Acceptance in Running

On the verge of running the Mississauga Marathon on Sunday May 15, 2010, I thought it was a good time to take stock of a few of the lessons I have learned along the way to the race. There have been many hurdles to get to a point of being ready and I am very glad and thankful to be mostly healthy and ready to run.

Last summer, after returning from running some fantastic runs in Europe and Kenya, I unfortunately injured my knee while running on a narrow trail in Bronte Provincial Park. I realized, just before it happened, that the narrowing path might be a problem. I was feeling great and I only had 6k to go of my 26k run, so I decided to keep going. My misstep in foot placement and judgement led to a number of months of recovery, and ultimately many worthwhile changes.

A good part of the recovery time was filled with trying to find the source of the problem. I tried very hard to determine exactly where I was injured. I did not want to make the problem worse and I was still holding out hope all my previous training was not in vain.

There were a lot of unknowns in this search to get a healthy knee again. While running in the hills outside of Nairobi, I was lamenting that my right knee (which gave me IT-band issues in the spring) was not as strong as my now-injured left knee. There was a certain irony in the fact that a week later I was now unable to run at all.

Lesson #1: Don’t do an extra hard long run right after a 24 hour travel with multiple 10 hour flights and with very little rest.

I sought the help of many practitioners from chiropractors, Active Release Techniques specialists, doctors and physiotherapists. In almost every case, I received the “good news” that there was nothing wrong with my knee. Clearly this was a very good sign and one to celebrate. However, as I could no longer run, where even walking was becoming a problem, I knew without a shadow of a doubt there was most certainly a problem.

This situation led to a certain amount of floundering and dissatisfaction. As my understanding of the problem increased, it became clear the solution was not to fix the injury but was to fix the way I ran. Over time, I found it very interesting to recognize that a simple shift in perspective made a real difference in being able to get beyond this challenge.

For quite sometime, I would not truly accept the injury for what it was. The key to solving my problem was to accept that the way I ran was a big factor in becoming injured. I ended up changing many things in the way I ran.

Lesson #2: Find the reason(s) or conditions which created the weakness in the body that set myself up to become injured. This seems especially true for over-use injuries.

With the help of a number of sources and using the power of mindful noting during running, I was able to find a better way to run, which limited the conditions that led to my knee problem. I am a much better runner for it. I moved from more of a heel striker to a mid-foot soft landing stride. I dropped the power running for a more efficient way to run. I started with tiny fast steps with no leg extension and very low mileage, and focused most importantly on my posture.

So, I started over with a new style of running. It became clear after much investigation into the symptoms that led to my knee acting up, that my ultimate problem was an incorrect posture. So I set the entire focus of my running for the past 6 months to my posture.

What I discovered in focusing on my posture was not just a solution to preventing my injury from acting up, but was a major element in being able to run efficiently for long distances. When the body is out of balance, an inordinate amount of energy is required over time to maintain the temporary “balance”. All that wasted energy spent keeping the body out of balance can now be used wisely.

Lesson #3: Running posture is a critical element in efficient and injury-free running.

How is that? One major reason for this is I have personally found there is an optimal position for the body to be in when moving. When in this position, it is possible to dramatically reduce muscular tension and use the structure of the body in an optimal way.

As I was going through this process I was reminded of past experiences in practicing Aikido and Tai-Chi. In most situations it is much easier to go with the flow of energy than to fight it. So finding the “sweet spot” of alignment in posture simply makes running easier and with less effort required. But it does not just stop there.

If you think about the resistance in any circuit or electronic device, the more resistance there is to a current flowing, the more heat is created by that resistance. In a similar way, the more resistance to the flow of energy in the muscles, then more of this energy is wasted in the form of heat. So instead of this energy helping to move the body forward, it just makes us warmer. In the middle of a Canadian winter this may not be such a bad thing.

Lesson #4: Energy flows best when unobstructed by muscular tension.

This insight has made a big difference in my running. In the past with power running, as my intensity increased, so too did my tension. This was in part a learned behaviour from past experiences, but also a fairly natural reaction to negative stimuli. When facing difficulty or something that is perceived as negative, we can recoil from that experience or embrace it. With acceptance, we are in a much better footing to deal with and find a solution to the problem at hand.

It seems quite natural that the human mind tends to want to push away that which is seen as negative. When you touch something very hot we recoil from that sensation for good reason. However, in running the increase in tension can actually work against the goals and enjoyment of the runner.

I found over time the more relaxed my muscles remained (apart from my engaged core), I was able to run faster with less effort required. As this fights a lot of past conditioning and to a certain extent reflexes, the effort previously used to run with power, out of balance and tense is now being used to help run better. By switching to the focus of maintaining equanimity and ideal posture during running, the body naturally starts to relax.

Lesson #5: Acceptance is a very important element in being able to relax (especially during intense exercise).

This is no easy task to begin with and although it is becoming easier to maintain, I feel as if I am still just starting on the path to full realization of this in my life.

A big part of being able to relax while maintaining an engaged core is in our acceptance of the situation in front of us. Mindful resistance creates muscular resistance. Its that simple. Complete acceptance creates the environment from which muscular relaxation can spring forth.

As energy is conserved and the body and mind become serene, energy will flow through every part of the body. Seeking to send this energy through a stiff body is a common mistake of all beginners…It is known that muscles automatically relax when the mind is cleared and the emotions stilled.”

The Tao of Tai-Chi Chuan – Way to Rejuvenation by Jou, Tsung Hwa.

Lesson #6: Core strength is key to maintaining balance when moving and is the power house and focal point for the swinging pendulums.

I plan on continuing to develop this new way of running in the coming years. I am so happy to be practising a running style that helps to unlock the joys and boundless experiences provided by “effortless” running.

Running while in a state of relaxed mindfulness is a true joy to be one with. I am recording each one of these lessons to help unlock my mind in the future. Each of these lessons is part of a bigger puzzle. When put together, this style of running so clearly creates the space from which Running Samadhi can spring forth.

Lastly, I am very thankful to books like “Run for Life”, and most importantly “Chi Running” for helping point me in the right direction for my questions about posture and injury free running. My back and knees are so much the better for it.

Rain is on the forecast for tomorrow’s run. I hope it is a great race for all who run it.

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  1. [...] clear that before me lies a beautiful path. It requires no ornament, dogma or exclusions. Through acceptance we become…

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