Dr. George Sheehan
Copyright The George Sheehan Trust
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Dr. Joan Ullyot and boys sample the joys of a jog.
Joan graduated from jogging to marathoning.
Our fancy often turns to dreams of past glories, to those years when our bodies did our will. The morning air, the bright sun, the green trees recall days when only darkness could end our play. We were giants -- if not in strength at least in endurance. We knew what it was like to be a good animal. And we wonder if we could ever be that way again.
The answer, of course, is yes. We can walk or jog or run our way back to those days, those joys, that level of fitness we used to know. To do this we have to know the fitness equation, the answers to the questions, How fast? How far? How often?
Few people know how fast to train. Most assume they must punish themselves to become fit. They think that becoming an athlete is hard work. That just is not so. Fitness must be fun. The rule is "train, don't strain." So the race for fitness should be comfortable and enjoyable. Effort should be the measure, not speed, and your body should tell you your proper pace, not the stopwatch.
I use the word "pace" deliberately. It is a better word than speed. Speed has to do with numbers, statistics, minutes-per-mile. Pace has to do with feelings and is not a matter of precise mathematics. It has to do with adjectives like "easy" and "rash" and "breathless" and headlong." But the adjective we are looking for is "comfortable," and we find it by asking our bodies.
This seemingly unscientific idea has a solid scientific basis in the theory of perceived exertion. Proposed by Gunnar Borg in 1960, it states that the effort perceived by the body is almost identical to that recorded by a machine. Borg discovered that body perception is, in fact, superior to any single physiological determination.
Now, you might say that you couldn't run across the room without being short of breath. Then don't. Begin by walking and then work up to scout pace (alternating 50 steps walking and 50 running). Finally, you will be able to jog continually, in comfort. You will be able to put yourself on "automatic pilot" and enjoy your thoughts and the countryside.
Listen to your body. Do not be a blind and deaf tenant. Hear what your muscles and heart and lungs are telling you. Above all, get in union with your body. Ride yourself as a jockey does a horse, finally becoming one with it.
There will come times when the sheer joy of this mysterious fusion, this wholeness will drive you to see just what you can do. But this is unnecessary, for you now have the pace. Do not push. You have found the groove. Stay in it.
Even when you have become proficient and the comfortable pace becomes faster and faster, you must still do the first 6 -10 minutes very slowly. You must allow the juices to flow, the temperature to rise, the circulation to adapt. You must give the body time to make all those marvelous, intricate adjustments that happen when you finally set yourself in motion. When you do, you will experience that warm sweat that goes with the onset of the second wind and get the feeling that you just might spend the rest of the day running.
Once you have begun this way, success is assured. There is no need to rush, no need to hurry. ("Only the sick and the ambitious," said Ortega, "are in a hurry.") Nor is there any need to worry. When you run at a comfortable pace, you are well within your physical limits. ("I have never been harmed," said Montaigne, "by anything that was a real pleasure.")
Find the comfortable pace and enjoy it. Fitness is bound to follow.
Again, we must consult the body. The jogger-runner, be it his first day or the 20th year, is concerned with minutes, not miles, time not distance. The goal is to work up to 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. The rule is to run at that comfortable pace to a point this side of fatigue.
Do not bother with distance. It is effort and time that do those good things to our bodies. This equation frees us from the tyranny of speed and distance. There is no need then, to count laps or measure miles; no need for the stopwatch and the agonized groans that go with it. Simply dial the body to comfortable and go on automatic pilot. Then continue to fatigue or 30 minutes, whichever comes first.
It is even better not to reach fatigue, but instead to come to the kitchen door or the gym still eager to do more, ready to resume on that note the next time out.
Our aim, I said, is 30 minutes. In the beginning, five minutes may be all you can handle. But quite soon - sooner, in fact, than you expect - you will be able to run continuously for 30 minutes. I have seen a 30-year-old housewife get up to 30-minute runs with one month of training and run a five-mile race within 10 weeks of buying her running shoes.
That 30 minutes is as far as we need go. It is the endpoint for fitness. That 30 minutes will get us fit and put us in the95 percentile for cardiopulmonary endurance. At 12 calories per minute, it will eventually bring our weight down to desired levels. It also will slow the pulse and drop the blood pressure. It will make us good animals.
Recently, I came upon that feeling about 35 minutes out. I had just attacked a long hill on the river road and had been reduced to a slow trot. Then it happened. The feeling of wholeness and peace and contentment came over me. I loved myself and the world and everyone in it. I had no longer to will what I was doing. The road seemed to be running me. I was in a place and time I never wanted to leave.
To achieve fitness, there is no need to do more than 30 minutes at a comfortable pace. Past that, you must proceed with caution. Fitness can change your body. But the third wind can change your life.
How often must we run this minutes at a comfortable pace? To answer the exercise physiologists give is four times a week, a figure they arrived at by testing innumerable individuals of both sexes at all ages. A four times a week schedule, they assure us, will make us fit and keep us that way.
Looked at another way, this is just two hours of exercise a week. Need it be done not more than one day apart, as it is usually prescribed? Could we do all our exercise on one day and then rest the other six? Or would it be ok to run an hour every third day and thereby satisfy the requirement?
This is not a real problem in the minimum program for fitness. Almost everyone can handle an easy 30 minutes four times a week, or one hour twice a week, or even two hours once a week. But we are not minimizers, we are maximizers, and our difficulties are with doing too much rather than too little. The runner frequently gets caught up. He finds that running must be done daily, and longer and longer. The question then becomes not how much is enough but how much is too much. The problem becomes not fitness but exhaustion.
All this occurs, it seems to me, because we seek not only physical fitness but psychological fitness as well. I need the minimum program for fitness because, like 95% of Americans, I have an occupation that isn't physical enough to make me fit. The 30 minutes four times a week is enough positive input to balance my negative physical output. It is not enough, however, to counteract the minuses in my day-to-day psychological life. To achieve a psychological balance, I need much more.
How many minutes of running do I need, then, to keep in a happy frame of mind? How many times a week must I run to have a capacity for work and the ability to enjoy life?
All to often, there comes days when I don't feel like running. Then I am not sure whether I am tired or just lazy, whether I am physically exhausted or merely bored and lacking the will-power to do what I should do.
So you see, it is your body that is the ultimate arbiter in your fitness program. The body tells you how fast. Dial to "comfortable" and run at a pace which would permit you to talk to a companion. The body tells you how long. Run just this side of fatigue. And the body tells you how often. Feel zest. Respond to the second wind. Note any changes in your morning pulse.
Follow these rules. Then somewhere between the minimum suggested and the maximum you can handle, you will find the fitness beyond muscle we all need to live the good life.