Monday, July 11, 2011

Relaxing my standards

I broke with tradition this past weekend.

Saturday has always been reserved for my longest run of the week. Several years ago, that meant a 13-mile loop, my own little weekly half-marathon. In more recent years, Saturday runs have typically ranged about five or six miles.

This weekend I did only four. To a non-runner, that distinction may sound trivial, but to me it was significant, because I can run four miles any old day. Five miles was my weekly “stretch goal.”

Five miles isn’t even that long a run, but in the past year or two, I’ve found that distance to present a reasonable challenge to me. My pace has slowed down recently for no clear reason, and although I’m still embarrassed that I clock a more-than-ten-minute mile, the fact is that being out for more than an hour robs me of more of my Saturday than I wish to give up, and that was one reason not to push myself beyond five miles.

But yesterday I didn’t even feel like doing that much. I tend to cleave to routine; it was a big deal for me to admit to myself that I just didn’t see any great benefit to running five miles as opposed to four. In earlier years, I found it so exhilarating to build my mileage; it seemed the longer I ran, the better I felt afterwards.

These days that doesn’t really seem to be the case, though. As long as I’m out for 45 minutes or more, I feel well-exercised and challenged, but more than five miles feels more arduous than exhilarating. And as far as weight control and other fitness factors, running longer doesn’t seem to make any discernible improvement.

Mostly, though, on Saturday it was that I wanted to go for a long bike ride later in the day. I could have done both, of course – a long run in the morning, a long bike ride in the afternoon – but I figured this was a chance to give myself a bit of a break, and shave that last mile off my run in good conscience, knowing I’d make up for it from a fitness perspective on my bike later on.

“Streak runners,” those of us committed to running 365 days a year without ever taking a day off, are by definition compulsive about running. I’m the first to admit that streak running is a silly pursuit, one important and relevant only to those of us who practice it, as I have been doing for the past three years and eleven months. Physically, there’s no significant advantage to running seven days a week rather than six, just as there’s no significant advantage to running five miles rather than four. Not for me anymore, anyway.

And acknowledging this to myself felt more like liberation than like a compromise. True, I’m not as strong a runner as I once was, and that’s part of what was driving my decision to cut back on Saturday. But I’m also not as driven by routine as I once was. I used to believe I had to run as far as I possibly could at least once a week. But whether it’s a sign of emotional maturity, physical aging or just a relaxing of standards, this past weekend I didn’t feel that way. I wanted to put in my 45 minutes, enjoy my four miles, and save some energy and excitement for an afternoon bike ride. It’s good to have a solid commitment and steadfast habits when it comes to exercise, but it’s good to waive them once in a while too. The run was fun; the bike ride was even better. And the freedom from feeling like I had to push myself to the max was the best part of it.

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