“If Running Sucks, You’re Doing It Wrong”

Professional runner (and Philly native) Phil Clark doles out advice for runners of all stripes—from how to get started to making running suck less

Photograph by Shakirra Clark

Phil Clark is a serious runner. He’s been doing it for 25 years, through high school, college and now as a professional athlete. A Philly native, Clark ran cross country and track at St. James high school in Chester, where he was part of a nationally ranked team. He went on to Yale where he specialized in jumping events—long jump, triple jump, hurdles—and after college joined a team of elite track-and-field athletes.

Clark’s current goal? To compete in the 2012 summer Olympics in London. Over the years he’s transitioned to distance running—back to his cross-country roots, he says—and currently competes in the 1,500 meter event.

When he’s not training for his own races, Clark coaches other runners. He also owns the Northern Liberties gym the Training Station, which he opened a year and a half ago and is stocked with machines and equipment he actually uses himself—”like a treadmill that can handle a four-minute mile,” he says. Whoa.

Although he’s in serious Olympics-training mode now, Clark took a few minutes to answer our running questions—the perfect complement to our fall-race roundup, don’t ya think? We picked his brain about speed vs. distance, whether or not to cross train and how to keep preoccupied during long runs. (Hint: Leave the iPod at home.) Read on for more.

What’s the running culture like here in Philly?
Philly is a city with an unusually active running life. It’s home to what has become the country’s largest 10 miler—the Broad Street Run—and the Philadelphia Marathon, one of the biggest marathons in the country. And the city has, in terms of natural terrain, some great places to run—a good mix of hills and flats. Plus, we have some legendary collegiate running programs—most notably Villanova, but schools like Penn, Haverford and Widener also have programs of great tradition. It’s a great city for a runner.

Do you like that more and more recreational runners are participating in marathons and other races?
I have mixed feelings about it. I think it’s great that people want to participate, but I just wish there was a correspondingly high level of preparation. Running is an inherently serious sport. Every time you land a stride, you hit the ground with a force of three times your body weight, and the ground hits you right back with the same amount of force. You land 15,000 times a mile; stretch that out over a 5K, 10K, 10 miles or a half marathon, and you’re talking hundreds of thousands of tons of pounding that your knees and feet have to endure. I think the seriousness of running gets lost in the fact that we do it so naturally. You don’t think of yourself crashing down with 400 or 500 pounds coming behind you. But people who don’t take it seriously are often the ones who wind up getting hurt.

What are the most common mistakes you see?
It starts with the running surface, which includes not only the ground you run on but the shoes and socks you put on your feet. I see lots of people who have shoes that are too small or too old or are just flat out dead. And people will treat the ground beneath their feet as if it’s inconsequential. Remember, every time you land a shock wave goes through your body, and the muscles and skeleton have to stop that vibration. The magnitude of the shock wave depends on what surface your feet land on; it’s a combination of the sock, shoe and ground. Some surfaces are hospitable, some are hostile. A tight shoe pounding away on concrete is extremely hostile. A nice cushioned sock covering a foot that’s in a spacious shoe, which lands on asphalt or turf—that’s far more hospitable.

What advice do you have for beginners?
Set out knowing that you’re going to feel slow—and that’s okay. I think a lot of beginners start running too fast or too far. They run the speed or distance they think they should be running, as opposed to what’s actually appropriate. So tell yourself, “I’m going to go out here and run with this objective in mind: to always be able to talk.” If you get to the point where you can’t carry a conversation while you run, you’re running too fast.