Take it or leave it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2016


I was out on today's 12-mile run when I came upon a construction worker who when he saw me scurrying by said, "I know you've gotta be training for something." I mean who else picks a 1-mile loop in a well-paved, tree-lined neighborhood and in the middle of the day does several repeats as fast as he can just for fun? I understood the guy's mindset. My reply: "I train for life." 

Which is just as good a reason as any, I say. I don't need to sign up for a race to motivate me to log a certain number of weekly miles. Last week I ran 50 in relative heat just for the fun of it. Life is the biggest game, thrill and challenge, and to truly enjoy it is to make your body, the vehicle that carries you through life, as fit and healthy as can be. I do all my miles barefoot, which sets a natural limit to how much I can run. I've run as many as 83 weekly miles without shoes, including 26.2 at a time (I've run a couple marathons barefoot) but while training for the LA marathon and averaging 70 miles I found that I couldn't run much more than 35 a week without shoes on a consistent basis without my feet getting really sore and feeling a bit torn up. The other half I'd run in racing flats, no socks of course. New Balance used to make a pair of zero drop shoes with Vibram soles, that is when the barefoot running craze was at its acme, but the company has since discontinued the line since interest in minimalism has dropped precipitously. Luckily I bought two pair. That was in 2013. Not really luckily, since I never use my running shoes anymore.

Since my last marathon in 2014 I have probably averaged about 45 miles a week, always barefoot, some weeks 60, some weeks 30. But my age in weekly miles (I'm 43) is not nearly enough to notch a personal best for one who used to sometimes run twice that, so my marathon days may be behind me. Of course my feet may be tougher now than they were two years ago and better able to withstand additional unprotected pavement pounding, but why bother? Distance running was fun, but as with other interests, it's onto the next "big thing," which I haven't found. I've done triathlons but never an Ironman. I tell friends that 140.6 miles in a day is twice as far as I care to go, having done a half Ironman at elevation a few years ago. Maybe one day, who knows. I met a girl with rheumatoid arthritis who is coming off an Ironman Canada finish. If she can do it... That's how so many challenges start, don't they?

I still train like a triathlete, swimming a mile on many days and riding two or three times a week in addition to all that running. I didn't think I'd run as much having given up coffee, but the only thing that disappeared when I ditched the java was not my energy but my irritability. And good riddance! Instead I drink Hershey's cocoa with hot water and stevia. At 50 mg of caffeine it has about 1/4 what I'd normally consume as java. And no untoward effects.

This summer I've been hitting the weights more than usual. All you need for a home gym is a bench, a few sets of dumbbells, including an adjustable pair, a kettlebell, pull-up bar, and dip bar. Sounds like a lot but it all fits in the space of a walk-in closet, if I had one. I supplemented my trusty collection with an extra-heavy set of dumbbells, to avoid complacency. There is only so long you can lift the same amount of weight before you stop seeing results and fall into a tiresome rut.

Bodybuilding was my first love. Long before Hugh Jackman popularized the 1000-lb club when he became a member while training for a recent action movie, I was able to do a 405-lb deadlift, 335-lb squat and 275-lb bench press, putting my total for those three power lifting movements at 1015 lbs. Count me in! That's when I was 30, just before I started medical school and turned my attention almost exclusively to running. Of course as a gym rat I ate a lot of red meat, and couldn't really run because my quads got too thick too fast. It felt like I had lead weights strapped to my ankles, and the lactic acid burn!

I also remember having a really tight lower back as a power lifter. Chalk it up to poor form. And all the years of endurance events shrank me to my 15-year-old's body, and robbed me of my muscle. A willing sacrifice, to shave precious seconds off the clock. How ridiculous! But since my forays into mass building and then distance running I have become a firm believer in all-around fitness, functional training if you will. You should be as strong as you can get while still being able to run fast and far. Which may not be that strong. If you look at the bodies of track athletes, the sprinters (100 meter, 200 meter, all the way to 800-meter) are really muscle bound, but by the time you get to the milers and above (5K, 10K, half marathon, marathon and ultras) they are all waif thin. On the left is an 800-meter guy, on the right a miler. You can see the difference in upper body size.

I like to run too fast and too far to sacrifice this pleasure to size and strength. I don't do barbell lifts anymore because I don't have the equipment, and I prefer dumbbells for the variation in grip and angle they provide, but I know that running even 35 miles a week I could never be as strong as I was back in the day. Or as big. Because endurance running breaks down muscle. And I'm okay with that. Sure, I watch WWE star John Cena do powerlifts and catch myself salivating with longing and admiration, but I don't want to be that muscle-bound guy. Because I was that guy. And my back was always tight and moving any distance farther than a block away was a chore. Now I run those blocks barefoot as fast as I can and leave the construction workers nonplussed if not in my dust, which is my new hobby. Really, those hardworking tough guys generate enough dust as it is. If you don't believe me, come run on my street! 

Training for life means being fit while still enjoying being in your body. And you can have your beach muscles too. Which you can get in spades with that minimalist gym equipment aforementioned. Train barefoot. Who says that minimalism is dead?

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