Some Unexpected Benefits of Running
I started running four months ago. I expected to lose weight and improve my aerobic fitness, but I've also noticed several additional benefits.
By Ryan McGreal
Posted November 27, 2013 in Blog (Last Updated November 27, 2013)
|1||Born to Run|
|2||Learning to Run|
Four months ago, increasingly conscious of the steadily thickening layer of fat around my middle and roused into action by the imminent arrival of my 40th birthday, I started running. I wanted to lose some weight, get into better shape, and improve my cardiovascular fitness, and running seemed like a great way to do it.
Escarpment Trail, Hamilton
I was inspired by Christopher McDougall's fantastic book Born to Run, which made a lot of sense in its hypothesis of humans as highly optimized persistence hunters who literally ran for survival.
Even more important was McDougall's transformative experience switching from a heel-striking gait to a forefoot/midfoot strike, which he credits with all but eliminating the injuries and chronic pains that had plagued him for years.
This resonated with me because I ran a lot as a child and again as a teenager, but stopped in both cases because of persistent pain in my heels and knees. Like most people who grew up during the 1970s running revival, I ran with a long stride and a heel-strike - a gait that is made possible through the thick padding and cushioning of modern running shoes.
McDougall's thesis is that this gait is unnatural, and that shoes designed to protect our feet, legs and hips from the pounding of running actually allow more damage to occur. He says we should be running the way we run when barefoot - on the balls and toes of our feet, not on the heels.
After thinking for a long time that I should really do something with this information, I finally signed up for a six-week Learn to Run course with an excellent running coach - the talented, knowledgeable and all-around awesome Dave Harrison, whose philosophy of running was very similar to what McDougall espoused in his book.
Over six Wednesday evenings, I learned: proper running form; the Ten Percent Rule; warming up; stretching; exercising my core; strengthening my ankles, knees and hips; running up and down hills; running on trails; how to dress to avoid chafing; and how to sooth sore shins.
I learned that you shouldn't grimace when you're running, because scrunching up your face causes the rest of your body to scrunch up too. I learned that "No Pain, No Gain" is nonsense - running is supposed to feel good, not painful.
So far, it's working: I'm slowly losing weight, getting into better shape and improving my cardiovascular fitness. What has surprised me, however, has been the collection of unexpected additional benefits I've noticed from running.
Of course I've heard that exercise is good for reducing stress, but I experienced it firsthand over the past four months. No matter how anxious or stressed I'm feeling, going for a run calms me right down and allows me to enjoy some perspective on whatever situation is causing me anxiety. Generally, my mood has been better - I'm happier, less prone to losing my cool and more resilient to shocks and aggravations.
Somewhat related, I've been pleased with the sheer serenity I get from running. I spend most of my time all up in my head, and running is a wonderful way to get out of my head and into my body. It's a form of meditation: instead of thinking about all the crap weighing on me, I think about breathing out, breathing in, foot stepping down, foot going up, and the myriad connected rhythms of forward motion. I don't always manage to slip into a groove where everything seems to be working in synchronization, but when I do it's a truly amazing experience.
Since I've been running, I find my general balance has improved significantly. I've never been particularly graceful, so this is a pleasant feeling. I expect it is due to a combination of strengthening my ankles, legs and hips for better stability, becoming more conscious of my centre of gravity, and even losing weight. (And likewise with flexibility - I'm getting more bendy.)
I've had intermittent lower and middle back pain since I hurt my back lifting an old, heavy appliance up a flight of stairs when I was 18. It would come and go based on how well I was maintaining my posture, whether I slouched in a chair for long periods, whether I slept on my stomach and how long I spent in bed (over eight hours and I'd pay the price). Since I've been running, my back has been entirely pain-free. This is likely due to a combination of weight loss, core strengthening and improved attention to blalance and posture.
This was perhaps the most surprising. A major impetus for starting to run was my realization that attempts to lose weight by eating less were highly unlikely to be successful, and I had better focus on the accounts payable side of my body's metabolic ledger. I assumed that when I started running I would eat more, because I would be more hungry. In fact the opposite has happened: I have less appetite in general, and after going for a run I'm specifically motivated not to snack, since I know how much work I have to do to burn off those extra calories.
I'm not as surprised about this, but I find a lunchtime run really unlocks my ability to solve problems and get things done in the afternoon. For years, my go-to method for solving a particularly nettling coding problem has been to put it out of my head and go for a brisk walk, and that's even more true of an hour-long run.