Editor’s Note: This essay is part of a column called The Wisdom Project by David Allan, editorial director of CNN Health and Wellness. The series is on applying to one’s life the wisdom and philosophy found everywhere, from ancient texts to pop culture. You can follow David at @davidgallan. Don’t miss another Wisdom Project column; subscribe here.
I am not a runner. I nearly failed high school gym because I walked the required cross-country course run. I didn’t run for exercise at all until age 27, when my now-wife (two-time marathoner, lifelong fan of “Chariots of Fire”) and I started dating. I’ve done it sporadically since, usually running to coffee shops where the pie I enjoy undoes the work it took to get to it.
But, at 45, I added marathon to my list of firsts and, surprisingly, enjoyed a good deal of the preparation for it. In the three months of training (approximately 434 miles of running), I learned new things about myself, like how much I can physically endure and what my body and mind require to push past ingrained impulses to quit.
I didn’t finish with a “good time,” but my goal was just to complete it.
“It does not matter how slowly you go as long you do not stop,” Confucius purportedly said. It’s estimated that he was a preteen when the Battle of Marathon took place 8,000 miles away. According to legend, a runner covered 26.2 miles between Marathon and Athens to announce the Greek victory and, upon arrival, died of exhaustion.
The wisdom I have to share on the topic of long-distance running – as a novice, not an expert – is both practical and philosophical. And I think the first lesson is that having a goal like a half- or full marathon is an excellent motivator, giving you a this-too-shall-pass goal, bragging rights and structure.
Heart and soul
Evolutionarily speaking, running long distances is a defining characteristic of being human. We are among the slower animals on the planet, but our ancestors were able to catch the other ones and eat them because we have a stamina they lack. It may have taken all day, but eventually, the cheetah will tire out and slow down to rest, and that’s how you made ancient cheetah burgers.
Beyond species’ destiny, there are many compelling reasons to run your first (or next) marathon or half-marathon. Barring some injury or other health issue, long-distance running is, primarily, an excellent workout.
Obviously, exercise in general is fundamental to a high-performing mind and body, but running has been specifically tied to living longer through improved heart health (by up to three added years), staving off cognitive decline and getting better sleep. It’s not even necessarily bad for your knees, despite conventional wisdom.
There’s enormous psychological benefit, as well. I sometimes ran with a worn-out copy of Dr. Thaddeus Kostrubala’s “The Joy of Running” in my backpack, a bestseller in the 1970s – an unenlightened age in which, it seems, very few people ran recreationally, some doctors apparently thought it was harmful to health, and sports bras had barely been invented.
But one of the key arguments the author, a psychiatrist, makes is the therapeutic benefit of running. The book includes anecdotes of patients lowering their stress levels, managing addictions and improving relationships through what he called “running therapy.”
Since the book was first published, the research has caught up to Kostrubala’s thesis. Running has been found to be just as effective as psychotherapy in alleviating symptoms of depression, according to studies starting in 1979, and to improve self-esteem and reduce stress. There are even psychotherapists who will run with you during your session, which Kostrubala pioneered.
Vigorous movement releases the brain’s own feel-good endorphins, producing the well-known “runner’s high.” Kostrubala goes beyond that neuroscience in his book, arguing that slow long-distance running is akin to hallucinogens, producing an “altered state of consciousness” that lets you glimpse the workings of your own mind or even facilitate a religious experience. Borrowing a metaphor from Aldous Huxley, Kostrubala writes that running may “help each individual open new doors into his own soul.”
That framing – running as a beneficial tool – is a good reminder when all those hours training feel more like a clock-gobbling chore. “Sport is not a test but a therapy; not a trial but a reward; not a question but an answer,” wrote George Sheehan, author of “Running & Being.”
Personally, I found running a reliable distraction from – and physical antidote to – work stress. It’s difficult to mentally multitask while running, so music or an audiobook happily hijacked most of my attention. When my mind did wander, it was usually in more creative, rather than practical, directions.
And though running can be physically difficult as your body adapts to new longest-ever distances on a training schedule, it can also be highly enjoyable. You are outside, usually among trees. You’re listening to your favorite song or talking with a friend. And when you’re done with a run, you’re rewarded with a sense of accomplishment.
I rarely cook and have little confidence when it comes to making a meal, which is why I follow recipes to the letter. Same for a running routine. There are many marathon and half-marathon training schedules available, all employing an interval method that prescribes how long to run each day of the week. It’s about 12 weeks for a half and 18 weeks for a marathon. I used the Hal Higdon novice marathon training schedule, ideal for first-timers.
Then – and this was fun for me – I plotted out routes for all these runs of varying lengths. The tool I found to be the most useful was Google Pedometer. It counts the mileage online as you click various points, and it allows for paths (not just roads). I printed the routes out and wrote street directions on them. If I deviated from the course, my phone’s GPS was my backup.
The longest distances in a training schedule are reserved for weekends, but I had runs on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays that required not just plotting out routes to and from work but creating a schedule so that I had clothes at work on the mornings I ran there.
Once you establish your schedule, you’ll figure out the flow of clothes and gear. And you’ll make mistakes too, like the time I had to run with a work shoe in each hand. Later, I just started leaving all my work shoes at work.
Alone or with others
Some prefer to run in groups or with a buddy while others like myself prefer to pass the miles alone. Running with others creates accountability and gives you someone with whom to talk or commiserate. One recent study found that running in a group reduced anxiety and depression, further evidence that Kostrubala was on to something more than 40 years ago.
But going solo avoids the pressure to maintain pace with someone, or perhaps you prefer music or podcasts over talking. The exception to my self-imposed long-distance loneliness were various weekend races and some runs with my brother-in-law, Morgan, who may be the most agreeable person on the planet. Try to find someone like Morgan to run with.
For weekend training runs over 12 miles, entering local races provided bonhomie, planned routes, herd momentum, T-shirts, water stations and portable toilets. Races are almost always more fun than being alone. I loved two trail runs I did (with Morgan, naturally). And I don’t know how I would have finished my longest training run – 20 miles – without it being an organized Halloween-themed night race.
At the beginning of my training, I went to a run clinic at a local athletic shoe store and was given a few key pieces of advice that I employed for the next four months.
- I didn’t worry about my stride, except to make sure I was taking short steps instead of overextending.
- I leaned forward at my ankles, not my waist.
- I kept my midsection tall and my arms at the side, pumping to maintain pace.
- I smiled while running. It improved my mood, and a recent study shows that smiling runners are also more efficient.
You will ache. You may develop acute pain in certain parts of your body. But you can mitigate that with “dynamic stretching,” which emphasizes movement with lunges, hip rotations and leg kicks. Dynamic is better than your grandmother’s traditional muscle pulls. I printed a series of these yoga-like stretches on the back of my running maps, which helped me develop the habit.
You may also lose a toenail or two, but there’s nothing you can do about that.