I didn't intend to run every day. In the 10 years I've been running, I'd come to appreciate the importance of taking a couple rest days within a week so my body could restore and repair itself.
But in March, when news broke that the coronavirus had finally planted its foot on American soil, everything seemed out of control. My city issued shelter-in-place orders. My son's school closed. Walking into the grocery store felt like entering a war zone. Shoppers were loud and aggressive. Common household products went missing. Then people began firing off messages on social media: "Stay home!"
And so, I headed outdoors and I ran.
I usually run on paved paths. But I was suddenly drawn to the wooded, tamped gravel trails. I longed to be out in the open. To gasp lungsful of clean air, sweat out all this commotion, and make sense of what was happening in this world.
Albert Einstein once said, "Look deep into nature and you will understand everything better." I think he was on to something.
The Value of Rest Days
Before I knew it, I had run every day for an entire month. As it turns out, running daily is not that unusual. In fact, there's a United States Running Streak Association, part of Streak Runners International with members worldwide. To qualify, you must run at least 1 mile (1.61 kilometers) within each calendar day. Anyone can apply for membership, but no one can have their streak listed on the active or retired running streak list until they reach the one-year mark.
"You think running every day is smart?" I asked my pal Kile Putman during one of our weekly runs. He's a USA Track & Field-certified coach who trains elite athletes and Wounded Warriors, and he trained me (not an elite or a Warrior) for my last and (as yet) only Boston qualifying marathon.
"Think of your body as a machine, like an automobile," he responded, our feet pounding in rhythm on the mountain trail overlooking downtown Birmingham, Alabama. "Rest, as an off day, is maintenance for the body. Keeps you healthy and injury free so you can run longer, better."
He reminded me, too, of the training schedule he'd made for me for my last marathon. The days we did mile repeats, speedwork or long runs were followed by easy runs, also known as "active recovery." That one rest day of the week, when I didn't run at all, was strategically placed the day before the long run to prepare both my body and my mind for the many miles ahead.
But, because of COVID-19, there were no races to train for. And I wasn't running fast or far. This, Putman conceded, made my daily run routine reasonably acceptable. And though the only injuries I was prone to at that point were scraped knees and bruises from tripping over roots and rocks on the wooded, creek-side trails, he cautioned, "just listen to your body."
Know "Why" You're Running
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.
Now That's Crazy
On Jan. 29, 2017, at the age of 78, Ron Hill, a three-time Olympian and 1970 Boston Marathon champion, ended a 52-year, 39-day running streak. His is the longest known running streak in history.
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