Back to Fitness: Just Chill Out

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John Andersen

Chill out and don’t take yourself too seriously. This is the best lesson I have learned as an endurance athlete, and like most lessons, it came when things weren’t going as planned.  

When I was first started distance running, I was doing it all wrong. Of course I was, I was a newbie!  Learning to let your body adjust to running or exercising for increasingly longer periods of time takes patience and a fine ear for “listening to your body.” I had neither of these. I constantly ran myself into an injury and made poor decisions, all to hit some sort of race goal that back then seemed like such a big deal to me. Looking back, those initial longer races were just stepping stones. If I could go back, I would force myself to take a year to build up for that first Charlottesville 10-Miler. But I doubt I would’ve listened to myself.

There are two moments in particular that I remember as very important on my journey from reckless newbie to “better.”  

The first was when I was recovering from a stress fracture in my foot many years ago. I was trying to ramp up my training for a race and changing my running form at the same time. I started to get significant pain on the top of my right foot. I laugh now as I picture myself sitting down at night with my throbbing foot in an ice bucket, thinking that was something normal that runners did!  (Note: if your foot is hurting and needs to be submerged in an ice bucket, you probably have a problem.) Sure enough, I had stressed my foot to the point of causing a crack in the bone. Suddenly my training was completely taken away from me as I spent a month in a walking boot.  

That boot was a tough pill to swallow. It was a daily reminder that I had failed as a runner. In the grocery store, at work, trying to mow the lawn, this dang boot was on my foot because I messed up. 

When I finally got out of it, I wanted to get back to running as soon as I could. I could walk without pain, but I knew running so soon was too risky. So, for the first time in my life, I made up a “walking plan.” I started by walking a half a mile every other day and then slowly increased to one mile, and then slowly increased to two miles. I had never walked for exercise. Admittedly, I’m probably just too hyperactive and would always rather have run or biked. But I found myself going on regular walks down the sidewalk on Jarmans Gap Road and back. At first, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Listen to music? Call my mom? But after a few weeks, I started to enjoy my walks for what they were – solid blocks of time I was spending moving outside. Once I learned to “chill out and not take myself so seriously,” I found I could focus on why I was doing what I was doing and instead of resenting my situation, I instead focused on how I was getting stronger. Those walks turned into run-walks and eventually back into runs. I remember vividly walking alone up and down Jarmans Gap Road and the huge lesson that taught me.

The second time I learned not to take myself so seriously was about six months after I had healed from the stress fracture. Like a good knucklehead, I was still trying to increase my training. New issues kept popping up. Nothing as dramatic as a broken bone, but little things in my hips, knees, and glutes. I saw a physical therapist who helped me figure out that I had some seriously tight hip flexors and that I could fix that. But I also realized, through researching and speaking with friends, that I was simply running too hard. I wasn’t allowing my body to continue to adjust to running longer distances because I was still putting too much stress on it.  So I committed to a month of “Maffetone running.”  

Phil Maffetone is a very influential person in the running community, best kn-wn for his Maffetone method of training, which is a heart rate-based training approach. His approach states that if you take 180 and subtract your age, the result is your aerobic heart rate. If you do all of your training at or below this aerobic heart rate, you will greatly improve your aerobic efficiency and become faster, all the while putting the least amount of stress on your body, muscles and joints. I committed to this training methodology for a month. If you use a heart rate monitor and you do this formula, you will see that this is a pretty difficult heart rate to stay below here in Crozet!  For example, if I did this today at the age of 42, it would be 180-42 = 138 beats per minute.  Maffetone says that if your heart rate goes over this threshold, you start walking until it comes back down. So I committed to this low heart rate training. This meant that all around Crozet I would be walking all or most of every hill that I used to run up without any major difficulties. I wanted to keep honest to the method because I had heard of many people having great results.

Thus, memorable moment number two when I learned not to take myself so seriously is when I was walking up Old Trail Drive toward the stoplight on Rt. 250. Cars drove by and the egotistical part of me thought, “Oh no, they’re gonna see me walking! Of course, I can run this if I want to!” But I stayed the course and learned not to care what other people thought and to focus on enjoying what I was doing and why I was doing it. Did it pay off? Absolutely. For the first time in years, I started running without injuries or pain and, frankly, I haven’t had any significant problems since.  

If you find yourself trying to get into better shape but keep getting set back by injuries, there may be a bunch of different causes, but don’t be afraid to ask yourself if you’d benefit from a little humility. 

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