Book Review: What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

“You end up exhausted and spent, but later, in retrospect, you realize what it all was for. The parts fall into place, and you can see the whole picture and finally understand the role each individual part plays. The dawn comes, the sky grows light, and the colors and shapes of the roofs of houses, which you could only glimpse vaguely before, come into focus.”

I just finished another great book by Haruki Murakami, “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. Hours after I finished the last chapter I’d already handed the book to a coworker to read. I highly recommend it. I might be biases towards Murakami because I am also a fan of his fiction writing, but this memoir/ running journal was a lovely read.

Not all of us train everyday to be an olympic athlete, and most of us wouldn’t want to, or wouldn’t have the motivation to do so. What I appreciated out of this book was how he related his running and training toward his work as a writer and a person in today’s society. To be a long-distance runner and participate in over 25 marathons and numerous triathletes, you can already guess that Murakami is very dedicated to running, and has some serious will power to continue even after all these years.  He found running because he felt himself gaining weight and losing energy when he started writing full time. Even though he kept a busy schedule with work, he would still find time to run for an hour almost every day. The memoir talks about some of the places where he has run, and races he’s participated in, but mostly its about the struggle to keep going. But overcoming the struggle to get moving brings immense satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment.

“People sometimes sneer at those who run every day, claiming they’ll go to any length to live longer. But don’t think that’s the reason most people run. Most runners run not because they want to live longer, but because they want to live life to the fullest. If you’re going to while away the years, it’s far better to live them with clear goals and fully alive then in a fog, and I believe running helps you to do that. Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life — and for me, for writing as whole. I believe many runners would agree.”

It doesn’t get any easier, even after running for 25 years apparently. But his notes, looking back on that roller coaster, the thoughts and inspirations that have come to him over time are emotional and heart warming. Running can be a little bit like meditation, once you find that groove, your body takes over and your mind quiets down.

“All I do is keep on running in my own cozy, homemade void, my own nostalgic silence. And this is a pretty wonderful thing. No matter what anybody else says.”

Murakami admits that he sometimes prefers to be by himself, he talks about not having the most likable disposition, so training long hours alone suited him. I think everyone needs to be alone once in a while though (to take a moment of reflection, to clear the brain) and working out no matter what you are doing, can be a great time to give yourself that opportunity. Otherwise why are you doing it? One of Murakami’s mantras while running is “Pain is inevitable. Suffering is optional.”

One of the chapters that resonated the most to me was him talking about getting older and how he never really imagined himself getting older. He remembered Mick Jagger once saying “I’d rather be dead than singing ‘Satisfaction’ when I’m forty five”.  But who can laugh at Mick Jagger, who was still singing Satisfaction into his sixties? We all think we are going to be young forever, when we are young. This is all our first times growing older, he says, and so these feelings are new, and we don’t always know how to deal with them. I think everyone no matter how old they are can relate to that.

I think most people are competitive in nature, but not everyone chooses to be competitive all the time. In one section Murakami talks about the nature of running and how if the only reason to participate in a race was to beat a particular person, we wouldn’t have any motivation when that person didn’t show up to the race. Running has to be motivated from somewhere in yourself. I think that can be true to most competitive sports, but running in particular.

“For me, running is both exercise and a metaphor. Running day after day, piling up the races, bit by bit I raise the bar, and by clearing each level I elevate myself. At least that’s why I’ve put in the effort day after day: to raise my own level. I’m no great runner, by any means. I’m at an ordinary – or perhaps more like mediocre – level. But that’s not the point. The point is whether or not I improved over yesterday. In long-distance running the only opponent you have to beat is yourself, the way you used to be.”

So whether or not you are interested in running, or writing, I would recommend reading this book. It gives inspiration to those of us who struggle to get up early in the morning to work out- or train for a particular goal, but it also gives the reader insight into some observations on life and people in general.

“Has the dark shadow really disappeared?
Or is it inside me, concealed, waiting for its chance to reappear?
Like a clever thief hidden inside a house, breathing quietly, waiting until everyone’s asleep. I have looked deep inside myself, trying to detect something that might be there. But just as our consciousness is a maze, so too is our body. Everywhere you turn there’s darkness, and a blind spot. Everywhere you find silent hints, everywhere a surprise is waiting for you.”

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On Knees

The knee is often considered to be the most complicated joint in the human body. It is a large and often injured structure. Many of us, of all ages, struggle with knee pain, and it annoyingly can get in the way with exercise.

The catch-22 with exercise is that too much of it can lead to overuse injuries, commonly of the knee, and too little leaves muscles and joints prone to accidental injuries if you’re not careful. And once you have an injury, you are even more likely to sustain another in the future. So what’s the solution?

My best advice if you are suffering from knee pain, but there hasn’t been a formal “injury” to the joint, is to take preventative action! That goes for people who have had knee injuries in the past as well. Keeping the surrounding muscles and tendons strong is the best way to get rid of the pain and help prevent an injury from occurring. My knees have begun to bother me due to the athletic stress and unpredictability of over 13 years of modern and classical dance. They pop and crack constantly. So my compromise is to run on an even treadmill instead of hilly concrete, which has made all the difference in keeping my knees from hurting after long runs.

The vastus medialis is the muscle of the quadriceps on the inner part of the thigh. Strengthening this muscle is often prescribed for relieving knee pain when squatting, sitting or going up or down stairs. The muscle inserts into the quadriceps femoris tendon and the medial (inner) part of the knee cap. As a part of the quadriceps it’s basic action is to extend (straighten) the knee joint. But due to its location, it is believed to activate most when the knee is fully extended.

Strengthening the abductors and adductors of the thigh will also help stabilize the knee joint. Other stabilizers of the knee, which are a little less intuitive, are the hip extenders such as the hamstrings and the gluteus maximus. Weakness in these muscles can sometimes cause rotation in the leg which can agitate the knee joint.

The exercise below are targeting these muscles in an effort to relieve and prevent knee pain. Form is very important in these exercises, you want to make sure you are targeting the right muscles and not setting yourself up for a different injury. Have a mirror or a friend ready to help you if needed.

Stability ball leg extensions: (quadriceps) Sit up straight on a stability ball with your feet flat on the floor, knees at a 90 degree angle.  Find your balance, and a tall spine by taking a few moments to tilt your pelvis forward and backward. Settle once you find a neutral pelvic position. On an exhale, extend one leg out in front of you. Be careful not to lock the knee joint completely but try to concentrate on flexing your quadricep muscles. Relax that down and repeat on the other side. Do four sets, trying to keep the leg out in front of you at a 90 degree angle for a couple of slow breaths.

Ballet demi plies: (quadriceps, external rotators of the hip, hamstrings, adductors) Stand tall with your feet together. Now slightly turn out (externally rotate) your thighs so your feet are making a small V shape. You aren’t training to be a ballerina so really take it easy on the rotation and only go as far as feels comfortable. Your inner thighs and rotators (underneath the glutes) should be working in this position. Inhale and bend the knees slightly so that the heels of your feet are still on the ground. On the exhale, press into the floor and squeeze the inner thighs together to come back to a standing position. Repeat slowly 8 times and then again separating the feet a little beyond the shoulders (2nd position in ballet).

Ball squats: (quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings) These are good to do if you don’t want the stress of regular squats. Stand feet parallel and hip width apart with a stability ball behind your lower back and against a wall. Let the ball guide you down into a squat aiming to get into a sitting position. Press your feet into the floor and squeeze your glutes to come back to the starting position making sure your shoulders are over your hips and your abs are engaged throughout the entire exercise.

Sitting leg lifts: (quadriceps) Trying to target the vastus medialis, sit against a wall with your legs stretched out in front of you. On an exhale, tighten your abs and lift the right leg flexing the quadriceps muscle. Hold for a few counts then slowly lower down. Repeat on the other side, Do 5-8 reps.

Quadruped leg lift series (hamstrings, glutes) On a mat, or putting a towel underneath the knees, get into a quadruped position (all fours). Make sure your shoulders are directly above your wrists and your knees directly under your hips. If your wrist begin to hurt during this exercise, feel free to come down onto your elbows maintaing a neutral spine. Keep the abdominals engaged and extend the right leg straight behind you. Pulse the leg up 15-20 times in a quick 1.)lift a few inches 2.)hold 3.)lower a few inches pattern (controlled pulses). Repeat to the other side. Repeat with the knee bent at a 90 degree angle with your heel going straight up to the ceiling, then again with the thigh externally rotated.

Inner thigh leg lifts: (adductors) Lie on a mat on your left side with your hips and shoulders stacked directly over each other extend the bottom leg long and either bend the top knee and put the foot on the ground in front of your left thigh or get a yoga block and rest your knee on a block in front of your left thigh.Keep the abs lifted and engaged as you lift your bottom leg off the ground using your inner thigh muscles. Your hips should not move. Lift and lower the bottom leg 16-20 times then hold it up and trace a tiny circle with your heel 10 times in both directions.Then extend your top leg straight out and hold it at hip height. Bring your bottom leg up to meet your top leg, squeezing the thighs together before lowering the left leg down. Repeat 8 times then switch to the other side.

Lunges: (adductors, abductors, hamstrings, glutes, quadriceps) Start in a standing position feet parallel and hip width apart, hands on hips. Take a big step forward with the right leg keeping the shoulders over the hips and your abdominals engaged. Don’t let your knee track beyond your toes but make sure it is tracking in a straight over the middle of the foot. Your pelvis should lower into a 90 degree angle from ankle to knee to pelvis. The shin of your left leg will be roughly parallel to the ground and you will probably get a little stretch in the front of the left hip. Bring the left leg up to meet the right as you stand up then repeat on the left side. Take 16-20 steps moving around the room, then try to reverse the lunge by stepping backwards.