Some time ago I quit the treadmill and started running around the indoor track that circles the upper half of the basketball court at the Y.
I'm not sure why I suddenly got so tired of the treadmill. Maybe because it is impossible to escape the television completely. Maybe it was the demoralizing effect of the digits slowly ticking away the miles or time elapsed; I found myself always wishing I'd brought a sticky-note to cover up my progress. Maybe it was all the people around that I couldn't quite tune out. Or maybe it was the view through the window -- not a bad view, of a residential cross-street -- but a view that rarely changed, except for the snow cover giving way to foliage and later taking over again. Or perhaps, after having a taste of running outside, around the lakes, I just couldn't stand running in place anymore, and running around a bare room seemed like an improvement.
At first I took my iPod with me, and had five different running playlists cued up all ready to go. But after a while I stopped taking that, too. I don't want to hear music; I want to hear my footfalls, so I can work on correcting them. I want to hear my own breathing and feel the goosebumps from the air-conditioned chill give way to warmth, flushing, sweat. I think I am tired of trying to distract myself from the running. I am trying to be fully present in it instead, to feel the aching muscles, to force my mind to deal with the urge to stop instead of just wishing it away and pretending it isn't there.
Sometimes i have no choice but to think about running. But occasionally I get a surprising pay off.
This evening I was running laps and using my swimming lap counter -- it's a one-button, finger-ring style -- to check my speed on each lap. In the previous two weeks I had swum 5 times, but not gone for a run at all, and I was feeling rusty -- and the times showed it. Each lap around the gym is 1/18 of a mile, and my training pace on a treadmill is around 9:50, so I like to see times between 30 and 33 seconds. I was seeing 35--37-second laps. Not so good.
As I chugged along, endlessly circling, I thought back to the running clinic I attended in December 2010, the one where I learned forefoot running. I tried to remember what I learned from watching the before-and-after videos of myself. One of the form corrections that comes along with the switch from a heel strike to a forefoot or midfoot strike is in lean -- runners with a heel strike tend to lean back as they run, while runs with a forefoot strike tend to be straight-backed or lean forward. The more you lean forward when you have a forefoot strike, the faster you tend to go. It doesn't work that way with a heel strike.
If you have never learned forefoot running (sometimes called the pose method), here is something you can try to give you an idea of how the leaning thing works. Stand up, either barefoot or in running shoes. If you are indoors face a direction that gives you enough room to take several steps without tripping over something or walking into a wall. Now start jogging gently in place. If you are a fairly normal person, you will find that you naturally choose a forefoot-strike to do this: the first part of your foot to touch the ground is somewhere in the front half of your foot. Your heel might come down and "kiss" the ground at the end of its descent, or it might not. But you are certainly not hitting the ground with your heel and using your heel to absorb the impact of your weight coming down on the floor, the way you do when you walk, or the way many people do when they run in cushiony running shoes.
Still jogging? Okay, here is the second part of the demonstration. While you're jogging in place, lean your body slightly forward. What happened?
What happened to me, when the instructor in my running clinic taught me to do this, is that I rocketed forward -- running a few steps (before hitting the wall) with a natural forefoot strike. You don't have to work to bring your legs far forward of your body and to push against the ground; you just have to let gravity pull you down and allow your legs to prevent you from tipping all the way over. It is a very natural and instinctive motion.
Although It does take reprogramming and practice to adopt forefoot striking as a training stride, that short demonstration gets across how leaning forward is related to speed. The more you lean, the faster you go. I you lean so far that your legs can't keep up, you fall, of course, so it isn't a magic formula or anything. You still need to be strong and move your legs fast. But it is kind of a form check.
As I remembered this, I noticed that as I ran around the gym, I tended to focus my eyes on the wall across from me. The track is a rounded-off rectangle, so I'd be staring at the telephone pole through the window... then turn and stare at the water fountain... then turn and stare at the church steeple through the oth window... then the banner with donors' names... then the telephone pole again.
I tried keeping my neck and back aligned and tipping my body ever so slightly forward. Now I was focusing on the floor a few yards ahead of my toes. I concentrated on that moving point, dancing away from me along the seam in the flooring, and ran one lap, and checked my lap counter: 30 seconds.
Really? I checked it again: 30. I ran another lap: 31. And another: 29. I almost couldn't believe it. Before this, it had taken real effort to push myself to go faster, if I wanted to see lap times consistently under 34 seconds. This didn't feel more tiring at all. I just had to remember to tip ever so slightly forward.
As I circled around and around, though, it did start to wear on me mentally. I found that if I stopped concentrating on the slight forward lean, it went away. I really had to keep it front and center in my attention, carefully hold it, so it would not slip. After a while I started to feel as if there was an invisible hand between my shoulder blades, pressing slightly but firmly, and always just at the threshold of knocking me off balance. I found that if I vividly imagined that there really was a hand pressing me, it was easier to maintain my pace.
It wasn't that I actually had the sensation of a physical pressure on my back in that spot. It was more that I started to feel irritated by it. After awhile I wanted to turn around and snap, "WILL you STOP pushing me?!" to the owner of the invisible hand invading my personal space.
But of course there was no one but me, running all by myself in the upper half of the gym, my peripheral vision only occasionally interrupted by a lone basketball rebounding off the backboards just below the track.
I discovered something today. It is possible to make a gain in training that cannot be taken away even by weeks of inactivity. This is something I learned with my brain, you know, from information I picked up back in my running clinic. I think I will remember it: tip a little forward, gain a little efficient speed. It can be hard to keep all the different form tweaks active in mind at the same time, of course; practice can move that kind of skill out of the brain and into the muscles. But still, the understanding remains, and can't be lost -- if I take pains to write about it, that is.
(disclaimer: do not switch abruptly from heel striking to forefoot running without doing some research to avoid injury, and consider working with a personal trainer. I do not think the lean-forward tip will work for runners who use a heel-striking stride instead of a forefoot-striking stride.)