The Play's the Thing

“The play’s the thing, in which to catch the conscience of the King” - Hamlet


If you’ve never been injured, move right along.  If you’ve never lost the running versus nappy change argument, Lisa is waiting for you in the Brand! New! Gear! section of the mag. If you’ve never gone through periods of just feeling ...tired...then I take it you’re too busy out training to be reading this column anyway.  But for us mortals, there is a period of famine that just as much defines our training as those lean, fit months when we’re in plentiful full cry.

The first signs are so familiar... you’re sick to death of your morning jog. Tired of mincing in a knee shattered dance around the scattered dog litter of your local park. Afternoon timetrials are getting you down too – nasty, crowded things full of people who don’t have to push a pram while they run or look like they’ve just stepped out of Nike central casting instead of an 8 hour audition for The Office.  And the manifold joys of yet another 6am Sunday start begin to make golf look like a genuinely attractive option.  I know it’s taboo but I’ll let you admit it: Sometimes the competition between the road and the couch is no contest at all.

The trick here is to catch the feeling early.  There is nothing wrong with skipping a day or even a week of training.  But what is essential is to replace your run with something else.  Can’t face the crunch of frost on your shoes?  Go and pay the ten buck entrance fee at the local indoor pool and remind yourself for a bit why running is so much less likely to kill you than swimming.  Afternoon traffic too thick to get to the timetrial? Take the dog, the kids and a tennis ball to the park for twenty minutes.  The missus giving you a hard time about Sunday mornings on the road?  Book yourselves into an hour of yoga before your repentive dinner date.

Yes, all of the above looks suspiciously like cross training and many of us do break up our running week with a trundle out on the old mountain bike, but that’s still training. How many folk do you know who can put in a thousand kays between New Year’s Day and Kingsmead Stadium but can’t seem to get out of bed for the last 6 months of the year?  We so easily forget that most of us were active teenagers who gradually migrated into running as we got older.  Remember Standard 8?  Remember cycling to school, cricket at break, touch during PE and a pickup game of stingers between the changerooms and rugby practice?  No wonder we ran like the wind.  We never trained.  We just played.

Get it back.  Block out a session a week as play time.  The rules are simple.  It has to be active.  Smoky pool bars don’t count.  And it can’t be quantifiable.  By all means, write a line in your training diary saying, “beat son 3-2 in garden soccer Grand Final.  I rule!” but don’t you dare wear your heart rate monitor.  Just take a moment out of your week to remember that fun is just as good for you as fartlek and you’ll find that the days that you do run start getting easier again.  The other option, the 6 months on 6 months off cycle of so many South African runners, is a nightmare that leads assuredly to sore knees, slower times and that sort of guilt tinged obligation that ruins many a great sunrise run. 

My training group’s biggest discovery this year has been the value of the minimalist running program.  The guys who have committed themselves to a regular light 4km a day and then piled any old activity on top of that (which admittedly, sometimes included a genuine, bleed-from-the-eyes track session) have got through the ultra season fitter, happier and more injury free than the big mileage pundits.  To be a runner is fine, but when you play, when you’re just you, then powerful things happen.

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