A Scorecard for the year

Recently, users of Strava, a popular app among fitness enthusiasts, would have received a barrage of statistics in the form of ‘Year in Sport’. The aggregate data comprising no. of activities, time spent, kilometres covered, ‘kudos’ received, etc., is presented as a comprehensive summary of the year bygone. While the objective may be noble, the interpretation can be a little hazy. For instance, it compares the metrics of this year with those of previous year. Given the way the year went, it is obvious that most would be disappointed about the lower number in 2021 compared to 2020. Then, numbers aren’t everything. As a Union Minister once said,

Maths never helped Einstein discover Gravity.

I want to help runners (as well as those engaged in other fitness activities) with a ‘feel-good’ scorecard to measure their activities during the year and stay positive for the year(s) to come. Let’s admit, at some point of time during the year, everyone felt lucky just to be alive, let alone pursue some fitness activity. More so, we have a generation of students who have been declared ‘all pass’ for the last two years. So, why let kids have all the fun?

This is a very simple questionnaire where you can give 1-point for each accomplishment and none if not accomplished during the year. Further, I have added some bonus points as additional tokens of appreciation for extra(ordinary) efforts.

Qn. 1 – Did you run regularly?

Ignoring the mandatory quarantine period or recovery time from COVID, if you consider yourself to be fairly regular in your runs during the year, you deserve a point for that. Fairly regular is a subjective term and depends from person to person. If you have attempted to run at least once a week, it can be considered as fairly regular, for I am sure you will be in the top 1% of the population taking those efforts. One point for the starters.

Qn. 2 – Were you kind to yourself?

Times are tough and frustrations can make it worse. It can be frustrating when not being able to run for a while. On resumption, many tend to over do and get injured. If you have been able to keep your head over shoulders, and stayed injury free throughout the year, yours is the one point.

Qn. 3 – Did you try learning more about fitness, health (other than COVID), and wellness?

Efforts towards education and enriching oneself by listening to podcasts (you can checkout my recommendations), reading inspiring/heartening articles, watching videos that adds positivity, or taking up a good book on running, should certainly be rewarded. Such initiatives merits one point, if not an academic degree. Unfortunately, education through WhatsApp University finds no appreciation; although half-a-point can be given if you have debunked any of those myths. 

Qn. 4 – Did you run with a group?

Participating in group runs motivates oneself and the group they run with. Given the way the pandemic unfolded, most running clubs started scaling down group runs during the year. You deserve a point, if you participated in a group runs whenever they resumed.

Qn. 5 – Did you run with a new buddy?

These are times when everyone looks at their neighbour as a potential carrier of virus, or a super-spreader. If you got over the mental block and ran with a new runner during the year, you have certainly taken a step towards normalcy. One point for that!

Qn. 6 – Did you participate in a running event?

Running events were scarce during the year. In the limited time frame when the pandemic looked under control, few organisers braved to organise the event with COVID-related protocols and other safety measures. While it did rise the cost of these events, it certainly gave hope that running events will come back sooner. You get a point if you have participated in at least one running event during the event just to encourage the organisers. (Note – “Virtual events” don’t count)

Qn. 7 – Were you a conscious consumer?

This was a tough year on the economic front too. Many lost their livelihoods, and those who had jobs saw their disposable income reduced. In these times, it is certainly prudent to avoid unnecessary indulgence in exotic gadgets or swanky outfits. You deserve one point for demonstrating modesty. 

Qn. 8 – Did you try pushing your boundaries?

Any fitness routine is about stepping outside the comfort zone. If you have tried a new activity, a new routine, ran for a cause, or simply, discovered a new running route during the year, it deserves recognition. Pushing boundaries is not about overdoing or going extreme for the sake of it. It is more about getting the mental block out while being aware of physical limitations.

Qn. 9 – Did you make efforts in changing your food habits for good?

If you were able to regulate your eating habits or avoid junk foods, you have certainly taken the first step. It is indeed a complex subject with myriad opinions, confusing facts, and guilt feeling engulfing every meal. You can give yourself one point if you have made any conscious effort to improve your eating habits, however trivial it may appear.

Qn. 10 – Did you practice socially responsible behaviour? 

The biggest challenge of the pandemic is bringing in socially responsible behaviour, be it sporting masks or not visiting crowded spaces or not spreading rumours on vaccination. Runners are generally very disciplined, given the rigour that the activity demands over the years. Being socially responsible is the first step towards getting out of the pandemic and it is time to reward you with another point.

Even if you haven’t scored enough points above, you are still eligible for bonus points below.

10 Bonus Points

If you didn’t bother about the statistics from Strava or have not installed any tracking apps; if you never worried about commonly accepted evaluation of your fitness activities, give yourself ten points. You know why you do what you do. You enjoy running and that alone matters for you. You deserve 10 points more than anyone else.

10 ‘Additional’ Bonus Points

If you were never into any fitness activities, and still wanted to read this blog out of sheer curiosity, I certainly owe you ten points. You have made a beginning and I am sure you will take up running very soon. Ten points for the curiosity and the first step towards a healthy new year!

That should ensure points on everyone’s scorecard. Wishing everyone a Happy and Healthy 2022!

STOP Running

One Friday evening, about 5 years ago, I started reading Phil Knight’s Shoe Dog where these lines appear.,

“You run and run, mile after mile, and you never quite know why. You tell yourself that you are running toward some goal, chasing some rush, but really you run because the alternative, stopping, scares you to death.

Phil Knight, Shoe Dog

The following day, I went for a long run and promptly dedicated the run to these lines. Recently, it re-appeared on Facebook as memories and I started having second thoughts, ‘Does stopping really scare me to death?’ Of course, the thought of everyone stopping to run should certainly scare Phil Knight to death as it affects his fortune. But, why me? Is stopping something that anyone should be worried about?

People take up to running for various reasons – fitness, recreation, socialising, health reasons, out of boredom, or just an excuse to binge more food. Over the years, I have observed many take up to running, ramp up their efforts in short time, achieve extra-ordinary distances and personal records, some fame on the way and, then suddenly, quit running altogether. This is very common among professional runners, who rarely participate in running events after they officially retire from the sport. There are plenty of reasons, from physical injuries caused during running to challenges on the personal and professional front that demands prioritisation over running. While analysing the reasons for quitting, it is important to find out why they took to running and what drove them to dizzy heights before an apocalyptic fall. 

Fran Lebowitz, famously known as a writer who never writes, doesn’t own a mobile phone, never used a computer and has only heard about e-mail and social media, has contempt for many things and is always willing to express them without holding back. It includes running. Here, she is giving her opinion on why people run… 

When I was young, you never saw adults running. Running was something children did; Running was playing and playing was for Children. So, I never saw this. And now, you see 70-year olds running. I don’t think they are doing it because it is fun. They are doing it because they believe that if they keep doing this, they are not going to die; or they are going to look fantastic, even though they already look horrible.

As someone who loves her cigarettes, Lebowitz is certainly not the best person to look up to for opinions on running. But, she raises two pertinent points – First, do people force themselves to run? And secondly, do people find fun in running?

Let’s admit that running as a tool of punishment, is deeply entrenched in the psyche of most school-going children. Late for school? Run as punishment… ; dirty uniform? Run a few more laps… So, nobody has been taught to have fun through running. In later years, people take up running more out of self-interest than any external compulsion. The only incident when I was compelled to run was when I chased a chain-snatcher; and I failed miserably. However, if someone doesn’t have fun in running, they are obviously forcing themselves to run; and when they force themselves to run, they get injured easily and quit running altogether. 

I recently listened to this lovely conversation between Malcom Gladwell (also a prolific runner) and Adam Grant.

Among the various things they discuss includes whether running can be called as the most obsessive sport? (Starts at around 24 minutes into the podcast, incase you want to skip the rest). Malcom vehemently disagrees and suggests that only during races, do runners push themselves to the edge. On other occasions, running teaches one about the virtue of restraint. Adam Grant, using the research work of social psychologist Dr. Robert Vallerand, explains the difference between harmonious passion and obsessive passion.

Applied in running, obsessive passion is when people take to running out of compulsion – not just competitive runners who run for their livelihood, but also those who feel obliged to run due to social pressures, fame, and self-aggrandisement. They focus on the outcome and ignore the joy that comes during the run. Such obsession would force them to run regardless of their physical or mental condition, which leads to injuries.

On the other hand, harmonious passion is when someone derives joy during the run as well as when finishing the run. It could be from watching the sunrise, enjoing the camaraderie with fellow runners, breathing in the morning fresh air, or post-run breakfasts. For such runners, every run is an experience and there are no good or bad runs; all timings are their personal best, slow or fast. They just don’t stop with running and contribute actively to help others enjoy the same, be it volunteering for events, coming out to cheer during marathons, or pacing their friends in events. 

It is important to constantly evaluate our relationship with running. It can be harmonious as well as obsessive at different time periods. It is true that running can become another addiction and not necessarily good always. Stretching physical limits often can result in fatigue physically and eventually, mentally. 

Many times, when asked if I run everyday, I am lost for an appropriate answer. I certainly don’t run everyday – my historical records over the last 6,000 days show that I have run only about 36% of the days. I certainly don’t intend to do it everyday and rarely run when I am physically or mentally fit enough to do so. I have often and willingly missed my run in order to volunteer, cycle, trek, play football, or for early breakfast meets. And I have never regretted missing running on those days. Being able to run everyday or run whenever I want is something I would like to choose for myself. But, I am aware it depends on various factors, internal and external, and I have no regrets in making those compromises. It is when we find it difficult to make such compromises, running becomes problematic.

Every run is not a race to be won; it is just another step in making running a part of our life. Like the disclosures in mutual fund advertisements, past performance never guarantees the same performance for future, it is the same in running too.  In conclusion, I would like paraphrase from David McCullogh’s famous speech…. 

Run, so you can see the world, not so the world can see you. 

Run because you can and Run because you love to. Else, just Stop Running, or in Phil Knight’s style, 

Just don’t do it!

P.S – You can stop running only if you start running in the first place… So, get started first.

PPS - Special Thanks to my good friend Pankaja for a quick review

To Measure, or not to Measure…

Sometime back, I attended a lecture on the pitfalls of modern Education. The speaker passionately spoke on the negative impact of examination on the learning process in Children. He went on to elaborate on how the fear of failure inculcated through examinations have severe consequences on their emotional and mental development. When the house was thrown open for questions, the first among the audience asked,

“Is there any other way we can measure the progress of Children?”

The obsession to quantify results (and then compare) in any field of human endeavour – from cradle to grave – is deeply ingrained in most minds. From academic performances to social status to professional careers to health, there is some quantitative metric that is relied upon as the sacrosanct indicator of one’s progress or otherwise. There is no doubt that using data helps in simplifying complex issues and makes them easy for anyone and everyone to understand. It gets nebulous when it gets over-analysed, oversimplified, and worse, misinterpreted by those who have no clue on how, as well as, why the metric was introduced in the first place.

Before a metric is chosen, the fundamental question of “Why to measure” is rarely addressed. There are instances when it is unnecessary to have a metric, like enjoying a good music or appreciation a piece of art (there again, digital age provides data on the count of the number of times a music is played or the number of viewers, being taken as a proxy for quality of the music or art). In an interesting piece for The Guardian, Jenny Valentish, quotes Kieran Setiya, who calls a set of activities as “Atleic activities” – activities which have no goal. 

Atelic activities are things we do without fanfare, purely for enjoyment’s sake, that have no endpoint. They can be enjoyed in the present and might offer growth in a way more oriented to wellbeing. Singing, gardening, going for hikes, learning a language, playing sport just for fun – they’re all atelic activities, provided you don’t build in some kind of mission statement.

There is merit in having some atelic activities in life where nothing gets measured, no explanations offered, and nothing gets reviewed or even rewarded. In these activities, simply pursuing them is a reward by itself.

The common justification in measuring is by quoting the popular business management mantra –

What gets measured, gets managed

the source of which could not be traced; like anything corporate, it is credited to whoever is favoured. More often, it is the data that gets managed instead of the activity that it is supposed to measure. It is done by either constantly shifting the goal posts; or by changing the key metric. Take the example of measuring a company’s performance – the key metric would change – from revenue to profits (with its variants) to cash flow to market capitalisation and so on – depending on which metric looks favourable to the management to justify their existence. In case of growth rates, the denominator is chosen carefully to give the best impression of the results – year on year or quarter on quarter or a CAGR over suitable number of years.

Using data indiscriminately to explain results often masks the distinction between the seen and the unseen factors that led to the results. While there are certain aspects that can be measured with reasonable clarity (like standardised test scores), there are many intangibles (like knowledge, efforts, wisdom) that can never be measured. The end-result, explained through numbers, is confused to be an indicator of the unseen factors and if it cannot be explained, ignores the unseen

There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics

Again attributed to wide range of sources. The importance that most show towards the use of data, they rarely show towards the calculation of it. A case in the point is that of Gross Domestic Product which is the numero uno when it comes to measuring the growth of  an economy, invariably translated to the development of the country. Rutger Bregman, in his book, “Utopia for Realists”, writes,

When the United Nations published its first standard guideline for figuring GDP in 1953, it totaled just under 50 pages. The most recent edition, issued in 2008, comes in at 722. Though it’s a number bandied about freely in the media, there are few people who really understand how the GDP is determined. Even many professional economists have no clue.

The role of data analytics in sports have become a separate field by itself. The success of Billy Beane in managing Oakland Athletics through data, serialised in the book (as well as movie) ‘Money Ball’, is one of the most popular stories managing sports through metrics. More than just managing, metrics have also changed the narrative of how sports are viewed in media as well as among fans. Gone are the days, when football game was all about the number of goals scored by the team. Now, teams have to improve their possession, number of passes, crosses, tackles, dribbles, heat maps, and what not. While these metrics explain the quantity, they are certainly not a proxy to explain the quality of the sport.

In the book, ‘Stillness and Speed’, Dennis Bergkamp recollected an incident in his later years of football career when data analytics were gaining prominence. He was once confronted with a barrage of statistics during his contract negotiations and an exasperated Dennis struck back,

Where in your statistics does it say that I changed the game with a killer pass?

Coming to Health and Running, in specific, there has been wide range of data analysis that has been used extensively by amateur and professionals. Technological improvements have resulted in getting state of the art gadgets to capture  data and availability of analytical tools, from spreadsheets to complex softwares, have made interpretation and conclusion easier. There are merits in going for a data-based approach to measuring runs and work towards running better. With wide range of metrics available, it often becomes challenging to find the right metric and interpret them in an appropriate manner. Although I stayed away from it for long, I eventually succumbed to tracking data during my runs and had mixed results. Before I narrate my experience, I would like to start with some caveats. 

First, find out why you would like to measure your running or health? You will be surprised to know that it is perfectly fine to run without bothering to measure. I never used a tracking device until 2017 and yes, I was running before I started sharing my runs on Strava.

Second, find out the relevance of the metric and the reference values, when you set your targets. Simply suggesting that you would like to run fast or use Usain Bolt’s speed in his 100m race as a reference for running a marathon does not make any sense. 

Third, get a clear idea on how it is measured. There is no point in relying on heart rate data from a device if you cannot measure your heart rate without using any device.

Fourth, don’t interpret a data for the purposes of deciding a medical treatment unless you are a medical practitioner. If you are feeling uncomfortable, consult a medical practitioner regardless of the data thrown by the device.

Fifth, allow room for possibility of error in measurement as well as interpretation. Every device is bound to fail at some point of time and every metric can be wrongly interpreted. Do not attach significance to either the data or the interpretation if you are not confident of the result.

Sixth, more (complex) data isn’t always better. Technological improvements bring in more varieties of (fancy) data with more errors. There are some new concepts like fitness age, recovery time, VO2 max, power readings, and so on. There is not doubt that these concepts are well researched, but remember that it may not be applicable for every individual in a similar manner.

Seventh, the cost versus benefit conundrum. Most activity trackers carry significant cost and not always, the benefits derived are commensurate to the costs due to limitations of the device as well as the user.

Finally, do not COMPARE data with other runners for interpretation – the physiology or the efforts made by two persons can never be the same, even if the run is on the same day and route.

Whether you measure or you don’t, never let it interfere with the joy of running, which cannot be quantified and must be reason to run.

 

Barefoot Running – My Experiments

It is ten years since I first wore a minimalist footwear for running. My decision to try one was largely due to frustrations with three pairs of shoes that I used until then. This was in 2011 and there were not any running-focused footwear shops in India; and the regular stores rarely stocked shoes for variations in width or contours of the foot. It was around the same time that the barefoot running was a hot topic in many running forums and was gaining the status of a cult movement. I rarely got affected by those discussions and was not even tempted to read ‘Born to Run’. It was only in 2019 when I finally read the book and realised that it was more than about running barefoot. Going back to shoes was, and still is, an option that I retain with me. After running Comrades in 2012 in the minimalist shoes, I was rarely tempted to go back.

Over the last decade, they have become an integral part in my running and I would like to reflect on the role played by them. Two caveats here – 1. What is applicable for barefoot running can be applied for running in general; and 2. I am still a ‘learner’ as I continue to learn the art of running. I am ever willing to correct if new evidences appear or I discover something new about myself.

Why Barefoot Running?

It is easier to run barefoot than to find out why to run barefoot. There is no conclusive evidence that it helps in running any faster or any longer. It can also be dangerous due to presence of sharp objects on the roads and trails. In terms of experience, it can be exhilaration at its best and excruciating at its worst; and one may experience anywhere in this wide spectrum.

Unlearn and Re-learn

The simplest approach to barefoot running is to start all over from the basics. The beginner mindset certainly helps in unlearning some of mistakes that we commonly do. Think you are running for the first time and do what you did when you started (without the mistakes of the past).

Aligning Body and Mind

A statement like, ‘you don’t run with legs alone’, makes running sound meta-physical and takes arguments into the realms of philosophy. Ignoring the factual accuracy, barefoot running is certainly more than removing the protection from the foot. While running by itself is about sacrificing some comforts of life, barefoot running forces the runner to take up additional challenges. The main challenge in barefoot running giving up the comfort from cushioning in shoes, which requires changes at multiple levels. 

The shock-absorption provided by shoes has to be transferred to ankles, knees, and hips. It requires extra care while landing and being conscious of the impact on different parts of the body. Landing entirely on the heel would have worse impact than running on shoes. It also requires to be more mindful while running to avoid sharp objects as well as stumbling over uneven surfaces. 

Over the years, I have learned to focus on my running posture, especially the upper body – reducing the slouch, opening up shoulders, and swinging arms better. A good running form should result in understanding the role of thighs, hips, core muscles, shoulders, arms, and sometimes, even the neck during your runs. It is a slow ongoing process and the only way to learn is by trying again and again.

One exercise that I found beneficial to help me focus and improve my running form was 100-Up. Chris made a reference to it in his article in New York Times.

Breathing

While aligning the body and mind, it is important to focus on breathing. Just like running, breathing is another area where we can constantly keep improving and it gets better with each effort. My first education in breathing was from Venu ‘Sir’. He advised me to focus on exhaling well rather than inhaling; as the lungs shrink more, they automatically expand to inhale more air. Attending Yoga sessions also helped me to learn deep breathing and use them during long runs.

Stretch and Strengthen

Regular stretching has certainly helped in a long way. Also, stretching need not be limited to pre and post runs. It can be done all through the day with adequate caution. There are no specific stretches that I would recommend but would suggest to keep stretches gentle. Core strengthening is an area that I am yet to explore in depth. Overall, a better understanding of the musculoskeletal system is of great benefit.

Impact of Body Weight

While I detest discussions on body weight and the obsession of ‘reducing’ body weight, it is important to understand the role of body weight on running. There are many reasons other than running or lack of it that affect one’s body weight. I have preferred to adjust my tempo and distance according to the changes in body weight.

Cross Training

Regular cycling has certainly helped me to recover well from my long runs. Cycling is certainly a great way to relax more than just training. Long walks is yet another way to recover from long runs.

Setting Modest Targets

I have not pursued any aggressive targets or challenge myself to do something simply because of external pressure. While this is also due to natural ageing process of my body, barefoot running helped me to be extra-cautious on this front. It is more about running naturally, understanding limitations, and never to push too hard. While running has helped me to go beyond my limits, it happened naturally with time than in a forced manner.

Changes Outside Running

The major change, outside my running, is overhauling my entire range of footwear – from casual slippers to formal shoes. I moved out of heavily cushioned footwear or even heavier footwear. I prefer flatter shoes with minimum cushioning for my regular use.

An Education

Barefoot running is an education in itself and each will have their own phases of learning. Progression in running is not about running fast or longer; it is about pursuing it with joy everyday. Unless some one runs to earn their livelihood, I do not see the need to get stressed on time or distance.

Think of barefoot running as an art rather than a ‘rocket science’ with all complexities. Run as you would like and use it as an opportunity to express yourself. It should not be seen as an end by itself – but a means to an end, which is to enjoy running and stay injury free. Should barefoot running interfere with either of the two objectives, it is best to choose the shoes that fits the best.