What Kung Fu Teaches Us About Running

shaolin monk

Image Courtesy The_way_of_the_warrior

This weekend marked the two year anniversary of my kung fu practice. Kung fu teaches us that all things are interconnected. Therefore, in honor of the occassion, I’d like to share a few kung fu lessons that I feel can be applied to running just as equally.

Kung Fu Lesson #1: Patience, Grasshopper.

As runners, especially (although, not exclusively) new runners, we have the tendency to expect instant gratification. Whether we’re trying to increase our endurance or increase our speed, we want the results to be immediate. But just as a kung fu grandmaster is forged through many years of gradually intensified training, so too must a runner patiently condition him or herself before achieving success.

I can’t count the number of people I’ve spoken with lately who, having just started running, have decided to race their first marathon. While I admire their grit and determination, I know that many of these new runners will face significant hurdles on their way to marathon glory. Starting with no basis in running, they run the very serious risk of overtraining injuries as their bodies adapt to the stresses of running. And for those who perservere and finish their first marathon, the intensity of the training can still leave them burned out and unwilling to continue running.

Not exclusive to beginners, I also see many seasoned runners expect results without the requisite work. You must always remember that those who run well into their Masters years are those who trained diligently and patiently. Injury and burnout happen to runners everyday, and most often to those who attempt too much, too soon.

Running is not a race – that is, unless you’re racing. And even then you will achieve greater success if you pace yourself.

Kung Fu Lesson #2: Basics, basics, basics!

Among kung fu practicioners, it is said that the basics are what separate the masters from everyone else. When we have all aged, and the forms (kata for you karate types) are gone, the true master will still be able to rely on the basics.

In running, the time you spend focusing on the basics will pay itself back many times over. Proper alignment, pacing, and breathing all contribute to your speed and ability to avoid injury.

On a similar note, a great many runners are injured because they neglect areas that could help prevent it. I’ve spoken with a number of runners who, having been added to the injured list (and, to be fair, I’ll include myself in that lot), say that if their injuries would’ve been avoidable had only stretched more.

Kung Fu Lesson #3: Don’t neglect your complements.

Western philosophy has shackled us with the myth of dualism. Many runners neglect strength training for fear that it will somehow diminish their capacity for running. That couldn’t be further from the truth. There are a variety of muscles that support our running which, when trained, make us stronger, faster, and less prone to injury.

As Bruce Lee put it in his book, The Tao of Gung Fu:

Firmness without pliancy is like a barrel without water, and pliancy without firmness is like water without a barrel.

Running and strength training support, not oppose, one another. This is especially true for the core muscles like the transverse abdominus (deep abs), erector spinae (low back), obliques, and gluteals.

Traditional runner lore tells us that time spent on strength training is subtractive. After all, it takes time away from running, and you won’t be strength training during your next marathon, will you?

The reality is that strength training is just another aspect of your physical conditioning. It is not separate from your running, but exists along side it. Strength training balances and supports running in the same way that the barrel supports the water.

Kung Fu Lesson #4: Harmony, not opposition!

Finally, running is both something you do, and something that is done to you. This one’s a little metaphysical and a little harder to explain. Pay attention the next time you’re out for a run. Observe, but don’t interfere.

The Earth instructs your body in the best way to properly traverse it. Your body and the Earth work in harmony to propel you safely, effortlessly along the ground. When you try to oppose your body, oppose the Earth, you alter your form. Sometimes this is harmless. But, other times, it can result in injury.

To paraphrase Bruce Lee, when I say that running moves me over the Earth, the Earth and running are just one process as they are coexistant and the one could not exist but for the other. Listen, and let the Earth and your body instruct you on how each wants the other to move, and you will run effortlessly.

What lessons have you learned?

So there it is. Two years of kung fu, and all the little lessons it has taught me about how to be a better runner. Bet you didn’t think you’d be getting a kung fu lesson today, eh?

What lessons do you have about running that came from unlikely sources? Are there any important points you think I’ve missed? Let me know in the comments section below.


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