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Helping motivate a friend to run, as a skill swap for some motorcycle lessons, is for me, another great insight into the connection between physical exercise and musical expression – particularly singing and breathing. Breath is the key to our energy levels and brain, organ and muscle functions. As potential athletes, we have a huge advantage if we already study and train our breath through a parallel discipline. As singers who train our bodies, we naturally build up a lot of the physical support and lung power needed to sing. Running is also empowering, busts stress, aids mental capacity and floods the system with a cocktail of naturally occurring, feel-good, free drugs. It’s a wonderful resource which is just literally, a breath away.

If you’ve never run before, or want to return to running after years of absence, I would encourage anyone to just do it. I ran out of my house about 8 years ago, in a state of grief and confusion due to circumstances in my life involving a painful break up. The only thing that helped my mental condition, was hardcore, driving physical exertion. It became a habit, fitted well around existing martial arts studies – and I’ve never looked back – to the extent that I would now call my self a runner. Here’s my Top Ten Tips. I like to demystify disciplines which I think can be enjoyed and claimed by ordinary, non-expert people. Be sensible however, and work within your limits. The following is not a medically approved personal training plan. I have always been an autodidact, with some unorthodox ways of learning and of teaching, which not everyone has to agree with. This works for me and is for inspiration only.
*Be sensible and work within a framework that suits you and your current limits.

1. Shoes. Much is made of (and much is charged for) running shoes. What brand, what material, what sole etc. I don’t think anyone needs to spend vast amounts. I’m struck by kids in other parts of the world who learn to play football, in bare feet, starting from nothing, with nothing. If you are a human (or not!) and have legs and feet, (and even if you don’t, but that’s a different blog entry for another day) you are designed to run! Your trainers do not have to be used exclusively for your running, in fact it’s best if they are worn in other settings and are soft and springy, through wear. Make sure they feel supportive and comfortable and can last in wet weather, get them on – and run.

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2. Clothes. Again, no special, expensive garb necessary, in my opinion. Be cool enough and lightweight, but waterproof. Wear a hat if you know your ears are going to be sensitive to the elements (Mine are). Gloves always feel like a good idea at first, but usually end up too hot. Tuck keys, braids, laces, jewellery etc out of the way – you want to feel as light, relaxed and unencumbered as possible – especially if you hit psychological challenges.

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3. Where to run. Wherever you can. Make the most of your locality. Some people advise not to run too much on concrete, to minimise shocks through the heels. I’d advise more care over lumpy, country terrain where you have to take care of ankles. Uphill is challenging but worth it, and downhill likewise. Ideal route is a large green city or country park where you can stretch out  for distances but experience a variety of terrain and gradients underfoot. Logs to jump over, railings to vault, dogs to race, skateboard parks, benches, wall and level crossings can all enrich the experience. You want about 3-5 miles worth of ground to play with and the option to extend your route, mileage and duration in a loop.

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4. When to run. There are different benefits to different times. I love to run at dusk – especially when it’s an active release from what might have been a sedentary or ‘all-up-in-my-head’ kind of a work day. I can literally hear the mental dialogue and daily grind flowing out, and away. I love trying to beat the light, and love the company of bats, insects and sunsets. Noon, on an empty stomach is great. Early morning sets the day up, but is not my personal favourite – unless I can do it again in the evening. You can try running if you know you need to calm down, work off a bad mood, alter your perspective, release negative thoughts. (I ran, lifted weights and did martial arts right before my wisdom tooth extraction, as I knew I’d welcome the endorphin blanket.)

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5. How to run. There are many books and thoughts on technique, but I think each body shape finds a way to do what is actually a very normal thing to do. Two main things need your deep focus. Breathing and legs. Your legs need to be in good enough shape to carry you forth. I find it useful to think of running as just dancing, bouncing – then be carried forward and let your legs respond to save you from falling over. Momentum, not speed is the initial goal. Generally speaking, the emphasis should be on the ball of the foot. Keep light and springy. Start slowly and hold something in reserve, and try to distribute your energy evenly and smoothly without sudden, punishing spurts or grinding, stumbling halts. Think: legato. Focus initially on the road ahead and choose goals along the way. The next lamp post, the next bench, as far as the gate etc. When I began, I noticed a lot of tension and constriction across my sternum and shoulders and wondered what to do with why arms and hands. Now I know…let them move, let them swing and express. Bunch them into to pumping upper cuts, (useful if you want to look tough, no-one will mess with you!) or make swimming or flicking motions. Experiment and stay loose. As with so many things in life, small efficient steps strung together can really eat up the road and can be easier on the legs than massive galloping lunges. Only time yourself if it feels like a fun thing to do. I prefer to view the goal as ‘keeping in motion’ rather than ‘finishing’. Nothing every really begins or ends. Including you. All is flow. And anyway, who wants to race to the finish of a process that eventually, (believe me) will become pure fun?

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6. Tools for surviving the run. OK let’s say it again: BREATH and LEGS. You need to breathe. Initially, until it’s second nature (a point that does come and you will notice it) you will need to pay constant attention to your breathing. It’s your fuel upon which everything depends. Obvious, really. Get it in and get it out. The exhalation is where all your tension, lactic acid, and other waste products can travel swiftly out and away, freeing up more capacity. Everyone experiences a stitch at first. A side stitch can be painful and difficult to run through, but keep moving. It’s your body saying, ”lots more oxygen now please” – so listen and get more air in. The other thing that helps a stitch is to engage and support the natural abdominal corsetry in the surrounding area. Bear down, tense and pull in the muscles as you breathe. *Note, as with singing, the breath and the abdominal engagement are independent systems that help each other. Then your legs and feet need to be strong enough to enjoy constant motion. Visual images really help and can transcend and augment physical limits in a shamanistic way. The mind is powerful, and precedes all physical endeavour. When I began running, I envisaged myself as a wheel of fire, arms and legs pumping in circular motion. Do this often enough and the wheel will carry you. Find your own images/invocation and work them until they feel real. Discover the mystical depths of your own power. It’s your quest, your own mythic undertaking and your mental endurance will naturally rise to the occasion.
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7. Motivation.  This will take care of itself, if you give it a chance. The feel-good chemicals will hook you in fairly quickly and you’ll feel weird if you don’t honour your daily or weekly run. The way we build a new habit into our lives, is through repetition. I dislike the word ‘routine’ as it makes me feel numb. When we confront blocks, pain barriers, or inner resistance it can feel terrifying, and exciting. It can feel very uncomfortable and challenging and bring up emotions. But it shouldn’t be numbing or dulling. It should feel like expanding not contracting. Not surprisingly, as a musician, I prefer the concept of rhythm – there will be natural gaps in your week where a run can happen. Just allow it. Some like to run with a buddy. If so, make sure you harmonise in terms of speed, fitness, punctuality and commitment to the task. You don’t want really to be accommodating someone else’s needs or schedule. And in the early days, conversation is not really possible – you need all your breath and will to focus on the running. Don’t be surprised if thoughts such as ‘Please let this end’  or ‘I really hate this’ run through your head. You might want to encounter your demons in private, not in company. Get motivated by watching runners and athletes on TV, or talk to marathon runners – get the buzz by proxy, and let your inspiration bubble away. Imagine what it could be like to be fitter, faster, lighter, happier, stronger and more energised and know that each run takes you closer.

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8. Self-maintenance. Stretch or move before and after, whatever areas you think might be problematic for you. Hamstrings, Achilles tendon, quads, buttocks, hip sockets, are all areas that might speak to you loudly the next day, if they’ve not moved for a while. Pace yourself  as you build up strength. Good hot baths can help. As with music practice, sharp, sudden pains in joints mean stop immediately. Joints to watch out for are ankles and knees. Massage and move both just as a daily practice. Gradual, steady pain in muscle group means work through it. Any other parallel exercise you can do – yoga, martial arts, Pilates, dancing etc will help. Having strong abdominal support is vital and makes everything easier and safer – it’s a subject worthy of a separate article. I recommend Pilates. Get a book, read it, try it. What is Pilates? Briefly…Joseph Pilates  invented his own exercises to heal his own illness, during wartime  privation and (according to some accounts) captivity. From a place of extreme weakness he built himself back to health by training his body to lift its own weight. The appropriate muscle group to do this is the abdomen, the core, which contains many muscle groups and strands. It supports the organs and back. Many injuries and problems are to do with lack of  core support. It’s much easier to run, when you feel supported, contained and held in your torso area. Pilates exercises are done slowly, with focus and concentration, and even in small amounts, constitute a phenomenal workout. The principles are very practical and very simple, so don’t be mystified by the vast amount of info out there and don’t feel you have to shell out money for expensive classes. I recommend the training tips of athletes who have applied and interpreted Pilates in a way that shapes their own art in a relevant way, such as ballerina Darcey Bussell and tennis player Martina Navaratilova.

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9. ‘Don’t’s. Generally speaking, don’t eat before a run, not even a small amount. In fact it’s best if you have a slight appetite as long as your run is not likely to exceed an hour. You don’t want anything weighing you down, and even a snack will make its presence felt. You also want to give your body a chance to burn off existing calories. Likewise don’t go crazy on food immediately afterwards. Let the run ‘feed’ you for a while. Also, don’t worry, watch or compare too closely the speed or quality of others’ running. Your journey is your own.

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10. ‘Dos’. Do smile like a maniac at passers-by. Do show off by having subtle races with and overtaking other runners, especially by taking the inside of a curve. Play around with the mysteries of broken rhythm, pace and personal limits. Notice how it takes less energy to leap, not just avoid obstacles. Notice how much fun it feels to sprint the last 100 yards of the return journey, when logically you should be too tired? Listen to your instincts and discern your own energy levels. Feeling a bit reluctant or resistant? Run anyway. Feeling so exhausted by life that you are tripping over your own feet and need a nap instead? Leave it for another day.

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(Warning – like all physical exercise, running can be hypnotic and addictive. I use it as displacement activity and escapism. What was once a block can become a safety net – interesting, no? But as vices go, it’s not a bad one to have!)

 

Some inspiring resources:

Exorcising Ghosts A great website containing Haruki Murakami resources in English.

(As well as being a well-known author, Murakami is a serious runner, with a memoir entitled: ‘What I Talk About When I talk About Running.’)

Fast Girls – hip British film about running, with a line-up of fabulous female protagonists.

Kenichi Ito  – Japanese athlete – who runs on all fours. Maybe not quite my ambition, but points for dedication and self-mastery!

Official website of  400 meters champion Christine Ohuruogo.

 

(P.S. For those that don’t know me, I am a ‘Nu Jazz’ singer/songwriter, pianist and guitarist, based in London, UK. You can can check out my tunes and videos on my WEBSITE and come and like my Facebook Music page. Come and say hi…I would love to hear from you!)


 

 

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