A few years ago, before I started running seriously, I read a book that completely changed my view on running: Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall. In an effort to answer the simple question “Why does my foot hurt?” McDougall studied the world’s greatest distance runners, the Tarahumara, who were able to run hundreds of miles without stopping (and without wearing shoes).
While the book has tons of great takeaways that make it worthwhile for any runner to pick up, there’s one part of the book that stays with me during every single run:
Think easy, light, smooth, and fast. You start with easy, because if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad. Then work on light. Make it effortless, like you don’t give a shit how high the hill is or how far you’ve got to go. When you’ve practiced that so long that you forget you’re practicing, you work on making it smooooooth. You won’t have to worry about the last one – you get those three, and you’ll be fast.
I love this thought, and whenever I find myself struggling during a run, I go back to this simple mantra: easy, light, smooth, fast. Here’s how I break it down:
Relax your body from head to toe. Let go of any tension in your neck and your shoulders, and let that looseness travel down to your arms, your elbows, your wrist, and the way your fingers fall from your hand. There’s no need to be sprinting at this stage in the mantra, just a nice, easy pace that comes naturally.
Famed running expert and noted donut lover Cass Gunderson also noted, “Sometimes when I’m struggling in a run, I realize that I’m thinking about running too much. I consciously work on shutting off my mind and only thinking very simple thoughts for a while. It doesn’t happen right away, but I’ll think: ‘Breathe. Breathe. Breathe.’ And only concentrate on breathing in and out for a while. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just say ‘left, right, left, right’ and just think about my feet and block out everything else. Every run isn’t going to be easy, and sometimes you won’t be able to get to that state. It’s hard. Like the book says, ‘if that’s all you get, that’s not so bad.'”
Focus on how your feet fall on the sidewalk. If you can audibly hear your footfall, work on running lighter by adjusting your foot stride. A running coach can help you more with this, but start by straightening your running posture and changing your stride length to be shorter- short, light, baby steps.
Think changing the way you run is impossible? FALSE. It’s true that it takes time and effort – conscious effort – but it’s completely possible. As Cass puts it, “the way you run when you first begin doesn’t have to be the way you run forever.”
Now, string it all together. Bring your breathing into the mix, and maintain an even, steady, in-and-out breath. At this stage in the running game, you might even be lucky enough to experience a “flow state,” or a mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity (shoutout to Wikipedia).
You know what that flow state sounds like? The famed “runner’s high.”
A quick internet search will reveal that finding a flow state is a common goal for many runners, and that elite runners especially have perfected doing what it takes to achieve that state of mind. The Guardian lists six qualities that your practice has to have in order to reach a flow state:
1. High skill – which means practice, practice, practice
2. High challenge, but achievable – don’t overreach
3. A supportive and knowledgeable network
4. Clear goals and means to measure progress, with immediate feedback
5. Intrinsic value
6. Systems that remove distractions, and for building habits and rituals
Translated into running, that means regular, consistent running; increasing your distances and paces gradually; joining the running community, whether by running with people or connecting with other runners online; clear goals to hit that you can measure your progress with; an inherent joy and love of running; and whatever rituals it takes to get you laced up and out the door.
Don’t mistake this for thinking that in order to enter the “flow state,” you have to be an elite runner hitting 7 minute mile splits with ease. Honestly, I think as long as you find intrinsic value in running consistently, you can achieve flow and a runner’s high. This article from Runner’s World also has tons of great insights on achieving flow as a runner, and this recent article from Shape covers the latest research connecting flow and runner’s high.
With these “steps,” fast will come. Like with anything else, start small and work your way to fast. Easy, light, smooth, fast.
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