I ended up taking off a day not long after that chat. My body felt like it needed some "maintenance." But the next day, I headed back out, and this time I didn't stop. Not at day 50, or day 75 or even day 100. Not even the threat of COVID-19, which by now was completely trampling the U.S., could sideline me.
I had good reason not to worry. According to a 2014 study published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, just five to 10 minutes of low-intensity running every day can extend your life by several years compared to not running at all. But another study in 2013, published in the same journal, ups the total hours of running each week to 2.5 in order to reap the full benefits. I was exceeding that by at least an hour.
To be sure, I asked Dr. Sophia Lal if my running every day was smart. She's a nonsurgical sports medicine physician in Birmingham, and a longtime triathlete. She was hesitant to flat-out disapprove, but did say she didn't advocate it. The body needs a break, she says.
"You can think of recovery from running the same way (as weight training)," she says. "If you run every day, you don't give the body time to recover, including the muscles you use while running." Like weight training, the impact of running causes tiny tears in your muscles. A day off allows your muscles to repair themselves, and allows your body to adapt to your training.
Sure, there are people who run every day and don't get injured, Lal says. But many who do overtrain end up in her office with plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, sprains and strains.
But what about those people who run daily without injury? "Well, it's part genetics, part taking care of your body, and also running tall and light," she says. Running tall means activating your core so your chest is upright and you're not slouching over. Running light means your foot strikes shouldn't be heavy and noisy. (Putman says, "Like a cat walking on carpet.")
For people who must do something every day, Lal strongly encourages cross-training. She also especially likes trail running because "every single step is different. You're building ankle strength negotiating the terrain."
Finally, you can run with sore muscles, but don't run through pain. "Some injuries can ground you for a long time," she says. "And you don't want that added into the (training) equation."
I had surpassed my 100th day running when I hooked back up with Putman on the trail. COVID-19 was getting worse, not better, but society was cautiously opening back up. I asked him if I was crazy to keep running every single day?
"Depends," he says. "You have to ask yourself why you lace up your shoes and head outside in the first place." That's when he told me about one of his athletes, a guy with PTSD who runs daily to keep quiet the demons in his head. "Is it psychological stress? Addiction? Obsession? Maybe competitive training? Or are you running from something?"
I started my running streak to make sense of the pandemic. Sometime in August, I hit my 115th consecutive day. I'd experienced a lot of nature in that time — newly hatched copperheads skimming the creek's surface and osprey fishing at sundown. I ran dangerously close to a huge napping alligator and happened upon a group of dolphins "muddling" in the salt marshes at low tide.
Then one day, I felt a catch in my right knee. Nothing I couldn't run through, but something I realized I shouldn't. I unlaced the running shoes and decided to take a much-needed break. Maybe, as Einstein had said, I'd gained enough understanding from nature to know, despite its monumental challenges, life manages to go on.