An alternate way around Lehigh University's cross-country course (left) and an early morning selfie in front of the iconic course markers (right).
The best thing I've done for my running lately was to not run. Sounds heretical, but for the past few months, rather than running four or five days a week, I swam two days and went cross-country skiing another two or three. If I ran at all, it was once a week, a few easy miles. The reasons were mostly practical: I have a big triathlon goal this year, and I want to improve my weakest link, getting faster and more comfortable in the water. And here in Pennsylvania, snowstorms and sub-freezing "highs" hit us day after day. I grew up in Michigan, where these conditions are known as "winter," and we charged into it with skis, sleds, and skates, thumbing our noses at the season while reaping its rewards. So as the snow kept falling here into March, I kept skiing.
But after a while, I began to feel a vague, low-grade longing. When I started to run again, what had been lacking snapped into view. Here's what I missed most, am happiest to get back, and believe running delivers better than anything else:
Sure, skiing is a workout, and afterward I had to hang my base layer up to dry. But there's no substitute for the cathartic sweat a good run froths up. Floodgates open and stress melts. You feel clean, spent, invigorated. (Yes, you sweat when you swim, but it's like singing along at a heavy-metal concert. Something comes out but you barely notice.)
The Calorie Burn
Nothing gets the oven hotter than running. One reason I run at all is so I can eat freely. But I kept doing just that when I began running less. This non-diet -- three squares a day, plus snacks and dessert, at least two coffees, and a beer or glass of wine (or two) with dinner -- has earned me five pounds and acquainted me with an unfamiliar notch on my belt. This is not my best self -- my running self.
Town loop, a four-miler near our office, normally takes me 32 or 33 minutes. On my first run back, it took almost 40. And I was pushing it! I'm 47, and the cold calculus of fitness is clear: It takes more time to gain and less time to lose. Running consistently is the best way to oil a key cog in my health and well-being.
Few things feel more solitary than swimming. Head down, goggles fogged, senses blunted. And cross-country skiing doesn't exactly appeal to the masses (or to my kids). So I was spending all my exercise time alone. Now I spend more of it with family, friends, and colleagues, and I'm reminded that running conversations are often the truest, funniest, deepest interactions I have all day.
You go somewhere else to swim or ski, usually by car. I love the simplicity of running right out the door, and how entering the landscape changes the places I spend nearly all my time. If I drive to work and spend eight or nine hours at my desk and in meetings, then just drive home again, the day owns me. If I do all that but get in a run, I own the day.
As much as I missed those things, running is adaptable. You can put it aside, do something else, and then return to apply what you've learned. Here are some things I brought back to my running that have improved it:
I've been trying for years to improve mine -- to lower my shoulders, center my hips, open my stride. Progress has been incremental, if not infinitesimal. But all my time in the water and on the snow has improved my posture and proprioception. Where are my hips? Are my glutes firing, generating energy behind me? Because swimming and skiing are both about lengthening, and getting stronger and more fluid at your periphery, they have helped me run taller and easier.
A Sense of Flow
Here's something else swimming and skiing (both non-impact sports) share: a glide phase, those sublime few beats when you're not doing anything, just riding your exertion through the water or over the snow. Running has no glide phase, but rather a swing phase, where you drive one leg forward while pushing off the ground with the other foot. It's a choppier sensation. But I've internalized that sense of flow and am covering ground more smoothly. It helps that I've also adopted parts of Meb Keflezighi's postrun routine, detailed in our May issue and in his new book, Meb for Mortals.
A Rested, Resilient, Cross-Trained Body
What with all that kicking, reaching, and pulling, my hips, glutes, and upper-back muscles -- ignored by many runners -- are stronger than ever. Had I trained all winter for a spring marathon, I believe my various woes (left hamstring, right hip flexor...) would've gotten worse. Instead, they've gone away.
I'm back up to three or four runs a week now, 20 miles total, and a sharpness has replaced that vague longing, as though every loose screw has been tightened down. This is why, for me, running is far more than a workout. It's a method for living, a daily dose of positive change. Nothing else permeates the rest of my day -- making everything in it just a little better -- the way running does.
I hope this reminds you of what you love about running and inspires you to find your own best way forward, even if that means taking a step back. With a return comes renewal.
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David Willey is the editor-in-chief of Runner's World. Follow him on Twitter @dwilleyRW.