Marathon Monday for the rest of us

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!