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

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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[2], 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[3], 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.

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.

  1. [Image]: https://www.phillymag.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/09/philclark.jpg
  2. Training Station: http://www.phillytrainingstation.com/
  3. fall-race roundup: http://blogs.phillymag.com/bewellphilly/2011/09/06/great-races-fall/

Source URL: https://www.phillymag.com/be-well-philly/2011/09/07/running-qa/