On balance

Editor’s note: Original April 2011; updated Feb 2013, Dec 2017

Beep. It begins with B and that stands for Balance. As we said in “Best foot forward,” that starts with the feet and proper shoes. Now that we have our feet on the ground, so to speak, let’s talk some more about this notion of balance.

Balance is an attribute, the kind of grace that allows a circus performer to walk a tightrope or a gymnast to cavort on a four-inch beam. Balance is also an action, an equalizing of weights and burdens, physical or philosophical. You balance the scales, your workload, your time with friends and family.

We are built for balance while running. Our arms and legs, muscles and tendons work together to keep us moving forward over uncertain terrain and in various postures as obstacles arise. But distance runners must also balance this natural ability with effort and conditioning, because we lose grace as we tire and we suffer breakdown or injury in a variety of ways.

So, we carefully construct training plans to teach ourselves to endure running far or fast, sometimes far and fast. These plans themselves require a balance of distance training and speed training, hills and tracks, rest and exertion. They also must balance the desire to improve against our current capabilities. You may want to run five miles, but if you’ve not yet run a quarter mile, you must build up to the target over the course of weeks.

Every training plan also includes warm-up, cool-down and stretching before and after. This balances muscle building with muscle readiness, making muscles supple as well as strong.

All of the BEEPing elements — Balance, Efficiency, Effort, Patience — are in constant interplay, in such balance that they become indistinguishable as the fabric of fitness. Effort and Patience are in balance when you build slowly from a quarter mile to five miles over the course of weeks. Efficiency for a runner means Balance is evident: Stride is compact without wobble or flailing, posture is upright, head is steady.

For some of us, it’s much easier to improve by thinking of balance rather than speed, time or comfort. If we focus on lap times, a high number disappoints. If we focus on muscle pain or difficulty breathing, panic may shut us down. Fear and doubt upset our balance, and we will run less efficiently, which will feed our fear and doubt, which will … You get the idea.

A mechanical rule of thumb: What one part does, others must balance. For our purposes, we’ll say, “What your arms do, your legs must follow.”

This is one way to control your effort on hills. Think of your arms, not your legs. Running uphill, you bring your arms in tight and pump hard in a compact motion. You keep your elbows close to your body, moving them very little, and you don’t reach out forward with your arms. Most of the motion is concentrated up and down. This forces your strides to be mostly short with higher knee lifts, meaning your powerful thigh muscles are doing the hill work. This is the efficient way to power up a hill. (For those of you who think better on your feet — rather than on your arms, if you catch my drift — shorten your stride and drive with your thighs. Your arms will tuck in and pump to match.) It also helps to lean into the hill because this keeps your motion tight, stopping you from reaching too far forward and making stretchy tendons and ligaments do what muscles should.

Going downhill follows the same principle with the opposite application. You let your arms flap freely in a windmill motion reaching forward, which lengthens your stride and makes gravity do most of the work for you. You’ll want to be careful to maintain your balance so as not to go flat on your face at downhill speed! (For those who think of your legs first, extend your stride and your arms will flail in sync.)

Another rule of thumb: Build weekly mileage by no more than 5%-7%. If you’re running 10 miles a week, you can add half a mile to your total each week the next five weeks. When you get to 15 miles a week, you can add one mile a week, and so on. You can do this by adding a little bit to each workout, or you may wish to consider just adding the whole distance to your otherwise easiest day. Again, we’re talking about balancing the effort to increase endurance with the tendency to break down under stress. We’re avoiding overuse. If you add the distance by chopping it up a little each day, you spread the impact of the change so it’s small on any given day. If you add it whole to your easiest day, you are building that into a harder day and balancing your overall weekly effort.

On balance, I think that’s enough for today. Oh, and don’t forget a balanced diet.

Feel free to ask questions, demand fuller explanations or suggest topics.