, but my natural cadence. Now I alternate between Asics GT-2000 and Asics Gel Kayano. So get fitted, or get injured.

Find Your Own Groove No matter how many articles, videos, and conversations you consume about proper form, the best roller to use on your sore legs, stretching, strength exercises, mileage, interval training, hills, and nutrition, you have to go out and try on everything until you find what works for you. I tried as much as I could and only after finishing that grandaddy race, do I think I know what works for me. Give yourself freedom and time to make mistakes, but always get back up and run it out as soon as you can. That perseverance is what got me to the finish line.

Form Matters When I did not pay attention to form, I got tibialis anterior tendinosis (like shin splints, but so so much worse), back pain, ITB syndrome, and runner’s knee. Once I shortened my stride by increasing cadence, and paid close attention to my posture while running, all of those problems went away. But they were replaced by others. My hips got really tight and then my back stated to spasm. Everything is related. If you have a sore spot in one place, your body will adapt to it by using other muscle groups and will do so often in ways that those other muscle groups aren’t used to functioning leading to other injuries. If you feel pain, stop, figure out what you’re doing wrong, solve that issue, and then get back out there. Ignoring it will eventually put you on the couch for a few weeks and that will totally mess you up. The solution for me was stretching and using a good foam roller after my runs. But I can do better. If I add more cross training to strengthen my hips and core, I will do myself a world of service. Even though I was doing a lot of pushups every week, I can still do a bit more.

Build Mileage and Be Patient As a new runner, I wanted to get fast and far almost as a way to “get caught up” for lost time. That, more than anything, is probably why I kept hurting myself. Starting to run at age 41 means my body was clueless as to the stresses I was about to put it through. So it rebelled. At mile 22 as I was starting down the hill from East Liberty to the Central Business District of Pittsburgh, I started to cramp hard. It was awful. My quads and hamstrings spasmed and the pain was almost unbearable. Walking and stopping only made it worse. The good news is that I ran through it and crossed the finish line running. That was the goal. The bad news is that it happened. I was hydrated, had eaten three Clif Shot gels with water, and had had a solid taper and carb loading the week before. I cramped because I did not run enough during my training. Because of flu (twice), that back pain, and tight hips, I had to take some 20 days off from the training plan. This meant I had to do a little catch up which every trainer will tell you is a bad idea. However, had I not pushed through some longer runs shortly before the race, I would not have made it. The lesson is that I need to have a more solid foundation of running consistently and that takes time. The general wisdom is to increase no more than about 10-15% each week and for the longest run of the week to be no more than 35% of the total. I did not follow that rule, and I cramped up! This takes time and patience. It means that by the time you hit your first 20 miler during a training sequence, you should have worked yourself up to and adapted to a 50-60 mile week. That’s a lot of miles and a lot of time. A 12 week plan was not enough for my first marathon. I needed at least 16. More ideal would have been an 18 week plan. Beyond that, I am out of range for most of the published plans like Higdon’s or Galloway’s.

Watch Your Protein and Carb Intake I was a good boy with my carb to fat ratio, got my vegetables, and was mostly plant powered for my entire training sequence. I never bonked, rarely cramped, and had the longest stretch of injury-free health in my fledgling life as a runner. And for energy drinks while on the run, Tailwind is the shit. But I also overtrained, ran through a lot of soreness and fatigue, and got sick right after my 20 mile long run. OK…fatigue, soreness and sickness may have come anyway, but was there something I could have done better to help prevent all of those things? Yes! I was good with my vitamins, but missed the part where as my mileage increased, by immunity system would get compromised. That’s when I started taking an extra vitamin C  supplement which I will keep doing. The other part is that because I did not have a gradual enough mileage increase and my training was anything but consistent, even though I was technically under-trained, I put too much stress on my body all at once when I hit the peak weeks and my body basically shut down in viral hell for 12 weeks. Maybe I would have gotten sick anyway, but maybe it would not have been as awful as it was. Then I looked at recommended protein intake and what I was actually getting. Many articles recommend 0.6 to 0.9 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. I was only getting about 55 a day and should have been getting closer to 100. My muscles were getting damaged with every run and I was not feeding them what they needed to heal other than loads of rice. So I started protein supplements because I still don’t want to go back to pounds of meat, but I can only take so many beans, lentils, and nuts each day. We’ll see how it pays off in the future, but it can’t hurt.

Even after all of the pain that the last 5 miles of the Pittsburgh Marathon put me through and even after exhaustion as I have ever known, I am driven to get better and follow some of these rules to be a more efficient and less injury prone runner. I want to cross a marathon finish line in good health some day. What it means is better planning for the long haul. Rather than wait for another training sequence to start, why not plan it now while I am still basically resting myself in a post-marathon “holy shit I actually did that” frame of mind. There’s a race in Philadelphia in November. Remember time and patience? It starts now.

I looked all over for plans to help me sort of start over and put into practice everything I have learned, but none of them get me the time and steady increase I am looking for. So I made my own. It lasts 35 weeks and assumes that you are already able to run a solid 25-30 mile week without pain or exhaustion. What I have done is take the best advice from several training programs and plopped it all into one sheet. This sucker will build mileage, let you rest, and will also give you some tempo time and hills to get that heart pounding and muscles toned. The typical pace should be right around conversational for you or a tad faster. This is about building a base and building fitness over a long time. I am also going to be doing pushups on MWF and will also figure out when to work in other exercises like squats a little bit later on. I use a Polar m400 with a heart monitor to see how hard I am working. Their redesigned Flow app includes some killer exercises to supplement a running program. Great for rest days! So here is the new plan. Feel free to download and share. Just cite where you got it if you can. If you want to start it with me, let me know how it is going.

2016 Run Program

You can also download the 2016 Run Program in a PDF.

Happy Running!

2 Tricks for Great Knees and Shins for Running


This September I had to take a significant amount of time off from my fledgling days as a runner due to a nasty case of tibialis anterior tendinitis. It was so bad I could not bend my foot up without serious pain and a crunching sensation and sound. To get a sense of it, pinch that soft spot in your hand at your thumb joint. Imagine that pain along your lower shin for about 4 weeks. It was awful. What I learned in my rehab is that my ankle wasn’t the problem, the mechanics of my running were. This problem went from my how and when my feet hit the ground all the way up to my neck. Two things solved my problems with my ankles and with the occasional shin splint. These go beyond what everyone should be doing anyway which is stretching, ice, and warm baths.

But I have had another recurring problem that was fixed in the process. I was talking with my mom a week ago and we reminisced about my genetically disadvantaged knees. As early as 8th grade I could tell you if it was going to rain because my knees would start hurting. That alone kept me from running. Now my knees are healthier, looser, and stronger than in my life because of running. This is what I have done.

Increased my cadence. In the past, when I wanted to go faster, my stride would get longer, but the steps I took every minute would stay the same. This put a ton of pressure on my knees and ankles and I hurt after every run. This is all physics. A longer stride means my body was hitting the ground harder and at a more extreme angle and I was not maximizing my gluteus maximus. As I’ve told my kids, most sports are about how well you use the largest muscle group in your body, your ass. Swinging a bat or golf club, throwing a football or pitching a baseball, shooting a basketball or a hockey puck all require a focused use of your hips and butt. Running is no different. I needed to use my ass more and my knees less. Elite runners will run a cadence of about 90 strides or 180 steps per minute. So I tried it. As a drummer I am pretty good at counting time accurately, but I still use a metronome. I downloaded one for the phone, set it to 180 bpm, and started on the treadmill just to practice. The difference was immediate. I felt the burn in my hips within a minute. That told me my hips were underdeveloped from the start. 90 is now my magic number.

The other change was how I tackled downhill slopes. I used to put on the brakes a bit to slow down just for control because I didn’t trust my body. That was before I focused on stride. Think about cadence like a car transmission. When you go uphill or downhill your car will downshift to a smaller gear and the rpms will increase. Cyclists do this as well. Despite Lance Armstrong’s doping problem, his technique on hills is now standard stuff to learn. Lower gears and faster cadence is a more efficient way to carve hills. But it takes practice to develop different muscles to do it well. Cadence is my transmission or gear cartridge for running. Going up or down hills, I need to downshift and increase my cadence which puts most of the pressure on my hips, butt, and core. That way I maximize my maximus and save my knees.

I remembered these two things after my first run following knee issues and a flu bug. My left knee hurt for a day afterwards. I checked my cadence which my Polar m400 now calculates. It was 84. Today I ran with one thing in my mind – increase that cadence. Today it was 88. That doesn’t seem like a major difference, but my legs feel great. I consciously focused on my hips and everything felt better in my knees and feet. Small changes add up and become more significant as the miles increase.

So if you want to boost your cadence, focus on the muscles that should be doing the most work. If you can, squeeze your butt and tighten your abs a bit as you run. Your stride will have no choice but to shorten and all that stress your ankles, knees, and shins once absorbed will move to your butt and hips where it should be. Want to get a boost on developing these muscles? Add pushups, planks, and squats to your training. Everything will improve in your mechanics and you will feel great!

How People Make Ideas Powerful


What makes an idea powerful? This was a question posed to Marxist geographer David Harvey among others at a recent panel at the London School of Economics. Before launching into the unasked question of why Marx is not covered all that much at the world’s leading schools of economics, he did give a couple of insights. The first is that powerful ideas can and perhaps should be a material force in history. Second, a powerful idea reveals something that you didn’t see before. And finally, that to effect change in the world, regardless of the idea, you also have to transform social relations. This last point is I think the most important and one that was not really discussed all that much.

I was recently trying to figure out why it was that I can’t seem to “take it easy” on a run when I’m supposed to. For some reason I always feel the need to push myself and do something better than I did on the pervious run. I need a more efficient heartrate, a better split time here or there, a better average pace, faster cadence, etc. There is always something to improve and the little Polar device on my wrist records the data I then use it to push myself. I ran tonight for the first time after a month off for the flu and to mend a painful kneecap. And rather than take it easy, I had to seek a certain level of competence.

Part of this obsession with performance is an imagined social pressure. I share my data and want other runners to see how well I think I am doing. I don’t want to appear slow or lazy. I have sort of imagined this club where I need to post certain numbers to be accepted. This is foolish since no such club exists and runners are some of the most open and accepting people I have ever met. That you are running is the thing – not the numbers you post. However, most of this drive is because I am still trying to figure out this body of mine. I was never an athlete and I am just learning about my own limits and capabilities. The numbers do give me a clue as to my relative level of competence in running. They give me a steady stream of data to tweak and improve. No matter what pace others are running, I can always improve my own. It is just me and the numbers and improving my perfomance is my prime motivation.

So what measures competence in ideas? These are trickier. In science some ideas simply work better than others. If yours happens to work the best, the designation of theory might be yours to own. There are objective measures in science to determine this, but no theory exists without a great deal of smart people to confirm them and disseminate the knowledge on behalf of the person who thought the thing up. Science progresses not just from numbers and facts, but in so far as these numbers and facts work through communities of scholars at the right time and place. Just ask Galileo or Bruno about time and place. Who you know is important.

Science and art connect in this social dimension. I have for years fancied myself something of a writer, but unlike the numbers I can improve on a run to improve my performance, art is a far less an objective sort of arena to test one’s competence. I do know many people who had a certain knack for their art who then decided to work very hard at their craft, go to school to become experts, and moved into the world to perform with other musicians and continue to work. Some have done so in the presence of the right people at the right time and have made a career of it now performing with musicians whose music they were playing in high school cover bands. Others are no less competent, but have not found that lightning in a bottle. The point is that there are songs and books sitting on hard drives all over the world that many people will never hear or read. These are pieces that may be just as good or better than the stuff that gets great commercial success. For these ideas to live on in the collective memory of society and have a powerful and lasting impact, the right people at the right time must confer some degree of approval, or those ideas will be lost.

There are two points to all of this. The first is that I am far more comfortable with numbers my body generates that I can manipulate in order to achive competence in running. Working on this with absolutely no requirement for public opinion or approval is an utter joy to me. But this is also why I am something of a coward. I abhor the thought of the public scutinizing my writing with the prospect that I do indeed stink at it after all. I don’t quite have the fortitude to work that out just now. But with that said, it is a fear that I can resolve now that I have named it. It now has an objective reality that I can investigate and change much like I will change my efforts to improve my running numbers when I hit the pavement this weekend.

The second point is that given the social nature of ideas, it is important not only to tell people when they have thought of something good, we must put them into contact with the people who can spread those ideas and enlarge them. This is not only a moral good to build the competence of the creator, but it gives all good ideas a fighting change to take on that material reality and change something in our societies and cultures for the better. The great intangible effect of a solid university education is the network of people you join who can help move your ideas to places where they will flourish. People matter to ideas and the power they can wield. Good ideas deserve to live on in our social conscience rather than gather dust on shelves and in hard drives no one will ever see.

Rules for a Happy Life: Exercise

Opening a doorWant to solve depression without drugs?

Me too.

So when I say exercise, it is different from just moving around when I get bored or feel like I need to get out of the house before I lose my damn mind. I mean work out. This is more than doing a few situps or pushups or walking on a treadmill for a half hour and feeling good about myself. Working out means I sweat hard, feel a little sore, and stop only after I have kept going a few minutes after I thought I had nothing left to give.

Last year I started tracking my activity as a way to tell me the truth about how much I am moving or sitting each day. I can rationalize that binge-watching all of Angel is working because my brain is doing something. My proclivity to self-delusion is that powerful. I Jedi mindtrick myself into sloth.

In the fall of 2014 I got this little Vivofit that Garmin makes to help me out. It tracked my steps, sleep, and the kind of movement I was making. It was cool because it was waterproof and I could leave it on all the time. The first thing I noticed is that I was a very stationary chap. Of course, last winter was way too cold to be thinking about going out for a brisk walk especially because I had gotten used to being sedentary. But I had a YMCA membership mainly so my kids and I would have something to do during the winter weekend months. Here’s the kicker: There is an exercise room with all of the treadmills, ellipticals, and weights literally 100 feet from the front door of my building. A couple of years ago, I went to the Y to workout for at least 30 minutes every day, but after I moved in 2014 that and all the rest of my good habits died off which is when I started to get sluggish and down. Moving is stressful, people. All of your routines get crushed under the anxiety of change and you have to find a way to get back into it. I did not.

So why didn’t I just hop across the street? It was anxiety pure and simple. I felt out of shape and I did not want to look out of shape in front of others because all of that self-talk nonsense was polluting my brain. Even after I started running I refused to go into that room. It’s absurd to me now, but back then it was a big ass wall I did not have the will to break through.

After I started running, I got a bad case of iliotibial band syndrome (ITBS) which meant my knees hurt like hell. I took about 2 1/2 weeks off but in that time I had to get my butt in that workout room to build up some strength in my hips and get on that treadmill to focus on form a bit. All I had to do was walk in the door and whatever fear or anxiety I had was gone the second I opened the door. Eventually my knees felt better and I started running outside again. I would go back to that room when I got tendonitis and now I am going back because winter decided to show up and I am not in the mood to run in that mess right now.

The reason I am telling you this little story is because if you have anxiety about exercise, about whether or not you can do it, if you will look foolish, if you will be sore afterwards, etc. just open the damn door! Of course you are going to be sore. Of course you might not look that great. The only people who look great working out are the people in the videos and even then, most of the time they are sweating and getting stinky and that is their job! If you are not looking somewhat constipated, sweating, and all around nasty while working out, you aren’t doing quite enough. This is all about effort.

Eventually my little tracker was not enough. Somewhere I went from a person who needed to track his activities who also runs to a runner who also tracks his activities. I got a Polar m400 because it can do both. I can get all of my GPS running data and track my activity during the day and night. It also has a heart monitor that I strap onto my chest. That’s where the real workouts began. In the gym, I focus not so much on speed or distance but on time and effort. I want to get my heart up and keep it in a solid “cardio” zone for most of my workout. I am 41 so my maximum heart rate is around 179 bpm. When I workout I am trying to get that up to a minimum of 150 for the duration and to peak it out to about 160-165. If I am outside and running a course with hills, that’s about what my body does so I want to replicate that effort inside. This means I am working out my heart and processing all of the sugar stores in my body. All those carbs I ate the day before are burning off and my fitness to run longer and faster improves.

Here’s the magic. When I work out like this, my mood instantly changes and I feel better about everything. My sleep improves and my quality of life gets more focused and supercharged. I wake up. My heart rate is like a natural drug and it is part of what I would like to call a totally drug-free solution for depression.

So if you are going to the gym and never see or feel results, check your heart rate. Pay attention to the effort your body is actually putting into the work. Then increase your effort regardless of how fit you are today. That’s what counts. Stop looking at the person who has been coming into the gym for 5 hours every day wearing matching gym clothes they got for Christmas and the cement mixer sized container of protein shake they have waiting for them. You’ll demotivate yourself and never want to come back. Put on your headphones and listen to yourself. Then work it out. That 30 minutes at least every other day will change your life. In a couple of weeks after you start, you will be amazed at where you can go.

But you gotta first, open the damn door.

Part four of a series of Life Rules. See the explanation here.