Monday, March 8, 2010

Running every day even when you probably shouldn't

A new Internet friend who started a daily fitness streak 60 days ago shot me a question via Twitter asking me how I maintain my running streak when I’m sick. I have lots of answers for that question, but they all defy Twitter’s 140-character limit, so I replied to her only to say I’d blog about it.

The easiest answer is that to follow the guidelines of the U.S. Running Streak Association, as I do, a streak-runner needs to run a minimum of a mile a day. My streak is only about two and a half years long (939 days today, in fact!), and I’m blessed with astoundingly good health, but I’ll start my answer by saying in that relatively short amount of time, I’ve never been so sick that the ability to run one little mile – even at my slow 11-minute pace – has seemed beyond reach. I can remember a couple of pretty difficult miles – most notably just a few months ago when I had the worst headache of my life and an upset stomach to go with it – but I’ve also run with bad colds (during which running really doesn’t make you feel any worse), sinus infections (which make running feel like there are rocks bouncing up and down in your head) and fevers of up to about 101 degrees (which can make running a pleasantly hallucinatory experience). The fact is, mothers of young children cope with enduring all kinds of things when they are sick, from changing diapers to dragging themselves up to school pick-up to preparing meals to playing endless rounds of Candy Land. Running a mile when sick seems easy compared to all that.

The big guys – the streak runners with decades rather than a couple of years under the belts – have much better stories than I do about running when sick. My streak-running mentor, Ronald Kmiec, snuck out of bed while his wife was feeding their baby in order to fit in a run while he had an esophageal charley horse. Streak runner Joel Pearson from Washington state ran throughout a long bout of pneumonia. As Kmiec says, those are the days to draw on your just-a-mile card. Days when other people wouldn’t run at all, we streak runners run a mile; it’s basically the equivalent for us of not going.

One thing I have never had to deal with as a runner, even before the streak, is an injury. Back in the 1980s when I did a lot of high-impact aerobics, I had frequent injuries, but I’ve been lucky enough never to have one as a runner. Again, the serious streak runners can tell hair-raising stories about theirs, including herniated discs, shin splints and broken ribs; some of these stories appear in my first article about Ronald Kmiec. What’s never been clear to me is how they ever heal. I simply don’t understand how you can run on an injured leg or foot every day and still eventually heal from the injury, but I’m grateful I haven’t yet had to put myself to the test.

When I started working on my book about streak runners and talked to veteran streak-runners about what they’d endured, the few I spoke with talked about weather more than sickness. Hurricanes, thunderstorms, the Blizzard of ’78. Those seem to have more import in runners’ memories than sick days. As for me, I have minor weather stories, mostly about thunderstorms and frigid January temperatures, but if I continue my streak, I’ll surely rack up more.

I know that hardly any medical professional would endorse the streak runner’s attitude of “It doesn’t matter if I’m sick; I run anyway.” But we do. As I wrote about here, Ronald Kmiec finally broke his 32-year-long streak when he had a heart attack (not the kind that fells you, the kind that gets detected later in a doctor’s office). When my then 9-year-old son was streak-running with me, I fervently hoped that he wouldn’t get sick, because what I could allow myself to do – just run anyway – I couldn’t justify allowing him to do. So, in all honesty, there were a couple of days that we purposely didn’t take his temperature until after our run was over. But for the most part, he too had a healthy stint while he was running daily. We’re both just really lucky.

So I suppose my bottom line is this: don’t assume you can’t run when sick. Unlike an injury, which I find it much harder to be nonchalant about, I don’t think there are that many minor illnesses that would get worse with a ten-minute run. Sometimes it almost seems like the fresh air helps when you’re under the weather. So if you’re trying to do a streak and you get sick, see what you think you can do. And if the answer is that you don’t think you can do anything, go back to bed and start another streak when you’re feeling better, because as I’ve said many times, streak-running is trivial and your body is important, and staying healthy should win out in a battle between the two any day.

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