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To Run Faster, Try Slowing Down

I wish I could start this post by telling you that I recently qualified for the Boston Marathon. I didn’t. Last year I tried, though — hard. I hired a running coach and stuck religiously to the Draconian workouts she prescribed me. I got lighter shoes. I developed a serious Gatorade addiction. While ultimately neither of the two full marathons I ran this year were fast enough to get me a ticket to Heartbreak Hill, I did get faster. I drastically cut down time on my fastest miles, and broke my own record in both races.

As the author Haruki Murakami says, “"In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be."

So this is, in itself, a feat.

A large part of my record breaking speed has to do with my coach. Say what you will about your own self-determination, you’re just not going to push yourself to a nauseating pace as often without someone telling you to.

But another pivotal, if counterintuitive part of my training, was learning to regularly slow down. As is the case with many runners, cyclists, and anyone who gravitates toward heart-pounding physical activities, more passive activities like massage, meditation, and gentle yoga were rarely a priority for me. Sure, I appreciated the importance of stretching, and it always felt good, but if I only had an hour to “work out,” I was going to spend it sweating.

Then I started trying to qualify for Boston.

Running hard and fast 4 days a week — sometimes spending entire miles in a heart rate zone that I normally reserve for short sprints, meant a return to the perpetual soreness that had marked the beginning of my distance running habit. I’d been running seriously for about five years, and like a pair of old cowboy boots, my legs had become a bit broken in, used to the ride. Now, though, I was again waking up with quads and hip flexors so tight that when I wasn’t running, I was hobbling. If I was going to keep this up, I’d have to start paying serious attention to recovery.

I started attending Yin yoga classes. Yin, if you’re unfamiliar, is a more passive practice of yoga, wherein deep stretches are held for around three minutes at a time. While vinyasa flow classes offer toning for different muscle groups, Yin targets the fascia in your body, which is the tissue that encases those muscles. By their nature, Yin classes are more meditative. They are essentially the deep tissue massage of yoga classes, and they feel ridiculously good the day after an eighteen miler. (And downright sublime if you take a couple hits of your vape before class.)

For this reason, I became almost immediately hooked on stretchy classes, and made them a regular part of my routine. The more consistently I was focusing on a meditative practice, the easier it was for me to make it through the most punishing parts of my running work outs. As it turned out, the same part of my brain that allowed me to remain still in a deep hip opener for three minutes allowed me to pick up my knees and haul ass, flying past trees and laser focused on my breath for three miles.

There is evidence that meditation helps the brain with a wide array of tasks that are key to running: pain tolerance, focus, and resilience. Still, many Type-A’s who are drawn to very intensive activities might find it hard to actually make good on a promise to meditate and commit to physical recovery regularly. To them, I would relay the advise of my Yin teacher, who says that the thing you want to do the least is the thing you need to do the most.

Not only did a regular slow practice help me prevent injuries and improve as a runner, a regular meditation practice also helped keep me from being too attached to the results of my marathons. It didn’t matter how much time and sweat and dedication I put into training. I still woke up in Philadelphia the morning of the race to blistering rains and 25 mph winds that pummeled me at every step. It was like running in frozen gelatin. So finishing it with a slight personal best was a success.

Of course, it was frustrating to work so hard for so long and not qualify, but you learn, both in Yin yoga and distance running, not worry too much about how long something will take. Rather, as you do more of both, you just drop in, hang out, and speed up or hold still. I’ll make it to Boston someday.

Maybe I'll see you there if you practice slowing down to speed up. 


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