This morning, NPR had a great story about habits and how they can be made, broken and remade. I won’t go into too much detail (you can see and listen for yourself here), but the bottom line was that a change in somebody’s day-to-day environment is one of the biggest catalysts in forming or breaking habits. When you think about it, it totally makes sense. For example, when I was working at Starbucks, a day without some kind of sugary espresso drink was like a car without headlights. Now, I think the last time I had anything resembling said drink was about two months ago.
This may not really be an environmental change, but I’ve decided to completely change the way I run. It might sound excessive to do something like that. I’ve been running since high school and have already run a half marathon successfully. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it- right?
Actually, it is broke friends. And fixing it is turning out to be absorbing enough that the work-out has become less about just going through the motions and more about opening up the possibility of improvement.
I had severe asthma until about 10th grade, which is when I started running. Even though my asthma mostly went away, probably in large part to the fact that I was running so often, I’d almost always run at about 60 percent of my capacity. It was self protection at first, a natural fear of, well..death.. and a muscle memory of running triggering major attacks. Over the years though, problems with breathing haven’t been an issue and I’ve been pushing myself harder. Despite that fact, my times have not improved. I’ve tried working harder, trying to stretch my short Irish legs until they punished me, but I was starting to get used to the fact that I was just slow and there was nothing to be done about it.
The big duh moment came when my husband convinced me to check out the book Fit that he got through his adventures in weightlifting (you can check out his blog here) and as I read it this fact became glaringly obvious: I’m not slow because I have short legs. I’m slow because I heel-strike.
And if you’re not already judging me, here’s why that’s embarrassing: it literally makes you slower, almost to the point that you’re moving slightly backward with every step.
Okay “moving backward” might be an exaggeration. To quote Fit “The analysis of this technique’s effect on running performance has been in the professional literature for more than 50 years- ‘An athlete who runs on his heels (permits his heels to contact the ground first as he strides) is causing the center of gravity to fall behind his contact foot and thus is creating a retarding effect’ (Bunn, J.W. Scientific principles of Coaching).” Yeah, that was written in 1955. I watched every good runner I know run on the balls of their feet. I allowed myself the technique on uphills from the beginning of my running-life and would always speed up remarkably when I did so. What the heck was wrong with me that I’d never put this together?
Curse you, survival mode!
Running was “not my thing” and so the fact that I could manage the distance had always been enough for me in the past. It was embarrassing to be in last place so often and it whacked me right in the competitive spirit to be passed by all variety of runner over and over again, but I’d console myself by thinking about how good I was at other things. That girl might be effortlessly coasting past me, but could she sing German lieder? Doubt it! Now my attitude is something closer to, “If you’re not willing to give it your best then why are you doing it?”
My calf muscles are really, really sore now. The gentlemen who wrote Fit estimate that it takes about 3 months to get used to running in this different form, a time period in which the Ventura Half-Marathon is plopped right in the middle. I’ll probably still be sore and getting my bearings, but even after just two weeks I am already running significantly faster at about the same level of effort. And I can already tell how I’ll be able to move in order to go even faster. I never really pictured myself as a “contender” per se in this arena, but now I’m starting to feel like a real runner and not just someone trying to get a work-out over with.
Maybe my environment isn’t so different, but the new way of doing things and the new possibility of really improving is making running a pretty easy habit to re-make.