This spring I set out to learn more about running and, along the way, stumbled into learning something about why courses typically include what they do: a book, assignments, classmates and a professor.
It started, as so many adventures do, with a book. In this case Chi Running. Authors Danny and Katherine Dreyer (Asheville locals) draw on experience in Tai Chi to provide a perspective on running which emphasizes good mechanics and relaxed movement. For someone prone to pushing too hard too soon and causing self-inflicted injuries like shin splints, the promise of this approach is quite appealing.
In their book, the Dreyers layout all the basic concepts, the theory behind them, methods of practice and, as is required of all fitness books, a liberal supply of anecdotes. Having taught these ideas to hundreds of people, they have a strong sense of what to introduce and when, how much they need to say to get the point across, and how to say it memorably.
There is a certain irony in reading a book about running while sitting on your couch. To learn in any meaningful way, the ideas have to be put into practice. So I lace up my go-fasters and hit the streets of West Asheville. Some of the concepts are immediately rewarding to apply, such as "land on the middle of your foot, not your heels." Others mystify me: "running uphill, use your arms and abs instead of your legs." I make some progress, but can only glean so much feedback from my reflection in store fronts as I trot past. To learn more, I need people.
On Saturday mornings, a small group of new Chi Runners gather to do steadily longer runs in preparation for the Asheville Marathon this Fall. After an awkward period of walking up to people in the park and asking “are you here to chi run?” I find the group and soon we are off for a mellow five miles.
The biggest gain from the peer group for me turns out to be not informative, but social. Now there is a time, place and prescribed route for doing the long runs each week. Having people who expect me and who will ask where I’ve been if I miss a week is very different than having a plan in a spreadsheet. And there is now a recurring appointment on my calendar for Saturday mornings which makes it a lot easier to defend that time from encroaching obligations. The peer group quickly becomes a commitment, to other humans, which I need to keep and this keeps me on track as the miles escalate.
However, these lovely, generous, wonderful people, share roughly the same level of understanding and experience that I have. We are all beginners. And while it is helpful to hear how others had interpreted one idea or another, none of us had any real authority. No expertise. What I needed was an instructor.
According to the official website, Jeff is a Master Instructor of Chi Running. We meet early one morning at a school track and my learning is accelerated dramatically. Jeff has amazing powers no book could ever have. For example, he can:
- give feedback and correction in real time based on what he sees me doing
- diagnose my particular problems and guide me to resolving those
- answer my questions
When Danny and Katherine wrote the book they were writing for everyone - that's the nature of a book. But what Jeff says on the track is just for me, focusing on what is holding me back and the dozen things I most need to work on next. This hour cost four times what the book cost, but it is well worth it for the growth in understanding.
So I return to West Asheville neighborhoods to work on the things Jeff explained and to get ready for my next Saturday long run. And somewhere between the ice cream shop and the mattress store it occurs to me:
- PAGES - Without the book, I would be trying to capture and organize a collection of snippets gleaned here and there. Having it all in one place as a cohesive work of instruction is really helpful.
- PRACTICE - The running I do alone is what a science lab or paper writing is supposed to be; a chance to try these ideas out. Learning without application is like reading about running while sitting on the couch.
- PEERS - The Saturday runners are my class and very quickly created accountability. As thin as our connections are, I still felt the pull of “I have to go.” And on rainy mornings, this commitment makes all the difference.
- PRO - Jeff, the coach, is my instructor. Individualized attention. Diagnosing my particular problems and providing the focused instruction I need. Answering questions about the material. Telling me which parts I'm understanding and where I still need work.
Like you, I’ve been around this magical mix of book, practice, peers and instructor since kindergarten. But this summer, in light of my adventures in Chi Running, it’s making a lot more sense. It feels less like “the way we’ve always done it” and more like the wisdom of tradition; all the key ingredients to give students the best chance of success.