How I became a runner

I didn’t start running consistently until a few years ago. I used to absolutely despise running. Now it’s fun and meditative. Here’s how I got there.

Part I — Overcoming debilitating back pain

Before I could enjoy running as exercise, I had to learn how to not hate it.

For 20+ years of competitive basketball, my coaches used running as a form of punishment. Miss a free throw, run. Forget a play, run. Complain about all the running, run even more. I associated running with angry authority figures inflicting harm on me.

I also started having back spasms when I stopped playing basketball for a living. I was prescribed muscle relaxers, which treated the symptoms but did no prevent the spasms. I didn’t run, outside of playing basketball for fun sometimes, for probably 2 years.

Then one day it was really nice outside, I wanted to exercise, and I didn’t want to go to the gym. I decided to go for run and see what happened.

I went maybe half a mile before my back started hurting and I stopped. I figured that was a wrap on my running career.

But then I came across a book called “Healing Back Pain: The Mind Body Connection” by Dr. John Sarno.

Here’s a very quick summary of the book: Dr. Sarno says that body pain without an obvious cause is psychosomatic. It’s all in your head. The physical symptoms are real, but the cause is mental.

Dr. Sarno’s theory is that a lot of pain is caused by unresolved issues in your psyche. If you accept that, and tell yourself that there is no reason you should be in pain, the pain will dissipate. 

Importantly, you don’t need to actually resolve your psychic trauma for this method to work. You just have to be like, “Well, shit, there’s nothing structurally wrong with me. I guess I shouldn’t be in pain.”

He talks about how almost everyone with recurring pain can point back to an inciting incident that is the cause of their suffering.

They’ll be like, “I tweaked my ankle in 9th grade and that caused an imbalance and my right hip has hurt ever since.” I totally used to do that. Dr. Sarno is having none of it.

Nutrition expert and obesity researcher I really like, Stephan Guyenet, puts Sarno’s stance well in his review of “Mind Over Back Pain”:

There is not much evidence that garden-variety pain in the back, neck, and buttocks is related to structural features of the body, or that typical treatments offer anything better than a placebo effect.  The idea that our pain is caused by structural features is an assumption we make because it seems logical (i.e., we feel pain when we injure ourselves, therefore back pain must be due to some sort of injury).  This assumption is not supported by the evidence.

I am not kidding when I say that I read “Mind Over Back Pain” and my pain and spasms went away. For good. I haven’t had one since. The mind is a powerful drug. I felt like the great Larry David, who, upon realizing his arm pain was psychological, said, “it was the closest thing I’ve ever had to a religious experience. And I wept.”

Larry, after having his mind blown by Sarno’s teachings.

I started running soon after my spasms stopped and my back felt great. I then realized that if I can run without my knees or back being in pain, I actually like it. I love being outside, I love working out. So, boom. I guess I like running. What a revelation.

Part II — Overcoming neuroticism

I used to overthink my stride length and stress out about which part of my foot was hitting the ground when. I used to put a lot of weight in trying to run on the balls of my feet. Now I just run. I think my tendency is to mostly be on the balls of my feet, but if not, oh well. I’m not trying to run marathons. Having a heel strike now and then on a 3 mile run is not going to kill me.

It also helped when I got very into the mindset of an overweight, depressed pest control worker turned Navy SEAL turned ultramarathoner turned best selling author David Goggins.

He’s a big fan of getting your ass out the door and running, not a huge fan of worrying about whether every aspect of your approach to running is perfect. His style speaks to me. He’s a savage. He likes to post slightly unhinged instagram videos of him on long runs screaming at his audience to be like his dog, who eats it’s food extremely fast because it is used to having to compete against 20 other puppies in order to eat. I love it. Go read his book if you ever need motivation.

I also used to treat every run like I was trying to break a record, but now I don’t. I found I was ending a lot of runs at the absolute bring of my physical limit. That meant feeling like I could collapse on my lawn in a pool of bodily fluids of all kinds. The neighbors would think I’d been poisoned. While I’m all for pushing the limits, running has felt more sustainable since I’ve dialed it back a bit. (Don’t tell Goggins.)

I recently started incorporating my dogs, which adds challenges but also keeps it interesting. Will they notice a squirrel and yank me off course, building my balance and core strength? Will they do a flying head first leap into a heap of snow as a desperate attempt to get me to stop so they can take a dump? Will they randomly pull like they are huskies in the Iditarod if a particularly intriguing car drives by, giving me a much needed boost? Yes.

Gotta get some tug of war in on the days it’s too cold to run.

Part III — Finding the right footwear

When I first started running, I was obsessed with wearing minimalist shoes. I had read “Born to Run” and decided wearing normal running shoes would throw off my gait. I powered through a lot of runs in what basically amounted to my bare feet before finally deciding that maybe someone built more like a running back than a south American marathoner would be better off in different footwear.

I still like those shoes, just not for running. I found my body feels so much better when I wear more traditional, thicker running shoes.

But that doesn’t mean I drop $150 on the fanciest Nikes. (Though I can’t say I’m not tempted.) I like these ones from New Balance, which I get for around $40 whenever there’s a sale.

From non-runner to 15 miles a week

I am not a star runner. I like 3-4 mile jogs. And I’m sure my form could be improved. But getting out and doing a run at all is huge for me.

When I am pushing myself and things get tough, I sometimes focus on my foot strikes and think, “That used to hurt and now it doesn’t, that used to hurt and now it doesn’t, that one would have hurt too, isn’t this amazing?”

It is.

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