Friday, December 25, 2009

A natural run

I've come to believe at any particular time during a run, there is a natural run pace. That if you let your body run, it will find an optimal balance between a number of factors. What are these factors? They include:

Hard physiology factors (things that don't change, or change only very slowly over time)

  • Length of your bones
  • Flexibility of your joints
  • Muscle strength and conditioning
  • Health of ligaments and tendons and such
  • VO2 Max and other factors relating to bodily process efficiency
  • Basic running skill
  • Your weight
Soft physiology factors (Things that change from day to day, or even hour to hour)
  • What you've eaten recently and other nutritional issues
  • Hydration
  • State of your emotions or mindset (probably the most important of these factors)
  • Tiredness from a recent workout
  • Fatigue from previous workouts
  • Application of new running skills or mental discipline
  • Trying to impress a hottie (which probably belongs under mindset)
Environmental factors
  • Weather (temperature, humidity, wind, precipitation)
  • What you're running on (road, path, trail, open field, ice or snow)
  • Incline of running surface
  • Elevation above sea level
  • Traffic or pedestrians
There are so many different factors that it's impossible for our minds to consciously process it all, and come up with an optimum pace. Yet somehow, if we let it, our body will settle in. We'll find a stride. Sometimes it's harder to settle in than other days. Some days the training plan calls for going faster, or slower than that natural pace. That can get tough very quickly. Too often we get sucked into the mindset that we *ought* to be running faster, and try to push it, which takes us down the road to injuries.

That natural pace will change over time.  To some extent a natural pace is trainable. As you become more fit you'll become faster. As you become a more efficient runner you might not go faster, but may be able to go further more easily. Your stride might change as your hips or ankles become more mobile.

I've gone through lots of running changes over the last couple of years. When I started, just over two years ago, there was no such thing as a natural pace beyond walking. Picture an injured T Rex (poor thing) trying to run through a shallow tar pond, and you've got a good idea what I ran like. Changes have been a long time coming. Even as late as last summer I didn't run particularly well, and certainly not quickly, and didn't get any special enjoyment out of it. Enjoyment came from swimming or biking. 

However, just recently, in the last few months things have come together and I've had a bunch of good runs. I've been running faster than ever with less effort, and I've been looking forward to running. It seems that my body is finally finding a natural pace because I can actually run at the minimum speeds required to actually run at. That probably didn't make much sense. Most of us can probably walk 6 K per hour (a hair under 4 mph). Now try to imagine running that slow. Mechanically it simply doesn't work for the way our bodies are put together. My problem was that I didn't have the skills, conditioning, or strength to be able to make the leap to an actual running pace until recently. (I'm fully aware I'm still on the slow end of the running pace.) 

Probably the single clearest illustration of the difference is a photo of me and Cath taken by her husband Jase, during the Canmore Oly. Even if all you know about us is what you see in the picture, you can tell instantly who is the faster runner. (Her 10 K time, 49:04, mine 1:06:10 and it damn near killed me.) (And if you're looking for a great place to stay on a vacation to Fernie, (skiing, hiking, fishing, ect) check out their B&B. )

As a side note, I think this is where many people go wrong as they try to get into shape. There is actually a huge chasm between a fast walk and a slow run. The mechanics are entirely different. I've felt them, I know. Lots of people get injured trying to make the transition, and I consider myself fortunate that I've had only minor injuries. What's fascinating is that once you find the pace, it becomes easier to find it again, and when you run at that pace (which might be different speeds, strides, ect) your body starts making the changes to be able to do it better and longer in a wider variety of conditions. Which gets you into a great positive feedback loop. 

The plan today was to go for a run, and have fun. I went down through Fish Creek on a 7.75 K loop. I didn't wear a heart rate monitor, and didn't try for any particular pace. Today I wanted to concentrate on what a beautiful day it is out there, and let my body find whatever pace it wanted to run at. Started off slow and easy, and gradually built up. At one point I was running south, and the path looked like it was made out of diamonds, all sparkling rainbows in the sun. Wow. 

I kept a nice pace up the hill out of Fish Creek, then slowed down again when I got closer to home. That's the only time I thought about pace. It's cold enough I didn't want to be walking far for a cool down. Even then it was tough to slow down. My body wanted to run. I don't think I was quite going through this semi-mythical "runners high", but I was feeling great! Stretched for a while after, till I started getting cold. I suspect some of you guys will have a tough time believing the coldest part of the workout was stretching in my basement, but it's true.

Oh, and I couldn't help myself. The run took 54 minutes. And you thought I'd forgotten. (hahahaha)


  1. You're the one in front, yes? Bib # 220? Nice job, Keith!!!

  2. Funny Keith, how you feel about running is how I feel about swimming, lol. I feel like I am finally "getting it". Let me know if you want to head out for a run sometime, I am always looking to get out!

  3. "Injured T Rex (poor thing).." You're pretty funny. :) I'm glad you have found your natural run talent. I think it looks like you know exactly what you're doing in that picture.

  4. Well, first off, I think you're being pretty hard on yourself - that run leg wasn't easy and it hurt - I'm smiling cos that bits downhill :) If I normally run a 42min 10k that'd make your 10k equivalent 59 or something - and that was before you'd found your inner-runner - I say that's not bad at all!

    Isn't it great when the running thing clicks - it took me a while but when it clicked it's just so basic in its requirements, it feels REALLY good. Good for you for working at it - and GETTING THERE!

    And one last thing - I think it's great to have one run a week where you just run and enjoy it. For my long run on a Sunday I run the trails around here, stick on my ipod, no heart rate monitor, no garmin, and just's you the mental break.

    Keep having fun, keith....things are really clicking for you - it's great to read :)

  5. Wow. This is really weird, that you write this post now.

    I've been thinking about my running or walking pace for weeks. And I have exactly the problem that I can't run slow enough to get into my pace I. As soon as I start to run I'm at pace III, right at the anaerob threshold. And the pace II? I've got absolutely no clue how to get there. The next problem is, that I don't get my body to walk at pace I without hardening my leg muscles. This really bothered me, I even asked my trainer before christmas and he couldn't help me. Thanks to you, I know now that it might be that I just lack the necessary strength and endurance at this stage of training.

    I've come to the conclusion today, that I will use 2010 to build my endurance and strength and the pace doesn't matter in this year. All that matters 2010 is to give my body the workout and needed time to change.

    Thank you so much for this post. It couldn't have come at a better time for me.

    Cheers and good luck for 2010.
    PS: 1:06 for 10k is fine, I'm 15 min slower than you. ;-)


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