Yeah, I’m quoting Flock of Seagulls. Sorry.
Anyway, while I was never into the 1980s British New Wave, (man oh, man, was I NOT into New Wave) the title of their biggest hit gives me a nice intro to today’s topic. Running.
Once upon a time I was a runner. 30 years and 40 pounds ago I would think nothing of doing 5 miles in 27 minutes. For those of you having trouble with the math, that’s a 5:20 to 5:30 mile pace. Not bad for a guy with no training, who just liked to run.
Thing is, if you want to maintain that kind of pace, you need to be lean. But, if you want to be a competitive martial artist, you’re going to have to hit the weight room and put on some bulk.
So, when you put on that muscle mass, but keep running at the same pace (because ego), while also doing serious fight training, you’re going to put some serious stress on your joints, particularly your hips, ankles, and above all else, your knees.
Which brings us to the great tragedy of middle age, the time between cause and effect. Some years after I ran so much and so hard, on knees I trashed in karate class (that would be the cause) I began to have serious knee pain (that would be the effect). It got so bad that I worried I’d have to give up hockey, because the hours after a game were, to put it mildly, uncomfortable. But I didn’t want to give up hockey, so I gave up running.
By great good fortune, and pure dumb luck (stop me if you’ve heard this before), I fell into a regular Bikram Yoga practice. One of the things I learned about yoga was that, on a 3’ by 6’ mat, you get a complete workout; stretching, resistance training and aerobics. Yes, you read that right, Yoga is an aerobic workout (leastwise Bikram Yoga is an aerobic workout). For a time I tracked my heartrate, and during class I would go from a resting rate of 60 beats per minute to over 160 bpm, and occasionally 170 bpm.
Now, those numbers aren’t as high as “pure” aerobic exercise, but I was still playing hockey, where my heartrate occasionally got into the 190s, so between the two, I was getting my aerobics. And I was doing it without trashing my hips, ankles, and above all, my knees. Even better (while I didn’t know it), far from hurting my knees, my yoga practice was, in fact, healing them.
During the Bikram class, there will be talk of how this posture or that cuts off circulation to the knees, and when the posture is released, “Fresh, oxygenated blood rushes back into them, cleaning the joints like a power washer.”
Yes, I may have heard that phrase a few times down the years.
Anyway, you hear a lot of things in yoga like, “this posture is good for opening the hips,” or “that posture is good for the kidneys,” or “the other posture is good for the reproductive organs,” or blah, blah, blah. Most of it bounced off my engineer’s cranium unheard and/or unheeded.
But it turns out this one is true. There is now some research out there showing that temporarily cutting off circulation to the cartilages engages a healing mechanism. So, “fresh oxygenated blood power washer” or not, Yoga helps your body heal, even the tough stuff like buggered up knees.
Of course, it didn’t hurt that I also quit running for 10 years.
You ever hear that old Groucho Marx joke?
“Doctor, it hurts when I do that.”
“Then don’t do that.”
It applies here.
I’ve written about giving up all lumbar flexion for almost 2 years, while learning healthy core exercises, as part of the process of healing my back. Well, I gave up running for almost a decade, a decade in which my main exercise specifically targets the knees for healing. And so we come to August.
Last summer I took a yoga sabbatical. No, I didn’t go away and do nothing but yoga for the summer (c’mone, I’ve got three kids and a job), I did the opposite, I did no yoga at all for 3 months. I was burned out, to the point that going to class had become a chore. I love yoga, so having it become a chore was a BAD THING, hence the time off.
Fast forward to this summer. And, “Oops…I did it again.” Gah, now I’m quoting Britney Spears. This is not good.
Anyway, I took the summer off yoga, played with my boys, and spent a lot of time paddling. But around the beginning of August I was feeling out of shape. I can paddle a lot harder now, but it doesn’t raise my heartrate to the levels I want. I needed a harder aerobic workout, and my bike is off the road at the moment. So I decided to risk it.
My wife (bless her) had bought me a couple of pairs of runners at a going out of business sale. Turns out one of the pairs is absolutely first rate, and there’s a high school a few minutes away with a good, rubberized track. I risked going for a run.
Now, over the last 30 years I’ve gained a few things, aside from the 40 pounds (and in my defense, they’re mostly muscle, I still wear 32” waist pants). One of the more valuable is the ability to “accept the things I cannot change.” As you age, you slow down. As you age, you learn to keep your ego in check.
So, as I was approaching the track, I said to myself, “Self, you’re not going to run 5 miles, and you’re not going to run as if you’re still 20.” And I didn’t.
My stride felt wrong. My wind wasn’t there. My back and leg joints were, umm, expressing their displeasure. And I only ran 1 mile. But…I ran.
“And I ran, I ran so far away…” and I went out regularly, adding ¼ mile each time, topping out at 2 miles. And over the month I noticed
- I was in better shape than I thought, my wind never gave out
- each successive run was a little easier for both my lungs and my legs
- each recovery was a little quicker, both the immediate recovery of my wind, and the longer recovery of my muscles
- my back and joints hurt a little less each time during the run, and
- my knees hurt a little less the next day after each run.
So here we are, September has begun, my return to yoga looms and I’m really looking forward to it. But I have a new problem; I’m enjoying running again. Then again, stacked against the benefits, and lessons learned, it’s a minor problem.