Motivation Strategies Gone Awry

I forgot to tell everyone about the insane (in retrospect, as I will explain) thing that I did in the middle of January. Merely as a method of motivation, I decided that I would forgo beer until I reached my racing weight goal of 155 lbs. I didn’t have any illusions that the calories saved through beer’s avoidance would be enough to take off the pounds. It was a rule implemented solely to provide some focus and discipline. Now, I’m not one of those runners whose main reason for running is so that they can drink large quantities of beer. There are, of course, running clubs that appear to have done exactly that through the successful merging of running and beer and there is, in fact, a documentary film on the horizon that examines one of the most famous of these clubs, The Fishtown Beer Runners from Philadelphia (http://www.runnersworld.com/general-interest/upcoming-documentary-about-running-and-beer). I’m a firm believer that Guinness is one of the best recovery beverages and that there is nothing better than sitting out on the back porch with a Newcastle Brown after a hard summer run. I thought that the threat of losing my recovery beverage would help to keep me on track for cutting those last few pounds before the spring racing season. I also have to admit that I had just upped my mileage, had immediately and easily lost two pounds, and assumed that the rest would quickly follow. That’s just not the way that diet works, is it? I should have known better. I lost a bit of weight and then I stabilized. I can only assume that the mileage increase also had the effect of improving my running efficiency. So, for the last several months I haven’t had a beer (I know, this is pretty much the definition of a first world problem…) and my weight has stabilized despite the increased distance. All, however, is not lost. I did manage to take slightly more than a minute off of my 4 mile personal best, so something seems to have worked. I really hope, however, that there’s not a true correlation between abstention and running performance.

If you race long enough, you'll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

If you race long enough, you’ll pick up a lot of these. What to fill them with?

While I’m on the topic of diet and exercise, it looks like our friend Kevin Helliker from The Wall Street Journal has come out with another one of his fitness anxiety pieces, “Why Runners Can’t Eat Whatever They Want: Studies Show There Are Heart Risks to Devil-May-Care Diets – No Matter How Much You Run” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303949704579461381883678174?mod=e2fb). Although Helliker once again cites his favorite cardiologist, James O’Keefe (who you may remember insists that a moderate twenty miles a week is all the running you should be doing) and strings together a slew of half-related studies and anecdotal evidence to almost construct a valid argument, I have to admit that the main point of Helliker’s article does bear (I almost wrote “beer” there) some thinking about, particularly for the masters runner. I first became cognizant of the fact that I couldn’t eat anything I wanted to, even if I was running a lot, when, more than a decade ago, I had upped my mileage and was still gaining weight. How was this possible, I asked myself? Well, I soon realized (OK, maybe not soon enough) that there was a straightforward calculus of calories consumed and calories expended of which one needed to be aware. There really is no way around this simple fact. It is also becoming increasingly apparent that what you eat – how is this surprising – also contributes to your overall health.  This might be the crux of the problem for the long-distance runner. When you are doing high mileage, moderate eating can be difficult – a scoop of ice cream turns into a really big bowl, a slice of bread becomes a loaf – you get the idea. You’re hungry – you need to fuel. Well, now it looks like we need to be careful about what we’re fueling with – less ice cream, diary, cheese, and cake (and…uh…cupcakes). Eat more fruit, beans, and vegetables and keep serving sizes modest. I think that most masters runners are probably already aware of the moderation mantra – we just need to be mindful of it.

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What Does The Wall Street Journal Have Against Running?

The Wall Street Journal is at it again. Almost a year ago, Kevin Helliker published “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887323330604578145462264024472) which used some sketchy science and some odd anecdotal examples to argue that too much running could be a health risk. My conclusion at the time was that alarmists such as Helliker were too quick to settle on a very low threshold for what constitutes “over doing it.” I am willing to entertain the idea that ultrarunners could get themselves into trouble by never giving themselves time to recover from inflammation. I will also, however, not be surprised if we find out that ultrarunners’ bodies are able to more efficiently deal with inflammation – they would just about have to, wouldn’t they? Helliker followed up this inflammatory article with another later in the year, “The Slowest Generation,” The Wall Street Journal, September 19, 2013 (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424127887324807704579085084130007974) which argued that today’s younger runners lack the competitiveness of previous generations. The recognition that the sport’s growing popularity has increased the number of beginning and inexperienced runners is quickly glossed over in favor of a more newsworthy “crisis of competitiveness” argument, which was taken up by subsequent commentators such as Toni Reavis, who argued that this is a general problem in the United States and not limited merely to running. With the publication of Chad Stafko’s opinion piece, “OK, You’re a Runner. Get Over It: Running a marathon is hard enough without also patting yourself on the back every step of the way” (http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304448204579186401818882202), The Wall Street Journal once again decided that poking fun at runners and stirring controversy is a good way to generate page traffic. I know that Stafko’s piece is meant to be funny in a snarky, undergraduate kind of way; but it is written – as are many of these WSJ opinion pieces – like a lazy blog entry and made me wonder if the WSJ still has a paper edition. Yes, we understand that you can’t fathom why people would choose to run, when you can drive. Yes, we get it that the 13.1 and 26.2 bumper stickers might be ostentatious and self-congratulatory (I, too, think they’re a bit silly. It’s like an excessive touchdown dance in the end zone – act like you’re going to be there again.) and that you think running is just about exhibitionism. Yes, we ultimately realize that this was an attempt to humorously rile runners in an effort to multiply page views. As expected, runners, as well as those who appear to really hate runners, all weighed in as evidenced by 871 comments (when I last looked) and still counting. I can guarantee that a similarly sophomoric opinion piece or badly researched article about the dangers of exercise will grace the pages of The Wall Street Journal every several months (This is probably more about page views and advertising revenue than anything else.) as long as readers continue to take the bait.

Stafko’s accusation that runners take up the sport to be seen – he questioned their “infatuation with running and the near-mandatory ritual of preening about it” – does raise the question about the meaning of running’s increasing visibility in our society. I think Stafko reaches the conclusion he does because he interprets all social interactions through the lens of capitalist self-interest – all of our actions (I don’t think many WSJ-enthusiasts would disagree) are shaped by money and the status conferred by money. With this type of “Wall Street Journal world view,” it does make sense that Stafko would interpret runners’ behavior and motivation as merely reflective of the worst aspects of the United States’ system of commercial capitalism: self-absorption and unchecked individualism. According to Stafko, runners run to be seen and subsequently the sport is more about conspicuous consumption than having fun, because how could it possibly be more fun to run ten miles than to drive?

Although Stafko’s piece was meant to rile runners, he does manage to indirectly raise some important considerations about why people run and running’s place in society as a cultural phenomenon. Since the 1880s (I’ll probably get more precise about this date range in the future.) there has been tension between the commercial attributes of the sport and running’s more metaphysical aspects. This tension and the struggle for balance was first manifest in the almost century-long debate between professionalism and amateurism and then, during the late 1970s with the rise of Nike, in the struggle between commercialism and running’s inherent radicalism. Running’s critique of societal norms, as well as its seeming promise to offer people a different way of giving their lives meaning has competed during the last thirty or so years with the recognition among various entrepreneurs and established athletics companies that given the right marketing running could be profitably “monetized.” At the same time that people such as George Sheehan and Bill Rodgers touted the simplicity of running and its essentially populist nature, companies like Nike, Adidas, New Balance, and Brooks (to name a few) were effectively arguing that running was not at all simple. In fact, to avoid injury and do it most effectively one needed protective, padded shoes, crammed with the latest in running shoe technology. This was an effective and profitable message that saw its corollary in all sorts of additional running gear. Running shoe companies, aided by a host of articles about training and injury prevention in books and magazines devoted to running, made a simple sport complicated. In making the complicated understandable (and in recent years, simple again) lay the avenue to profit.

I would argue that part of the commercialization of running was necessary to its coming of age as a professional sport. Sheehan and Rodgers, for example, were able to make their livings from the sport because of the popularity partially conferred through commercialization. I would argue, however, that they also professionalized the sport very much on their own terms. Rodgers often indicated that overthinking things could undercut one’s enjoyment of running, as well as training effectiveness, while Sheehan sold a lot of books by essentially arguing that running was appealing because it allowed for a very personal escape from the artificiality of the consumer capitalist system. It’s difficult to sum up Sheehan in one sentence and I have undoubtedly done an injustice; suffice to say that Sheehan was as surprised as anyone that he was selling books more about the metaphysics of running than the techniques of running. Without the growing marketing potential of the sport, however, it would have been unlikely that publishers would have taken risks on running books, or that Rodgers would have been able to open several stores devoted to running.

Stafko is right in recognizing that commercialization and the promise of profit has helped fuel the recent running boom. Weekends are filled with races, specialty running stores are popping up all over the place, and the shoe industry produces a dizzying number of models. Yet, after all is said and done, I would argue that people don’t take up running because effective marketing has convinced them that they should or that they feel consciously or subconsciously that this is a great way to fuel their exhibitionism, as Stafko would argue. For one thing, it takes too much effort – this isn’t a fad like collecting Beanie Babies, you still have to do the work (and it can be exhausting) – to become a runner. Thus, I would argue that running is still a transgressive act, even though it exists very comfortably in the world of business. Runners can’t help but to be seen. In fact, in this day and age, it’s an essential safety requirement. At its core, running constitutes a challenge to society. It is personal, yet communal. Perhaps most importantly, running provides a model of success that bears little resemblance to the money and status markers that typically define success in our capitalist society. It is a radical, empowering activity that has become mainstream and this must be scary for the Chad Stafkos of the world.

Running and Resentment: A Deeper View

I’ve been reading over the comments on New York Times health columnist Gina Kolata’s article from December 17, 2012 – “Recipe for Resentment: Claims of Running Prowess” (http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/12/17/a-running-bias-against-runners/) – to try to do some initial thinking about the place of running in U.S. culture.  Kolata wrote her piece in response to the recent dust up over the Wall Street Journal’s diatribe against running too much.  The experts quickly weighed in about why we should take the WSJ’s handwringing with several tablespoons of salt – faulty study, ridiculous assumptions, etc.; but, like Kolata, I was even more interested in why various media outlets were so quick to give credence to the report, as well as why the Wall Street Journal has been publishing a variation of the “running will kill you” article for years.  How many times have you run across an article, or talked to someone, who couldn’t quite suppress their glee that Jim Fixx, one of the prime movers of the late 1970s running boom, had died of a heart attack while running.  Kolata tackles this resentment head-on and asks, “Why does running arouse such passions?”

This is a tricky question, because the meaning of running in the United States has changed throughout the years.  During the late-1970s and even the early-1980s, I think there was a large proportion of the U.S. population that viewed road running as a cultural threat.  Runners unattached to college and high school programs were out there on the pavement, pursuing individual satisfaction by doing something rather arduous at the very time that the terms of technological, cultural, and social progress were couched in the latest labor saving advancements and recreation was the realm of the spectator.  Runners wanted to be within sport, rather than outside of it.  The threat of participatory action in a consumer-capitalist economy should not be underestimated.  Ultimately, people were finding new meaning in their lives not through work, economic, or social status, but through the simple, exhausting activity of running.  The only reason that there hasn’t been more pushback to the potential rebelliousness and radicalism that running holds is that corporations were quick to recognize the consumer possibilities of the growth and expansion of a participatory, people’s sport.  The running shoe companies became large and powerful when they realized that a vast new market was opening up.  By the mid-1980s, running shoes were ubiquitous on people’s feet (even non-runners) and the idea that one should run had entered the cultural mainstream.  They even broadcast the New York City marathon on network television, as the big city races rapidly expanded and everyone thought that they should run a marathon.  I think this might also mark the approximate time when the running boom started to diverge, branched out, and ultimately entered a new phase.

It wasn’t my intention to give a history of the running boom, so I’ll stop here, merely to point out that the 1980s’ split saw the emergence of the exercise boom as Yuppies, fueled by aerobics and Reebok, began to see being fit as yet another way to distinguish themselves as part of the economic and cultural elite.  Fitness was yet another thing that could be consumed and could reflect one’s status in society.  True believers probably retreated to their running clubs and winter series races and wondered if they remained special if everyone ran.  (I imagine that ultra marathoning may have experienced a boost at this point.)  If we are looking for a source of resentment, this might be it.  To distinguish themselves within the running culture, some people needed to make running, in all of its aspects, more a part of their lives.  What I am talking about here, is the tendency during recent times of economic uncertainty and stagnation for people to derive meaning in their lives not through their jobs, but through the challenge of changing themselves, both physically and psychologically, through running.  I’m going to refine this argument at more length in the future; but, it is hard to discount the fact that the first running boom peaked during the Reagan recession, popular interest in running flattened out during the sustained economic growth of the mid-1990s, and we are currently living through a new running boom during very uncertain economic times.

The source of resentment towards runners is deep and it has a history.  It is not based on the idea that runners can’t shut up about running.  Going on about stuff is merely part of the human condition. We talk about things in which we are interested.  Toy train buffs talk incessantly about their layouts, new parents tend to go on about child rearing, cat owners have problems talking about anything else.  Resentment because we discuss what we are passionate about is hardly unique to running.  At this point, it is probably legitimate to argue that runners experience resentment as much as anyone else in our society.  It’s one of those less attractive human emotions spawned by jealousy: hardly the province solely of runners.  I do, however, think there is something to this resentment and that it goes deeper than a frustration that runners just won’t shut up, or that they are unhealthily obsessed with their sport.  It is a frustration that runners have found a source of meaning in their lives that is almost entirely internal; it doesn’t depend on one’s economic or social status. It doesn’t depend on an occupation.  Running allows one’s success and contentment to be internally generated and individually assessed. Even the race, a place where commercialism and external assessment interact, is judged on the runner’s own terms. A good race might be finishing, setting a personal best, winning an age-group medal, running negative splits, or meeting some friends.  The measures of success are really up to the race participant. I wouldn’t argue that this is the only activity that meaning and success is almost solely scripted by the participant, but it might be one of the most accessible activities in which this is the case.  This is where the resentment and jealousy lies. Runners have found a straightforward, readily accessible way to derive meaning in their lives independent of the social and power disparities that are necessary for industrial capitalism to function.  The act of running in a western capitalist society is, at its very base, a radical (and for some) and a threatening act.

This was what academic historians like to refer to as a “think piece”: a lot of thinking aloud and writing without the hand of the editor.  Some of my arguments need further examples and I think it might take a grant and some graduate students to quantify what is meant by “running boom.”  I do, however, think that there is something more essential about running that explains the resentment that writers such as Gina Kolata identify that goes beyond the idea that runners are just insufferable when they won’t shut up about it.  What do you think?

The Wall Street Journal Does it Again

Really? I mean who gets their information about the efficacy of exercise from the Wall Street Journal?  People who need some justification for not exercising?  “100 Miles on the Bike? Might as Well Play Golf” (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424127887324481204578177563340721582.html) is yet another contentiously titled “article” by Kevin Helliker about the efficacy of endurance exercise.  Again, like his recent “One Running Shoe in the Grave,” the concerns and claims pointed out by the research in no way merit the ridiculous title of the WSJ article.  Stop doing this.  The confidence of the article’s title in no way reflects the rather moderate claims of the scientists on which Helliker’s article is based.  The research used by the article cited by Helliker to support what seems to be a weekly diatribe against exercise is based on a study of the mortality records of 9,889 athletes who competed in the Olympic Games between 1896 and 1936.  Yes, you read that right.  I’m not even sure that more needs to be said.  I am, however, increasingly interested in why the Wall Street Journal feels that it needs to be the point man on weekly reminding readers that exercise is bad for you. Good grief – give it a rest. Finally, what is it about Helliker’s insistence in adding several topically-unrelated paragraphs at the end of his articles? This time he decides to quote a blogger about how extreme exercise induces euphoria.   It’s a mess – keep playing golf WSJ readers.

Are You Running Too Much? The Wall Street Journal Weighs in on Running

I don’t think I’m running too much here.

Like many who write about running, I felt compelled to comment on Kevin Helliker’s provocatively-titled, predictable, yet oddly written article, “One Running Shoe in the Grave: New Studies on Older Endurance Athletes Suggest the Fittest Reap Few Health Benefits,” that appeared in this past Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal.  Helliker’s article summarizes one of those periodical reports by hand-wringing cardiologists warning us about the dangers of excessive exercise.  The assertion that seems to have caused the most controversy among serious runners is the idea of what constitutes excessive: twenty to twenty-five miles per week and a pace of eight miles per hour – or 7:30 minute-per-mile pace.  This is not a lot of mileage, although the pace stipulation does logically lead to a future blog entry concerning how fast should we be running our long runs.  Helliker’s article reads like a typical throwback to the “exercise is actually bad for you” pronouncements that usually accompany the deaths of notable runners such as Jim Fixx and Micah True.  Men’s Health, for example ran an article on October 14, 2008, entitled, “Are You Running Yourself to Death?”  This is by no means a recent development. In the wake of the first running boom, cardiologist Henry A. Solomon foresaw several of the arguments of Dr. O’Keefe’s upcoming editorial in the journal Heart – in The Exercise Myth (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984).  At my most cynical, I would dismiss Helliker’s gloss of O’Keefe as merely a way to sell papers.

There are some interesting observations, however, to be made about “One Running Shoe in the Grave.”  First, it’s telling that O’Keefe’s recommendations to scale back under twenty miles a week and slow down – especially if you are over fifty – are being made on the basis of research that is only showing an association. There may well be some legitimate issues with the statistical significance of the sample size, particularly concerning high-mileage, high-speed elite athletes.  There was also no mention of the sex of the runners in the study. I’m sure we’ll find out more about research design when Heart is published next month. Ominously, I noticed that when questioned about his research, Dr. O’Keefe, rather than talking about methodology, accused his critics of being “chronic exercise addicts.”  Using a dismissive, catchy phrase to derail intellectual inquiry is a common rhetorical strategy of the academic under threat. I have the feeling that this report might be dead in the water once we get to take a closer look.  Academics confident of their numbers usually don’t childishly lash out against their critics.  It is also odd that Dr. O’Keefe bases his recommendations on his personal experience as a “former elite athlete” on a “sense” that his athletic regimen was aging him prematurely. I think he might need some evidence here to back him up. Most credible scientists get a bit skittish when talking about an individual’s “sense” trumping observable fact.  I want some numbers.  It will be interesting to see what people say when the full editorial in Heart is published.

There is another assumption that Helliker makes that is fully debunked in the accompanying comments to his article: everyone exercises to live longer.  In fact, most people do not take up running in the expectation that it might prolong their lives. Unsurprisingly, as many of the commenters explained, they run because it improves their quality of life, not the quantity.  At its most prosaic, it is great to be a runner for the stress release running provides, for the ability to walk up several flights of stairs without being winded, or for the ability to proceed through a busy day without becoming overly exhausted. But, as the devoted runner knows (and this is only reflected in the last quote of the article which is intended to point out that most serious runners won’t listen to this “sound” advice) is that running is fun and for many that have caught the running bug, racing is even more fun.  We don’t do this merely for the real and (possibly) perceived health benefits.  Here’s a dose of reality: longevity is never guaranteed. People die everyday in unanticipated ways.  Many, however, have realized that running makes them feel better while they are living.  I can’t stress enough the quality of life aspect of running, as well as what Dr. George Sheehan argued was the appealing “play” associated with running.  For Sheehan, at its core, running constituted a return to childhood play for adults – racing even more so.  So, the appeal of running – and this is by no means an original thought – far surpasses any quest for longevity.  The fact that these articles arguing that exercise might be bad for you come out on a predictable basis backed by the authority of cardiologists makes me wonder: why?  I think it has something to do with the popularity of running and some perceived threat that it poses to the status quo. It can’t be a coincidence that we have seen this type of article – ostensibly backed by reputable science – at the peak of several running booms.  There is more to be said about this, but it will have to wait for another blog entry.

Finally, I need to mention the “oddly written” part of Helliker’s article. Several commentators in the Wall Street Journal also pointed this out.  This is the story of Meghan Newcomer, a 32-year-old professional triathlete, who passed out during several races, and whom Helliker uses as an example of why 50-year-olds need to run less. Newcomer was told to triple her intake of salt, which solved her race-collapse issues. This looks like it was more of an issue of hyponatremia and certainly not a cardiac problem, so why the story? Yes, it makes that much sense.

Although this article has generated a fair amount of discussion, it is ultimately part of an old narrative that often rears its ugly head when running gets too popular – an old story verging on a non-story.  I think the real story here, is the opening up of a larger conversation about why people run – not as controversal, but ultimately more useful.