Form Work (or Running Fewer Miles and Why It’s Okay)

I’ve been working on form. Really my “coach” has been working with me on it, berating, spluttering, uncompromising, head shaking, but always ready to start again next time. There in the park, every day. When the form work intensifies, I tend to feel that long runs are not really in the cards. There are a lot of drills, and though the routes are generally short, the intensity is high. The impact of drills will sneak up on you. Something’s got to give. I’m in my late forties, and wary of getting injured. Not being able to run? That would be torture. I can do a long run, but it compromises the intensity of my group runs. So the miles have dropped off. I’d been running about 30 miles a week, and that generally feels good for me. Last few weeks: Just under 20 miles.

In the past, I’ve really struggled with this. Because I want miles. The body drinks them up. There’s nothing quite like that groove of running a little more mileage than you’re used to. The legs start to feel a little heavy, but strong. But I’ve had an intuition that the form work is coming along nicely (“his knees were releasing today!”), and so I just let the miles go for the moment. I’ve got no immediate race (there’s a half in May 2014). And I’m pretty sure if I clean up my form, I’ll get some “free speed.” Recent easy runs seem to confirm this. When I focus on form, even in an offhand way, the pace picks up.

Today I arrived in the park, my first day this week. Six-thirty a.m. No polar vortex, but it is chilly. The runner nearest to me in age and speed has a scab healing around his knee and is walking his dog today. The two fast runners are no show. So two other runners and myself are given marching orders. Essentially two steep hikes, one right past Bee Rock and then another up a sheer hill along a service ladder. Blood is pounding in my head by the end. Then a winding downhill, essentially for recovery and loosening up before the training.

Coach and one of the other runners meet me below one of the main water tanks that dot the park. They both make an unusual comment, “Hey, you look pretty good.” Coach adds, “of course you knew I was going to be watching you.” Coach is a curmudgeon, but I take the compliment. One thing about this group: They will never tell you you’re doing great out of kindness or politeness or some notion of being encouraging. Coach has me run down a steep bank off the main trail, a place we call Piney Slope, and has me run two short, very steep sprints. I imagine this is to activate the muscles or nervous system or something, but I don’t ask a lot of questions. The last thing I need to do is overthink it. I’ve been observing this guy for a year and have concluded he really understands body mechanics, among other things. So I trust.

I make back up to the main trail with some nods of approval. Next he has me run some short downhill sprints. A couple things he wants me to attend to. The right foot is always an issue. Coach and one of the other runners reckon it points out at about 1 o’clock position. I venture a guess of 12:30, shot down. “No way is it 12:30.” Before it was at 2 o’clock position. The other thing is holding the chest and neck high, neck straight. (I was having the hardest time with this until a couple weeks ago when one of the runners gave me a physical prompt, she held my jaw and pressed my forehead back. Something clicked.) And pushing the hips through. And as much as anything else, getting a nice forward lean. I can’t really explain mechanics very clearly. I am kinesthetically challenged. We do a few of short sprints. Coach will sometimes ask me to stop after the first few steps, “No!” You’re doing blah blah. Try this. Let’s try again.

Next, we do a series of short races, about 15 seconds each. We are still focusing on form here, but it’s more an integration of what we’re working on – a race is a race. At this point it’s just me and another runner who’s a little slower. To compensate, coach puts her way out in front. She’s about 10 or 15 meters ahead. Just by feel, I can see that it’s going to be a struggle to catch her, but within reach. For the first few I catch her, and he keeps increasing the head start. He’s happy with what he sees today. “You got up to about 6 steps per second. If we can just get you to relax your back and lift – you should be able to get to 7-8 steps, easy.” I don’t catch her on the last couple. By the third to last race I’m shot, and my arms are doing weird things. “You’re doing that dead bird thing again. You must be tired.” Then we walk for a bit and the talk turns to cooking (certain topics are standard recovery cues — or that the workout’s over, it’s never clear which. Another common topic is football. That usually means the workout is done.)

I don’t catch the other runner for the last race either. But after the workout coach says my knees were really coming up quite high and forward, unusual for me and something we’ve been working toward. The posture was good, erect. Hips coming through. For some moments today I had a good lean forward and imagined I might even resemble an athlete. This is very gratifying as previously my form was very jogger-ish. I’m simply not someone that ever thought of myself as an athlete.

“That was some pretty good running.”

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