Among the more uninspiring comments from passersby I often hear while running are those regarding my speed such as “slow down!”, “nice clip!” or “pick up the pace!”. For instance, just this week one particularly obnoxious and self-amused kid informed me that I wasn’t going fast enough … fast enough for what? To impress him? To thoroughly exhaust myself? Clearly not, but it was certainly the ideal speed for the comfortable, restorative 10-miler needed to revive myself at the end of a long day in lab. From where has our modern running culture developed its current precoccupation with speed? Runners are constantly bombarded with messages that we need the latest and greatest timing device to monitor our pace, fancy shoes guaranteed to make us sprint with ease or a professionally designed training plan to achieve a race PR. But how did we form this misconception that speed, above all else, is the ultimate measure of running excellence? What about achieving proper form, improving endurance or simply maintaining a passion for the pure pleasure of running? While these might be priorities for some, they’ve clearly taken the back seat to the belief that fast is good, faster is better, and speed is the only way to establish yourself as a skilled and serious runner.
Sure, many are introduced to running as a competitive sport, by participating in track or cross-country teams or local road races. Understandably, in these contexts speed = victory, so yes, faster is better. However, I’ve encountered recreational runner after runner with no racing experience or racing intentions who remain convinced that their speed is a direct measure of their merit as a runner.
Many runners, competitive or not, set a target pace as their primary running goal. Training fast is certainly an important step toward racing fast, and setting a personal goal and working diligently to achieve it can be rewarding and fulfilling. However, taken to the extreme as many runners do, could this preoccupation actually be detrimental – mentally, physically or both? In my early years as a track and cross-country athlete and during my transition to marathoning, I too set time goals, monitored my pace on every run and even bought one of those ridiculous GPS watches that gave my wrist a fantastic strength workout. Not surprisingly, my perception of my running ability soared and plummeted with every insignificant variation in my speed, and pushing hard every run drained my muscles and motivation. Now, even while training, I adhere to the general principal that my body, not a watch or generic one-size-fits-all training plan, will tell me how fast to run. By allowing myself to take it easy when feeling worn out or weak or let loose simply because I have the urge, I’m able to run further and longer, remain healthy and avoid injury. And most importantly – run after run, fast or slow, I’m guaranteed that simple thrill of being carried along by my own two feet.