There's a saying I heard once that the real art of jazz music lies in the spaces in between the notes. I always liked that and it seems to me to also be the case with running and athletics and life; it's not in the actual events, the workouts, the races, and the runs where the true difference is made. It's what we do in between when we're not directly training that determines whether we falter or succeed, whether our bodies become fraught with injury and overuse or are able to rise above those ailments and afflictions. All this touches on the importance of successfully balancing one's day to day life and one's physical training and athleticism; we must push hard to make gains but we must also know when to rest and spend time on other things. We must give ourselves and our focus to our passions, but we cannot let other areas of life suffer for it. As everyone who has tried can attest, that balance is more than a little bit difficult to achieve. Don't get discouraged at the enormity of the task; finding the perfect balance, making art in the spaces in between is a life-long pursuit. Here's a few things to consider:
There's a lot of differing opinions on stretching but, if done correctly, it is most definitely beneficial. "Correctly" means doing dynamic stretching before a workout/event and static stretching after. Dynamic stretching is exactly what it sounds like: moving a given body part to create a stretch (for example: leg swings, high knees, butt kicks, etc.) Static stretching is when you hold a stretching position for a period without moving. This is the type of stretching that most people are familiar with (for example: butterfly position, holding your foot behind you to stretch your quadriceps, leaning your torso against a wall to stretch out your calves, etc.) The reason you don't want to statically stretch before working out, and especially running, is because we need to maintain some elasticity in our muscles in order to perform well. A fully loosened, elongated muscle can't react as quickly as a slightly tighter one. We do want to fully loosen and elongate our muscles afterwards though because it creates more space in our worked muscles which increases blood flow and, in turn, increases our rate of recovery.
Mobility is seriously "in" these days and for good reason. It goes back to what I just said. Chronically overly tight muscles have compromised blood flow and simply can't and won't recover as fast as a supple one. As athletes we want our bodies to function properly, as they have evolved to do. Just looking at the basic structure of a given joint will tell you how mobile (or stabile) it should be. The knee joint, for example, due to its structure only moves in one plane, back and forth: a simple hinge. So, you probably guessed, the knee isn't supposed to be especially mobile (if it is there's probably an issue.) On the other hand, the ankle and hip and shoulder are all joints with a great potential range of movement: a ball and socket, able to rotate and move in pretty much any direction. This wasn't a mistake in design; if your ankles, hips, and/or shoulders have a limited mobility then there's something up, something not working right. How can we reach our highest potential if our mechanics are out of whack and functioning improperly? I stress the importance of this stuff to all my coaching and personal training clients. It really makes a huge difference
The current modern-day guru of mobility is Kelly Starrett, creator of MobilityWOD.com. He's an irreverent, San Francisco based, "meat-head" looking, Cross Fit guy that really knows his stuff and is irresistibly lovable and hilarious. He'll win you over and make a believer of you too. Go out and buy a foam roller, a lacrosse ball, maybe some rubber exercise bands and get into a routine with it. Kelly posts videos nearly everyday and the amount of helpful information on the site is staggering. Just 15 minutes a day will get you limbered up and ready to take your athleticism to the next level. A lot of these mobility techniques are quite painful but that's great mental training and of course, like many things, you'll feel amazing afterwards. Git 'er done!
-Body Sensing/General TLC
This really is just continuing what I was talking about above. Take time to know your body. Pay attention to the things it tells you, to what and how it makes you feel. Massage your sore muscles, rub your legs, stretch, don't disregard the messages that our bodies communicate. Our animal forms are beyond intelligent, far more "in tune" than our brains and yet we live in a culture of Western medicine that tells us not to listen and not to trust our bodies, to the point of promoting fear and mistrust of our very own flesh. Forget those people and that culture, they're clearly missing something. We need to listen closely to know what to fuel ourselves with, when and how much to rest, whether that soreness is just soreness or a developing injury. Lay around on your living room floor for hours after a run, or better yet lie on your back outside and look up at the sky, breath deeply, entwine your fingers, crack your knuckles, run your hands through your hair, lick your lips, shout, sing. Get to know your physical form intimately! I promise the better you know your body, the further you'll advance as an athlete and as an active, healthy, conscious human being.
I'm not going to go too deeply into this topic because it's incredibly complex and really is different for everyone and everybody. There's a few basic things to be said though. Try to eat well and healthily. Since this will be a little different for everyone, go ahead and make a point of experimentation. Find out what makes you feel good, bad, and just so so. Discover what foods make you feel alert and energetic and which ones make you feel lethargic and aimless and everything in between. Become your own scientist. Whole foods from good, local sources should be the bulk of your diet but there's a mental competent that must be taken into account. Indulgence is important too and "comfort" foods aren't called that for nothing. Sometimes we want to feel comforted by the food we choose to eat and that's a very important thing at times. In those cases go ahead and dive into a bowl of whatever food makes you feel giddy with pleasure. Once again it's all a balance: eat healthily for you and the planet but don't forget to treat yourself, especially if you've put in some good work and are ready for a reward. There's a lot to be said for that.
We are all pretty much in control of our lives and of the choices we make in them. Some people are fortunate enough to have more options than others but, for the most part, we're steering the ship. Choose a career that vibes with you, not one that leaves you tired and beaten down, stressed out and unhappy. That is most definitely not sustainable and is bad for you and everyone around you. Some people have highly stressful jobs but they're better suited for it and can deal with the pressures. If you're not suited for a job like that then try to find something that compliments who you are. These days though it seems like everyone is stressed, no matter what, and so we must find effective methods of relieving that stress, of escaping the ridiculous mental rigors of our insane society. Find what you love, what you're passionate about, what activities or hobbies make you feel happy and relaxed. If you don't know or aren't sure then experiment, just like with food. Try new things: reading, writing, running, swimming, singing, drawing, volunteering, playing music, and so on. Find what helps you unwind and do it…often. Your body and mind will thank you and your athletics performance will improve accordingly. There's been countless studies that the best and most successful athletes are the ones who are able to stay relaxed, even in the most high intensity situations. We all know how bad it feels in both mind and body to be really stressed and how great it feels to be really relaxed. There should be no doubt then that it can effective modes of stress relief can truly work wonders.
Sleep, it goes without saying, is the foundation of living. Without it we die, or at very least without adequate sound sleep we suffer and without question feel the negative repercussions. Just ask people who have insomnia or some amount of trouble with getting good rest; it's a nightmare, a curse. Just as everyone seems stressed these days, everyone also seems at least partially sleep deprived. Our lives are too busy! It often feels tough or impossible to change how busy we are but we must remember we can't do everything and skimping on sleep with only hurt the other aspects of our lives. Do whatever you can to find the balance, to get some more rest if you're feeling run down. You've got to recharge the batteries!
All this is like the idea that you can't properly and fully love someone else without first loving yourself. We are unable give our best selves to the world--to our families and friends and relationships, to our passions and goals--without first taking care of and having love and compassion for ourselves. Don't take on more than you can handle, don't try to be everything to everybody; we'll all lose out then. Seek the balance, strive for personal sustainability. This life can be a long haul, a marathon not a sprint, and there is grace and art to be found and cultivated in the spaces in between.
Good luck and get after it! We've got some work to do…
Willie McBride is a native of Chicago, IL but has been living in and exploring the American West since 2000. He attended the Colorado College, majoring in English with a focus on Creative Writing, solidifying his love of writing and his need for mountains. An avid hiker, climber, and trail/ultramarathon runner he now resides in NW Portland, close by the trails of Forest Park. He started a personal/group training and coaching business called Animal Athletics (AnimalAthleticsPDX.com) with fellow ultra runner Yassine Diboun in spring of 2012 and the two provide top-notch services to aspiring outdoor athletes of all abilities.