Knee jerk reactions

Years ago, I had a friend who used to run track and cross country in college but who had to stop because of injuries. She missed running terribly, though, and we used to talk about our competitive running pasts–mine had ended in high school. “Running was the only sport I really did,” I once told her. “I didn’t have much athletic ability.”

She looked at me, taken aback. “You need athletic ability to run,” she said.

Until that point, like many people, I hadn’t thought about it that way. I knew, of course, that running took commitment and practice. I also knew that some people were simply faster than other people, that some had more talent for running than others. And of course, I was aware that technique was essential in shorter races, such as the 100 meters or the hurdles. But I hadn’t considered that running also required athletic skill.

It’s not unusual, when I tell people that I run, to hear “Isn’t that bad for your knees?” or “You’ll be sorry when you get older. That’ll kill your joints.” I’ve never quite known how to respond. I took up running steadily again at age 44, and in the six years since, I’ve never suffered an injury that kept me from running for more than a week–and that time only once. I’ve suffered my share of soreness from time to time, but considering that I’ve trained for and completed one half marathon, three marathons, and half a dozen races of shorter distances, I’ve remained very healthy. But have I just been lucky? Will that streak come to an end? I’ve come to think now that skill might be part of the answer.

If I told you that I’d hurt my arm playing hours of tennis last weekend, you probably wouldn’t say “Tennis is a dangerous sport.” Or if tomorrow I decided to jump into a game of pickup basketball at full speed, or pitch nine innings of baseball after years of inactivity, you wouldn’t be surprised or blame the sport if I ended up hurting myself. That is, any sport that isn’t approached carefully and with the right preparation can lead to injury. Just because we all have a certain natural ability to run doesn’t mean we can jump up and start doing it intensively without consequences. Like any skill, it requires care and practice. Completely apart from the issue of speed–because, believe me, I’m not very fast–there are ways to do it well and ways to do it poorly. And, as with any sport, doing it poorly increases the likelihood of getting hurt.

The controversy over barefoot running has helped bring this to the forefront (if not the forefoot). As one of my favorite blogs points out here, the argument over whether it’s best to run with or without shoes doesn’t turn on how “natural” barefoot running is. Whether or how much you should do it depends on how skillfully you can do it. Some ways to run barefoot are almost sure to lead to injury, while others can reduce injury and increase speed and the strength of certain muscles. As with so much of life, deliberation, preparation, and moderation matter in the choices we make. When we grasp at instant solutions, we can get instant answers all right. The answers just aren’t likely to be “yes.”

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