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Three great lessons exercise has to teach about life

Sydney Morning Herald logoSydney Morning Herald 8/11/2019 Sarah Berry

Every time I step out in my mismatching socks, my uncoordinated workout gear and my daggy but comfortable trainers I remind myself of the athleisure illusion.

a person walking down the street: You against you: to run is to reveal. © Getty You against you: to run is to reveal. Namely that the right clothes can make us look professional and confident (and momentarily make us feel more professional and confident – “enclothed cognition”), but can also just be a form of overcompensation: you know, all the gear and no idea.

On the other hand, the person in the random get-up may well be the one to show you up – like Cliff Young, the 61-year-old Victorian potato farmer who, in 1983 wearing overalls and boots, was nearly laughed off the road before he won the inaugural Sydney to Melbourne ultramarathon.

Like life, running is often sweaty and smelly, and it can make you want to cry. It can make us feel frumpy; inadequate if we think we don’t “look” like a runner or have the fancy accessories or it can make us feel fit; like liquid mercury, all quicksilver, fluid form and danger.

In fact, running (or insert your exercise of choice here) is a good metaphor for life on many levels and there are life lessons to be learned from the humble jog. Here are three.

There is no one right way to do it

Despite the plethora of people who will tell you there is a single way to do it (life or running), there is not.

Kipchoge, for instance, is a midfoot runner whereas the majority of Olympic male marathon runners have a heel strike (67 per cent versus 30 per cent midfoot and 3 per cent forefoot). Usain Bolt, on the other hand, has a forefoot strike, like most elite sprinters.

And despite being the world’s fastest man, Bolt does not have a flawless, perfect-precision technique.

In fact, it’s what you might call remarkably imperfect: His right leg hits the track with about 13 per cent more force than his left leg. And his left leg lags on the ground about 14 per cent longer than his right.

Should he try and fix it? Nope.

“Correcting his asymmetry would not speed him up and might even slow him down,” researcher Peter Weyand told the New York Times.

He’s not the only winner with a unique style. World champion in the women’s 10,000 metres, Almaz Ayana has a difference of up to 20cm between the length of her right and left strides.

And even among those with a specific “style”, it’s not necessarily fixed. Our form can change depending on the conditions and our level of fatigue. Long story short, we can’t generalise or be reductive about the best way to do it (running or life) and the way we do it is often fluid. Perfect precision is a myth and does not determine success.

It’s never too late to change

A mate from school, who was never a “sporty type”, took up running last year and has already participated in two half marathons and a 10km fun run. She got the bug at the ripe old age of 38.

And speaking of the ripe old age of 38, having had the running bug my whole life, this year I changed up my running style for the first time in preparation for the Melbourne Marathon Festival.

After speaking with different coaches, who –surprise, surprise had different suggestions about style – I took the advice of City2Surf winner, Harry Summers’ former coach, Jimmy Owens.

He suggested trying a heel strike and relaxing my arms and shoulders down for maximum efficiency and minimum effort. It was a tweak from the forefoot style that had served me well sprinting and in the high jump but made anything more than 1500 metres a struggle. Suddenly 10km felt like a breeze.

It’s not just the hoi polloi shaking things up.

Already the most successful British track athlete in modern Olympic history, Mo Farah changed his training regime and running technique as a 28-year-old ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

He changed his foot strike, banished his “tendency towards bobbing arms” and he adopted “radical training methods” like underwater treadmills and cryogenic chambers.

After failing to qualify for the 5000m at the 2008 Olympics, Farah made the comeback of a lifetime, winning gold in both the 5000 and 10000 in 2012, and then again in 2016.

Biomechanics experts forensically examined his technique (in much the same way we audit the lives of the world’s most successful people looking for the “key”) and found that while we can certainly glean insights, we shouldn’t adopt what others do blindly; making changes in running, like life, should be done intuitively, with attention on how it feels, as our individual paths to “success” are likely to look and feel very different.

As Dr Jessica Leitch, founder of Run 3D and a visiting fellow at the department of engineering science at the University of OxfordDr Leitch told the Telegraph, London of Farah’s technique: “There is no right way to run, neither is there a one size fits all solution for optimal running gait. What works for Mo might not work for everyone and may even lead to injury.”

Challenge is essential, but always expect curveballs

It is our daily habits that eventually result in breakthrough moments, but goals are great for shaking up our routine and extracting a little more juice from life.

The highlight of agreeing to participate in the Melbourne Marathon Festival, earlier this month, was the discipline it instilled, finding time to train when you think there is none, and seeing results; both in confidence, in strength, and in capability.

Of course, the best-laid plans often go awry and we roll our ankle or have a peskily-timed pregnancy, but it feels good to have a focus.

To train is both an act of escape and an act of engagement and to run is to reveal.

And regardless of whether we are objectively successful (in life or running), we can always reveal an improved version of ourselves, precision not necessary.

As Japanese author Haruki Murakami puts it in his memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running:

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself.

At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level.

“I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday.”

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