Amby Burfoot: Running is a gift for life

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Note: Grace Cottage's Graceful Health guest columnist Amby Burfoot was the winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon and ran competitively for many years. He last completed the Boston Marathon in 2018, on the 50th anniversary of his win. Burfoot is the former editor-in-chief of Runner's World, and he continues to write and speak about his running experiences and perspectives. His personal experience may not represent all runners. If you would like to continue the conversation, you can hear him speak Friday, May 10, 5:30 to 6:30 p.m., at the Brooks Memorial Library in Brattleboro. He will also attend the Grace Cottage Family Health & Hospital "Spring into Health" 5K on May 11. The race begins at 8:30 a.m. Come early to register or register online at gracecottage.org.

As a former Boston Marathon winner, I get asked lots of questions about running. As someone who has run about 110,000 miles in the last 50 years, I get asked even more. Here are the ones I get asked most often, along with my answers. I hope they will spark you to take up a running and exercise program, or to continue the one you're on.

Question: Why run?

Answer: Walking and running are inherent human abilities — I call them "gifts." Every physically unchallenged baby is born with the ability to flex the knees forward and back. That is, to walk and then to run. When we move in this way, we stay lean, fit and healthy. When we sit too much, we grow round and unhealthy. Fifty years ago, science focused on the heart-health benefits of running, which have since been proven in thousands of medical studies. For the last decade, the most exciting research has investigated the mind benefits: low depression rates and low Alzheimer's and cognitive decline. Healthy body, healthy mind: It's a good combination.

Q: If running is so healthy, why are runners always getting injured?

A: I knew you'd ask that. It's true that runners face injuries of the aches-and-pains variety. However, these are soft-tissue injuries that generally go away in three to seven days if rested. They usually aren't knee anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries or shoulder tears that require surgery and long recoveries. Experienced runners learn when they need to rest or cross-train (engage in another exercise or fitness routine while resting certain muscles), and when they can return to easy running. They "listen to" their bodies and continue running healthily for decades.

Q: What's the best way to get started running?

A: All running begins with a combination of walking and running. Children call this "play," and adults should mimic them. I recommend a 6-week program that consists of 24 minutes (roughly 2 miles) of walking and running that starts with mostly walking and ends with mostly running. It looks like the list below. After you reach 24 minutes, you can decide if you want to do more or you can simply adopt 24 minutes as a lifelong fitness program. Do the following workout three or four times per week. Do all running as a very slow and comfortable effort.

Week 1: Walk 2.5 minutes. Run 30 seconds. Repeat 8 times.

Week 2: Walk 2 minutes. Run 1 minute. Repeat 8 times.

Week 3: Walk 1.5 minutes. Run 1.5 minutes. Repeat 8 times.

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Week 4: Walk 1 minute. Run 2 minutes. Repeat 8 times.

Week 5: Walk 30 seconds. Run 2.5 minutes. Repeat 8 times.

Week 6: Run 24 minutes.

Q: What are the best running shoes?

A: Quality running shoes are important, but not nearly so crucial as good, positive, determined thinking. Your mind is your most important equipment. You don't need long legs, you don't need a big heart, you don't need cavernous lungs and you don't need expensive running shoes. But you do need grit, motivation and stick-to-it-iveness. (I ran my first miles in high-top basketball shoes and my first cross-country race in bowling shoes.) Work on your motivation and consistency, and everything else will fall into place.

Q: What about nutrition and hydration?

A: Those are important considerations for a marathon runner, but not a big deal for anyone running an hour or less. You should eat and drink modestly before running, and repeat the same after running. While you are running, just keep putting one foot in front of the other, and enjoy the movement and your environment as much as possible. Running is best when it is simplest. The fewer your worries and distractions, the better.

Q: What's the best, most important tip you can give a runner?

A: Find a training partner. People used to talk about "the loneliness of the long distance runner," which was true 50 years ago, but only because we couldn't find anyone else to run with back then. The truth is that many runners enjoy social runs with friends and neighbors. The time and accumulated miles pass more quickly when you're chatting away with a buddy or two. Even more important, when you make a date to run with someone, you'll feel committed to show up. You won't skip the workout as you otherwise might, given how busy we all are. A regular training partner is the best motivational trick in the book. And motivation, as I've noted above, is the name of the game. So, see if you can find a good, compatible training partner.

No matter where you are in your training cycle, you can participate in the Grace Cottage 5K on May 11. Participants are invited to run, walk or do some of both. Participation, not speed, is the key.

Amby Burfoot grew up in Groton, Connecticut, and started running at Fitch Senior High School. He won the 1968 Boston Marathon while a student at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut. Burfoot has run the Boston Marathon many times, including in 2013, when he was stopped three-quarters of a mile from the finish because of the terrorist attack. Burfoot promotes running for people of all ages. He is 72.


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