I set my first PR this year, completely by accident. (That means ‘personal record,’ which I didn’t know when I first started running). I hadn’t been training. It’s worse than that. Not only had I not done anything special to train for my race, I hadn’t even been running all year! I went out literally once in 2018, a few days before my trip, to see if I could even cover an 8k distance. My big worry wasn’t speed, it was embarrassing myself by having to walk what used to be my easy day workout.
I was a non-athlete until I turned 35. Last picked for every team. One of the smallest, slowest, weakest, least coordinated kids in every group. The idea of physical exertion filled me with dread. I’m not competitive by nature, either, which is why I never earned any ribbons or trophies. Even if I’d had the unfathomable desire to pick up a sport, I wouldn’t have had any idea how to train for it or improve my performance. I think I would have felt attacked by the very concept. Can’t I just run?
I learned to love running, but I had to quit when I overtrained for my marathon and sustained an ankle injury. Two MRIs, months of ice baths and physical therapy, no real improvement, finally they just cut me off. I fell out of the habit. I still identified as “a runner” even though I no longer had a running behavior.
I paid for a race. In my experience, deadlines are very motivating, and so are cash deposits. I have never once missed a race I’ve paid to enter. I convinced my brothers to sign up with me, including my brother’s girlfriend, who is training for her sixth marathon. Pressure on.
My family knows I’ve been out of commission. It’s not like I would have been disinherited for not running, or like they would have driven off without me if I fell behind and had to walk the last mile or two. I had only my own pride hanging in the balance.
I kept meaning to train, to get out there and start running at least five or ten miles a week. It didn’t sound like a big deal. The dog would have loved it. I just... did other things instead.
What I did was to sign up for martial arts lessons. I’m still so tired after workouts that I often go home after class and sleep for two hours. All these great plans I had to “jog home from the gym” never materialized.
This is where my accidental running improvement apparently kicked in.
Distance runners who do nothing but run tend to develop predictable issues. We’re comparatively weak in the quadriceps and glutes, which would be the front of the thighs and those famously flat runner’s butts. The reason my trainer gave for my persistent ankle problems was hip instability. I also trained to muscle failure in my left hip flexor, and if you’ve never experienced muscle failure, it’s when you send an order to a body part and it refuses to obey. I couldn’t even lift my foot over the one-inch threshold into my parents’ shower. I had to pick up my thigh with my hands and lift my own leg up. For all the thousands of miles I had run, all I really had to show for it was lean legs and sweaty shorts.
Martial arts training is the exact opposite of distance running in many ways. For starters, we warm up with HIIT workouts, which is high-intensity interval training. It’s anaerobic instead of aerobic. We use body weight resistance to build strength. I wasn’t getting the endorphin rush that I get from cardio workouts; in fact, I would just feel trudgingly, bag-draggingly tired afterward. I was slowly but surely adding muscle mass. Kickboxing works the muscle groups that are neglected in the running habit. Hundreds of training kicks were building my hip flexors, my glutes, my quads. Instead of racking up the miles, I was building new super-legs.
Something weird happened. I was running for the bus one morning. There’s a park next to my apartment that has a fairly steep uphill climb, but it’s the shortest route to the closest bus stop. Suddenly it felt like I wasn’t running, I was just a human-shaped streak cruising up the sidewalk. I know I’ve never sprinted so fast in all my life. It was effortless. I didn’t even feel like I was doing anything, just magically moving along the pavement. I didn’t even lose my breath.
Then something else weird happened. My husband and I were going to the movies, and there are some steep staircases where we’ve always made a game of racing each other to the top. He has always beaten me, probably because he has over forty years of sports training in the bag. This time, I floated up two steps at a time and made it to the top before he was halfway up. Huh? How did that even happen? I felt like a video game character. It was almost too confusing to gloat.
I ran my 8k race with one single five-mile training run behind me in the previous three months. I ran with my brother. The last time I had run this particular race was six years earlier, at a time when I ran several days a week and thought about little else. Somehow, in spite of the intervening years, the ankle injury, and the total lack of training, I shaved over four minutes off my time.
This is my argument in favor of cross-training. I still love running, and I still get an incredible analgesic response from distance runs. Nothing will get you high, help you sleep, improve your mood, and help to overcome chronic pain and fatigue like a long cardio workout. Ah, but the almost instant improvement I saw in my running performance from HIIT training and kickboxing has me convinced. Run less and train more at something else. Maybe it’s dancing, maybe it’s weight training, maybe it’s martial arts like I’ve been doing. Avoid overuse injuries (and try shiatsu massage if that’s an issue). Explore something that fills in the gaps, builds muscle mass, and has an anaerobic component. Then sign up for a race and see what it does for your running time.
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I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.