Northeastern University

Marathon Monday for the rest of us

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Photo via Thinkstock.

Photo via Thinkstock.

4/16, 11:41am: Not 24 hours later and the contents of this post seem empty and distant.

Yesterday morning we were watching the governor place crowns on the winners’ heads; yesterday afternoon we listened to him tell us about the injuries and fatalities incurred not a mile away when two bombs exploded along Boylston Street.

Yesterday morning I was inspired by the runners to live a little healthier, to be a little more active; yesterday afternoon I realized it’s all of our duty to live as healthily as we can so that we are equipped to persevere through difficult times the same way the marathoners persevere up Heartbreak Hill.

The symbolism in this whole event is uncanny. What marathoners go through in the weeks and months leading up to a race betrays an utter dedication to their health, to their goals, even sometimes to a charitable cause. In a Wonkblog post yesterday, Washington Post columnist Ezra Klein demonstrated how the event gave new meaning to the first female Boston marathoner, Kathrine Switzer’s words: “if you’re losing faith in humanity, go out and watch a marathon.” Try to embed terror and hatred into this more-than-a-century-old tradition and the runners will only respond by running themselves a few miles more to donate blood at local hospitals. The volunteers will only respond by stepping up their efforts, by not just handing out water and blankets, but by carrying the injured to safety and placing tourniquets on wounds.

In a tweet yesterday someone I follow wrote: “on a day like today there are no democrats, no republicans, no Americans. Only humans.” I thought, why only on a day like today? Surely we can keep this spirit of togetherness and hope going long after the streets have been cleaned of paper cups and debris from the explosions. Somehow it all makes me want to start training for next year’s marathon, the 118th. Me, the girl who hitched a ride from her bio teacher instead of running three miles.

4/15, 1:45pm: “Preposterous.” That’s what one of the Boston Marathon announcers said this morning of the top ranking runners’ capacity to sustain such incredible speeds, calling female winner Rita Jeptoo’s movements “piston like.”

And it’s true. Her arms and legs seemed to followed an almost machine-like rhythm as she facilely coasted to the finish line: forward back, forward back, forward back. Likewise her legs, which are more reminiscent of bicycle spokes than the human limbs I normally encounter.

Every year I try not to pay attention to the marathon. I tell myself that the people interested in running for 26.2 miles straight must have something a little off in the old brain. But every year I can’t keep myself from being awed and inspired as I watch these runners’ strength, focus, and dedication power them along for 2, 3, 4, or 5 uninterrupted hours.

Here’s the thing: I am decidedly not a runner. When I was in high school I caught a ride from my biology teacher when I was supposed to be running a 5K for lacrosse practice (she saw me on the side of the road and thought there was something wrong with me). A few years ago I tried to become a runner by undertaking the beloved Couch-to-5K program, and it was working for a while until I sprained my ankle walking out of a restaurant. When I tried to get back into it my ankles, knees, and hips felt like they were crumbling with every footfall. I convinced myself that running was bad for the body and moved on, taking great pleasure in my daily yoga routine.

So when I asked professor Carmen Sceppa and her lab’s project manager Greg Cloutier about marathon season for the rest of us, I didn’t get what I was hoping for. They didn’t say that running puts harmful impact on the joints, but rather that “the impact of running actually improves the integrity of the joints and increases our bone density in the lower body and lumbar spine.” Long distance running affords beneficial “changes in body composition (increased muscle and decreased fat tissue) and improved cardiovascular system (more efficient heart, improved blood vessels, and lung function),” said Cloutier. And, almost like a cherry on top, training for a marathon–like any exercise–can improve one’s mental health and hedge against the stressors of life, he told me.

But what about my crumbling joints, which weren’t even thirty years old when I gave up on them? Maybe marathon running just isn’t for everybody, maybe I’m just a yogi and not a runner while others are natural runners and not yogis. “Marathon running can be for everyone who wants to make a goal and is willing to train for it,” said Cloutier. He said it’s true that some peoples’ bodies are more naturally suited for running: for example they might have more of the muscle fibers good for aerobic activity, or good joints, or naturally good mechanics of running. But that doesn’t mean those of us with chronic hip clicking (people can tell I’m walking down the hall just from the sound of my hips), should throw in the towel. “It would pay off to get your gait and running analyzed by a professional to see what you may do to correct any weaknesses or issues,” said Cloutier.

But what if I’m just not that interested in long distance running? I want to be more active and the marathon inspires me to get there, but I only have a few hours a day to spare. Exercise, no matter what kind, stands to improve one’s health, said Cloutier.  If we’re really too busy to spare the time, we can try incorporating it into our daily routine. This could be as simple as parking a little farther away at the grocery store or as drastic as riding a bike to work. We could climb the stairs at every opportunity or keep exercise bands in our offices to use during conference calls. We could get standing desks or stationary bikes to do our work at. The opportunities are endless, actually. It’s just a matter of making active choices over sedentary ones.

The moral of this story is that you don’t have to be a marathoner to be healthy, but being a marathoner isn’t inherently unhealthy as I wanted to believe. The Northeastern human resources office is currently running a program with Virgin Health Miles wherein signing up gets you a free pedometer to track your steps. The more steps we take, the more rewards we stand to get, like Visa gift cards and what have you. This week, in honor of the marathon, we’re being encouraged to walk a marathon over five days. I can handle that! It’s a much more approachable goal than running 26.2 miles in one shot.

Cloutier agreed that taking small steps like this is the best way to start and stick to an exercise program. If you haven’t been training for it, you can’t expect yourself to run a marathon. Here’s Cloutier’s recipe for success:

One important way to help people stick to a routine is to use the SMART principal (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time line).

  • Pick and be specific on your goals
  • How will you measure what you have done (weight, body composition, speed, distance, wellness feeling) a journal, workout log, or calendar can be helpful
  • Can you attain your goal (i.e., I will never win the Boston Marathon, but I could finish)
  • Is this goal realistic for me in the time that I have and my busy life that I have
  • Set a date that I need to be at my goal, but I could make smaller dates and time as short term goals before reaching the end date. (e.g., training for the Boston Marathon months ahead with mileage short term goals, but Marathon day I need to be ready to run 26.2 miles…Not the following week because I am not ready).

Also, do something that you like to do and incorporate your family, friends and coworkers as moral support. With this support in mind, it is always helpful to have an exercise partner, one that you feel obligated to and they feel the same toward you.

Finally, start slow and give yourself periodic rewards for your efforts when you attain your goals…as long as the rewards are not sabotaging your goals.

I guess it’s time for me to get back on the Couch-to-5K plan.

PS. Congratulations to all the marathoners at Northeastern. I really am in awe of and inspired by you!


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