The Little-Known Philosophy of Gentle Running

Lessons from Joe Henderson’s book Long Slow Distance: The Humane Way to Train

John running at one of his favorite spots in Clough State Park, NH.

If you enjoy running like so many millions of American’s do, or even if you hate running and don’t understand those wacko’s who actually derive pleasure from miles upon miles of road and trail work, then you’ll probably love reading Joe Henderson’s book Long Slow Distance. Joe has been running and racing since the 1950’s and has completed over 700 races. He was formerly the chief editor for Runners World magazine and wrote articles for it for over 30 years, along with authoring over two dozen books on the subject of running. Since 1982, Joe has also maintained a Running Commentary, providing valuable nuggets of advice he’s picked up along his journey. This guy is a runner through and through – the real deal.

Joe still runs today, which is remarkable because most people Joe’s age couldn’t run year-round if they wanted to. Running is one of the highest injury-producing sports, but people like Joe are proving to the world that it doesn’t have to be this way. Running injuries don’t need to be the norm, and I think Joe’s training philosophy can go a long way towards this end. I like to call it the philosophy of gentle running, which you’re going to get a taste of in the next few minutes.

This intangible training philosophy is quite the departure from what is traditionally expressed in modern running culture. So, be prepared to challenge your perspective. We live in a world where speed is everything. But the faster we go, the more we realize that something is missing. That quantity isn’t always better than quality – that we might just be happier with less.

Below, I’ve provided some brief quotations and excerpts that I grabbed from Joe’s book. I’ve also offered my thoughts and commentary, too. These aren’t necessarily new concepts, but they are rare in our day and age. These ideas are certainly worth exploring by both competitive and recreational runners.

Selected Quotes and Commentary From Joe Henderson’s book Long Slow Distance: The Humane Way to Train (Tafnews Press, 1969).

Newton wrote in his book, Races and Training, “Two primary considerations are essential: (1) You must practice as frequently as you possibly can, and (2) you must never permit yourself to approach real exhaustion, must never become badly tired. So long as you stick to these two, you will continuously progress. The less closely you adhere, the longer it will take you to get thoroughly fit.”

Those two tid-bits of advice could merit deep study. I think most people would agree that frequent practice is the highest indicator of success with running (click here to learn what successful running entails). Although, the vast majority of people who run frequently are also running while injured. We know that running while injured is not making things any better (much worse, actually). So, frequent practice, if it must be done at the expense of pain and injury, isn’t a sustainable habit. I think this is due, in part, to the fact that runners tend to exhaust themselves more often than not. You rarely hear about a someone going out for a run to energize themselves, relieve some stress, or to take a break at the end of the day. Running is usually equated with pain, fatigue, and even exhaustion. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

“The first step to enjoying running — and anyone will enjoy it if he takes that first step — is to achieve perfect fitness,” Lydiard wrote in his first book: Run to the Top. “I don’t mean just the ability to run half a mile once a week without collapsing. I mean the ability to run great distances with ease at a steady speed.” His “first step”, naturally, was slowing down and learning to go long before trying to go fast.

Generally, I believe in relaxed training, whatever pace that may mean. Marathons are getting much faster, but it is speed through strength. Strength is always the single most important factor, and it is gained through many miles of training. And these miles are possible only if one is training at an easy pace. – Amby Burfoot

Relaxed running, or what I’ve called effortless running, is a concept that I’ve covered in the past (article here). I think it’s certainly possible for any healthy (ie uninjured) runner to achieve an effortless running gait and pace. Like all things, it takes practice, but it is oh so worth it! Relaxed running is a pre-requisite that makes it possible to enjoy the experiences that running offers and opens up a whole new world of possibilities.

Now, there’s a distinct difference between enjoyment and satisfaction when it comes to running. I think anyone who hits the roads or the trails will be satisfied with their decision and hopefully their performance, too. In the same breath, if you’re not relaxed, then it’s unlikely you will experience the joy of running in the present. Let me be clear that the joy of running is not some elusive concept involving the transcendence of physicality, but simply the notion of having fun while you run. Imagine that!

My experience has echoed Lydiard’s recommendation to build endurance before building speed, and the same could be applied to other physical training pursuits, too. Go long before you go fast.

“The best strategy is to slowly build up your strength over several years.” – Amby Burfoot

If that doesn’t defy conventional running wisdom, I don’t know what does! YEARS? You mean to tell me that I have to wait years before I can enjoy high-performance running? Yep. If you want to enjoy this activity for the rest of your life, then you’ll want to take every precaution you can, and that means progressing gradually (a little trick I like to call incremental progression).

Seriously, we are literally submerged in the quick-fix mentality within our microwave-ready, fast food society. If you want to master something, even something seemingly as simple as running, it’s not going to happen in a few months time. It takes a lot of dedication, patience, and hard work (a few commodities that are hard to find these days). But if you just want to burn a few calories, be my guest!

A fast-training friend, Ray Menzie, observed, “Arguing training methods is as futile as arguing religion or politics. There aren’t any completely right or completely wrong answers, though everyone naturally thinks his is the best system.”

That’s definitely an important reminder that should not go ignored. There is more than one way to skin a cat, and there is more than one way to succeed in running long-term. Joe says this is the key: “Intuition and experience determine proper pace and distance, without help from arbitrarily established schedules.” Man oh man! I wish more people understood and taught this. The trouble is that some people are so utterly disconnected from their physicality that they don’t even know how to use their intuition anymore. They’ve lost touch with their true nature, and intuition is something that must be relearned – and this can only be done through experience.

My advice: follow a program that was created by someone who knows what they’re doing – someone who has gone before you and made the mistakes already. Commit to a winning formula, but be open to listening to that little voice that guides you forward. Eventually, the standardized program will suit your circumstances less and less. With time, it won’t be suitable anymore, and you’ll eventually be forced to move forward purely on intuition. This doesn’t happen in a few months though, and sometimes it takes years. Commit to the long haul, and be open for personal exploration.

I will leave you with some wise words from elite runner, Amby Burfoot, who said:

“Practice the art of thinking for yourself, and don’t be afraid to assert yourself. Listen to others but realize that ultimately you are best able to judge what is best for yourself. Above all, pay no heed to pressures leveled against you, and compete simply for the sheer enjoyment and excitement of it.”

If you like what you’re hearing, then the whole book is definitely worth a read. It’s not very long, and you can read the entire book for free at Joe’s website here. Or pick up a copy for less than $3 at here.

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Health-First Fitness Coach

P.S. I had a brief email exchange with Joe late last year, in which he informed me that he used to run barefoot in training and racing, but that the habit slipped away over the years. He said that he still wears light shoes and often goes barefoot around the house.

2 Responses

  1. Tree McCurdy

    Thank you so much for this review and the new light it sheds for me. Since my teens, I’ve spontaneously incorporated short stretches of running in my multi-mile walks– but even though I ran almost every day, I learned quickly not to identify myself as a “real” runner. In recent years, I’ve pulled back from the gentle running my body wants, because I believed I was greatly increasing my risk of injury without actually doing “enough” to benefit my body. This is permission to trust myself again.

  2. Good for you, bud. Keep at it!

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