The marathon season has started and there is a buzz in metro running circles. One after the other, each metro will have its own city runs and each run will be surrounded by the usual hype, with these races being promoted as great “health and wellness" events.

At the risk of sounding like a wet blanket, long-distance slow running or jogging cannot be termed a fitness pursuit. It can be stressful for the heart and the connective tissues and promote storage of body fat. Don’t get me wrong. I am a big fan of running and have spent half my life teaching enthusiasts to run. In fact, I agree with Daniel Lieberman, the professor of biological anthropology at Harvard University, US, who said, “If there’s a magic bullet to make humans healthy, it’s to run." I subscribe to the view that man’s basic fitness needs are best met by running. But, for me, running is linked to speed, and it is about pushing anaerobic threshold levels. It is not about trudging along at a slow and easy pace forever and ever.

And that is why running is not for everybody. However, everybody can be taught to run. It’s a specialized activity—an extension of human gait carried on at a speed that covers at least a kilometre in about 4 minutes. Any movement at a speed less than that cannot and must not be described as running. Call it dawdling, jogging, whatever you want; but not running!

A primal pattern

To grasp this, you will have to first appreciate and understand early man’s need to run. It would have primarily been to hunt prey and escape from predators and other natural dangers, such as a forest fire or an active volcano. This needed really quick, sharp movement patterns. There seems to be no real reason why man would need to jog (a gentle and slow repetitive form of running). In fact, in the animal kingdom, I cannot think of one animal that would survive if it chose to jog instead of run.

Jim Fixx, a popular fitness guru of the 1970s, claimed that the secret to a long and healthy life was long and slow endurance running. The ultimate irony was that Fixx died of a heart attack in his 50s, while running. The term Jim Fixx phenomenon was later coined to describe symptoms of heart and lung problems in young marathoners.

Far from being healthy, slow long-distance running actually reduces your heart and lung reserve capacity. Reserve capacity means that your heart has the ability to pump more blood in times of stress. Reserve capacity for your lungs allows them to deal with high exertion activities like lifting, carrying or running up the stairs. By performing slow, low-intensity jogs over 30-40 minutes, you are sending a message to your heart and lungs to become fuel-efficient and pump blood economically. So you become a great fuel-efficient machine—but when you have to deliver power, your body systems crash.

In other words, during times of emergency, when your heart and lungs have to perform powerfully, you will find that you don’t have the capacity to do so. Many long-distance joggers who can run for hours find it tough to cover 220m in a minute.

The average participant in a marathon is just happy to complete the distance. It hardly occurs to him/her that there is a time component to a competition. No competitive written exam in the world allows you to spend hours and hours on a paper.

How about, let’s all run for an hour, or maybe 2 hours, and then see how much distance we’ve covered? That would be a more realistic test of a runner’s endurance.  So instead of fixing distances, marathons should aim at fixing times—30 minutes, 45 minutes, 60 minutes, 90 minutes, 120 minutes, etc. The person who covers the maximum distance in a stipulated time wins.

Paul Chek, an expert in the field of corrective and high-performance exercise kinesiology, and Charles Poliquin, a strength and fitness training expert, warn against long and slow-distance running and regret the “aerobicization" of society. In their opinion, any aerobic activity like slow long-distance running encourages glucocorticoid release (cortisol, cortisone, etc.) in the body. These hormones are antagonistic to strength and muscle development and affect the cardiovascular system. They cause free radical damage that leads to early ageing.

Anwar Wahhab, a fitness expert from Kolkata and part of the Reebok running squad, teaches people to run as part of a running awareness programme. Slow running beyond 40-45 minutes is harmful, he says. “Slow running produces a high volume of cortisol in the blood to maintain blood sugar levels when carbohydrates get depleted. This causes adrenalin resistance and encourages the storage of belly fat."

Learn the technique

My advice to running enthusiasts is to seek a good athletic coach who can teach you the rudiments of running.

He/she will be able to identify and correct any musculoskeletal dysfunctions that obstruct good running form and technique. All over the world, 60-70% of recreational runners get injured or develop chronic injuries. Most of these injuries happen due to muscle tightness or weakness and because people jump into running before performing a proper musculoskeletal test.

The idea is not to discourage people from running, but to help them appreciate the value of good running techniques.

Some of the exercises/drills mentioned below can help-

Skipping

Begin with one leg lifted to approximately 90 degrees, with the arm on the other side lifted too. Start with a counter movement on one leg. Jump up and forward on one leg. The other leg should remain in the starting position till landing. Land in the starting position on the same leg. Immediately repeat the skip with the other leg.

Bounding

A bound is an exaggeration of the running gait; the goal is to cover as great a distance as possible with each stride.

Movement

Push off with the left foot as it contacts the ground. Bring the right leg forward by flexing the thigh to a position parallel with the ground and the knee at 90 degrees. Reach forward with the left arm. Land on the right leg and immediately repeat the sequence on the other side on landing.

Single leg skip with alternate foot flicks

Jump on one leg and drive the other leg in a flicking action with the feet almost “scratching" the ground underneath. The knees should be high and the foot should try to touch the glutes at the back.

Ranadeep Moitra is a certified coach from the National Strength and Conditioning Association of America and has worked with the Indian cricket team, the Bengal cricket team and the East Bengal Football Club. He currently coaches the Indian golf team.

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