Friday, July 7, 2017

Basic Running Technique Tips

Running has to be the most basic 'sport' around, right? Just left foot, right foot, repeat til finish line. Not so fast (sorry heh). There is actually a lot more to the technique of running well, with a lot of room for debate.


Paradoxically, we will start with your head. For some reason, many people start running with a heads-down posture, watching their feet fall. This tends to cause the rib cage to collapse, making breathing more difficult. Running with your head up, eyes scanning the road, is much better. The tips for good posture overall apply doubly while running. Imagine a string attached the top of your head, pulling you up. Round your shoulders back so that your chest is wide open. If oxygen is the fuel of running (it is), then your rib cage / thorax is the tank - you want it to be as large as possible.

Continuing down, you want your neck and spine in alignment, stacked on top of each other. Much like Jenga, your spinal column will be stable if it is vertically aligned but will cause problems if it is off to one side. Try to keep your head centered on top of your spine and pelvis. If you want to know what this feels like, just press your body up against a wall. The back of your head, shoulders, hips, and calves should all touch. If they do not or you have difficulty, you should see a physical therapist to help improve your static posture.

Your arms should swing gently at your side with your elbows are about a 90 degree angle. I like to think of it as if you are trying to serve someone breakfast in bed but you're late so you're running to them. You have a tray of food that you have to hold, but you have to hold it flat enough that the items on it do not fall. If you can mentally do that, you should have pretty good form.


Cadence, also known as stride rate, is the number of steps you take per minute. The consensus is that most runners take too few steps per minute, while each stride itself is too long. There is room for debate though. The number that most posts discuss is 180. This comes from research from long-time running coach Jack Daniels who found that most competitive runners run at 180 steps per minute or higher during races.

Of course, your total distance is going to be a function of your cadence multiplied by your stride length. Increasing either will increase your speed. Since most people tend to overstride and under-cadence, fixing your cadence is easier to start with. At first, it will feel like you are running too slowly but once you get the hang of it, you can accelerate faster by changing up your cadence (rather than trying to elongate your stride length). It should feel like you are stepping on pebbles or jumping rope at first - that's normal. Give it a shot two or three times and see how it feels.


The last major concern is your pace. You want to run at a speed you can maintain. Generally that means slow down! A common rookie mistake to start out running at too fast a pace to maintain, leading one to get winded easily and feel 'slow.' A better strategy is to start jogging comfortably at a pace you think you could maintain indefinitely. You should be able to maintain a conversation at this pace. As one advances, there are training styles in which you will sprint but to start, maintaining an even pace throughout a run is a great goal.

But what about terrain? It's hard to stay at the same speed going up a hill! The key with uphill or downhill segments is to focus on maintaining constant effort. If  you could maintaing a conversation on flat terrain, you should slow down enough to be able to continue that conversation going up the hill.

That's it! Making these simple tweaks will make your early runs more enjoyable and possibly even avoid injury. If you have any doubts, just remember - you were born to run!


Wednesday, July 5, 2017

Try, Try Again: An Empiric Approach To Learning

The two key concepts for today are empiricism and inculcation. Fancy four dollar words but both with very simple meanings for our purposes:

Empiricism: learning by doing

Inculcation: learning by repetition

The first time has launched scores of philosophical debates over the nature of reality but ultimately, there is no substitute for trying something out. If you want to figure whether you enjoy something or not, you have to go *do* it. No amount of book learning, dialogue with practitioners, visualization, or any other pre-"doing" technique will suffice for the actual experience.

Over on Farnam Street Blog, the post "The Map is Not the Territory" reminds me of my own literal first jarring experience with this truism. As a college student, I was new to the city and did not have a car to move around. Like most cash-strapped folks, I relied on the subway to get around. The map was nowhere near to scale, yet I assumed it was a reasonable proxy for distance.

In simpler terms, I assumed something two stops away was "twice" as far. Big mistake.

Imagine my surprise when I realized I could walk the same distance for free in less time. 

The map: 
Source: MBTA

is not

The territory: 
Notice any differences? The city began to make much more sense to me once I started running regularly and could understand how physical places connected together. 

The larger lesson is that the models we are given to represent a concept to learn are great for getting you about 70% of the way there. By necessity though, they must leave out detail in order to not overwhelm one with extraneous information. 

To master a concept though, 70% is nowhere near enough. To get as close to 100% as possible, we have to be empiricists. We have to do the thing we intend to achieve. Want to become an author? Make a habit of writing daily. Athlete? Practice. Chef? Cook. 

However, remember that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different outcome. That is why the inculcation must involve deliberate practice. 

The concept of deliberate practice has been advocated by psychologist Anders Ericsson who is most closely associated with the 10,000 hour rule (the notion that world-class talent requires 10,000 hours of practice). Ericsson dives deeper in his book Peak, explaining that each repetition must have some goal behind it in order to accelerate one's journey from novice to master.

As you ponder taking up a new task, focus on creating as many opportunities as possible to do the activity you are interested in. Once you start, then try to practice deliberately by breaking the skill down into its component steps. Ask those who have mastered the skill what specific steps they were taking to improve. You want as much detail as possible here. Then just try, try again until you are an expert. As they say: you make your habits, and then your habits make you, so make good habits!

Sunday, July 2, 2017

My Running Story

I do not remember the first time I intentionally went running. As a child, my first runs were as a means to an end: chasing a ball. Most likely a soccer ball, to be precise. I was never particularly fast but I could kick the ball hard! However, over time, I developed asthma and gained weight. I was still fairly active but no one would confuse me for a runner.

My first experiences running consistently were during college. I still much preferred playing pickup games of basketball. Occasionally though, the courts were closed so I wandered upstairs and discovered the strange hamster-like feeling of running on a treadmill. I would still wear my cross-trainers or basketball shoes, so you can imagine the quality of these runs.

During the summer between junior and senior runner, I had my first regular experiences running outdoors. I would run in the evenings along the Charles River to the Massachusetts Avenue bridge and back. Fun fact: the bridge has its own unit, the smoot! One particularly memorable run ended with a friend taking us out on her team's sailboat to sail out on the Charles itself.

Over the next several years, I would run a mix of treadmill and outdoor runs, mostly of the 3 mile length. The runs were regular but still supplemental to playing basketball and working out. Over time though, as work got busier, my fitness level dropped. The low point for me was returning to my regular 5k loop after a long layoff and not being able to complete it without stopping to walk and catch my breath. I felt defeated.

After that low point though, I resolved to never again let myself slack off so much. I made a goal of running a race, and practicing consistently for it.

My first actual race was a 5k in 2012. I learned a lot from the experience, especially how much pacing and heat affect how you run. While I enjoyed the race, I can't say the bug really bit until year later.

The two big differences were buying a proper running shoes and finding a running partner. A friend who was also getting into running encouraged me to invest in a pair (instead of my beat-up cross trainers). I was skeptical that there was much of a difference, and viewed it as marketing hype. However, you can't knock what you haven't tried, so one day, I went to the local running store, had a gait test, and got fitted. My first pair were from New Balance and looked something like this:

My first run out with the new shoes were eye-opening. I ran my usual 5k loop around the Rose Bowl, at my usual effort. The result?

I ran a solid MINUTE faster than ever before!

To the non-runner, that may not sound like much, but to shave an entire minute off your run time for a 5k is akin to 10% improvement in relative terms. It is hard to describe as a feeling, but it feels like you ran twice as fast. My eyes were opened to bigger possibilities after years of my runs all feeling roughly the same.

The other big difference? Having a running buddy! My friend Ashley served as an accountability partner: someone who makes sure you're staying on track with the goal you set. We never explicitly said we were AP's, but it happens naturally. You sign up for a big race, which means you have to do training runs. By yourself, you may choose to sleep in, but with a friend? No way you're wussing out and leaving them hanging.

A year after that first 5k, we completed our first half marathon in 2013. The bug bit and dug its fangs in deep. After that first half marathon, we have completed 9 more as well as two full marathons!

This is not the most inspirational running story ever, but that's okay. Rather, it shows how even an average person can achieve great things simply by making a plan and developing a keystone habit. As NYTimes reporter Charles Duhigg writes in the Power of Habit, developing a keystone habit is a consistent, sustainable routine that spurs other beneficial habits.

For me, the running habit has keyed into taking better care of my body by eating healthier, losing weight, and trying to be better organized about my life. As a bonus, running races outside my hometown has led to some great vacation memories. One of my favorites was running across the Golden Gate Bridge - the marathon is the only time they let runners do that!

Many people when first asked to run reflexively respond, "Oh, I'm not a runner, that's not me." I know - I did, too. However, everyone who is physically able has a runner inside of them. Don't believe me? Check out Christopher McDougall's Born to Run:

McDougall convincingly argues that one of the key evolutionary advantages that humans have over other species is our ability to run long distances and our stamina. Sure, other animals like cheetahs are much, much faster but they cannot sustain that speed for more than a mile or two. Even an average human can run 26 miles more or less continuously. A marathon is actually quite a feat not just among humans but across the animal kingdom!

So there you have it: running is in your bones. It's your heritage. Get started today with your running journey. If you have any questions about how to get started, please contact me or comment below!