Saturday, November 20, 2010

Running as a hobby; my journey so far…

I remember when I was in the 5th grade I won the first prize in 100 meters running. It was a proud moment for me and my parents. However, as with most middle-class families in the 80s, my parents (especially my dad) thought that such sports are not for girls and I should just focus on my studies. I never really showed interest in sports after that, and hence my interest in running faded away…

Fast forward 2010, I am standing in Coral 9 with my dear friend Gina to run the San Antonio Rock ‘N’ Roll half-marathon on Nov 14th – my first, and definitely many more to come. I trained to run the 2009 half-marathon but had to drop out at the last minute due to a persisting lower back problem. I trained harder after that and finally ran this one – finished it in 2:50. Never during the race did I once think about the pain or why I was doing it, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the run. I guess that is what happens when you find your calling…

Well, the journey so far has been a truly exhilarating experience, and here I am to share it with people who want to experience the joy of running but for some reason never actually get there. Read on…

The Comeback!

My comeback to running was, is and will always be wholly attributed to Mr.G. When I first met him at our Chennai office, I remember him always leaving office in the evening to run and then come back and work late into the nights. No matter how busy he was or what kind of weather it was, he would go running. Considering he came from an army family background, I thought it was something he grew up doing and he was an exception. I completely brushed aside the idea of me getting back to running, conveniently assuming it’s too late to start. I guess it was my luck that I happened to be in the US at the same time as Mr.G, because even in the US he continued to follow his regime of running. A chance tagging along with him on one of his runs at the medical center was my first comeback to running after years. I was so unfit at that time that I could barely run 400m at a stretch; I remember taking 2 breaks during the 400m run, and finishing the 800m length with great difficulty. But I loved it. I started doing those short runs and they really helped me shed off a few kilos. That was in year 2004, when I was in my mid 20’s.

A fresh Start…

Back in India after that trip, I stopped running for 2 years. Yes. I got lazy again and the interest died. However, towards the end of 2006 (November) when I was pursuing my MBA, I decided to start running again. I started with short 1 Km runs slowly taking it up to 3 Km. I would run every single day – rain or shine – how much I ran did not matter, the aim was to discipline myself to run everyday. That’s the first thing anybody wanting to make running a hobby has to focus on – Discipline. Running is something one needs to pursue it long enough for it to grow on you (well, that’s true with any other activity as well!). However, with running/any sport, since it is physically challenging, the first thought that comes to us is to give up, mind dictates our body and we get tired quickly. As with my own example; before 2006, I never pursued it long enough to start loving it. But this time, I was going to make sure I did everything right. I made a conscious effort to run regularly irrespective of the distance. That brought in discipline and I started organizing every other activity of mine around my running schedule.

From Nov 2006 to Oct 2007, I would run regularly – 1.5 to 2 Km runs everyday for 5 months, till I finished my MBA in April 2007. After that I started running 3 days a week but would run 3+ Kms everyday. It’s funny how great that 3 Km run seemed to me at that time, I was on top of the world! I guess I was more proud of my ability to stay disciplined and go for a run as frequently as I planned, than the length of the runs. Whenever my mind would start telling me to stop I would think why do I want to stop - are my legs/back aching, am I really tired or is it my mind that is weakening my spirits, and I would continue running. Running had more impact on my life than just help loose a weight, my outlook towards everything in life started becoming more positive, there was definite glow on my face and I was more alert and energetic in everything I did than before. I would feel terribly guilty if I missed a day’s run for some reason, and would struggle to sleep. Most importantly, running started dictating what I ate, as I now knew how difficult it was to burn off those calories, I started being more conscious of what I ate. I’ll discuss more about eating habits in a bit. But in general, for beginners, it is very important to eat in moderation, completely avoiding oily or fatty foods. When you first start running, the body is losing a lot of fat, craving for it to be restored, so anything that you eat immediately after your work out gets converted to fat if you are not conscious of what you eat. For the first 6 months when I started running, all I ate was 3 phulkas + 1 cup dal + 1 cup veggies for dinner. I used to run in the evening around 7 pm and eat my dinner at 9 pm. Lunch was my heaviest meal with a cup of rice added to the dinner menu I mentioned. Lastly, do not forget to drink a LOT of water!

From Nov 07 to Dec 07, I did not run much at all – that’s when I got married, and was busy preparing to relocate to the US. Also, those 2 months gave me enough time to successfully gain back almost 60% of the weight I had lost in those 10 months time – I had lost 7 Kilos and I successfully gained back 4 Kilos in those 2 months! LOL!

From now on, no looking back...

From Jan 07 to March 07, I was too lazy to start running again, remember I had let my body sink into a comfortable state by eating wrong! And then, there was a wake-up call. What was I doing? 10 months of hard work and I was letting it go down the drain! I decided to start running again. Not to forget that I was now with Mr.G and there was no way he would let me sit on my ass while he was running! Ha! I was back again at the medical center where Mr.G had helped me make a comeback in 2004. Somewhere in mid 2007 I started running and I haven’t stopped ever since, and I do not intend to ever stop unless god starts getting jealous of me and breaks my legs or something. I started with my regularly 800m continuous runs (suddenly I had to start counting everything in miles now!) which increased to 2 laps at a stretch and I reached a point when I could run 4 laps at a stretch (2 miles/ 3.2.Kms). After a while, I joined a gym as it was too cold to run outside. That opened my eyes to a different level of running.

Joining a gym was one of the best things to do after moving to the US. While running outside is fun and a lot tougher, running on a treadmill is great for endurance training/speed training. Also, I realized the importance of weight training and mixing other machine workouts with running. As much as one grows to love running, there will be days when you don’t feel like running and you need an alternative work out to keep you on your toes – elliptical/cross trainer/spinning/biking are all great alternatives.

I realized when I run on the treadmill I am able to run faster than on the outside track, simply because on a treadmill you can vary the speed and as you increase the speed you have no other choice but to keep up with that speed. Treadmill speed challenges you to run faster, while running outside you control the speed and tend to run slower. At least, that’s the case with me. As I started running regularly on the treadmill, my form and pace improved and that helped me run better and for a longer time outside. From July 07 to July 08 I had trained enough to reach a speed of 7.5 mph from 5 mph; truly, I have come a long way. In July 08, I ran 5 miles in 42 minutes at a stretch and that was the most fulfilling moment of my life. That’s when I truly understood the meaning of the words “runner’s high” and one has to experience it to wholly relate to it. Since then, there has been no looking back! I try to run 3-5 miles, 4 times a week; I sometimes try to do a long run of 7-8 miles once a week. When I do the long run, I try not to run more 2.5 miles on other days or I just do spinning/biking or even walking to loosen up the muscles.

From July 07 to Oct 07, I lot 8 kilos/17.6 lbs, going from 64 Kilos to 56 Kilos. I cannot tell you how great I feel! Ask my friends who have seen me when I was 69 Kilos (during 2002-2004 before I made a comeback to running) how different I look now. I was never obese but my short height definitely made me look fat. After last 3 years of efforts that have gone into my running and work out in general, I don’t think I can ever gain back that weight even if I tried hard. One unique gift of being in the US is you get inspired by the dedication people show towards fitness here. I see 80 year olds in my gym walking on the treadmill, doing weights and cannot but be inspired by them. Not to forget Mr.G’s dedication to sports is simply too great and infectious to not be inspired. People twice my age (ok, now I have to reveal my age! Sigh! Let’s say very early 30s) easily run a couple of miles in my gym, so there is no way I am doing anything less than them. The bottom-line is there is no age/background required to start building a workout regime, or running in specific. I started when I was in my late 20s, and I realized it was only my mental block towards running that was holding me back and nothing else. It surely helps to have company because that way you stay motivated, so try to find a running partner. After sometime when you start loving it, you will want to run alone, as it gives you a thrill to just be on your own, think, and just enjoy the run. I personally enjoy running alone, not that I hate company, but I will just fine if I have to run alone.

Eating healthy is important

I discussed about proper eating habits in the beginning of this post. This is something anyone who wants to pursue running for a long term should be extremely conscious of. I know some people mark-off some days as cheat days and eat their heart’s content. But I personally believe in eating whatever one feels like eating, but in moderation. So, if I feel like eating fries, I eat a few fries and fulfill my urge instead of waiting for the “cheat day” to eat a bag of large fries adding 1000 calories at once. Anything eaten in moderation can be burnt off easily in the next run and you are back to your routine. A single day’s wrong eating can screw up the schedule for weeks. Believe me. I have been through that. An interesting change that automatically occurs in our eating habits when we start working out regularly is – we hardly crave for unhealthy food, at least not too often that you feel like eating junk food. There are times when I crave for pastries, fries, sweets or ghee in food, but my mind automatically rejects this craving if starts repeating often. And the funny thing is when I eat these things, I don’t rest till I have burnt it off! Ha! That’s the stage one should try to reach wherein you no more let any fat stick on to your body, you just burn it off before it does.

The fact that I’m a vegetarian and I love to cook, solves half of my problem, but also leaves me protein deprived. I try to add as much sprouts/lentils as possible to my diet to make sure I get enough protein. I eat a lot of greens and fresh fruits. My only weakness is rice…but I have learnt to control the quantity, and make an effort to burn it off when I over eat.

Last but not the least…

Running can be a truly exhilarating experience if pursued correctly. For one to enjoy it for a long time, it is important to avoid injuries by overdoing or doing it wrong. A lot of us make the mistake of not giving the body enough time to warm up and cool down, which causes most of the injuries. Please do proper stretching and walking before and after the run to avoid cramps. I have had the opportunity to meet some great athletes here in the US, who are now in their late 50s & 60s but are still actively pursuing some intensive sports, – Tennis, Squash, biking and running, of course! Some of these guys have run more marathons than any youngsters I know of. Their secret to success is the time these guys have invested in training. Yes, Training. One cannot wake up one day and decided to run 5 miles, some might actually succeed but never be able to run again.

Running requires a lot of training to sustain it for a long time…running a mile in 10 minutes is different from running for 90 minutes. The body has to be trained to sustain the run for a certain time and/or a certain speed. So, beginners – please choose your own pace to train but make sure you are slowly adding speed/distance to reach your desired goal. Also, listen to your body, stop when you are hurting – really hurting, like I said in the earlier sections, our mind is very cunning and makes you believe you are tired even when you have barely started running, give it time, bear the pain for a while to see if it is real, else keep going till the time you control your mind to do the things the way you want it. You will be amazed at how much control your mind has over your body…the trick is to break that control and take charge of your mind. The more you do it, the faster you will get there. Sorry, but there are no short cuts- no pain, no gain! But let me tell you something, if someone like me who had absolutely no background of any sports can do it starting when I was in my late 20s then anyone can do it! Go for it!

Okay, I might not be a great example – how about Fauja Singh? – the oldest marathon runner in the world – an Indian born Sikh living in London who started running at the age of 89! His half & full-marathon timings are way better than a lot of people 1/4th of his age. His is a story that I doubt will fail to inspire anyone. Period.

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