Words of occasional wisdom from Bruce Oakley

Archive for April, 2011

On balance

Posted by boakley59 on April 20, 2011

Beep. It begins with B and that stands for Balance. As we said last time, that starts with the feet and proper shoes. Now that we have our feet on the ground, so to speak, let’s talk some more about this notion of balance.

Balance is an attribute, the kind of grace that allows a circus performer to walk a tightrope or a gymnast to cavort on a four-inch beam. Balance is also an action, an equalizing of weights and burdens, physical or philosophical. You balance the scales, your workload, your time with friends and family.

We are built for balance while running. Our arms and legs, muscles and tendons work together to keep us moving forward over uncertain terrain and in various postures as obstacles arise. But distance runners must also balance this natural ability with effort and conditioning, because we lose grace as we tire and we suffer breakdown or injury in a variety of ways.

So, we carefully construct training plans to teach ourselves to endure running far or fast, sometimes far and fast. These plans themselves require a balance of distance training and speed training, hills and tracks, rest and exertion. They also must balance the desire to improve against our current capabilities. You may want to run five miles, but if you’ve not yet run a quarter mile, you must build up to the target over the course of weeks.

Every training plan also includes warm-up, cool-down and stretching before and after. This balances muscle building with muscle readiness, making muscles supple as well as strong.

All of the BEEPing elements — Balance, Efficiency, Effort, Patience — are in constant interplay, in such balance that they become indistinguishable as the fabric of fitness. Effort and Patience are in balance when you build slowly from a quarter mile to five miles over the course of weeks. Efficiency for a runner means Balance is evident: Stride is compact without wobble or flailing, posture is upright, head is steady.

For some of us, it’s much easier to improve by thinking of balance rather than speed, time or comfort. If we focus on lap times, a high number disappoints. If we focus on muscle pain or difficulty breathing, panic may shut us down. Fear and doubt upset our balance, and we will run less efficiently, which will feed our fear and doubt, which will … You get the idea.

A mechanical rule of thumb: What one part does, others must balance. For our purposes, we’ll say, “What your arms do, your legs must follow.”

This is one way to control your effort on hills. Think of your arms, not your legs. Running uphill, you bring your arms in tight and pump hard in a compact motion. You keep your elbows close to your body, moving them very little, and you don’t reach out forward with your arms. Most of the motion is concentrated up and down. This forces your strides to be mostly short with higher knee lifts, meaning your powerful thigh muscles are doing the hill work. This is the efficient way to power up a hill. (For those of you who think better on your feet — rather than on your arms, if you catch my drift — shorten your stride and drive with your thighs. Your arms will tuck in and pump to match.) It also helps to lean into the hill because this keeps your motion tight, stopping you from reaching too far forward and making stretchy tendons and ligaments do what muscles should.

Going downhill follows the same principle with the opposite application. You let your arms flap freely in a windmill motion reaching forward, which lengthens your stride and makes gravity do most of the work for you. You’ll want to be careful to maintain your balance so as not to go flat on your face at downhill speed! (For those who think of your legs first, extend your stride and your arms will flail in sync.)

Another rule of thumb: Build weekly mileage by no more than 5%-7%. If you’re running 10 miles a week, you can add half a mile to your total each week the next five weeks. When you get to 15 miles a week, you can add one mile a week, and so on. You can do this by adding a little bit to each workout, or you may wish to consider just adding the whole distance to your otherwise easiest day. Again, we’re talking about balancing the effort to increase endurance with the tendency to break down under stress. We’re avoiding overuse. If you add the distance by chopping it up a little each day, you spread the impact of the change so it’s small on any given day. If you add it whole to your easiest day, you are building that into a harder day and balancing your overall weekly effort.

On balance, I think that’s enough for today. Oh, and don’t forget a balanced diet.

Feel free to ask questions, demand fuller explanations or suggest topics.

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Best foot forward

Posted by boakley59 on April 9, 2011

Beep. Balance. Efficiency. Effort. Patience.

Beep — it starts with balance, and for a runner, that means the right shoe.

Linda Starr, director of the Women Run Arkansas clinics and owner of The Sporty Runner in Conway, addressed the Batesville group Thursday evening, April 7, showing plastic models of feet with different arch types and discussed the appropriate footwear for each type.

For those who didn’t see the plastic models up close or haven’t learned elsewhere how to determine your arch type and best shoe choice, here’s a quick summary. Your foot, depending on your arch type, will land flat or it will roll to the inside or outside. The roll is called pronation. Runners with high arches underpronate (also called supinate); runners with low arches (flat feet) overpronate. This affects wear on your shoes and can lead to injuries. So you want shoes that correct your tendencies and induce neutral motion.

The diagram sums it up. Your footprint will match one of the types below more closely, and you should get the type of shoes suited to your arch.

Arches/shoe typesA specialty running store will have sales staff to assess your feet and put you in the right shoe. The chain athletic shoe stores more and more have pressure plates that will measure your motion as you walk, but you will want to do your homework if you’re not going to have that live expert you’d find in the specialty store.

Running shoes are meant to be ready to wear walking out of the store — no breaking in. If anything is the least bit off or uncomfortable in a few seconds walking in the showroom, consider how that will feel after 15-45 minutes of continued rubbing when you’re sweaty and stressed! Get new shoes after 500 miles — that’s about six months at 20 miles a week. The soles may not be worn out by then, but the gel/air/cushioning material will have been pounded into uselessness.

Fuller discussion of the topic is readily available on the Internet. A few good pages that I have recently visited are: — This is an excellent page with clear definitions, helpful diagrams and straightforward clinical explanations, with additional tips on shoe care and proper lacing techniques. (Yes, even the way you lace your shoes makes a difference when you’re running miles and miles!) — Most of the major shoemakers offer similar pages that tell you how to pick the shoe suited to your foot, with selection tools to point you to those models in their inventory. Other brands include Nike, Saucony, New Balance (more products with additional widths than some others offer), Brooks, Mizuno.,7120,s6-240-319–4615-0,00.html — The page helps you determine your shoe type and links to its shoe finder covering all the major brands. The magazine also presents a yearly buying guide with reviews of new shoe models, and the site is a great place for a broad range of articles and information on all things running, categorized for easy navigation and research. also covers foot type and shoe selection. The Women Run Arkansas website notes that The Sporty Runner in Conway and Gearhead Outfitters in Jonesboro offer WRA club members a 10 percent discount. The right shoe can even reduce the pain in your pocketbook and make it easier to balance your checkbook!

Balance — that comes first. Beep.

Feel free to ask questions, demand fuller explanations or suggest topics.

Posted in Health, Running | 3 Comments »

First steps

Posted by boakley59 on April 7, 2011

Beep beep. Roadrunner.

That’s me, or at least it was once upon a time. Crohn’s has taken most of that capacity away from me, but in the last several months I have been able to make a vicarious return to my glory days by helping less experienced runners enjoy fleeter feet.

Now Suzy has joined the Women Run Arkansas series and I have tagged along, offering advice and encouragement to eager beginners looking for any tips on making running easier, less painful and even fun. Suzy has “Gone Public” with her own effort to lose weight and improve fitness, committing to daily posting on her journey, so I am committing to a series of my own focusing on running for fitness.

Back to the Roadrunner: Beep beep!

If you’re going to do a lot of running, for fitness or competition, you want to find playful joy in doing it. I know — if you’re just starting and trying to drop 50 pounds, it’s miserable: You’re sweaty, sore and struggling. Hard to imagine where the fun could be. But you have more control over your attitude than over most any other aspect of the equation. You can’t be taller, you can’t be 20 pounds lighter in a snap, you can’t bench press 400 pounds on a whim. But you can look at the blue sky and smile and say, “This is a good day.” You can be sweaty, huffing and puffing, and still realize, “Yesterday, I couldn’t go this far this fast, and tomorrow I’ll do better still.”

We’ll talk more about training yourself to be positive, but if you’re a beginner, latch onto something that pleases you: Being out in nature, a song you can listen to or sing in your head as you go, thoughts of a sleeker, faster you — anything that will balance the toll that unfamiliar effort takes on your body and willpower.

Beep beep. If the gloom catches you, you’re through.

I mentioned balance, and that’s the “B” in “Beep” — the first principle for easy running. Your body works in balance. One of the earliest lessons from my racing days in high school is to drive your arms to go faster up a hill. What your arms do, your legs must follow to balance. Pump your arms and your legs must move faster. If your arms flap from side to side, your legs will wobble in counterbalance. If you want to run efficiently, tuck your arms in and do compact movements, and your legs will move in short, powerful steps.

Efficiency is the first “E” in “Beep,” the target of all your mechanics and planning. As I said, tuck in and go straight, with small but powerful movements. Don’t waste effort in big motion or in making tendons and ligaments do muscle jobs. Learn to breathe well, not frantically or shallowly.

Effort is “E2” in “Beep,” because the goal is for running to become easy and fluid. Even though running is natural in a body made for balance, once we leave childhood we learn bad habits that only patient effort can overcome. We also tend to become soft with inactivity, and we need to work to be strong and efficient. We even have to relearn to breathe well, especially as we pile on stress.

Patience is that last character in “Beep,” since all of this rediscovery of childhood joy and natural efficiency takes time. The principles are simple, the movements are natural, but the years have been unkind to us. We have gained weight, lost muscle tone and lung capacity, stopped eating or sleeping well and made a mountain of work for ourselves to regain fitness.

If you’ll be patient and stick with me, we’ll step out together on the road to health and happiness.

Beep beep.

Posted in Health, Running, Sports | 1 Comment »