“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

Ok, but you have to admit that no matter what, running sucks at first. At what point does it stop sucking?
Normally things change noticeably for a beginning runner somewhere between six and 10 weeks. But even before that happens, if the runner is truly miserable, it’s probably because he or she is doing something wrong. I automatically suspect they’re running too fast—and I’m almost always right. Ideally, the beginning runner should feel a level of joy in just going out there and being able to run. It’s harder and harder to hold on to that joy when you become more proficient and can push yourself harder and harder. If it sucks, it’s probably because something’s not comfortable, and if it’s not comfortable, that’s probably something of the runner’s own doing. Slow down, make sure you’re in the right shoes, and make sure your legs aren’t being beat up on the wrong surface.

What should be more of a priority: speed or distance?
For the beginning runner, distance; for the competitive runner, speed. Very few beginning runners are trying to compete. I’d focus on distance because with distance comes increased exposure to the pounding. And with that exposure, you’ll experience more adaptation to the pounding, so it becomes more natural and comfortable. Just give yourself permission to stop and take breaks; walking is not illegal. When I see people running in place at stop lights, I shake my head. It’s really not going to kill you to stop for 30 seconds.

Is cross-training a must?
There are two forms of cross-training: muscular fitness and cardiovascular fitness. Do whatever you want in terms of muscular fitness from the waist up. But from the waist down, remember that running is its own kind of strength training for the legs—we just tend not to think of it that way. So you should leave the legs alone in the weight room.

In terms of cardio, you have to understand that other forms of aerobic exercise simply don’t carry over to running. If you’re working in some time on a bike or the elliptical, have a good reason for it, like losing weight or coming back from injury. Just don’t approach a cross-training aerobic exercise as if it’ll enhance your running. I don’t cross-train for anything other than injury, and I think that’s the case with any serious, competitive runner. It’s a page recreational runners could take out of our book. Learning how to be a successful daily runner who doesn’t get hurt is the ultimate achievement a runner could have.

iPod or no iPod?
I think running suffers from the general notion that running sucks. As a result, people give themselves permission to do everything they can to take their mind as far away as possible from the act of running. That’s bad news. I can’t imagine a basketball player who would go out on the court and intentionally set out to take his mind as far away from the game as possible—it doesn’t make sense. If that’s how you approach running, you’re setting yourself up for a bad experience.

When I run inside, I come to the gym before it opens. All the lights are off; the music is off. It’s just me on the machine trying to feel every stride. Over the course of an eight-mile run, that could amount to more than 9,000 strides. I try to be in tune to every one—how my feet are landing, the position of my torso. I’m paying attention to spots of tension and figuring out what I can do to release that tension. I am in communication with myself the entire time. I don’t have a hard time keeping myself interested. In fact, I have a harder time not being overwhelmed by everything I’m observing about myself. I encourage runners to observe, feel and experiment. See what happens. If you feel a twinge in your calf, change the way your foot is hitting the ground. Observe the way you’re breathing, and how that changes your running. Learn about yourself. It’ll keep you preoccupeid and make you a better runner.

Do you avoid certain foods or drinks when you’re in serious training?
People assume endurance athletes eat what they want and just run it off. Actually, endurance athletes work a lot and eat little. When you called, I was just finishing a lunch that will probably be my biggest meal of the day: a salad of spinach, carrots and tomatoes with pumpernickel bread and quinoa. It’s high-octane stuff. I don’t restrict anything I like from my eating schedule. I like sweets—I’m married a pastry chef. But I just have to limit myself. I don’t know a lot of athletes who get caught up in a long list of exclusions. It’s about eating less of everything, no matter what it is. Every pound of you that there is not is three pounds of pounding you don’t have to endure. So as a runner, it’s in your best interest to be lean.